Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

A few observations around COVID-19

with 2 comments

And again, I find myself writing about COVID-19, despite considering the situation extremely overblown—but, in my defense, I write much more about the reactions and indirect consequences than the disease and the epidemic per se.

Some random items:

  1. Since returning from Sweden more than a month ago ([1], [2]), I have had continual bouts of “cold-like symptoms”, culminating in a fever and a somewhat “heavy” chest over the last few days. Even under normal circumstances, I might have taken as much as a week off from work during this more-than-a-month (had I still worked in an office).

    I have still been able to keep from going into a personal panic—apparently, unlike a great many others with similarly moderate symptoms.

    Of course, I have repeatedly considered the possibility that I might be one of the milder cases of COVID-19, especially in the face of this constant news reporting.

    However, this is where the mind of a rational person steps in to push down the almost automatic reaction.

    Firstly, the risk even of infection is comparatively low. Even now, less than 1-in-1000 Germans are considered infected, and the quotient was even smaller in the past. Even assuming a severe underestimation of the number of infected and even allowing for a slight risk increase due to my early air travel, the probability that I would have COVID-19 would be several hundred to one against (without prior knowledge of symptoms). At the same time, I have similar issues due to other diseases every year—and often at roughly this time of year. The current period of continual issues might* be longer than usual, and the worst few days might* be a little (!) beyond the worst of a typical year—but even so, I must consider the risk of some other disease to be above or considerably above 1-in-100 (again, without prior knowledge of symptoms). Given that I do have cold-like symptoms, it is at least several times more likely that I have something other than COVID-19. With less “pro COVID” assumptions, it could easily be several dozen times more likely. (Assuming more than one issue over this more-than-a-month, which seems reasonable, the odds of one of them being COVID-19 are increased, but not enough to change the overall picture.)

    *Or might not: I have not kept notes and my memory is fallible.

    And, obviously, this is without even looking at symptoms. If I did, I might or might not find that the symptoms are incompatible … (There is no particular reason, short of curiosity, for me to look at the symptoms, given that I already see little reason to worry.)

    Secondly, even if it was COVID-19, about* four in five have only very mild symptoms, and the death rate is on the order of one percent—over all infected. For people my age, 45, with no major prior health issues, death is extremely unlikely. Ditto for considerable (but non-lethal) long-term consequences. Moreover, Germany seems to be doing much better in terms of death rate than e.g. Italy.** In other words, the chances are overwhelming that I would be OK, even were it COVID-19.

    *Numbers vary between sources, countries, and whatnots, so take all numbers as very rough approximations.

    **The reason for this is a matter of dispute and that debate could fill several pages—pollution, ACE inhibitors, quality of treatment, stage of epidemic, local age demographics, … One particular important point, however, is whether the reporting focuses on those who died through COVID-19 or those who died through something else while also having a COVID-19. This could have a massive impact on numbers, seeing that the vast majority of deaths have been among the elderly and/or those with dangerous pre-existing medical conditions.

    Thirdly, what I have matters less than how it manifests. There might be some greater room for concern for future developments, if I did have COVID-19, but not by much (cf. above) and my actual symptoms are/were observably what they are/were—I would not magically grow better or worse based on having or not having COVID-19 given this set of symptoms. Whether I have the common cold, influenza, COVID-19, or something else yet, does not change the symptoms. I have certainly felt quite a lot worse on a few occasions, without even visiting a physician—and, no, I never even came close to dying.

    Obviously, I would be much more concerned, if I had more severe symptoms (and I do not suggest that those who do should shrug their shoulders), but even then, there is a considerable chance that it would not be COVID-19, but e.g. a more severe case of flu.

    Fourthly, as a sanity check: Would I even have reflected much over my health, given these symptoms, had it not been for the COVID-19 panic? No.

  2. Looking at e.g. German statistics (cf. Wikipedia), it appears that the percentage increases per day are tendentially dropping, moving us further and further away from the dreaded exponential curve. However, the absolute numbers are still large and might still be increasing.* There definitely were periods when the percentage dropped on the same day as a new record for the absolute increase was set. Correspondingly, we are still not in the clear. This demonstrates how important it is to have different key numbers and to qualify any evaluation of a number with the model used: Someone using a single number would either see the dropping percentage and be optimistic or the rising absolute increase and be pessimistic. Similarly, someone using an exponential** model would be optimistic and someone using a linear model pessimistic.

    *Due to the short data series, complications with inconsistent reporting, etc., little can be said with certainty. Notably, the last two days listed (2020-03-29, 2020-03-30) show lower absolute numbers too.

    **Exponential models are very common when it comes to disease transmission, but are necessarily naive when we move beyond the initial stages, e.g. because the one infected cannot (in most cases) infect the same family member, friend, or colleague twice, or because there will often be an overlap between those potentially threatened by person A with those threatened by person B, when A was originally infected by B (or vice versa). For high numbers of infections, even locally, the model fails among strangers too.

    Then again, when we look at COVID-19 in comparison with other diseases and causes of death, we see that this non-exponential growth could still render it a near triviality, especially when considering how many of the dead belong to the category would-still-have-died-within-a-year. The last (2020-03-30) data for Germany above has 57,298 cases and 455 deaths. The corresponding (yearly) numbers* for influenza regularly go into the millions and the thousands, respectively—in Germany alone. It is not a given that COVID-19 will reach even that level—and it is outright unlikely that the numbers will be an order higher. German Wikipedia on cause of death mentions e.g. 910,902 deaths overall for 2016, by which standard COVID-19 is still just a drop in the ocean. Cancer alone took more than 220 thousand lives (2012), traffic accidents around 4 thousand (2015) and suicide more than 11 thousand (2015), etc.—and this happens year after year after year. What if we met COVID-19 with just influenza-level counter-measures and invested the money saved into cancer research? In terms of saving human lives, this might well be the better decision …

    *Influenza numbers have very similar problems when it comes to registering and estimating cases, and should be taken with a similar grain of salt. A brief search for a good source was not successful for this reason.

  3. The current situation is extremely interesting (“may you live in interesting times”) and could give major opportunities to draw important lessons for e.g. medicine and politics, to perform valuable experiments for the future, etc. Consider e.g. pollution: A recent news item from somewhere* was that pollution was significantly dropping in the wake of the isolation efforts. This, taken by it self, borders on a “duh” observation—what had they expected? However, there is now a chance to actually measure the effect, to compare and contrast with the state before, during, and (later) after the isolation. This could be very valuable to judge the effectiveness of various environmental measures, to improve models, etc. Moreover, it is an almost unique opportunity, because if someone had said “we want to perform an environmental experiment, so no-one is allowed outside for the next month” it would not have gone over well.

    *I did not keep a reference, but the claim is not likely to cause controversy.

    As a particular sub-issue, the situation proves how vulnerable the world currently is. COVID-19 is not the disastrous threat that it is painted as, but such a threat could appear. True threats have been historically rare, but every-now-and-then one has appeared, be it the Spanish flu, the Bubonic plague, cholera, smallpox, or (in a different way) AIDS. Barring sufficient medical progress, it is just a matter of time before some such threat does appear. It might be tomorrow, it might be in fifty years time, but sooner or later … The (over-)reactions against COVID-19 can be very valuable in increasing preparedness for true threats, get some idea of what works and does not work, what has what side-effect on the economy, etc.

  4. Overlapping, it is interesting how the world might change due to the current counter-measures. For instance, what if the temporary surge in home-office work pans out sufficiently well that a long-term switch follows, with a corresponding impact on how we work, how commuting affects the environment, how many bother with owning cars, … Or what if businesses find that home-office workers are less productive and the slow (already present) trend towards more home-office work is reversed? What if a mixture of restaurant bankruptcies and new-formed habits permanently changes habits around dating and socializing? What if people get into the permanent habit of keeping a two meter distance? What if handshakes disappear? Etc.

    (Note that much of this could be positive.)

  5. A particular dire topic is that of politicians, the proverbial “man on the street”, and democracy.* What we see here is a sign that the current system does not work, that the influenza, sorry, influence of the dumb masses is dangerously large, that the quality of current politicians is abysmal, etc.

    *I have repeatedly been critical of democracy in its current form, most notably in Democracy lost. At best, it is the lesser evil, but, at times like this, I begin to doubt even that, at least where the currently popular forms are concerned.

    Indeed, quite often politicians do more harm than good, be it out of incompetence or to court voters (or even lobbyists). Consider e.g. the misguided aversion to nuclear power in favour of even fossil fuels, the massive and pointless over-education through inefficient means,* over-large bureaucracies, wasteful and contra-productive pension, social-security, and health-insurance schemes,** etc.

    *I am a great fan of education, but schooling is rarely a good way to get it, and a very sizable proportion of the typical Western population is educated (or, worse, just schooled) well beyond what makes sense in the individual case, both with regard to the interest and wishes of the individual in question and the benefit to society as a whole.

    **The U.S. reader should note that e.g. the German and Swedish are much more far-going than the U.S. (But even e.g. ObamaCare is a good example of how not to do it.)

  6. As an overlapping issue, the credibility of politicians, media, etc., must be questioned even more strongly than before. There has been a lot of poor information over the years, ranging from mere misinformation of the people to outright panic making. More generally, panic making seems to be a great weakness of human nature, and it is currently given free reins by the Internet. Consider, recently, Greta-Thunberg-style climate populism,* the “me too” movement (cf. [3], [4], [5], [6], [7] ), the current German “Rechtsruck” panic (cf. e.g. [8]), or, further back, the alleged college rape-epidemic, the alleged satanist child-abusers, …

    *As opposed to a rational and scientific approach to an import issue.

    People really need to pause, think things through, check plausibilities, understand causalities, consider alternative explanations and actions, be aware of potential side-effects, … This the more for those in a position to make decisions or influence others, notably politicians and journalists. Just like we have evidence-based medicine, we need evidence-based politics.

  7. Two interesting individual news items from Sweden respectively Germany (from among the many, many that can be found in this torrent of insanity):

    In Sweden, the Social-Democrat Minister of Finance (Magdalena Andersson) now suggests that the state should buy up portions of companies in the wake of COVID-19, in lieu of just giving financial support. (Cf. [9] in Swedish.) There is a considerable risk that this is more of an excuse to implement the historical Social-Democrat agenda than a “neutral” suggestion. It would also set a dangerous precedent: the government causes a crisis, steps in to “help”, and takes over partial ownership in return for the “favor”. This is dangerously close to the old Löntagarfonder, which allowed the unions to buy up businesses using their (the businesses’!) own profits.

    Moreover, if this happens on a large scale, it could be damaging even absent a hidden agenda, and even absent a genuine wish to make this temporary*. It will invariably increase the distortion of the markets that already takes place through any governmental intervention, as the difference in situation between those who receive “help” and those who do not is increased, and as there would now be three classes of businesses (instead of two): those unaided, those aided without** ownership changes, and those aided with ownership changes.

    *Even notwithstanding that “temporary” tends to be very long-term in politics, as with “temporary taxes”, e.g. the German “Solidaritätszuschlag”, which should have been a one-year measure for 1991, and is still present at the time of writing, in 2020.

    **According to the source, this measure is aimed mostly at larger companies, being too impractical for smaller.

    In Germany (and internationally*), COVID-19 is hitting advertising revenue. (Cf. [10] in German.) This should be a good thing—the advertising pest is growing worse year for year, and if the current epidemic could put a temporary stop to this by making a few advertising agencies** go bankrupt, a few businesses find that they might get along with less advertising, a few websites move away from ad-based financing to an honest payment-model, whatnot, that would be a very good thing—advertising is a problem much more in need of counter-measures than COVID-19.

    *Indeed, re-skimming after writing from memory, I find that a fair amount of the article deals with the U.S. situation

    **A statement which should be seen in light of the unethical methods used and the underlying shadiness of the business idea—to make people buy things, regardless of the value of the product and its benefit to the buyers. A legitimate advertising industry is by no means inconceivable, but the current certainly is not. I have no sympathies whatsoever for these businesses or the people who voluntarily choose to work for them.

    Unfortunately, the effects will likely be limited, as even advertisers are likely to be bailed out, if worst comes to worst. Right now, we have advertisers pleading to please-keep-advertising-regardless-of-your-own-situation.

    An interesting sub-aspect is the attribution* of this drop in advertising revenue largely to fear of association: Advertisers supposedly fear appearing on pages dealing with COVID-19, because the intended buyers might associate them with COVID-19. This attitude is very unfortunate, because the result might be that e.g. certain news topics are given unduly little reporting or are avoided altogether, thereby distorting the news flow even further. Moreover, there is great room for more specific discrimination against organizations and individuals outside the right opinion corridors. Indeed, the article explicitly mentions that “extremist” content had already been hit in the past. It might make great sense to actively forbid this type of filtering, that e.g. advertising networks must accept everyone as a customer, that all pages must be given equal treatment,** that there must be no*** blacklists for words-that-I-do-not-want-associated-with-my-products, etc.

    *I am skeptical, in light of large production cuts, stores being kept closed, etc., but I lack the knowledge to judge the matter in detail.

    **In that there is no discrimination based on e.g. content and affiliation; however, the use of more neutral and objective criteria, e.g. number of views per day, should still be allowed.

    ***With some reservations for more direct conflicts of interests, e.g. that Coca-Cola should not have an advertising network serving Pepsi ads to its own website. Exactly where to draw borders is a potentially complicated topic, but exceptions should be few and do not include a mere we-do-not-want-be-unconsciously-associated-with-X or we-do-not-like-the-politics-of-Y.

  8. There is a world-wide epidemic of impositions upon the citizens. This is a good reason to point to a central issue with the Rechtsstaat:

    The Rechtsstaat must not be restricted to times of “smooth running”. If it is, it is no true Rechtsstaat, but just an alibi for something far less noble.

    What we see here is a repetition of an ignorant and citizen-despising attitude by governments. Indeed, this attitude is constantly manifested even during periods of smooth running, in that it is often assumed that the government can do no wrong—and will continue to do no wrong for the duration. There is no understanding of the many everyday problems of even a non-dictatorship, e.g. through egoistic or stupid politicians, incompetent civil servants, governmental agencies that prioritize their own goals above every other consideration (the Rechtsstaat and current legislation included), … There is equally no understanding of the risk that the status quo changes, that the “good” government of today might be replaced by an “evil” government tomorrow—or the day after that, or at some more distant time.

    This principle must hold, not to satisfy the paranoid who see every current government as source of pure evil, the Patriarchy, the International Jewish Conspiracy, or whatnot, but as an insurance for the future—just like someone might be insured against burglaries not for the expectation that there will be a break-in today, but in acknowledgment that one quite realistically could take place at some point in the future.

    Other concerns: If governments takes stances like they do today over something as trivial as COVID-19, what will happen when a really dire threat appears? Where is the bar for future excuse* making set? Will all restrictions and incursions be repealed in a timely manner or will some remain indefinitely? Might there be permanent damage caused by some of them?**

    *Which is not automatically to say that governments use COVID-19 as an excuse—they might or might not. However, if and when someone does look for an excuse, the bar will be conveniently low. Moreover, by putting certain measures in place now, some degree of normalization of the rightfully abnormal can take place in the minds of the citizens. (Consider e.g. current attitudes towards absurd tax pressures.)

    **Possibly, relating to privacy and data security through some cell-phone tracking measure or publication of some data that should better have gone unpublished, e.g. concerning who has received hospital treatment due to COVID-19.

    As an aside, this restriction mentality is a further example of exceptions that ruin the whole. Other examples include freedom of speech (if freedom of speech only applies to those with the “right” opinions, it is not freedom of speech) and due process (if due process does not apply to all crimes, what is the point?).

Remark on terminology:
“COVID-19” strictly speaking refers to the disease. For some of the above, and possibly some points of the previous texts, it might be better to speak of the virus causing the disease (apparently, “SARS-CoV-2”), e.g. that someone is infected by a virus and then does or does not develop the disease. With a slightly bad conscience, I still go with “COVID-19” throughout. This partly for own convenience; partly, because I would likely miss some occurrence and might then cause more confusion than the more precise terminology gained elsewhere; partly, because I am still ahead of the game: most others are so sloppy with terminology that they speak of “corona” (or some variation thereof), which leads to highly misleading claims.


Written by michaeleriksson

March 31, 2020 at 12:18 am

2 Responses

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  1. […] previous text on COVID-19, while broadly correct, might need some cautions in […]

  2. […] a text from March 2020, I […]

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