Eye the Gathering Covid-19 Storm

Here in Slovenia I feel like Cassandra on the shore, watching a terrible danger grow and gather.

Around me I see dithering justified by denial and despair.

“Bah, it’s nothing! The panic is worse than the disease! It’s the hysteria that will destroy us! Think about the economy!”

“It’s hopeless. We’ll all be infected. Might as well get it over with. There is nothing we can do.”

And the governments of Europe, like sleepwalkers, taking baby steps. All terrified of “panicking the populace” or “damaging the economy.” Mumbling about “being prepared” and “having a plan.”

Let’s be real, the plan has been clear for weeks and months, however for some reason all of them seemed to keep believing that they would not have to learn from the Eastasians. I don’t want to say racism, but when Australia banned all visitors from South Korea and Iran, but only asked visitors from Italy to watch themselves … well. Let’s say I looked at that and said to myself, “that makes no sense,” and even, “that seems stupid, why aren’t they learning from the experience of China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea and Taiwan?”

South Korea is the only Asian country whose covid-19 response I experienced personally, and it was amazing and disciplined. I was constantly notified of where outbreaks where, which places to avoid, how to get tested, what steps to take to protect myself and others. Everywhere and all the time. Compared to their response, what I’ve seen in Slovenia and Italy has been confused, careless, and slow. So far.

So what is that experience?

The Chinese Covid Experience

Let’s summarize it like this. First, deny there is a new disease for a while. Second, downplay its impact and try to hush it up. Third, take some very visible steps to reassure the economy and suggest this will all be fine. Four, panic. Five, execute a vast and impressive and expensive mobilization of the entire country to lock down scores of millions of people, quarantine tens of thousands, build new hospitals and get a handle on things.

The Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan Experiences

First, realize this could be very, very bad and quickly move to limit and control movement through their borders, check temperatures, isolate all suspected cases, introduce social distancing measures at once, and pounce on any clusters that emerge. Second, though they have their first cases in January, the number of confirmed infected patients in all these places remains below a hundred and holds stable.

The South Korean Experience

First, realize this could be very, very bad and quickly move to put temperature controls in place on the border, check temperatures, isolate all suspected cases, introduce social distancing measures, pounce on infections, and warn the public. Second, experience an incredible super-spreader event where a secretive religious organization becomes a vector for thousands upon thousands of infections. Third, execute a vast, impressive, transparent and expensive mobilization of the entire country to lock down a city of several million, quarantine thousands, introduce mass testing, and get a handle on things.

The Japanese Experience

First, realize this could be very, very bad and quickly move to put controls in place on the border, check temperatures, isolate all suspected cases. Second, downplay the situation in Japan and avoid testing too many people to avoid losing the Olympics and make sure the cases on the docked cruise ship are counted separately from their own. Third, put in place strict restrictions on travel from hot spots, especially Korea and China. Fourth, hope this covid-19 thing goes away, I guess? I don’t know, I might be getting a lot wrong. I’m not too familiar with the situation in Japan, so don’t quote me on this.

The North Korean Experience

Unclear. Either shoot the only infected person who entered the country from China or secretly bury 200 soldiers dead of covid-19. Literally, who knows. Somebody should write a book some day and get oral histories of what happened there. Call it World War Covid or something.


Possible Lessons for Eurasia

So what are some possible lessons Eastasia could teach Europe (and other places, but I’m writing about Europe because I am currently in Europe)? Now, obviously, I’m no expert. I’m just a person with a brain. So, this is going on current state of the art and brain juice.

First, remember Eurasia, even in the worst case scenario, medieval technologies like quarantine (which literally comes from Venetian “quarantena” aka. “the forty” to refer to forty days that sailors had to stay isolated on returning to the lagoon city during plague outbreaks) work.

  1. So despair and giving up is not a scenario you should be choosing.
  2. Giving up is an especially bad idea if you are a ruling party in a democracy whose power depends on the votes of older, more experienced citizens. Those have death rates in the 10–15% range, especially if they have other complicating health issues, like heart disease, obesity, diabetes and so on. And it’s not just the death rate … the next generation of voters might also hate you for letting mum and dad get virused. Just saying.
  3. Giving up is also a morally terrible idea because it means you’re sentencing your health care system to collapse and a large proportion of your population to death. It’s the kind of position that gets labelled Stupid Evil in many roleplaying game scenarios.

Then there are three scenarios to choose:

  1. The Snowflake Model. Pretend you are special and won’t have an outbreak. Institute minimal, cosmetic checks, and tell your citizens you are ready and all is under control. Avoid testing too many people. Tell everyone how everything is great and the economy will love you. Then bury your head in sand until covid-19 explodes. Then mobilize like mad to get on top of things so your health care system doesn’t collapse, so millions don’t die, so you don’t become a pariah state, and your economy doesn’t go completely into the toilet. This might involve building a whole hospital in a day or something like nationwide quarantines. Then institute severe hygiene and social distancing measures, swallow the economic costs, and remain very vigilant for reinfection for a year or two until we have a vaccine.
  2. Pretend you don’t need to make hard choices and that you can prioritize your economy while instituting serious monitoring, tracking, and controls. Then see things suddenly blow up and realize you have to mobilize in a swift but orderly fashion to bring everything under control. Then institute severe hygiene and social distancing measures, swallow the economic costs, and remain very vigilant for reinfection for a year or two until we have a vaccine.
  3. Realize That You Are Not Special. Then institute severe hygiene and social distancing measures, swallow the economic costs, and remain very vigilant for reinfection for a year or two until we have a vaccine.

The canny reader will notice that all three scenarios for the states of Eurasia are basically the same. We can even summarize them as:

  1. Waste a lot of time and money and lives. Then work hard to keep functioning.
  2. Waste time and money and lives. Then work hard to keep functioning.
  3. Work hard to keep functioning.

So Next In Europe?

  1. Most European countries should look to South Korea and learn from their response. Tracking clusters, testing tens of thousands of citizens, isolating and quarantining the sick.
  2. Italy has to learn from China and Wuhan. They have to completely mobilize to handle the outbreak. Other countries might end up in the same situation within a matter of days if they’re not careful.
  3. In the short term, lots of borders are going to close to private travel. Internal borders are going to close. People crossing borders will soon have to self-isolate or be quarantined for two weeks.
  4. Initially all public gatherings will shut down to slow down spread.
  5. There’s going to be a media blitz teaching people how to behave in the new health environment. No hand shakes. No kisses. Masks as soon as they ramp up production enough.

THAT SAID. I don’t want to say this was planned. I doubt it was. But considering that Europeans were not traditionally aware of the danger of an outbreak the way people in Eastasia have been (since SARS? MERS? not sure, I don’t know since when), the way the Italian outbreak is being used to ratchet up measures step by step, day by day, habituating all of us to social distance, hygiene, precautions, and restrictions, is quite amazing.

I’m observing in a matter of days public opinion shifting fast. From “it’s nothing” and “it means nothing” to “keep calm and carry on” and “this must be done.” Put another way, there is very little panic. I’m curious how it develops going forward.

And An Update From Slovenia

  1. The country is finally starting to take things seriously. Hopefully we can ramp up our response fast.
  2. There are 35 infected now, up from 1 on the 4th of March (6 days ago). At this rate, I estimate we could hit 100 by the weekend. If we hit 300, we’ve got proportionally as many sick people as Italy and we’re in serious trouble. If our measures aren’t sufficient, we could hit this number in ten days.
  3. The public broadcaster has started to describe symptoms and explain that it is actually deadly, not just a remote problem. They’ve finally stopped downplaying the danger.
  4. Disinfectant is starting to become available in public locations.
  5. They’re finally starting to measure temperatures at the main airport. This doesn’t catch everyone, but every patient caught is fewer infections further down the line.
  6. We’re closing the Italian border to all private travel (trucks will still transport goods).
  7. All indoor events with 100+ people are shut down. I expect all events to be shut down soon.
  8. People keep breaking protocol and infecting clinics. I expect guards at hospitals soon.
  9. Universities are shutting down. I suspect other schools will start shutting down soon.
  10. Meanwhile, Spring is coming here in my town, flowers are blooming, buds are bursting forth, and everything is looking beautiful. It’s quite surreal.

Batten down the hatches, folks. The hard rain is falling. Don’t deny. Don’t despair. We’ll work hard. We’ll pull together. And we’ll beat this.

Peace and health

—L.

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