Here Comes Corona-chan
The coronavirus pandemic is now spreading into the West in a way that was completely predictable. Once the virus got into the general population in China, it was only a matter of time before it spread to the rest of the world. Mass international travel made that inevitable. But although the rest of the world had about a month to prepare, most countries did very little.
As the numbers were growing in China, I kept wondering why there were so few cases in the US and Canada. Both have large Chinese populations, and there is a lot of travel between China and North America. In particular, there are many Chinese students who went home for the Christmas break and might have brought the virus back with them. So, I expected quite a few cases to show up in Canada and the US during February, and I was puzzled when the reported counts were much lower than I had expected.
Now I know the reason for those low numbers. The health authorities in Canada and the US did very little testing.
During February, they should have been working hard to increase testing capacity and test as many people as possible. By now they should be testing everyone with symptoms, everyone traveling from highly affected countries, and healthcare workers who are in contact with the public. Instead, they apparently did nothing. Now the disease is spreading locally, and we don’t know how much it is spreading because they still aren’t testing enough people. I’m sure the number of actual cases is much higher than the number of confirmed cases.
There was a lot of criticism of the Chinese response to the epidemic, but they seem to have brought it under control. I expect that our response will look much worse than theirs in retrospect.
Why did our authorities respond so poorly to this problem?
Human intelligence has blind spots, and exponential growth is one of them. In the early stages, an epidemic grows exponentially. One person spreads the disease to two, who spread it to four, who spread it to eight, etc. It’s not that simple, but it goes something like that, so the number of infected people grows at an increasing rate and can grow very fast. Most people seem incapable of understanding exponential growth, and so they don’t predict how fast the problem will grow.
The disease also has delayed effects, so the number of people with visible symptoms is just the tip of the ice-berg. People tend to respond in proportion to the current size of a problem, not to its predicted future size. And even if people know that it is growing, they don’t expect the future size of the problem to be 10, 100, or 1000 times bigger than the current size, because they don’t understand exponential growth. Not only does the disease have delayed effects, it also has variable effects. Some people are more affected than others. Again, this makes intuitive prediction difficult.
Of course, none of this makes prediction impossible. It just requires some intelligence and effort. Smart people can understand exponential growth and delayed effects with a little mental effort and a few simple conceptual tools. It isn’t that hard. Some people on social media made accurate predictions and risk assessments. Unfortunately, our institutions are not as smart as internet nerds. They utterly failed.
This says something about the nature of institutional power in the West. Not only is it corrupt and self-serving, it is stupid and ineffectual. It is obsessed with political correctness and it is oblivious to reality. Competence is not rewarded or even acknowledged. Our institutions are devoid of intelligence, knowledge and initiative. When a real problem comes along, they are incapable of acting. Instead of doing something about it, they preach. There was more preaching about xenophobia than testing for the disease. Trudeau is the perfect representative of our useless bureaucratic class. He put on his deeply concerned face for the cameras and said some words, but of course he did nothing. Idiocracy is here.
The US, with Trump as president, did no better. They did almost nothing to slow the spread of the disease into the US. They hardly tested anyone, so we have no idea how widespread it is in the US. The number of confirmed cases in the US is still quite low, but I expect it to explode as the CDC finally starts distributing test kits. At this point, it doesn’t really matter. There is no way to contain the disease in the West. It could be controlled with mass quarantine, as in China, but our governments are not willing to do that. There will be local, reactive quarantines, but they will not have much effect.
A bottom-up response could slow the spread of the disease. If people wear masks in public and reduce public activities, infection rates will go down. However, it is difficult to change entrenched patterns of social behavior. It would also cause an economic disruption if people curtail public activities such as shopping, eating out, travel, etc. I expect this kind of response will also be too little, too late.
The modern world is susceptible to a pandemic like this. We have densely populated urban areas in which people walk down crowded streets, take public transit, eat in busy restaurants, and work in close proximity to one another. Cities around the world are connected by air travel. The world is highly connected, so it is costly to shut down travel or quarantine travelers. We have an economic system that is not resilient to temporary downturns. A large percentage of mothers are in the workforce, so if schools are closed then children will end up in even more crowded daycare facilities. Our medical system is not designed to deal with epidemics. Finally, our establishment is corrupt and stupid.
I expect the disease will infect a much larger percentage of the population in the West than it did in China. If so, it will be yet another demonstration of the decline of the West.
A lot depends on the properties of the virus, which are still somewhat unknown. The worst-case scenario is that the disease rapidly spreads to a significant percentage of the population, such as 30%. If that happens, the medical system will be overwhelmed. According to a WHO report based on Chinese data, 20% of infected people require hospital treatment, either oxygen or assisted ventilation. Hospitals aren’t designed to treat a huge influx of patients requiring intensive care. As healthcare workers get the disease, the capacity of the system will decrease.
There will also be an economic impact. Production will be affected by quarantines, sick workers and supply chain disruptions. Consumption will be affected by people trying to avoid exposure by staying home. There could be a global recession or even depression if the economic impact is big enough.
2020 is shaping up to be an interesting year.
What can you do? Make sure you have enough stored food to last a week or two under quarantine. Try to minimize contact with other people. Avoid crowded places. Wash your hands. If you do have to travel, wear a mask. Good luck.