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.