A Baby Named Covid

Last night, after thinking for some time in silence, my partner declared: “It feels like losing time, like losing life.”

Those of us who have been subjected to involuntary confinement know that feeling all too well, but if the monumental pain in the City right now is engendering a scream, like Munch’s, it is a silent one. I hope, in time, we may, like our peers in Brazil, take to banging pots and pans out our windows in solidarity with each other and in protest of the kleptocrats and authoritarians who have driven us headlong into this mess.

Once a day, I stop for a minute or two and cry.

Safe to guess that we’ll see a baby boom starting around December 2020 and lasting, at this point, let’s say indefinitely. If the reports out of China are any indication, we’ll also see a divorce boom starting much sooner. MTA buses are running empty as the agency appeals to the Federal Government for a $4 billion bailout, and the privatization vultures, long circling, tighten their wheeling arcs overhead. It is a story that Puerto Rico knows all too well.

Impossible to weave a single or even really a coherent narrative about what is unfolding around the world right now. Many commentators have observed that pandemic is not an ideal way to drastically reduce global emissions (note the tiny dip after the Global Financial Crisis; I’d expect the current dip to be much deeper and longer), but it is certainly effective. Axios reports that satellite images show smog clearing over China where factories remain shuttered (evoking the lead up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics) and that the pandemic is “poised to feed Middle East unrest” as oil prices plummet (owing both to a demand shock and the price war between OPEC/Saudi Arabia and Russia), leading to reduced government budgets and cuts in social services; at the same time, vulnerable populations across the region – in Gaza, Syria, and Yemen, for example – are now threatened by pandemic.

Building on my thoughts from yesterday regarding growing US-China tensions, I look to Bill Bishop who writes, of the propaganda war currently unfolding between the world’s two most powerful countries:

Meanwhile, the CCP continues to push its increasingly aggressive domestic and global propaganda campaign to sow doubt about the belief held by every serious person working on the outbreak that the virus originated in China. It is important to push back on that CCP propaganda, but it is also important not to sow the flames of racism, and I am very concerned that is what we are seeing from certain US politicians and media outlets.

And further:

Over the last 24 hours we have gotten even closer to the precipice. I can not think of a more dangerous time in the US-China relationship in the last 40 years, and the carnage from the coronavirus has barely begun in the US.

Half the world’s students are out of school; nearly 20% of US workers have already lost jobs or had hours reduced as a result of the pandemic; and while major US automakers are suspending production under pressure from the UAW, Tesla has ordered “factory workers to come to work in spite of [the] shelter in place directive” in force in the Bay Area, and Charter Communications has “told [staff] to report to offices despite positive coronavirus tests” among Charter employees – though, of course, corporate, as governmental, responses have varied too widely (for example, Apple has closed all of its retail stores outside of China but announces: “All of our hourly workers will continue to receive pay in alignment with business as usual operations”) for anything like a comprehensive roundup to be possible.

Here in New York, we are descending into a nightmare, with the Governor now openly admitting that the coming spike in cases (foreseeable weeks ago) is going to overwhelm our healthcare system. The State has ~50,000 hospital beds. He suspects we’ll need 100,000. Meanwhile, the Navy hospital ship Comfort will soon arrive in New York to provide an additional 1,000 beds, which will still leave us about 50,000 short. Shocking, but as the picture becomes clearer, the Wall Street Journal is now reporting that there was a warning signal that the pandemic was already upon us, discernible in a spike in ER visits starting March 1st – coincidentally or not, the day that the first official case of COVID-19 was (finally) registered in NYC. According to Murdoch’s Journal:

New York City hospital emergency rooms started seeing a sharp rise in people coming in with flulike symptoms in early March

while according to The Intercept, the virus has now reached Riker’s Island, and ColorLines opines, with many others, that “Jails and Prisons Will Be Ground Zero for COVID-19, If We Don’t Act Now.”

The Journal’s coverage only further validates the past concerns of thoughtful people that the virus had been circulating cryptically (as Trevor Bedford has shown it was circulating from January 15th onward in Washington State, more than a month before the first official case was confirmed), while the report from Riker’s should chill us all.

In brighter news, as after Sandy, New York is experiencing a biking boom, and I’ve personally been enjoying walking down the middle of empty streets (which incidentally also makes proper social distancing much easier, given the cramped sidewalks to which we pedestrians are mostly confined in this anti-Jacobsian New York).

As of last week, Boeing’s stock price was down nearly 60% from its 2019 peak, showing the danger of pumping a company’s strategic reserves of cash into inflating its stock price (although the practice has, in recent years, been a short-term boon for activist investors and to executive compensation). Just think if Boeing hadn’t pumped $43 billion into share buybacks to buy shares that have now plummeted in value… Meanwhile, the battle over a bailout of US airlines is proceeding along predictable lines, and Amy Goodman reports on this morning’s Democracy Now! that almost all of the stock market gains of the President’s term have been erased.

Something has been troubling me though, beyond the immediate economic fallout of the pandemic’s US onset and the terror of our predicament in New York, and it’s why I fear we’ll be dealing with COVID-19 not for months, but for a year or two. President Xi has won his People’s War – with no new infections reported in Hubei yesterday for the first time in months – and let’s pray that no actual war results between China and the US, but what happens when the Chinese economy is restarted? Isn’t the virus almost guaranteed to begin to spread again? And how long can Xi keep the economy shut down before other aspects of the vaunted social contract begin to fray?

My good friend in the UK, let’s call him Frank, sent me this study from the Imperial College COVID-19 Response Team comparing different approaches to mitigation (that is, limiting the harm caused by the pandemic without fully attempting to stop its spread) and suppression (that is, attempting, as China and South Korea have to date, to fully eliminate the virus from a population – though notably, there are hints that Chinese efforts to suppress the spread of the virus in Xinjiang have not been so vigorous) in the UK and the US. A few of the study’s key findings include the following [bolding is mine]:

Stopping mass gatherings is predicted to have relatively little impact (results not shown) because the contact-time at such events is relatively small compared to the time spent at home, in schools or workplaces and in other community locations such as bars and restaurants… 

Perhaps our most significant conclusion is that mitigation is unlikely to be feasible without emergency surge capacity limits of the UK and US healthcare systems being exceeded many times over. In the most effective mitigation strategy examined, which leads to a single, relatively short epidemic (case isolation, household quarantine and social distancing of the elderly), the surge limits for both general ward and ICU beds would be exceeded by at least 8-fold under the more optimistic scenario for critical care requirements that we examined. In addition, even if all patients were able to be treated, we predict there would still be in the order of 250,000 deaths in GB, and 1.1-1.2 million in the US… 

We therefore conclude that epidemic suppression is the only viable strategy at the current time. The social and economic effects of the measures which are needed to achieve this policy goal will be profound. Many countries have adopted such measures already, but even those countries at an earlier stage of their epidemic (such as the UK) will need to do so imminently.

I’ll just reiterate: “We therefore conclude that epidemic suppression is the only viable strategy at the current time”; the study’s authors go on to argue that suppression measures “will need to be maintained until a vaccine becomes available (potentially 18 months or more) – given that we predict that transmission will quickly rebound if interventions are relaxed.” The Johnson Government in the UK has belatedly abandoned its proposed herd immunity strategy and must now be scrambling to undue, or at least limit, the already “baked-in” harm, and even those of less benighted than Boris Johnson and his ilk still don’t know for certain to what extent infection confers immunity, as there are scattered reports of – but, as yet, no scientific studies on – cases of reinfection.

We should be moving all US elections to remote voting – by phone, by mail, or, if it can be done securely, by Internet; holding the legislators and executives most responsible for this debacle accountable and not letting them buy and pander their way out of blame; sadly, expecting very little from many of our elected representatives; and doing everything we can to support healthcare workers and other “essential personnel” at the frontlines of this struggle, as well as those already being hit hard by the pandemic’s economic impacts (though it’s a sad state of affairs when GoFundMe is where people turn for such support, and I hope we’ll see bold and creative approaches to mitigating the harm emerge at scale in the coming weeks ).

Finally, we should be educating ourselves as much as possible. To that end, I found this study on “The effect of public health measures on the 1918 influenza pandemic in U.S. cities” illuminating and accessible; it gives some hint as to the knowledge we’ve collectively lost in the last century as we’ve enjoyed the privileges conferred by modern hygiene and vaccination, and we can hope to see both a resurgence of such knowledge in this pandemic’s aftermath, and – perhaps I’m being overly optimistic – but a death, at last, to the anti-vax movement.

We’re in this for the long haul. At very least, we should know what we’re talking about. I’d say we have six months to go if it turns out that infection does confer immunity to most individuals, and “18 months or more” if it doesn’t.

Stay sane and stay strong. We’re in this together.

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