Empathy in the Time of Coronavirus – Part I

Looking out over Hells Backbone, Utah, Grand Staircase/Escalante NP

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.

Fish, turtles, and frogs

(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.

Mac — and yes, he’s very soft.


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.

ER Data from NYC

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.

8 thoughts on “Empathy in the Time of Coronavirus – Part I

  1. ‘Our collective organism will survive to the extent we maximize grounded/truthful information flows…’

    That depends on our ability to look inside and be honest with ourselves (‘Positive Disintegration’) because mass repressed truths lead to mass hypocrisy which in turn leads to the inability to recognize pathological people (‘Political Ponerology’) which in turn leads to mass pathologization and the formalization of lies and deceit. Though it’s clearly more complicated than that.

    Also add in the natural burden of biologically caused low-conscience individuals, probably 20% of the population, and a further large percentage of people who go whichever way the wind blows and are not capable of really deep change…

    The repressed truths bit is the important bit. V-memes for how to question everything, how to question ourselves and how to change are almost completely absent, though there are plenty of superficial V-memes that say meditate, eat healthy food and be nice to people. They don’t tackle the real issues. Real V-memes would normalize questioning everything, make clear the pain and isolation of questioning everything, normalize meta-cognition etc. I suppose some ancient philosophers have come close but whatever they came up with wasn’t succinct and comprehensive enough to work on a mass scale.

    The modern day version of the ancient philosophers are AI scientists and their ilk. Apparently Elon Musk has had endless conversations about whether or not we’re living in a computer simulation. Whilst others are trying to figure out what sentience is etc.


    1. All good — that’s why I used the word “maximize” — there are other factors, that I do cover on this blog re: relational disruptors/empathy disordered. They’re in the Readers Guide.


  2. its all about empathy. it would be impossible to correct you in a comment since you will delete them anyway. \we had 2 homicides in my area recently . so we are banning talk of empathy, sympathy, god, rationality, and science, and we are also banning FB —too many dog pictures. my area is on lockdown/state of emergency , so thats nice. keeps down the drug traffic. one place i saw but never went to was walla walla mountians in oregon–william o douglas ((some sort of lawyer) wrote about these. i could see them from ‘hell’s canyon’ in idaho since i forced my parents to take me there when visitng relatives. in the region. (in retrospect, some of my relatives actually now appreciate the fact that i forced them to take me to these areas–they actually liked them. i actually couldn’t force them but i would complain and go in a fit. i took some recently to an area where we saw beavers, muskrats, frogs, and spring trees and flowers—we were supposed to be going to a musue but fotuatelt they were closed so we went to swampsmand forests).


  3. nice job – this is a good context to work in. How are your local pieces playing? There is certainly a ton of people at home reading right now! I would try posting this to some of the people on Tim Ferris’s list and I would certainly post this on twitter with a few of the key hashtags. I bet you will get a ton of readership.

    On Sun, Mar 15, 2020 at 4:34 PM It’s About Empathy – Connection Ties Us Together wrote:

    > Chuck Pezeshki posted: ” Looking out over Hells Backbone, Utah, Grand > Staircase/Escalante NP 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 m” >


  4. I’m in Iowa City, IA. It’s the epicenter of coronavirus in Iowa. It began with 3 people returning from a cruise to Egypt. They were confirmed with infection. Then it quickly spread to 16 other confirmed cases, all originating in Iowa City. It’s probably far more by now, but that is the last data I heard.

    Almost everything has been shut down. First it began with the closing of the park and recreation centers, the senior center, and the animal shelter. Then the University of Iowa decided to have online classes and the public schools closed. Now all restaurants and bars are required to close, except for carry-out.

    Here is the odd part. I work for the local government in the parking/transit department. Specifically, I’m a parking ramp cashier. So I’m handling credit cards and cash all day long. We are still operating, for reasons beyond my comprehension. I’ve been forced into the position of becoming a potential disease vector.

    I’m not so much worried about my own health. I’m relatively young, have a strong immune system, eat well, etc. But I hate being made into an unnecessary disease vector. It doesn’t make me happy. I’ve isolated myself from friends and family, mainly because I don’t want to infect them, as I’ll certainly be among the first to be exposed to coronavirus, if I haven’t already.

    I understand that the buses need to still run, the garbage men still need to pick up the trash, and whatever else. Those are essential services. But it’s not like my job is serving any purpose at the moment. Few people are coming downtown and so we aren’t making money. Besides, money is not the issue. People can park just fine without a cashier.

    It’s strange. People overreact to some things. And then underreact to others.


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