I hope you are all doing well, both physically and psychologically.
Please take all the common-sense steps you can to safeguard your own health and those around you.
The first I had heard about the coronavirus was towards the end of January. I was attending a series of Buddhist teachings by the wonderful teacher Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche when he was visiting Sydney. In the opening address, he expressed his hopes and prayers that both the Australian bushfires and the situation with the coronavirus would be resolved swiftly.
When we finally get rain and the seemingly unending fires are quenched, this happens.
Life really is one thing after the other, isn't it?
A public service announcement
We are living in a pandemic. The Coronavirus has the potential to inflict incredible harm to us all and the actions we take can increase or decrease the likelihood of the worst-case scenarios.
"The time for hugging people and shaking hands is over."
What you should do:
Wash you hands regularly (even every thirty minutes). Soap with warm water is best. Alcohol-based hand sanitiser is also very good.
- Here is a video of the Director of the World Health Organisation demonstrating proper handwashing technique.
Maintain good nasal hygiene: The World Health Organisation insists on covering your mouth and nose with a flexed elbow when sneezing or using a tissue.
Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth if you can. This is how the infection spreads. When you need to, please wash your hands first.
Practice social distancing:
Refrain from physical contact whenever possible (includes no longer greeting others by hugging or shaking hands).
Keep physical distance when speaking (at least one metre recommended by the World Health Organisation)
Abstaining from non-essential social gatherings, groups of people in contact with one another increases the spread of the infection
Cutting interstate and overseas travel if possible
Carrying hand-sanitiser with you when you go out and applying it every thirty minutes, as well as before you eat or need to touch your face.
Wiping down commonly used items (eg; keyboards, phones, tablets) with disinfectant from time-to-time
Avoiding crowded places if possible, if not then minimising how much time you spend there
All of these precautions should be applied doubly if you feel unwell, are around those who are unwell or have reason to suspect you may have the virus. Breathing and coughing are the primary means of transmission.
Acting ≠ Panicking
In those teachings I attended by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, he spoke of the two mistaken views many people have: eternalism and nihilism. Taking things as being absolutely real and therefore very seriously, and taking things as if they weren't and nothing mattered at all.
This reminds me of the way people react to this virus.
Some panic and behave in ways that don't make sense, rushing to the doctors at the slightest sign of sickness, stockpiling months of supplies (and leading others unable to buy their groceries), while others act as if this all amounts to nothing at all.
If I had to sum up what seems like all of the best advice I have heard.
"Keep calm and wash your hands*."
* I mean keep calm and take all the common-sense measures to decrease the rate of spread of the disease, wash your hands sounds catchier though.
But I want you to know these three points:
- This is a serious pandemic
- There are steps you can take to lower the risk of infection for yourself and decrease the rate of spread of the disease for everyone
- None of these steps requires you to panic, indeed anxiety will make you less able to address this situation
We do not need to torture ourselves mentally to address even the direst of situations. Times of chaos are the most important times to remain calm, but remaining serene isn't dependent upon inaction.
Once more: Solving problems do not require anxiety, only action.
The situation at a glance
As of the 16th of March, 2020:
There are 167,918 confirmed cases of individuals infected by the Coronavirus.
There 6490 confirmed deaths from the COVID-19 across the world.
There are 5639 medically serious cases around the world right now.
There have been a total 75,943 individuals who have recovered from the virus after having contracted it.
Of the 195 countries in the world, 119 have at least one case of infection (and therefore the possibility of it spreading).
These are all only the confirmed cases. Around the world we have been terrible with being able to make testing widely available so no doubt the real figures are much higher.
I straight up took these figures from this website made by a self-taught 17-year old web developer!
It is an at a glance overview of the coronasituation with figures pulled directly from the World Health Organisation, as well as from local government websites and health departments.
Here are two more dashboards of information tracking the impact of the virus:
Coronavirus COVID-19 Global Cases by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at John Hopkins University
Have a look at this brief of information on the coronavirus.
I first came across it when it was shared by the wonderful William Macaskill from the Effective Altruism movement.
I want to highlight a few points from it:
Symptoms for the virus include a dry cough, a fever and pneumonia. In severe cases kidney failure and death. The most common symptom is fever which occurs in 80% of cases.
80% of the cases
are mild anddo not require being in the hospital. You can recover from them in the same way you would from the flu. The serious cases look like moderate-to-severe pneumonia.
(Edit: 18/3/2020) I now have reason to believe that the word "mild" is deceptive here. It's simply that 80% do not require hospitalisation, these range from being free from symptoms to resembling severe pneumonia.
Mason Hartman is describing this as one of the worst health miscommunications of the decade.
~1% of cases of the coronavirus lead to the individual's death. This makes it 10x as lethal as the flu.
When symptoms show it can take between 3-4 weeks for severe cases to resolve
Risk is disproportionately higher for those who are older.
- Even if you feel like you are a low-risk individual it is in your interests to delay catching the virus so as not to spread it to others.
Children appear to be relatively unaffected
- Once again, they can still be a vector for the virus and infect those around them
Men may be up to twice as susceptible as women
It spreads similar to how the flu spreads, namely; by being close to a cough or a sneeze, by touching the virus and then touching your face or by consuming food that has been coughed on
Flattening the curve
We like to look at trends linearly. It is difficult to think of them exponentially.
I remember watching a certain YouTube video years ago. It was the Sir Michael Faraday science lecture for children and the host of that year was none other than the brilliant Richard Dawkins.
He pulled out a big piece of paper and asked the children to fold it in half. He then instructed them to fold it in half again, and then again.
"...and just go on folding it until you've folded it fifty times."
After about five folds...
"Can't you do any more? I suppose we'll have to resort to mathematics to find out how thick that paper will be."
This results in a big number. A thousand trillion.
250 is the same as 1,000,000,000,000,000. That's fifteen zeroes.
A piece of paper is about a tenth of a millimetre thick. What would happen if we multiplied it by that number?
A hundred million kilometres. It would take it out to the orbit of Mars.
To reiterate how counterintuitive exponential growth is, let me repeat that point.
If you were able to fold a piece of paper fifty times it would go all the way to the orbit of mars (which is way past our moon).
You can watch Richard walk through this by skipping to the seven-minute mark of the above video. Better yet, watch the whole lecture, it is only an hour and is a lot of fun.
A viral infection is the same.
- One person catches the virus.
- They spread it to a few.
- Each of these people then unknowingly to a few people.
- Lather, rinse, repeat (or rather fail to do so)
This is how a pandemic is born.
A timeline in brief: The original case of Novel Coronavirus (according to the Chinese government) emerged on the 17th of November 2019.
Flash forward to today, the 16th of March: We have 167,918 confirmed cases of the virus, 6490 confirmed deaths and the World Health Organisation has declared this to be a pandemic.
Three weeks ago in Italy, everything was business-as-usual. Today Northern Italy is the infection capital in the world, overtaking its origin in Wuhan, China and 16 million people have been quarantined to contain its spread.
This is how exponential curves work.
Northern Italy is a place like any other. There is no deep reason why we will not see the same patterns elsewhere in the world. Or rather, if there is, it is this: we can learn from their mistakes.
This is a good article for helping you visualise and get your head around how a virus could spread across a population in relatively little time.
It even includes animated graphs and visualisation which are fun to watch!
Those of you savvy with social media may have seen the hashtag #FlattenTheCurve spreading. This refers to the projected exponential graph that this pandemic will follow if allowed to spread.
Let me walk you through the logic.
The exponential spread works as described above. I will copy and paste it here:
- One person catches the virus.
- They spread it to a few.
- Each of these people then unknowingly to a few people.
- Lather, rinse, repeat (or rather fail to do so)
Therefore to flatten the curve and slow the spread of the virus, we have to reduce the number of times this process plays out.
The coronavirus can infect an individual and not show any symptoms. This period could be as long as two weeks, and during this time the individual can infect others. This is called asymptomatic transmission.
Resources for testing have been limited and we have been poor in being able to make them available. Therefore it isn't feasible for everyone to check whether or not they have the virus.
The only two options left are to play it safe or sorry.
In fact, it doesn't matter whether you are already infected or not.
If you are not infected, it makes sense to take every measure you can to prevent yourself from becoming infected and then spreading it to those around you.
If you are infected, it makes sense to take every measure to distance yourself and take all above measures to prevent the spread of the disease to others
If you are young and very healthy you are less likely to die from catching the virus, but you can still transmit it to those who are more vulnerable.
Stuart Denman suggests imagining that you do have the virus, and changing your behaviour accordingly. This is a good attitude to take.
Even if you aren't around the vulnerable, if anyone you are around is, you could spread it through them. If you look at the limited degrees of separation between the people in the world, it is more or less a guarantee that not taking common-sense precautions is putting others at risk.
Even if it was inevitable that everyone was going to catch this virus (and it very well might be), it makes complete sense to do everything we can to slow the rate of transmission. That is; to flatten the curve.
Why is this?
Because it would be terrible if everyone suffered the peak of the disease at the same time.
We only have so many beds in our hospitals, so many doctors and nurses, so many resources to devote to caring for the sick.
Our medical system cannot accommodate everyone falling ill at the same time.
Long before signs of the pandemic, we have been complaining about waiting times at the GP for years, but we haven't seen anything yet...
Taking common-sense measures which slow the spread of the virus including practising social-distancing (or even self-isolation) are the only ways we know to flatten the curve and ensure our systems are not overwhelmed.
There is one more reason for #FlatteningTheCurve and slowing the spread of the coronavirus. Each and every day it seems like more and more are being infected, yet with each and every passing day, our knowledge about the coronavirus also increases.
In the next coming months we will learn more about the risk factors behind it, how to maximise our recovery rates and how to live with it.
Ultimately we will even have a reliable vaccine to prevent this pandemic from ever arising again.
To catch the virus later means to catch (and spread) the virus in a world where we know more about dealing with it.
Delaying the spread of the infection as much as we possibly can, means increasing the number of people who catch it when we already have a working vaccine and a means to cure it.
The important work on this front is already in full swing.
Canada has successfully isolated a copy of the virus to be studied in the lab and a test vaccine will be trialled in the United States in about a week from now.
Nicholas Christakis estimates that it will take around eighteen months for us to develop a vaccine that can be distributed widely.
Flattening the curve will likely not be enough of course, but fewer people suffering and less strain on our medical system is necessarily a good thing. It will also make the increasing measures we take in the coming months more effective and hopefully less draconian.
At the individual level, these measures are the best we have.
Here are several resources to learn more about the Coronavirus and the pandemic that has taken the world by storm:
The official advice released by the World Health Organisation (UN)
Statistics and Research Data on the Coronavirus Disease by Our World in Data (this page will update when new information is available)
The In-Brief document maintained by Ethan Alley (I mentioned this earlier)
Episode #190 of Sam Harris' Making Sense Podcast with guest Nicholas Christakis: How should we respond to the Coronavirus (~1 hour 20 minutes)
Episode #191 of the Making Sense Podcast with guest Amesh Adalja: Early Thoughts on a Pandemic
The aforementioned at-a-glance information dashboards
Why outbreaks like the coronavirus spread exponentially, and how to "flatten the curve"
Don't flatten the curve, stop it
The above piece argues that we need to contain the virus and we cannot rely on flattening the curve.
Flattening the curve will still mean fewer cases will be there to contain, so all the aforementioned measures still matter.
The marvellous Peter Singer on the source of the Coronavirus outbreak, live animal trade in Wuhan, China: The Two Dark Sides of COVID-19
A Timeline of the 2019-2020 Coronavirus Pandemic (Wikipedia)
A learning experience
In one of his recent podcast episodes about the Coronavirus, Sam made a rather interesting remark.
"This will be a dress rehearsal for even worse pandemics to come."
For most of us, I suspect this will not be the last pandemic we will face in our lives. It almost certainly won't be the last disaster we face together as a civilisation.
Disasters and pandemic illness have ravaged us since time immemorial, but there is something different about these times. Our ability to transmit information and co-ordinate our efforts is better than it ever has been, and it can only improve.
As we rise to our shared challenges together, we become better at working together to overcome them.
Living in this moment of history is a learning experience.
As the ever-excellent David Deutsch has tweeted, much of the precautions we are adapting to now would be excellent to take every year during flu season. If we all get used to this perhaps we can live in a world where falling sick in the winter is no longer as common as it used to be.
This will free ourselves to do more of what we enjoy and free up doctors and those with medical expertise to focus on more interesting problems.
As the need to work from home is made evident for all, more schools and workplaces are providing options for employees to study online and work remotely.
Perhaps it was a bad idea to force everyone into enclosed spaces, spending all their days confined with others. Especially when they were doing work that didn't demand it.
This tweet by Gary King sheds more optimism on the coronasituation. Now that the world's attention is focussed on public health, we are likely to spend billions on ensuring we are better equipped for future pandemics — a tractable problem!---
I will end this letter by sharing with you some tweets that demonstrate the ideal attitude to have towards this and almost any situation. In my mind, Lulie has the best tweets on the platform, I've written about them before.
Earlier in this letter I push the point that taking measured and serious measures to address a problem, did not require panic. That we could take an issue seriously while remaining calm and serene all the while.
That acting ≠ panicking.
Lulie takes this even further. Not only can we remain calm while working towards addressing an adverse situation — we can have a good time!
We can have fun at solving the puzzle of a global pandemic.
In times of peace, we watch films, read novels and play video games which thrust our mind into simulating intense situations rife with challenge and drama. We derive much joy in seeing it all play out and even overcoming it.
I see no reason why we cannot derive this joy in the real challenges we face.
Thank you for coming to the end of yet another one of my letters — if you have made it all the way here — it means the world to me.
If you are wondering why I haven't sent out a letter in over a month, it is a combination of things. I was stuck for a really long time. I have two unfinished letters I would like to finish and send out, one on the teachings I went to with Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche and one on the philosophy of Taking Children Seriously.
While I was stuck a lot of things happened, including moving out of my parents for the first time and getting freelance web development work to pay the bills.
Some happy news is that recently I've gained two new patrons!
Both of whom are dear friends of mine in real life, but I didn't ask this of them — it was a happy surprise!
I am now a little bit closer to be able to write full-time.
Consider my hiatus over. I fully intend to continue sending you these letters weekly once again. With more and more people self-isolating, reading material is something needed more than ever!
Once again, thank you!
It is because of your reading this, that there is meaning in writing it.
Stay healthy and have fun,