I haven’t written much on the blog in the last couple of weeks — but I have been writing for the local paper, and thinking of messages that needed to get said. I started preparing my classes for online work about four weeks ago now, and making sure all my students could finish the semester. Being a senior is a big deal, and while they might miss graduation, I don’t think they’ll care as much about that as being thrown out of their apartments (they’re all seniors) without a degree.
But, of course, on a blog about empathy and how people know, there’s a ton of stuff to write about something like the current pandemic. Mostly because we still don’t know, as of this writing, much about it, and the lenses we’ll use to look at the social, psychological and anthropological aspects of it are so weak. How can we reasonably expect to understand our reactions to everything that is happening when we cannot meaningfully understand ourselves?
For what it’s worth, I do believe most of what I read coming from the microbiologists and epidemiological communities. It’s tough to exactly KNOW what they’re saying, however, because so much of their uncertainty tends to get passed through the media’s set of v-Meme filters, and sadly filtered out. It thus turns into mostly catastrophe, because the media is into catastrophe, and to be fair, they’ve been really traumatized by almost four years of Donald Trump. There’s nothing like a good, old-fashioned relational disrupting, narcissistic psychopath to use a crisis like this to view this as both an attack on his version of the truth, as well as an opportunity to take down other potential power structures to consolidate his worldview. Damn everyone else to Hell, of course.
But I digress. I’ll give you some reasonable advice, and then I’ll talk about what I don’t know. You can stop with the reasonable advice — if you’re unfamiliar with my work, I’d almost be happy if you did, because it’s the result of spooling up the Hyperdrive for the last four weeks. But if you can handle uncertainty, then read through the rest.
First off, use the precautionary principle in everything that you do. Or better, use the probabilistic precautionary principle. You can’t avoid all social contact or public places, so dole out your grocery store chits a little more sanguinely. Odds are, you’ll be as alright as you can be.
Act as if bad stuff would happen — that’s fundamentally the precautionary principle. But at the same time, do be reasonably positive with those around you. In a crisis, you may indeed die. But odds are EXTREMELY LOW that you’re going to be a victim in this latest pandemic. Even if you’re old. At the same time, like it or not, death is part of the price of being part of this bizarre divine accident of the universe that led to Earth in the first place. But don’t go running around telling everyone that. It means that your last experiences will suck, and let’s face it — experiences are all we really have.
Do ask yourself what your meaningful locus of control is, and act within it. If all you can do is wash your hands to prevent the virus, then wash your damn hands. If you can help others, then help others. Me, I write messages for people to act upon, and lay the groundwork for long-term change. That’s what I’m doing. I also understand that I have the background and cultural/v-Meme filter for understanding global events, because I’ve been damn near everywhere, and can validly ground various theories about different cultures with my real experience.
That’s helpful in many different ways, but mostly now because it helps me relay information from trusted sources around the globe. As an example, I reconnected with a talented reporter from Lewiston who used to cover my timber protection antics over 20 years ago. She happens to be working in Italy now, and is married. She’s writing on the hospital crisis. Bingo — I now have a meaningful, ringside seat to interpret activities in Italy. For this on Twitter, follow @andreavogt. When it comes to China, I’ve spent a lot of time in China, from mountain villages to industrial districts. I know what I can actually believe, as well as understanding how people actually live. I’ve honestly been to wet markets. Here’s some pictures.
(While I’m hopeful for curtailing the endangered species trade, anyone that thinks that wet markets are going to get banned from SE Asia is smoking crack.)
Do not spread information that you don’t believe is accurate. Now is not the time for your bizarre 5G -turning on virus conspiracy theories. Anyone involved with any engineering effort knows how hard it is to get two pieces of equipment to line up, let alone an entire global network to just “turn on.” Just stop it.
Oh yeah — pat your dog. He or she is very cute. And that’s important. Here’s my pup.
OK, so now let’s dig into a couple of big questions, that I’ll likely flesh out in a couple more posts.
There is a bunch of stuff that is unknown about the coronavirus. Since posts on this blog hang around forever, my hope is that three months from now, we have hard answers. But we don’t have them now, and so all we’re left with is our ability to take information, and reason through this.
First off is that we DO know that cases of coronavirus can be asymptomatic, or have mild symptoms. Coronaviruses are pretty close to the common cold, and they’re super-common in animal diseases like “insert-your-animal-name-here” diarrhea. The pronounced incubation period is 5.5 days. But I have yet to see any convincing data on how long asymptomatic coronavirus takes to build immunity before receding. We just can’t know that — we haven’t done any wide-scale testing (maybe China will figure this out, since they definitely have had it longer!) and testing has also been limited to people that are pretty sick. If you had just a common cold, you wouldn’t have been tested for it at all.
We do know that it is contagious — very contagious. But what does that mean? If it’s really contagious, then odds are a large number of people will have the virus present in their system, but only a certain percentage will be tested because of the shortage of testing kits, and, well, the whole asymptomatic problem I talked about above — which ALSO may be difficult to capture with the current tests. Some asymptomatic people who have the virus may have a heavy viral load — that happens! But others may just have a little, which will then create the problem of false negatives — having it, but not showing up on the test. Sigh…
But if it is contagious, then where I live — Pullman, WA — may be the place to do the study. Five commercial airplanes from Seattle (as well as a number of business jets) land at the Pullman Regional Airport every day. That means, for the last four weeks, we’ve been dumping a vectored number of carriers from Seattle into our population, and then serving it up among likely asymptomatic, strong-immune-system college students who are famous for crowding together in bars and smooching. Even yesterday, AFTER all the closures, I was outside one of our local coffee shops. Graduate students from my department were hugging and kissing their goodbyes.
The other problem is that we don’t have any data on diseases like Influenza-A in our small community. I found this graph from New York City, posted by Chris Hayes from MSNBC. I’m not a huge Chris Hayes fan, FWIW — but this kind of information (supposedly gathered from NYC Emergency Rooms) is likely reliable and valid.
Information like this is super-valuable, because that second peak is likely not from the flu. I’m betting it’s from the coronavirus. It’s similar (well, meta-similar) to the work that Abraham Wald did, on what you don’t know might be what is killing you. Wald was famous for his work on B-17 bomber survival in WWII. He figured out examining the planes that came back to see who made it was equally important to understand what planes DIDN’T come back. Short version — don’t put more armor on the bullet holes you can see. Put more on the clean spots on the returnees — because the planes that didn’t come back likely had bullet holes there.
Notice the second peak. I can easily easily believe that’s when coronavirus started becoming more widespread – March 1. I’m writing this 15 days into this from Seattle, which has been called the “Wuhan” of the US. So it obviously makes me exposed even before that March 1 peak in NYC.
Why is this a great example of a plot you can believe, without all those false positives, OR negatives? Symptoms recorded in an ER are awesome. Doctors and PAs can see them, and odds are the hypochondriacs just get booted out of the system. But when we rely on hastily constructed tests (not that we shouldn’t use the “best we’ve got”) we also struggle with statistics. I don’t want to go down the rabbit hole of all of this, but look at this article for an idea about false positives. It doesn’t talk about the whole issue of false negatives, but these numbers are not encouraging.
Why does this matter? Every localized epidemic is going to transition from exponential growth, to logistic growth after a while, as basically everyone in the population gets it. This is an awesome video that explains this concept. Basically, if a population is constrained, the virus saturates in that population, and then goes away as immunity of everyone in the system builds. That’s one of the things the Chinese government did in Wuhan — prevented the spread of the virus to other, untouched provinces. That will be hard to do in the U.S., where anyone and everyone flies all the time.
The problem about sussing all this stuff out for a new (novel) coronavirus is that the first round is likely to be the worst as far as spread. No one has any immunity for sure, and so it’s game on from the minute the virus shows up. But because we’re humans, and have some ethics, we can’t run the experiment over and over on different populations and intensively watch. We have to guess, and go from there.
Understanding the virus by spreading the peak, through ‘social distancing’ and such, is something that other people have written about, like this piece. I understand it intrinsically, and support it, but don’t need to write about it. Read this for more detail.
One of the things that has not been examined in too much detail is the existence and extent of mutation variability in the coronavirus. DO correct me in the comments if I’m wrong. I’ve often wondered if, like cowpox and smallpox, there are two differentiated varieties in play here, and if you draw the short straw, you get the bad one. For those that have forgotten their smallpox history lesson, the smallpox vaccine came from observing that milkmaids got ‘smallpox-like’ pustules on their hands, but never came down with the disease. Edward Jenner became famous for taking this insight and creating the first smallpox vaccine. Cowpox is annoying. Smallpox kills, in the most terrible way possible.
Finally, while there’s more to write, I’d caution people against assuming the next mutation is going to be more deadly to humans than the current strain, which we really don’t know much about. Viruses aren’t on some path to extinguish us — unlike how we feel about viruses! The next mutation might be worse. But it might not affect us at all, in which case we wouldn’t notice. Viruses that kill their hosts are NOT very successful viruses over the long haul. I have a number of friends who are veterinarians, and they’ll be pleased to tell you that animal diarrhea is often caused by the coronavirus. One of the large animal vets I work out with at the gym, after having his hands immersed in calf poop his whole life, feels he’s likely immune.
Of course, he can’t know, and that’s the problem — he doesn’t want to get shot up with the latest viral version to find out. But diseases have been jumping around from animals to people, and likely back again for as long as humans and animals hang out together. It was, as Jared Diamond informed us in Guns, Germs and Steel, the thing that enabled us to extinct off most of the Native American tribes in the New World during the Columbian Exchange.
If there’s a deep complexity/empathy message here, it’s this. We have to embrace metacognitive uncertainty, while still picking paths that bring us closer to keeping most of us alive. And those are social actions, keyed to the extent of the development of the people around us. That’s the next thing I’ll be writing about. What won’t work is assuming we know and dismissing the threat, or throwing up our hands and saying we should do nothing. Neither of those paths will work well in the current situation.
It’s a personal/empathetic development problem. Our collective organism will survive to the extent we maximize grounded/truthful information flows, regardless of what level of development we’re at.