There is no reason for concern

Friday, May 15th, 2020

Governments aggravated the horrors of the 1918 flu:

For instance, the U.S. military took roughly half of all physicians under 45—and most of the best ones.

What proved even more deadly was the government policy toward the truth. When the United States entered the war, Woodrow Wilson demanded that “the spirit of ruthless brutality…enter into the very fibre of national life.” So he created the Committee on Public Information, which was inspired by an adviser who wrote, “Truth and falsehood are arbitrary terms….The force of an idea lies in its inspirational value. It matters very little if it is true or false.”

At Wilson’s urging, Congress passed the Sedition Act, making it punishable with 20 years in prison to “utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United State…or to urge, incite, or advocate any curtailment of production in this country of any thing or things…necessary or essential to the prosecution of the war.” Government posters and advertisements urged people to report to the Justice Department anyone “who spreads pessimistic stories…cries for peace, or belittles our effort to win the war.”

Against this background, while influenza bled into American life, public health officials, determined to keep morale up, began to lie.

Early in September, a Navy ship from Boston carried influenza to Philadelphia, where the disease erupted in the Navy Yard. The city’s public health director, Wilmer Krusen, declared that he would “confine this disease to its present limits, and in this we are sure to be successful. No fatalities have been recorded. No concern whatever is felt.”

The next day two sailors died of influenza. Krusen stated they died of “old-fashioned influenza or grip,” not Spanish flu. Another health official declared, “From now on the disease will decrease.”

The next day 14 sailors died—and the first civilian. Each day the disease accelerated. Each day newspapers assured readers that influenza posed no danger. Krusen assured the city he would “nip the epidemic in the bud.”

By September 26, influenza had spread across the country, and so many military training camps were beginning to look like Devens that the Army canceled its nationwide draft call.

Philadelphia had scheduled a big Liberty Loan parade for September 28. Doctors urged Krusen to cancel it, fearful that hundreds of thousands jamming the route, crushing against each other for a better view, would spread disease. They convinced reporters to write stories about the danger. But editors refused to run them, and refused to print letters from doctors. The largest parade in Philadelphia’s history proceeded on schedule.

The incubation period of influenza is two to three days. Two days after the parade, Krusen conceded that the epidemic “now present in the civilian population was…assuming the type found in” Army camps. Still, he cautioned not to be “panic stricken over exaggerated reports.”

He needn’t have worried about exaggeration; the newspapers were on his side. “Scientific Nursing Halting Epidemic,” an Inquirer headline blared. In truth, nurses had no impact because none were available: Out of 3,100 urgent requests for nurses submitted to one dispatcher, only 193 were provided. Krusen finally and belatedly ordered all schools closed and banned all public gatherings—yet a newspaper nonsensically said the order was not “a public health measure” and “there is no cause for panic or alarm.”

There was plenty of cause. At its worst, the epidemic in Philadelphia would kill 759 people…in one day. Priests drove horse-drawn carts down city streets, calling upon residents to bring out their dead; many were buried in mass graves. More than 12,000 Philadelphians died—nearly all of them in six weeks.

Across the country, public officials were lying. U.S. Surgeon General Rupert Blue said, “There is no cause for alarm if precautions are observed.” New York City’s public health director declared “other bronchial diseases and not the so-called Spanish influenza…[caused] the illness of the majority of persons who were reported ill with influenza.” The Los Angeles public health chief said, “If ordinary precautions are observed there is no cause for alarm.”

For an example of the press’s failure, consider Arkansas. Over a four-day period in October, the hospital at Camp Pike admitted 8,000 soldiers. Francis Blake, a member of the Army’s special pneumonia unit, described the scene: “Every corridor and there are miles of them with double rows of cots …with influenza patients…There is only death and destruction.” Yet seven miles away in Little Rock, a headline in the Gazette pretended yawns: “Spanish influenza is plain la grippe—same old fever and chills.”

People knew this was not the same old thing, though. They knew because the numbers were staggering—in San Antonio, 53 percent of the population got sick with influenza. They knew because victims could die within hours of the first symptoms—horrific symptoms, not just aches and cyanosis but also a foamy blood coughed up from the lungs, and bleeding from the nose, ears and even eyes. And people knew because towns and cities ran out of coffins.

People could believe nothing they were being told, so they feared everything, particularly the unknown. How long would it last? How many would it kill? Who would it kill? With the truth buried, morale collapsed. Society itself began to disintegrate.

In most disasters, people come together, help each other, as we saw recently with Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. But in 1918, without leadership, without the truth, trust evaporated. And people looked after only themselves.

In Philadelphia, the head of Emergency Aid pleaded, “All who are free from the care of the sick at home… report as early as possible…on emergency work.” But volunteers did not come. The Bureau of Child Hygiene begged people to take in—just temporarily—children whose parents were dying or dead; few replied. Emergency Aid again pleaded, “We simply must have more volunteer helpers….These people are almost all at the point of death. Won’t you…come to our help?” Still nothing. Finally, Emergency Aid’s director turned bitter and contemptuous: “Hundreds of women…had delightful dreams of themselves in the roles of angels of mercy…Nothing seems to rouse them now…There are families in which the children are actually starving because there is no one to give them food. The death rate is so high and they still hold back.”

Philadelphia’s misery was not unique. In Luce County, Michigan, a couple and three children were all sick together, but, a Red Cross worker reported, “Not one of the neighbors would come in and help. I …telephoned the woman’s sister. She came and tapped on the window, but refused to talk to me until she had gotten a safe distance away.” In New Haven, Connecticut, John Delano recalled, “Normally when someone was sick in those days [people] would bring food over to other families but…Nobody was coming in, nobody would bring food in, nobody came to visit.” In Perry County, Kentucky, the Red Cross chapter chairman begged for help, pleaded that there were “hundreds of cases…[of] people starving to death not from lack of food but because the well were panic stricken and would not go near the sick.”

[...]

Prompted by the re-emergence of avian influenza, governments, NGOs and major businesses around the world have poured resources into preparing for a pandemic. Because of my history of the 1918 pandemic, The Great Influenza, I was asked to participate in some of those efforts.

[...]

Then there are the less glamorous measures, known as nonpharmaceutical interventions: hand-washing, telecommuting, covering coughs, staying home when sick instead of going to work and, if the pandemic is severe enough, widespread school closings and possibly more extreme controls. The hope is that “layering” such actions one atop another will reduce the impact of an outbreak on public health and on resources in today’s just-in-time economy. But the effectiveness of such interventions will depend on public compliance, and the public will have to trust what it is being told.

That is why, in my view, the most important lesson from 1918 is to tell the truth. Though that idea is incorporated into every preparedness plan I know of, its actual implementation will depend on the character and leadership of the people in charge when a crisis erupts.

I recall participating in a pandemic “war game” in Los Angeles involving area public health officials. Before the exercise began, I gave a talk about what happened in 1918, how society broke down, and emphasized that to retain the public’s trust, authorities had to be candid. “You don’t manage the truth,” I said. “You tell the truth.” Everyone shook their heads in agreement.

Next, the people running the game revealed the day’s challenge to the participants: A severe pandemic influenza virus was spreading around the world. It had not officially reached California, but a suspected case—the severity of the symptoms made it seem so—had just surfaced in Los Angeles. The news media had learned of it and were demanding a press conference.

The participant with the first move was a top-ranking public health official. What did he do? He declined to hold a press conference, and instead just released a statement: More tests are required. The patient might not have pandemic influenza. There is no reason for concern.

I was stunned. This official had not actually told a lie, but he had deliberately minimized the danger; whether or not this particular patient had the disease, a pandemic was coming. The official’s unwillingness to answer questions from the press or even acknowledge the pandemic’s inevitability meant that citizens would look elsewhere for answers, and probably find a lot of bad ones. Instead of taking the lead in providing credible information he instantly fell behind the pace of events. He would find it almost impossible to get ahead of them again. He had, in short, shirked his duty to the public, risking countless lives.

And that was only a game.

Similar to the dark months after Pearl Harbor

Thursday, May 14th, 2020

World War II offers valuable lessons for the current moment, but when many people picture the World War II economy, they’re thinking about how it operated by 1944 and 1945, when early problems had been solved and war production was at its peak:

By then, industries large and small had joined the war effort: Washing machine manufacturers made artillery shells. Vacuum cleaner companies made bomb fuses. Tanks, airplanes, and anti-aircraft guns rolled off assembly lines that had once produced automobiles. American industry produced more than 96,000 planes in 1940 alone — a 26-fold increase over the 3,611 airplanes produced in 1940. An official military history credits American war production in its heyday with “virtually determining the outcome of the war.”

The current state of the coronavirus pandemic, though, is far more similar to the dark months after Pearl Harbor, when US leaders faced the daunting task of transforming the US economy virtually overnight, than it is to those triumphant final years.

Then as now, every day mattered. In the first months of 1942, top US officials feared that due to lack of equipment, America might lose the war before it got a chance to start fighting it. Their primary goal was transforming the economy as fast as possible.

[...]

Their experience still has lessons for policymakers today. Here are five of them.

1) Centralize and coordinate the government’s purchases of medical equipment, including personal protective gear

Without effective coordination, states and the federal government have entered bidding wars for desperately needed medical equipment. Shipments to states have been confiscated, prompting elaborate schemes like Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker’s efforts to get 1 million N95 masks delivered to Massachusetts. Chaos reigns as hospitals try to sort through the confusion of disrupted supply chains. President Trump insists that the federal government is “not a shipping clerk,” but in fact such coordination is precisely the federal government’s role.

The US faced a similar problem during World War I, when purchasing was decentralized. Different branches of the military, including numerous departments within the Army, competed with each other in bidding for contracts. This led to production delays and increased prices for critical supplies.

In World War II, Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the War Production Board. Decisions about what equipment was needed were made by the military, but the board oversaw and coordinated all war production. Its initial role was to get production going in sufficient, previously unthinkable, quantities and to arrange new supply chains to ensure materials ended up in the right hands.

For relatively simple production orders, the board publicized production requirements for the goods it needed and facilitated matching products with interested firms. The more complex and difficult orders were sent to the large, established firms with the greatest expertise in relevant production processes.

But the board’s role did not diminish once production got going. Rather, its focus changed to ensuring that scarce resources were being allocated optimally. Since it takes time for suppliers to expand production to meet demand, ramping up war production so quickly led to short-run scarcity.

The War Production Board was subject to both extensive public scrutiny and congressional oversight from the Truman Committee. Its appeals board heard complaints from business and labor leaders, members of Congress, and state and local politicians. Because requirements were determined by the military, procurement decisions were largely apolitical. Researchers Paul Rhode, James Snyder Jr., and Koleman Strumpf found no evidence that World War II contract placement was systematically biased by political factors.

[...]

2) Repurpose existing institutions and take advantage of existing expertise

After Pearl Harbor, policymakers faced the need to transform the economy at a rapid pace. American policymakers feared the war could be lost before it had fully begun, so speed was paramount. One key element of the transition to a wartime economy was policymakers’ decision to transform existing institutions rather than create entirely new ones.

War Production Board Chair Donald Nelson left purchasing and procurement decisions in the hands of the armed forces, using the board to manage and coordinate. This was one of his most controversial decisions, but it was the right choice — at least for the initial phase of the war — for two reasons.

First, in 1942 as in 2020, every day mattered. Keeping purchasing and procurement in the hands of the agencies that had previously made these decisions saved precious time and allowed production to ramp up faster.

Second, only trained military officers had the expertise needed to evaluate whether specialized products such as airplanes, tanks, and radar met quality standards and fulfilled military needs. Nelson recognized that a civilian agency could not match the military’s expertise in determining such technical details.

Depression-era unemployment offices were also repurposed for the war. As unemployment fell sharply in the early 1940s, the US Employment Service pivoted from coordinating services for the unemployed to matching workers to war production jobs, helping employers find replacements for workers entering the military.

[...]

3) Availability of materials is a key constraint

During World War II, strategic materials, not labor or manufacturing capacity, proved to be the binding constraint on US wartime production.

That is likely to be just as true today. Constraints on manufacturing capacity are orders of magnitude less severe now than in WWII. More than $100 billion of military contracts were placed in the first six months of 1942, compared to $20 billion in defense contracts over all of 1941 and a 1941 GDP of $129 billion. Production capacity initially fell far short of what was needed for the war effort, even with extensive conversion of civilian manufacturing capacity. Today the US needs vast increases in the production of medical equipment, particularly ventilators, personal protective equipment, and test kits, but the total volume of equipment needed is significantly less than a full year’s GDP.

[...]

4) The crisis itself creates strong incentives for manufacturing firms to produce critical equipment

The US did not nationalize major industries to achieve its World War II production miracle. US war production relied primarily on manufacturing by private firms, as the war aligned manufacturing firms’ incentives with those of the nation.

The Defense Production Act is a good mechanism for mobilizing industry — indeed, it was written when the experience of WWII was recent memory — and should be used aggressively as needed.

But with clear and effective federal leadership, its necessary application may be narrow. There are other ways to push industry to produce needed supplies. A government guarantee to buy all medical equipment meeting stated specifications and produced by specified dates at a set price, combined with the incentives provided by the crisis itself, would provide enough incentive for most firms. Voluntary agreements authorized under the DPA would allow firms to cooperate effectively and scale production faster, mimicking the inter-firm cooperation that defined the home front during World War II.

A number of private firms are already converting their production lines to key equipment, from small distilleries making hand sanitizer to Ford Motor Company’s production of ventilators, even in the absence of clear leadership and communication from the federal government.

In WWII, most US firms faced a choice between sitting idle —a home appliance producer cannot produce appliances if it cannot acquire the metal needed to make its products — and participating in war work. The government’s control of raw materials created the incentives for firms to convert voluntarily: Firms that volunteered for war production were able to acquire inputs, while other firms were not.

There was also an overarching incentive for war production: The sooner firms produced the needed materials, the faster the war could be won, and the sooner everyone could get back to real life. That same overarching incentive exists today, and it is powerful.

[...]

5) The evidence supports a strategy of relief now and stimulus after the pandemic

[...]

My research found that the fiscal multiplier in WWII was much smaller than the typical multiplier because the savings rate was so high during the war. Many products, particularly durable goods, were not available for purchase during WWII because they were not produced at all. Consumer spending rebounded strongly after the war ended, particularly on goods, such as cars and appliances, that were not available during the war.

The experience of WWII suggests that when consumption options are significantly restricted, people may spend a smaller share of income than in other times. Specifically, the closest substitute for buying a particular good now is buying that good in the future, when it is available again, rather than buying another good. The extreme uncertainty of the current situation may also depress the multiplier, since people will delay making decisions and larger purchases.

Today, significant sectors of the US economy have ground to a halt, particularly the travel, arts, and restaurant industries. As in WWII, the ordinary lives of millions of Americans have been abruptly transformed. Significant portions of people’s regular consumption baskets are unavailable, even though no formal rationing has been enacted. So, as in WWII, the multiplier on relief spending may be lower than in a “normal” recession.

The evidence from World War II strongly backs up the paradigm that policy should focus on relief now and stimulus later. Targeting relief funds may help increase the multiplier to the extent that most relief funds are used to buy basic necessities. People who lose all or most of their income in this pandemic recession will be more likely to spend on necessities rather than saving, which would increase the fiscal multiplier. However, perfect targeting may be difficult to achieve quickly.

Further evidence from late in the Great Depression suggests that fiscal stimulus may be particularly effective after a long period of downturn, as it can support pent-up demand. This suggests that policymakers should focus on relief for as long as the pandemic continues, including with further rounds of such relief as needed, but then be sure to follow relief with broad-based stimulus to help the economy rebound.

It will be an interesting autumn

Wednesday, May 6th, 2020

Walter Russell Mead explores what Trump has in common with Napoleon:

Early on, Napoleon had such advantages that nobody could beat him. The strong nationalism of revolutionary France meant that his conscript armies could march farther and faster than other armies—following routes and tactics that were impossible for others, and thereby difficult for opposing generals to anticipate and counteract.

Mr. Trump’s secret weapon in 2016 was similar: a base so engaged and committed that it would stand in line for hours to get a ticket to his rallies. His voters turned out in droves and could be summoned against elected Republicans who tried to defy him. U.S. politics had never seen a force quite like this, and Mr. Trump’s opponents had no idea how to counter it.

Napoleon had other advantages. Thanks to long study, he knew the terrain of his marches in ways that others didn’t, and he combined that with an intuitive grasp of tactics that enabled him to quickly read the key to a battle. At the siege of Toulon, the 24-year-old Napoleon observed that a hill overlooking the harbor could, if occupied by French artillery, pour down such devastating fire on the British fleet that it would have no choice but to withdraw, and without the fleet’s support, the antirevolutionary rebels couldn’t defend the town. That was the stroke that launched his career; he would have many more.

The combination of intense preparation and strategic intuition was critical to Mr. Trump’s rise as well. He studied his battle terrain—public opinion—through long careers as a casino developer and a reality-television host. And his intuitive grasp of the power of issues like trade and immigration to upend U.S. politics left his Republican and Democratic opponents sputtering with rage and surprise.

Napoleon’s sheer cynicism and audacity repeatedly flabbergasted opponents who were accustomed to the slower and more honorable way in which both war and diplomacy had previously been conducted. Mr. Trump’s vitriolic personal attacks, detachment from conventional standards of truthfulness, and disregard for every convention of normal political life often have had the same effect on his opponents.

But by the time of the Russian campaign, Napoleon’s magic was beginning to fade. First in Spain, then in Russia and Germany, French arrogance and Napoleonic tyranny turned not only elite but mass opinion against him. By the 1813 Battle of the Nations in Leipzig, Napoleon faced troops at least as motivated as his own. Millions of Democrats are now as angry and energized as Mr. Trump’s base was in 2016; it will be an interesting autumn.

In Russia, Napoleon’s greatest skills were largely useless. He couldn’t destroy enemy forces in a decisive battle, as the enemy kept retreating. His ability to execute brilliant tactical maneuvers using intricate road networks wasn’t useful in a country with few maps and fewer roads. And the survival of his army would ultimately depend on something he could not provide: an adequate supply line with hay for the horses, and food and winter clothing for the men.

The pandemic puts Mr. Trump at a similar disadvantage. He can’t hold mass rallies in a time of social distancing. He can’t find a cure. He can’t cast the blame on his opponents. And personal protective equipment and tests remain obstinately scarce.

South Korea has a rule for everything

Monday, May 4th, 2020

After two months of intensive social distancing, South Korea is about to open up, and it has a rule for everything:

When meeting in an office, people will wear masks. At meals, diners will sit next to each other or in a zigzag pattern, not directly across. Hotel rooms will be ventilated for 15 minutes after travelers check out. Visitors at zoos and aquariums must stand 6 feet apart. Shouting and hugging will be discouraged at sporting events. So will high-fives.

[...]

When Korean tourists descend on the resort island of Jeju during public holidays this week, the strictures say they should be wearing masks. Hotels and restaurants will take their temperature before letting them in, and people will be required to sanitize their hands before shopping at stores.

[...]

All churches must take attendance of worshipers, to ease contact tracing later, and everyone must wear masks indoors.

[...]

Cashiers are out. The guidelines say shoppers should use unmanned payment kiosks or widely available mobile payments instead of exchanging cash. The country is one of the world’s least cash-dependent, but authorities want the elderly to take up the habit as well. Tickets to concerts and amusement parks should be reserved online.

The VIPS steakhouse chain rearranged tables to put them 3 feet apart and provided disposable silverware and gloves at the salad bar this month. To minimize contact, waiters let customers leave before collecting their plates.

Good isn’t stupid, or weak, or nice

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2020

Good isn’t stupid, or weak, or nice, Rick Stump argues:

I had spent my early years reading Edgar Rice Burroughs, H. Rider Haggard, Andre Norton, Le Morte d’Arthur, and (especially) the stories of Charlemagne and the Twelve Peers. Heck, I read Vance’s Lyonesse before I read The Fellowship of the Ring.

The great thing about the books that I read first and most, from the Twelve Peers to The Return of the King, was that they all give a very clear idea of what is meant by good and evil, especially within the milieu of fantasy, be it literature or tabletop role playing.

The Twelve Peers, John Carter, Allan Quatermaine all shared a few traits — they were brave, they were honest, the protected the weak, and they were decisive. They also laughed, had close friends, drank, and fought. But they also were champions of the weak, loyal friends, fierce enemies, and able to judge others by their words and deeds rather than being bigoted (John Carter not only has friends of all of the races of Mars he forges close ties between them for the first time in millenia; Allan Quatermaine admires and supports Umbopa/Ignosi long before he learns he is a king; if a man is a good fighter and a Catholic his past is his past to the paladins.

Note that I didn’t mention King Arthur or his knights here. This is because in Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (and unlike the earlier source material) Arthur and most of the rest are actually cautionary figures; Arthur is a deeply flawed man and poor king who begets an illegitimate son with his own half-sister, then kills all of the newborns in his lands trying (and failing) to hide this sin; Merlin is capricious and advises Arthur to hide his sins through mass infanticide; Lancelot is portrayed as not very clever and, essentially, a plaything of Guinevere who believes his sins are not sins because the queen says so; Gareth is underhanded and deceitful in his quest for fame and tries mightily to break his chastity; the list goes on. Suffice it to say that Le Morte d’Arthur was written during the Wars of the Roses and was meant to be a warning about men who claimed to be good but were not. It is truly unfortunate that Malory’s work is so popular that many modern readers mistake the figures in his version of the stories as examples rather than warnings.

And I suspect that this may have a lot to do with the confusion some have over how to play good — modern culture is saturated with King Arthur and the Knights as being exemplars of knighthood when they weren’t.

[...]

I am far from the first guy to point out that Good is not Weak. C. S. Lewis directly addressed this more than once, perhaps most famously in this quote,

“Then he is safe?” asked Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver, “Didn’t you hear what she told you? Of course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”

Or this one, more detailed is less famous,

“Are you not thirsty?” said the Lion.”I am dying of thirst,” said Jill.

“Then drink,” said the Lion.

“May I — could I — would you mind going away while I do?” said Jill.

The Lion answered this only by a look and a very low growl. And as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realized that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience.

The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic.

“Will you promise not to — do anything to me, if I do come?” said Jill.

“I make no promise,” said the Lion.

Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer.

“Do you eat girls?” she said.

“I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,” said the Lion. It didn’t say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.

“I daren’t come and drink,” said Jill.

“Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion.

“Oh dear!” said Jill, coming another step nearer. “I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.”

“There is no other stream,” said the Lion.

Both of these quotes from C. S. Lewis are concerning Aslan the lion who is a stand-in for Jesus Christ. Lewis was eager to dispel the mistaken concept that being good means being soft, weak, or harmless.

[...]

Traditionally, while demons might be able to overwhelm any human they stood no chance against angels and typically fled at their approach. While movies like The Prophecy and Constantine change this in the hopes of good storytelling they skew the traditional concept of the power of angels and nerf them pretty badly.

In the bible when an angel appeared to a human their mere presence was so overpowering that the first thing they usually said was a variation of ‘don’t be afraid’. John Milton mentions this in Paradise Lost, book IV, when he wrote, “Abashed the Devil stood, and felt how awful goodness is.”

Medieval books of magic warned would-be summoners to never attract the notice of an angel and certainly never to summon one, because angels would destroy them for attempting to make pacts with evil and their power was so vast no warding circle could stop them.

Hong Kong’s success containing the virus is against the odds

Tuesday, April 21st, 2020

In many ways, Hong Kong’s success containing the virus is against the odds:

Hong Kong has the fourth highest population density in the world and 90% of the population uses public transportation.

Hong Kong was affected early, with the first confirmed case on January 22. By end-January, there were already 13 confirmed cases.

There were multiple daily direct flights from Wuhan and tens of thousands of daily Mainland Chinese visitors in January and thousands of European visitors in February.

Hong Kong is among the world’s most elderly countries, with a median age of 44.4.

Despite this, as of April 8, Hong Kong has only had 4 deaths due to COVID-19 and fewer than 1000 confirmed positive cases.

[...]

Hong Kong began shutting down public facilities when there were fewer than 10 confirmed cases. The government acted with urgency as soon as the first cases began to appear. Hong Kong shut down all schools, parks, and public museums on January 29th when there were just 9 confirmed cases and zero deaths. The Hong Kong Marathon was canceled on February 8, when the city had only 36 confirmed cases. This stands in stark contrast with governments elsewhere who were quick to administer travel bans but slow to encourage, much less mandate, social distancing. Examples include President Trump suggesting the threat from COVID-19 was exaggerated and Bill DiBlasio recommending New Yorkers go out on the town in early March. Other examples include the mayor of Los Angeles allowing a 27,000-person LA marathon when there were hundreds of cases in California and Madrid holding the International Women’s March in early March. According to Professor Yanzhong Huang at Seton Hall University, “Hong Kong chose in the very beginning to move toward maximizing protection, while [other countries] seemed focused on minimizing disruption to the economy and society.”

Hong Kong isolates ALL positive cases and quarantines close contacts in government facilities. Every person who tests positive, even if symptom-free, is put into the public hospital system. Patients are then required to remain at hospitals until they produce two consecutive negative tests. Should hospitals run out of beds, the government will isolate patients in other facilities. Details about every case are made public through government websites. All known contacts of the positive cases must spend 14 days in government quarantine. The importance of isolating positives cannot be understated. A study of one China province showed that 80% of cluster infections originated from people who tested positive and were told to rest at home. Wuhan began quarantining all mild cases in makeshift hospitals converted from offices, stadiums, and gymnasiums in early February, a move that helped dramatically slow the spread of the virus. Doctor Aaron E. Carroll wrote in the New York Times that a robust system of contact tracing and isolation is necessary to prevent further outbreak and lockdown.

Hong Kong’s population has broad virus awareness, largely a result of SARS. The memories and lessons of SARS linger in Hong Kong. Since well before COVID-19, masks have been commonly used by individuals who harbor a common cold. Buttons on elevators are frequently sterilized once if not more times each day. It is customary not to wear shoes within the home and gel sanitizer is widely available throughout shared facilities such as office buildings. The population quickly tapped into virus-prevention mode as soon as the news of the virus circulated from Mainland China. Not wearing a mask is shunned in Hong Kong, and the population takes pride in responsible, virus-preventative everyday behavior. According to a poll by SCMP, the majority of Hong Kong residents believe they have only themselves to thank rather than the government if the city wins its battle against COVID-19.

Hong Kong tests all people entering the country and requires them to home quarantine for 14 days. Hong Kong only recently implemented severe travel bans, denying entry to non-residents on March 25. There was, however, a 14-day required home quarantine for people arriving from Mainland China, which was then expanded to arrivals from nearly anywhere in the world. While a delay in requiring home quarantine for European and American visitors led to a second wave of cases, that surge has already begun to flatten. People in home-quarantine wear electronic bracelets that track location. While there were initial glitches with the technology, the spirit of the law is broadly respected and violations are enforced. Three people have already been sentenced to jail time for breaking the quarantine.

Collecting corpses for a fee

Friday, April 17th, 2020

To put the coronavirus pandemic in perspective, consider what happened when the bubonic plague struck London in 1665:

The onset of the disease could be sudden, says Yale historian Frank Snowden: “You actually have people afflicted and in agony in public spaces.” Trade and commerce swiftly shut down, and “every economic activity disappeared.” The city erected hospitals to isolate the sick. “You have the burning of sulfur in the streets—bonfires to purify the air.”

Some 100,000 Londoners — close to a quarter of the population, equivalent to two million today — died. Some sufferers committed suicide by “throwing themselves into the Thames,” Mr. Snowden says. “Such was their horror at what was happening to their bodies, and the excruciating pain of the buboes” — inflamed lymph nodes — that are the classic symptom of the bubonic plague. Social order broke down as the authorities fled. “Death cart” drivers went door to door, collecting corpses for a fee and sometimes plundering the possessions of survivors.

The plague’s violent assaults on European cities in the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods created “social dislocation in a way we can’t imagine,” says Mr. Snowden, whose October 2019 book, Epidemics in Society: From the Black Death to the Present — a survey of infectious diseases and their social impact — is suddenly timely.

I interviewed Mr. Snowden, 73, over Skype. We’re both home in lockdown, I in California and he in Rome, where he’s gone to do research in the Vatican archives. In the mid-14th century, Italy was “the most scourged place in Europe with the Black Death,” he notes. In the 21st century, it’s among the countries hardest hit by Covid-19.

[...]

Isolation as a defense against infectious disease originated in the city-states of Venice and Florence. Italy was the center of Mediterranean trade, and the plague arrived in 1347 on commercial ships. The dominant theory at the time was “miasmatism” — the atmosphere was poisoned — perhaps by visitors’ garments — and people get sick “when they breathe that in, or absorb it through their pores,” Mr. Snowden says. “That is, there is some emanation, and it can be thought to be coming from the soil, or from the bodies” of sick people.

After plague visitations, the Venetian navy eventually began to force sailors arriving at the harbor to disembark on a nearby island, where they remained for 40 days — quaranta — a duration chosen for its biblical significance. The strategy worked when it was enforced as disease-ridden fleas died out and the sick died or recovered. Mr. Snowden notes that Americans returning from Wuhan, China, in early February were “detained on army bases for a quarantine period” — 14 days rather than 40.

“We can see the roots of many aspects of modern health already in the Renaissance,” he adds. Another example is the wax “plague costume” worn by physicians. It resembled modern-day medical garb — “the protective garments that you see in the hospital for people dealing with Ebola, or this sort of space suit” — but with a long beak containing resonant herbs. They were thought to “purify the air that you were breathing in.” The costume “did, in fact, have some protective value,” Mr. Snowden says, because the wax repelled the fleas that carried the disease.

[...]

The plague was more traumatic than a military assault, and the response was often warlike in its ferocity. One response was a “sanitary cordon,” or encircling of a city-state with soldiers, who didn’t allow anyone in or out. “Imagine one’s own city, and suddenly, in the morning, it’s cordoned off by the National Guard with fixed bayonets and helmets on, and orders to shoot if we cross,” Mr. Snowden says. Cordons were regularly imposed in European cities in times of plague risk, leading to terror and violence. In the 18th century, the Austrian army was “deployed to prevent bubonic plague from moving up the Balkan Peninsula and into Western Europe” by halting travelers who might be carrying it.

The sociologist Charles Tilly (1929-2008) famously argued that “war makes the state” — that borders and bureaucracies were forged by necessity in military conflict. Plague had similar effects, requiring “military commitment, administration, finance and all the rest of it,” Mr. Snowden says. In addition to a navy to enforce quarantines, “you needed to have a police power,” a monopoly on force over a wide area. Sometimes “watchmen were stationed outside the homes of people who had the plague, and no one was allowed in or out.”

[...]

Infectious disease can change the physical landscape itself. Mr. Snowden notes that when Napoleon III rebuilt Paris in the mid-19th century, one of his objectives was to protect against cholera: “It was this idea of making broad boulevards, where the sun and light could disperse the miasma.” Cholera also prompted expansions of regulatory power over the “construction of houses, how they had to be built, the cleanliness standards.”

Most subjects found this very confusing

Wednesday, April 15th, 2020

We’ve been hearing about pandemic models and policy responses lately. With that in mind, James Thompson discusses the logic of failure;

At a Royal Society lecture in 1990 I was charmed by a diffident presentation given by Prof Dietrich Dorner who described not his success in modelling the future, but the difficulties subjects had when they tried to manage fairly simple models.

His first example was extremely simple. Subjects had to turn a control dial so as to get a small target to move from the top of the screen to a line drawn horizontally across the middle. Clearly, the solution was to turn the knob clockwise so that the target sank down to the mid-line. This proved difficult. Dorner had arranged the system so the target only moved after a delay. Most subjects found this very confusing. They kept turning the dial to get the target down, only to find that after a period of no response the target suddenly shot down past the desired mid-line to the bottom of the screen. Irritated and confused, subjects then twisted the dial anti-clockwise, thus making it shoot back to the top of the screen. It took many corrections and much time to get the target onto the desired mid-line. A minority of subjects made just one cautious movement and then waited to see what happened. Such subjects were able to place the target onto the mid-line quickly and with very few moves.

This was a beautiful illustration of the key feature of executive power, that even if what you command has a real effect on a complex system in the real world, it is usually a delayed effect. Oil tankers take time to turn around.

I’ve discussed The Logic of Failure twice before.

They still think what Palo Alto brought to the table was computer science

Tuesday, April 14th, 2020

Most Americans remember when Washington couldn’t build a website, Mencius Moldbug says, and Palo Alto bailed it out:

They still think what Palo Alto brought to the table was computer science.

Actually, plenty of people in DC can code just fine. What Palo Alto brought was the ability to execute at scale. Back then, some website seemed important. Now we know what important means.

Twenty-first-century American elites turn out to resemble the Chinese mandarins of yore

Thursday, April 9th, 2020

Had he been asked in late 2019 what would eventually break American global dominance, Razib Khan would have said the rise of China:

My thinking, pre-pandemic, was that the psychic shock of America’s eventual demotion might trigger cultural and political turmoil, as the nation would find itself forced into a reckoning. Then came 2020. The true shock to our civilization has come not from our own self-image but from nature itself. Western elites were clearly not prepared for this turn, a shattering of our conceit that reality is ours to create. In the U.S., bickering about an appropriate official name for Covid-19, along with a sequence of bureaucratic blunders that led to dire shortages of diagnostic testing and medical gear, highlight the core competencies of today’s media and governmental elites: administrative turf wars and verbal jousting to burnish status in positional games. Even in this high-stakes moment, they cannot abandon unproductive old reflexes. In a strange turn of events, twenty-first-century American elites turn out to resemble the Chinese mandarins of yore, absorbed in intricate intrigues at court to advance their careers while European gunboats prowl the waterways.

The politicians who govern us and the media who tell us how the world “really is” acted as if the basics of economic well-being would be an everlasting bounty. Economists, those apex predators of social science, marshaled the evidence for efficiencies and gains in productivity due to trade and international supply chains. “Just in time” inventories reduced waste and made modern retail a lean, mean prosperity machine. Plentitude wasn’t some miracle achieved through hard work and focused attention; it was our birthright, a steady-state condition of the universe that we inhabited. A global pandemic wasted no time in making a mockery of many of these late twentieth-century assumptions. All our efficiencies melted away in the face of a man-made depression. Perhaps the world was never what we presumed it to be.

In January, empirical evidence from Wuhan should have caused alarm for anyone who bothered to look closely. Epidemiological frameworks are some of the most well understood theoretical systems in population biology, so the high average number of secondary cases was immediately worrisome to scientists, statisticians, and physicians. The WHO, the CDC, and independent observers hoped that Covid-19 would be slowed by the same factors that slowed and contained SARS and MERS in the past, but there was no guarantee. By late January, a small but vocal group of epidemiologists and infectious-disease specialists, along with an eclectic array of Silicon Valley figures, had begun raising the alarm. But these worries failed to gain broader traction in the U.S. media and political landscape for much of February. The media seemed more anxious about the possibility of anti-Asian racism than the threat of a deadly pandemic.

Scenes that played out in Wuhan were repeated with eerily specific similarity in Lombardy in March, and then in New York shortly thereafter. Despite the reality that we live in a world where China’s economic and geopolitical heft looms large, American elites, nursing a twentieth-century hangover, haven’t updated their understanding of the world. China may be remote, alien, and exotic, but it was too easy to dismiss the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan as sui generis. In a global age, we have become too parochial as a nation, held captive by our own particular history.

Too many of our elites lack the most basic analytical tools to understand the threats that we face from nature.

[...]

Now Covid-19 has thrust the untamed physical world back into our line of vision. It has brought post-materialist, twenty-first-century humanity face to face with one of the species’ deepest and most atavistic fears: pestilence and plague. The disease will not be defined away. It is not a social construction or interpretation. It is immune to critique or public shaming on social media. Covid-19 will not be “cancelled.”

[...]

For decades, scientists and thinkers have warned that our twentieth-century victories against infectious disease could be merely a pause. Covid-19 has brought this prophecy to life. Rather than attend to internecine arguments about the ideal marginal tax rate or the gendered nature of the English language, we need to face outward and confront a real foe. The American elite must stop treating science like inscrutable magic that provides its bounty automatically. Science and engineering are instruments that grant us insight and mastery only through massive investments of time, energy, and will.

We must acknowledge the importance of mastering reality if we are to survive and flourish as a civilization. Otherwise, governing and media elites’ lack of basic scientific and statistical literacy will doom us to fly blind in the face of future natural disasters. Our only hope is to turn our backs on an era where our only leaders are business executives and lawyers. Data journalism cannot remain a niche; it deserves to occupy a prominent spot on any editorial board. Scientists and engineers must step outside of their laboratories and make their voices heard in the halls of power. They must become part of the establishment that they once had the luxury of viewing chiefly as a source of funding and institutional support.

How many lives is hospitalization saving in the pandemic?

Friday, April 3rd, 2020

Do we have evidence that hospitalization of COVID19 patients is actually saving significant numbers of lives?

I’ve now seen multiple studies suggesting that up to 80 or 90 percent of patients who end up on ventilators ultimately die. At this point, I guess there’s no way to know if the other 10 percent would have lived without the ventilators. From what I can tell, most other hospitalized patients are getting supplemental oxygen, IV fluids and antibiotics. I have not seen any evidence on the effectiveness of these treatments. Many of those patients live, but we don’t know whether they would have recovered without hospitalization. It would obviously be impossible to do a RCT on that at the moment.

Answering the question about the efficacy of hospitalization would seem to be critical, though, since, as best I can tell, the main justification for shutting down society now is to prevent our health care system from being overwhelmed — especially the supply of ventilators. If our hospitals are overwhelmed, not only COVID19 patients, but others with treatable injuries/diseases might die. But if hospitalization is not actually saving COVID19 patients in large numbers, then all the costly social interventions we are implementing now are mostly just delaying the spread of infection.

Journalists would be better served by picking up a $6 Kindle edition of the relevant VSI volume instead

Thursday, April 2nd, 2020

As February turned to March, T. Greer realized he needed a better understanding of epidemics and disaster response:

It was clear to me then that the coronavirus was going to blow up in my own country, that I was going to be voicing opinions about it, and that in consequence I had a responsibility to inform myself as well as I could within the constraints of my budget and schedule. I wanted a stronger grounding in the history and past examples of American disaster response and the basics of epidemiology. Towards that end I bought about ten books, seven of which I have now finished. I do not have time to review them at all length, but I can provide some capsule-reviews for people who are interested in reading more on these topics themselves.

Christian McMillen’s Pandemics: A Very Short Introduction and Marta Wayne and Benjamin Bolker’s Infectious Disease: A Very Short Introduction are both excellent little primers. I am an unabashed fan of the Very Short Introduction series. Their basic idea is to find a noted expert in topic X and have them write an accessible-yet-intelligent 100-150 page introduction of their topic of expertise. Many journalists and commentators who spend several hours trawling Wikipedia whenever a new topic hits the news cycle would be far better served by picking up a $6 Kindle edition of the relevant VSI volume instead. These two books are oddly complimentary: McMillen is a historian, and his Very Short Introduction is focused on the social history of past pandemics. Wayne and Bolker are an ecologist and geneticist, respectively, and their focus is on modeling the dynamics of disease growth. McMillen devotes chapters to the bubonic plague, smallpox, cholera, malaria, tuberculosis, influenza, and AIDS; Wayne and Bolker also provide 20-page summaries of various diseases, their case studies being influenza, HIV, cholera, malaria, and Bd (the fungal disease wiping out many of the world’s amphibious populations). Together the two books provide a solid introduction to how various types of diseases work and the history of human attempts to treat or contain them.

We would find ourselves with an atomised society in which no one felt he had any duty to anyone else

Sunday, March 29th, 2020

Years ago, back in 2004, Anthony Daniels (perhaps better known as Theodore Dalrymple) picked up a book by André Maurois, published in 1931, called L’Amerique Inattendue. Maurois, who had taken a position teaching French literature at Princeton, preferred the character of the Americans in adversity to that in triumphal materialistic optimism:

I felt distinctly uncomfortable while reading Maurois. I am no economist and am not qualified to opine on economic affairs. Yet we seem to me to have been conducting ourselves in Britain as if the present economic climate will continue forever, regardless of what we do, as if there were no tomorrow, or at least no tomorrow that might be very different from today. On the one hand, our boom requires that we spend, or it comes to an end; on the other, we shall have nothing for our old age if we do.

Our public life is frivolous, but frivolous without gaiety. It is also earnest without being serious. The Chancellor, Mr Brown, warned us recently of the threat that China and India posed to our prosperity. We cannot compete with those countries in cost of labour, of course; but their success is based not just on cheap labour, but on a powerful combination of cheap labour and an educational system that is far more serious than ours. While we — that is to say, the government of which Mr Brown is a prominent member — are so obsessed with supposed social justice that we are prepared to tolerate any degree of mediocrity, India and China foster talent in a very Darwinian fashion, in the hope and expectation that everyone will benefit in the long run. Before long, there will be nothing that we can do better than they.

At the same time, we have destroyed, or at least undermined, all forms of social solidarity other than handouts from the state. If ever there should be a serious downturn in our economic fortunes, which would not be unprecedented in history after all, we would find ourselves with an atomised society in which no one felt he had any duty to anyone else. Widespread social, or rather antisocial, disturbances might very well result.

By the time I had finished Maurois’s forgotten but suggestive little book, I was almost trembling with fear.

You just need to turn off the central air conditioning

Friday, March 27th, 2020

The cordon sanitaire that began around Wuhan and two nearby cities on Jan. 23 helped slow the virus’s transmission to other parts of China, but didn’t really stop it in Wuhan itself:

Instead, the virus kept spreading among family members in homes, in large part because hospitals were too overwhelmed to handle all the patients, according to doctors and patients there.

What really turned the tide in Wuhan was a shift after Feb. 2 to a more aggressive and systematic quarantine regime whereby suspected or mild cases—and even healthy close contacts of confirmed cases—were sent to makeshift hospitals and temporary quarantine centers.

The tactics required turning hundreds of hotels, schools and other places into quarantine centers, as well as building two new hospitals and creating 14 temporary ones in public buildings. It also underscored the importance of coronavirus testing capacity, which local authorities say was expanded from 200 tests a day in late January to 7,000 daily by mid-February.

[...]

In New York City, federal authorities plan to set up mobile hospitals, with a total capacity of 1,000 beds, at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in Manhattan. New York has also been looking into converting entire hotels into hospitals, but it is unclear how many beds will be made available.

Zhang Jinnong, head of the emergency department at Wuhan’s Xiehe Hospital, said the most important thing was to separate the infected from the healthy, and recommended hotels as quarantine centers where people could be isolated in separate rooms.

“You just need to turn off the central air conditioning,” he said.

[...]

South Korea, which has tested more people than any other country, originally tried to hospitalize all confirmed cases. But as wards became overloaded, from March 1 it divided coronavirus patients into four categories: asymptomatic, mild, severe and critical.

Only severe and critical cases were hospitalized, while mild and asymptomatic cases were placed in makeshift hospitals known as “residential treatment facilities.”

In Singapore, all suspected cases have been isolated in hospitals, while close contacts of confirmed cases have been systematically tracked and quarantined in government-run facilities or at home.

[...]

Another critical factor was the deployment to Wuhan of thousands of extra doctors and nurses from elsewhere in China. Among them was Meng Xinke, a doctor from the intensive care department of the No. 2 People’s Hospital in Shenzhen.

He arrived in Wuhan on Feb. 9 and was put to work in an exhibition center newly transformed into a makeshift hospital with 40 doctors and 1,461 beds, for confirmed mild coronavirus cases. Separating milder cases “is a great way to save resources,” he said, adding that five doctors were able to look after 400 patients during each shift.

His daily routine included checking patients’ vital signs, giving them medication, conducting tests, and identifying those developing severe symptoms. After about two weeks, he said, his team noticed that about 10%-15% of patients discharged from some makeshift hospitals were later testing positive again—a possible indication they hadn’t fully cleared the virus.

On Feb. 22, Wuhan required all discharged patients to go to quarantine sites for another two weeks instead of heading home.

N95 versus KN95

Thursday, March 26th, 2020

3M has a recent technical bulletin that spells out the subtle differences in filtering facepiece respirator classes, such as FFP2, KN95, and N95 — and the differences are very, very subtle. Namely, the N95 masks that are out of stock across the country are indistinguishable from the KN95 masks that are sitting on the shelves, but the N95 masks are certified for use in the US medical system, and the KN95 masks are certified for use in China:

This document is only intended to help clarify some key similarities between such references, specifically to the following FFR performance standards:

  • N95 (United States NIOSH-42CFR84)
  • FFP2 (Europe EN 149-2001)
  • KN95 (China GB2626-2006)
  • P2 (Australia/New Zealand AS/NZA 1716:2012)
  • Korea 1st class (Korea KMOEL – 2017-64)
  • DS (Japan JMHLW-Notification 214, 2018)

As shown in the following summary table, respirators certified as meeting these standards can be expected to function very similarly to one another, based on the performance requirements stated in the standards and confirmed during conformity testing.

N95 Masks versus Comparables