Hugh Howey

Bestselling author of Wool and other books. Currently sailing around the world.

Following the Math

Before we talk about numbers, let’s talk about empathy. Death sucks. It’s probably the number one worst thing about living. Otherwise, living is mostly great. But death kinda mucks it up in the end.

Over 4,000 people have died from the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s more than died in the US during the 9/11 attacks. It’s painful when large numbers of people die from something new and seemingly sudden. That’s happening right now. My heart hurts for every one of those who will pass away or suffer. Even if it was 400, it would be terrible. Even if it was four. And it’ll get worse before it gets better.

But it will get better. The curves don’t lie. In China and South Korea, new cases are leveling off and flattening. South Korea is a great case study, because it’s a more open society. Doubts about its numbers can be chalked up to good ole paranoia rather than the very prudent doubts we can have about China’s numbers. It’s also reinforcing how well the numbers from both countries align. You can see the end of exponential growth below.

You can read more about the above graph here, and what it all means. This is a few days old, and the new data only reinforces the author’s view. Yesterday in South Korea, new COVID-19 cases fell below 150 for the first time since late February. And South Korea is testing LOTS of people. Well over 10,000 a day. They have drive-thru clinics that should be replicated elsewhere (the UK is following suit).

So the lower cases in South Korea aren’t for lack of testing. And they are following the trends in China, where less than a hundred new cases were added yesterday. So what’s happening? Good medicine and good habits are happening. Notably, it isn’t the draconian quarantine procedures in China that seem to be working in South Korea, because they haven’t been as harsh. It’s mostly huge amounts of tests being performed, so that every social crack the virus attempts to flee through can be sealed up tight.

Testing is critical. It is also the biggest stumble so far in the United States. Thankfully, we are starting to see testing kits roll out from universities and the private sector, because the CDC was woefully unprepared for this and slow to act. With increased testing, we will see an explosion of cases. We will witness the same exponential growth here we saw elsewhere. And then the asymptotic leveling before the big declines. These are the same sorts of curves seen during other pandemics.

A note here about a terrible book I read years ago called THE EARTH IS FLAT. It was a really awful book about economics where exponential growth was forecast to continue indefinitely, which led to terrible conclusions that were wrong before the book even went to print. The same thing is happening here with the virus as people assume exponential growth is some law of nature that can ignore other human behaviors.

Exponential viral growth occurs when we are being our normal, gross human selves, sneezing into our hands and in each other’s faces, shaking hands all the time, picking our noses, chewing our fingernails, standing in line to shake the pastor’s hands, kissing on first dates, etc. The idea that these behaviors and our gatherings would continue while millions were dying is and always has been paranoia and fantasy. Our behaviors and our policies change in light of pandemics such as these. There is historical and modern precedent. When schools close and conferences are canceled, that’s both an inconvenience and a very good thing. When a friend refuses to shake your hand, that’s them being responsible. When a colleague calls in sick, that’s them being a goddamn hero worthy of medal. These reasons and more are why this virus will not infect the world and kill tens of millions of people. That just will not happen.

Now, there is still lots to follow and process about what’s happening around the world today. I’m writing this from Portugal, where you’d hardly know anything was happening. There is toilet paper and hand sanitizer on the store shelves. Restaurants and museums are packed. No one is hoarding or wearing masks. Meanwhile, two countries away, Italy is on lockdown. And the US is bracing for impact.

While this will eventually get better, for the next few months it’s going to be a rolling thunder of a pandemic. While it spreads to one country, it’ll be beaten into submission elsewhere. While one place handles it efficiently, another will blunder and stumble. There are going to be international travel restrictions for a long time, as countries attempt to limit blowback. A few weeks ago I was suggesting that China will soon be one of the safest places to be to avoid this virus. They are now trying to limit travel back INTO their country from other parts of the world. A far cry from a month ago when it appeared the virus was more likely to move from China to elsewhere.

This asymmetric aspect of the pandemic will mean some place is always in crisis, while other places recover. The headlines are almost all going to focus on the former. The green steep part of the curve above will be the only math people do. No one will report as wildly about the leveling of cases and the return to normalcy. Panic will always sell more than reality. And there will be enough bad news to come … tens of thousands of people will die from this. Hundreds of thousands eventually. This virus will likely resurface in the fall and sweep around the world again, possibly stronger than before. A vaccine will be critical in the next year to end this for good. And we will need to be ready for the next virus, because our living density, our constant travel, and our poor hygiene and social habits will leave us vulnerable to pandemics for as long as we’re around.

For now, the best advice is still to wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water. Soap is a miracle destroyer of viruses, even better than hand sanitizer. I know that’s hard to believe, because we take soap’s miraculous chemical structure for granted, but it’s true. Soap up. Lather. Get every nook and cranny. Stop being so damn lazy with how you wash up, and stop being self-conscious about it. Inspire good habits in your friends and family. Also: Clean your devices and keyboards. Wipe down frequently touched surfaces. Stop touching your face all the damn time. These things will not just vastly reduce your chances of getting this virus, but also the colds and flus that already wreak ruin. It’ll also reduce the likelihood of you infecting others.

The last bit of math to discuss is sobering and sad. The average age of those dying from COVID-19 is currently around 80. This virus is cruel to the elderly and the ill. As this becomes more widely known and understood, please don’t feel invincible if you are younger and healthy. You can still get sick, which can lead to real issues in small numbers of cases. You can get your family sick. You can get the vulnerable sick. It behooves us to all treat this seriously in order to protect our loved ones and our communities.

I leave you with a video of a doctor rubbing paint around her hands to show you how terrible we normals are at doing this. Watch it. It’ll change how you wash up, and it could save a life.

8 replies to “Following the Math”

Dear Hugh,

This note is a thank you after reading this article some days ago. I was struck by how calm, rational and utterly sensible it is and how disappointingly absent that is from our national dialogue for the most part.

This virus is with us now but we can and will deal with it; hopefully better than we have to begin with. It doesn’t hurt to be reminded of that as you have done, without downplaying the seriousness, rather than just focusing on the panic.

I find your take to be ‘outside the box’, whether it be self-publishing or nuclear power, but consistently compelling. I admire your way of thinking to filter out the noise and see things from a fresh perspective to come to a solution rather than be tethered to a certain ideology or way of thinking. It takes honesty and courage. Can you maybe write an article where you share a little about how you do it consistently? (Or have you done so already?) Is it a ‘why not’ rather than a ‘why’ approach ala “Guns germs and steel”, or something else?

And, are you sure you can’t be our next president? :)

I’ve been pretty annoyed at several “I had COVID-19 and it’s not that bad” articles floating around, because in an era where people mostly read headlines, to me that’s just going to make people think it’s all fine to go out and spread germs because this is just nothing, just a cold, not keeping in mind that mild COVID symptoms in one person can show up as life-threatening ones in old Mr. Yamada down the street. Not that I think people should be freaking out about dying from COVID, but it feels like there’s a lack of care for the community at large, and I say this because I’ve seen people do it for years with their kids with other illnesses, sending them to do whatever—sports, school, parties, sleepovers—while they have a fever or cough. Yeah, wash your hands, but people also need to keep their friggin’ germs at home.

As a world traveler, nurse, and a resident of Kirkland Washington…the epicenter of the US nightmare…I 100% fully agree. Hopefully we can learn from our peers overseas and get a grip on this like South Korea so efficiently did. If it’s not this virus, it will be another. We learn and adapt or we don’t survive. Keep up the good work.
From one (budding) sailboat enthusiast to another…

Hi Hugh.

I’m portuguese, and living in Aveiro. What i can say about covid-19 here is that there is no more hand sanitizer in the stores.

Not even in pharmacies.

But you are right about the soap, or handwashing cream. Amd you are right about this. We will surpass this storm.


Now its frightning. Specially if you have family. By now our government should have closed schools ( only 2 are closed near Porto and one or two in Lisbon).

Drive through Corona tests should be available here and in the rest of Europe. It’s not. And i suspect that the portuguese government is not doing those tests simple because our health system isnt capable of a good response if the number of cases peaks.

Im doingy best to stay safe. And hope that this will soon pass…

Interesting. The couple of places we went into had stock. Might have been a fluke? Be safe.

I think your terrible book is The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman. He is a big proponent of globalism going so far as to say two countries both in the same global supply chain will not go to war with each other. Interesting take. But global supply chains are subject to disruption in pandemic situations it would seem. Gonna be a shaky time for the economy, national and global.

Thank you, Hugh, for your rational and reassuring posts on Covid 19.
I am undergoing cancer treatment and have asthma. Watching the news makes me feel like I need to panic. (I am definitely watching less of it.)
Your posts are so reasonable and logical.
I deeply appreciate your efforts to cool down the heat of people’s panic.
As for me, due to my susceptibility, I have chosen to self-quarantine. I am married and retired, so it is not hard to do, except it can get a bit lonely. I prefer to think of it as choosing to live a “cloistered” life for a time.
You are so right when you say the real heroes are the people who stay home from work, many sacrificing income, when they are ill for the sake of their colleagues and the general public.
Please keep sending us bits of sanity while this lasts.

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