Worthy Reads for April 25, 2019
Worthy Reads for May 2, 2019

What Did I Think About Coronavirus When?

I Am Aware of Coronavirus in Early February

The first time I can find myself speaking publicly about the coronavirus outbreak came on February 3, 2020, in the introductory lead-in to my twentieth century economic history lecture. I then said, roughly:

The next six to nine months are likely to be quite unpleasant for the world

Globally, the public health authorities are still hoping to keep deaths at much, much less than 30 million dead worldwide. This will be accomplished largely by slowing down international travel, and interregional travel in China, for a great deal of time. The National Institutes of Health and other research organizations need to figure out what this sucker is and how to train all of our immune systems up to deal with it. Border control authorities will have to pull people with symptoms aside and quarantine them until they conclude that they do not have it.

This is a new age.

In some ways, however, this new age is like a very old age.

Back up 2000 years: Remember the coming of the Roman Empire and with the unification of China under the Qin Dynasty, and then with the stabilization of Central Asia under the Parthians, all happening in the years -200 to the year 1 or so. Humanity then reached a stage in which you only had to cross two substantial borders in order to get all the way from the Gibraltar in Spain to the Sea of Japan.

You would cross one border when you left the Roman Empire for the area of influence of the Parthians, You would cross another when you left the Parthian-influenced oases in Central Asia for those that had a Han Chinese influence. Provided that no one in any of those three empires in a position of authority wanted you dead, you could travel from one edge of Eurasia to another with relative ease, and with little fear: the three respective imperial peaces by and large held.

And, 150 years later, from 165-180, we see for the first time a Eurasia-wide plague. We see not a plague located to one single province, but instead reports about it coming up pretty much everywhere. Globalization brings travel, and traveling people bring diseases—the 160s Plague of the Antonines or of Galen that was perhaps Smallpox; the 249 Plague of Saint Cyprian that may have been something Ebola-related boiling out of Africa through Sudan and then up the Nile (but we're not sure); and the Plague of Justinian in the 530s, which we are pretty are was a bubonic plague, the kind that still has reservoirs among the rodents of the Sierra Nevada and the Rockies.

If you get bitten by a rodent in the high mountains of the American West, go to the doctor. Go to the doctor quickly. You never know what you might have caught.

Wish all the public health people luck. This is a potentially big challenge. Curses on the Chinese government, which failed to have the right incentives in place for officials in Wuhan to report what was going on early enough.

As a result of that failure to report, we are still largely flying blind. We do not have good public health indications of the rapid spread of this thing in its first stages. And those would be very useful now in trying to figure out what it's going to bring to the world.

Be anxious but not too anxious: We have a powerful, rich, and enormously technologically capable civilization. Our public health technologies, especially, are mighty. And while the worst-case scenario as of now looks much, much more likely than it looked two weeks ago, the worse-case scenario itself looks much, much better than the worst-case scenario of two weeks ago looked—or so my public health contacts say.

And with that, the professor concludes this opening digression, which he punctuates with yet another deep-in-the-bronchiii cough.

It is clear to me that I then had a bunch of things in my head, some right and some wrong, including:

  • The wrong belief that asymptomatic transmission was not frequent, so stopping the symptomatic for quarantine at borders would be effective.
  • The wrong belief that governments would quickly move to stop and quarantine anyone with a fever or a cough at border control.
  • The right belief that if this thing got out into the world its symptomatic attack rate would be 60% or so.
  • The probably right belief that the mortality rate among the symptomatic would be between 0.5% and 1.0%.
  • The belief that success in containing COVID-19 would be keeping the global death toll from the epidemic below 10 million.
  • The belief that failure could be a global death tool of: 8 billion x 60% x 1% = 50 million.
  • The wrong belief that the United States had little to fear—that we would stomp this thing at the borders, and that the cases that slipped through would then be dealt with by isolate-trace-&-test-&-isolate.
  • The wrong belief that our public health authorities and our government could be competent—that we would not suffer from the deficiencies of authoritarian government which had hobbled the early-stage response in China.

I had not remembered—or I had underestimated—the dire level of incompetence and foolishness of the orange-haired baboon who is President Donald Trump. And I had not remembered—or I had underestimated—the extent to which everyone now working for the Trump administration was craven or incompetent or both.


Iran & Coronavirus in Early March

I may have talked about coronavirus in lecture later on in February. I do not remember doing so. I went back over the automatic transcripts, but not all recorded lectures have transcripts, and not all lectures were recorded by the course-capture process, I do know that coronavirus was on my (and the students’) minds, so the next time it emerged in the news, with the outbreak in Iran, I once again talked about it at the start of lecture. This is from March 4, 2020:

Iran. Iran says that it has so far had 3,000 coronavirus cases, and that 100 people have died of coronavirus. However, at the cabinet meeting Wednesday morning, both Vice President Jahangiri and Industry Minister Rahmani were absent. There are reports about Rahmani being hospitalized in an ICU. The chief of staff is also absent. The Supreme Economic Coordinating Council appears to be down from six people to three.

What are the odds that the 3,000 and the 100 or so are all members of Iran's elite?

We have no clue how large this is in Iran.

But it seems like the thing has majorly jumped, from China to Iran and possibly elsewhere. As a result, we now are living in the spring of coronavirus.

Calls for what Berkeley will do are Carol Christ's.

That said, if you are coughing and sneezing—if you are coughing and sneezing, go get tested. And until you get tested, please stay home. Email me, and I'll give you lots and lots of extra credit points for being willing to hang out in your home, eating potato chips, rather than infecting other people with possible coronavirus.

Otherwise… there are powerful, powerful reasons to come to lecture. There are powerful herd animal benefits. The experiment with MOOCs has not gone well over the past decade. Getting people in a room together at a specific time, and then having them near other people thinking about the same thing, seems to have mammoth benefits.

As for what's likely to happen during coronavirus, I am not an expert. You should find someone in a public health program. They are the experts…

#coronavirus #highlighted #publichealth #2020-04-27