I quarantined myself over most of the past weekend to take time and read various publications regarding the situation of COVID19.

There is a lot to read and learn about this virus, global and local health systems, the approach to the pandemic, the speed or lack thereof of countries to the situation, the various leadership styles ranging from denial, to cautious, to decisive action etc.

A lot more data has been gathered since and I thought I would share 8 things I have learned from what I have read:

1. COVID-19 is a pandemic – do not compare it with the flu. The World Health Organization has declared COVID as a pandemic.

A pandemic is a world wide spread of a new disease whose impact tends to be higher due to the lack of pre-existing immunity.

Here is a simple chart comparing the death rates of both from a week ago. While new data is coming in every day, we are looking at an illness that is ~20x more likely to cause death.

2. It is growing exponentially. Every person who contracts with the virus passes it to more than 2 on average.

This means it is spreading more rapidly than most folks can comprehend. The main question to ask is: how long is it taking for the number of cases in your area to double?

In most places, the answer is 3. Let’s imagine a country has 500 cases today. In 1 month, these 500 cases will become 1 million. And, within the next month, it would hit a billion people [assuming there are a billion to infect]. [More on Our World in Data]

Tomas Pueyo shared an excellent post compiling data we have so far. Here’s a chart of what exponential growth looks like outside the 4 most affected countries.

3. The only reasonable strategy we have is to flatten the growth curve. As is the case with viral infections, we will all get it in time.

80% of us will only experience non critical symptoms. But, 20% will need medical care.

If this spread happens too quickly and before we have a cure [as is the case right now], the numbers will overwhelm any healthcare system, only worsening the situation in the absence of a vaccine/cure. So, it becomes critical to act early.

The earlier we take drastic action, effectively shutting down the country [workplaces, schools, etc.], the better the long term situation.

The short term trade-offs are very real, specifically, a hit to the economy, but the long term effects make this the best strategy by a distance.

4. Japan, Hong Kong, and Singapore did just that. Learning from the SARS epidemic that broke out in, all 3 countries acted really early and their growth curves look very different from the rest.

When we compare COVID19 to the SARS pandemic, the COVID19 outbreak has already surpassed SARS and is expected to continue to grow. As of Mar. 11, over 124,000 cases of COVID-19 have been reported worldwide, with over 4,500 deaths.

Can We Learn Anything from the SARS Outbreak to Fight COVID-19?

5. Countries that didn’t act quickly have had to take drastic measures to ramp up testing. South Korea has been at the forefront of this. The relative length of the bar on the left vs. the right is a leading indicator of the amount of trouble that lies ahead.

This is particularly important in the case of the Coronavirus because it takes a 5 days for symptoms to show.

So, making tests easily available and, thus, enabling testing early and often is the best way to prevent further infection.

Just as acting late makes it exponentially worse, acting early is exponentially better.

Thanks to a combination of rapid testing and widespread lock down, South Korea bent the epidemic curve – see the decline in new cases as of March 10.

6. The most dangerous places with COVID-19 on the planet today are places which are neither acting early nor ramping up on testing. South Africa is only taking drastic steps since yesterday, Sunday, 15 March 2020.

Only now, a few weeks later that the epidemic is first reported, the government is closing down schools, universities, gatherings of people over 100, suspending flights to high risk countries, social isolation, sporting events and public gatherings being cancelled, encouraging teams to work from home.

There is panic buying, hand sanitisers are sold out, people are rushing to big wholesales to buy in bulk, etc.

7. The virus may last for a year. The coronavirus epidemic in the UK will last until next spring and could lead to 7.9 million people being hospitalised, a secret Public Health England (PHE) briefing for senior NHS officials reveals.

According to the Guardian the coronavirus crisis, experts advising governments worldwide on the way epidemics grow and eventually decline say there will be a rapid rise in cases to a peak – and then a falling off. Whitty, who has seen the modelling done by UK and global scientists, says the case numbers will go up fast over the next 10 to 14 weeks.

8. We can do our part. In South Africa, the virus is no longer as a result of those coming from high risk countries, but the virus has now landed and is making rounds in the country.

We need to do our part as individuals, employers, employees, and family members. Panic bulk buying of hand sanitizers [making it impossible for others to buy the same items], is not going to keep you safe while others are exposed.

Other people and leaders say we shouldn’t panic, and it they are right, however I think it is important to also understand that taking something seriously does not mean panicking.

Another big risk is misinformation in the age of fake news. Ben Thompson of Stratechery had an excellent article on information technology, fake news and the pandemic. The spread of false and malicious content about the coronavirus has been a stark reminder of the uphill battle fought by researchers and internet companies..

Over to what we can do – Flatten the curve is an excellent resource for the things we can do during this time, wash your hands, don’t touch your face, cancel travel, work remotely if you can, avoid large groups, and so on.

A final note: Reading and synthesizing this information reminded me of the final notes from the excellent HBO series – Chernobyl.

“To be a scientist is to be naive. We are so focused on our search for truth, we fail to consider how few actually want us to find it. But it is always there, whether we see it or not, whether we choose to or not. The truth doesn’t care about our needs or wants. It doesn’t care about our governments, our ideologies, our religions. It will lie in wait for all time. And this, at last, is the gift of Chernobyl. Where I once would fear the cost of truth, now I only ask: “What is the cost of lies?”

When I first heard these linesI thought it was very applicable to the dialog on climate change. Sadly, it is just as applicable in the face of a pandemic.

In times like this, we come to realise the true cost of why we need courageous leadership that is backed by science/fact based and dynamic [i.e. open to learning from others/new data].

I’m optimistic that we will find a cure to the virus, what is critical is what do we do in the meantime.

We need to err on the side of caution.

I would rather we overreact and be wrong than underestimate the virus and live to regret it.


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