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The Bizarre Adventures of the Face Mask
Covid-19: How it may change the World
Covid-19: An introduction and summary
Articles written before 2020


  • (march 2020) Covid-19: How it may change the World. I split this article in two. Originally, it began with general information on what this virus is and why it is dangerous (at the time the president of the USA and mainstream media like Fox News were spreading false information). That "introductory" article is now here. See also my A timeline of Covid-19.
    • The good news for young people is that this virus, just like the flu, is deadly almost only for old people and for people who already have a serious disease. But that's only apparently good news: if covid-19 eventually spreads all over the world and becomes the new "normal", and no vaccine is discovered in the next 40 years, it means that the life expectancy of all of us will be reduced. We all get sicker and weaker as we get older. In that case, we will have to get used to a virus that kills most people over 70. When you turn 70, you'll have a 10% chance of dying; at 80, a 50% chance; at 90, you'll be a rare case. In other words, you will not live as long as your grandparents did. We will have to roll back life expectancy to the levels of the 1950s or even the 1920s. As in "if you are born today, sorry but your life expectancy is lower than it was for your great-grandparents". Remember the articles titled "The First Person to Live to 150 Has Already Been Born"? It could be that the real story is: "The First Person to Live in the Age of Very Short Lifespans Has Already Been Born". That's one reason why young people shouldn't feel too safe.
    • When the data started showing that the fatality rate was high only among sick old people, young healthy people shrugged it off and almost resented being told to take precautions. Notably, millions of students took off for their "spring break" vacations and partied at the beach. It could be a preview of the future: why should young people pay a price for a problem that mainly affects old people? Old people are increasingly a burden for young people. The longer it lasts the more likely that this epidemic will inflame the dormant tension between old retired people and young working people (who pay taxes to support an increasingly expensive system to care for old people). The long-term effects of the epidemic may be generation-specific. The older you get, the more careful you will be about shaking hands or hugging your friends and your relatives, not to mention strangers. The older you get, the more likely that you will start seeing children as carriers of deadly diseases (a honor usually reserved to rats and fleas).
    • Millions of Chinese, Italians, Koreans have been asked to work remotely from home. Millions of students in multiple countries are now taking classes remotely. Stanford is live-streaming all public events. This might become the normal way of living. If a public lecture or panel is live-streamed, why bother to drive there, park the car, stand in line and then sit in a crowded auditorium when you can simply watch it in your living room? And let students watch the lecture from home when no major interaction is required. Telecommuting has been available for decades, but office workers did not have the motivation to work from home. Now that they must work from home they might get used to it, both them and their managers. After all, if everybody worked from home, companies could downsize their offices and save a fortune in rent, furniture, electricity, etc. Millions of people are realizing that most of our interactions don't require physical presence: they can be achieved as well via email, text and chat. The effect of this epidemic could be to create a lifestyle that is much more virtual than physical. That's good news for all sorts of online and TV entertainment (which could extend to virtual-reality shows) but not for office space: the end of the skyscraper?
    • A new class divide may emerge from this crisis: on one hand the college-educated white-collar workers who can use the Internet to work remotely (same jobs, same salaries), and on the other hand the working class. The latter can either risk their health returning to their jobs or stay home unemployed and unpaid.
    • The initial reports on the economic impact are focusing on the businesses like restaurants and the tourist industry that are being badly hurt. But, as time goes by, we'll see reports about the industries that are only marginally affected or not at all. Most of the Internet-based businesses are still working normally, although they will certainly be affected by a general slowdown. Most of Silicon Valley is at work like before, except that the engineers work from home. Many companies have more work, not less: think of all the companies that provide services for ecommerce. Even some traditional businesses are minimally affected. For sure the construction industry is being hurt, but the business of the regular handymen, plumbers and electricians is booming: the more people stay home, the more likely that things break around the house. Needless to say, the jobs of health care providers are as safe as they have always been. Which is not to say that restaurants and small shops and factories are not suffering, but maybe for a while it will just be a different economy. And it could be that some of these changes will become permanent.
    • One positive consequence of this epidemic will hopefully be: improved hygiene throughout the world. Bad habits (like eating without first washing your hands) were spreading especially in the developed countries of North America and Europe because the threat of diseases like this one was perceived as minimal.
    • There was already widespread hunger for medical information. Many countries already have online services that provide professional advice. We should witness an increase in medical services offered online. Almost everybody has a smartphone and can send pictures to a physician. An arsenal of wearables is available to check all sorts of variables that define a body's health. We will move towards an automation of most health monitoring and diagnosing: data gathered by wearables will be sent to the "cloud" where software will analyze them and send warnings to your physician whenever something looks unusual. The physician can then advise on what to do or which other wearables to employ. This will all happen remotely with no need for physician and patient to interact in person.
    • China just learned the hard way the drawback of moving hundreds of millions of people from the countryside (where viruses don't spread easily) to big cities like Wuhan, where viruses can infect tens of thousands of people in a few days. The way to prevent "community spread" is to spread out communities, not to concentrate them.
    • China just learned the hard way the drawback of the high-speed trains. It is wonderful that people can travel in a few hours from one side of the country to the other side. Unfortunately, deadly diseases can follow them.
    • So get ready for the next one, that will be even more deadly because the cities will be even bigger and people will move even faster between cities and countries.
    • Most of the developed countries invested heavily in creating "smart cities" but neglected to make sure that such "smart cities" can survive an emergency like bioterrorism (whether natural or human-made). It is amazing how misplaced the use of artificial intelligence has been so far, mostly used to recognize faces and to tell Alexa to turn on the lights. We need hospitals run by robots, that can minimize the number of doctors and nurses physically on site. The University of Southern Denmark has built a robot that can carry out screening tests. We need construction robots that can build hospitals very quickly. It shouldn't be difficult to design a stereotypical hospital, train the robots to build it using 3D-printers, and then simply replicate the same design on a large scale. Robots can work 24 hours a day. We need self-driving vehicles and drones to deliver food and medicines to those who are quarantined at home. We need robots to disinfect buildings. We need devices so that people can test themselves at home, or wearable devices that will sound an alarm if you are in proximity of someone with the fever. And so on. The Chinese government mobilized the big high-tech firms to develop applications for the national surveillance system. Smart cameras can spot people who leave their home without wearing a mask and can test for fever. SenseTime's contactless temperature-measurement device is already deployed in subways, schools and most government buildings. Chengdu's cops wear helmets that can measure a person's temperature up to 5 meters away. Alibaba has developed software that can recognize in a few seconds a covid-19 infection in a CAT-scan. Update of June 2020: as the world "reopens" to business, robots are being deployed to improve the safety of our environments, like robots for mass temperature screening, disinfectant robots, robots for mask detection in parks, robots for remote patient interviewing, etc
    • We're all worried about tracking technology, but how convenient it is when you have to map all the places where an infected person has been and how long s/he was there and who else was in the same place. Alibaba's smartphone app Alipay Health Code uses big-data analysis to inform people if they are potentially infected given those near them who are proven to be infected. Tencent has a similar app of "close-contact detection". China's phone companies share the data about their customers so that these apps can find out in a split second whether you were on the same train with someone who was infected, and even how close you were seating. Israel approved a similar proposal to allow the Shin Bet security service to perform mass surveillance on all smartphones so that people can be alerted when they have been in proximity of someone who tested positive for covid-19. China's province of Yunnan tested a system that requires people to scan a QR code in order to enter public places. This could become the norm, even in restaurants and movie theaters, so that we can quickly determine all the public places where the infected person was and alert those who were there at the same time. One effect of this epidemic will be to make us even more willing to sacrifice our privacy: if all my movements had been recorded on the cloud, and all the movements of all people had been recorded as well, then a simple piece of software could tell me in one second whether i have been in contact with someone who is infected or with someone who was in contact with someone who is infected, etc. That piece of software could calculate the chances that i am infected given the degree of contact with infected people and other factors, and then even assign a priority number for testing in case that chance is higher than a certain value.
    • Most of the world's face masks are made in China and Taiwan (See this New York Times article). In fact, China is the world's main manufacturer of pharmaceuticals (80% of pharmaceutical ingredients in the USA and 97% of its antibiotics are produced in China) and the largest supplier of medical devices in the USA (see this article). A low-IQ president focused on bringing back the manufacturing jobs and the coal jobs to the USA, a rather silly idea (which young person dreams of becoming a worker on the assembly line or a coal miner?) instead of bringing back the strategic jobs in the biopharmaceutical industry. It also turns out that Asian countries graduate the vast majority of students in life sciences, the very scientists who can develop cures and vaccines, students that cannot emigrate to the USA because of silly laws that limit immigration in order to protect the jobs of factory workers and coal miners.
    • There is a culprit in China and the USA that wasn't criminalized enough: superstition. Both the market of wild animals where covid-19 jumped into humans and the "holistic" Chinese medicine that some used to cure the infected are side-effects of superstitions. Traditional Chinese medicine, according to which a disease is cured with particular food instead of scientific medicine, is to blame as much as anything else for this epidemic. So are all unscientific theories. In the USA countless of evangelical pastors mocked the order to maintain "social distancing" and refused to cancel their religious events. One of the most famous "evangelicals", Jerry Falwell, speaking on Fox News on March 13 called the response to the covid-19 epidemic "hype" and "overreacting." Tony Spell, a pastor in Louisiana, in defiance of the state governor's order, hosted masses for hundreds of congregants. He is also quoted as telling them: "We're also going to pass out anointed handkerchiefs to people who may have a fear, who may have a sickness and we believe that when those anointed handkerchiefs go, that healing virtue is going to go on them as well." On March 15 Guillermo Maldonado, who runs a megachurch in Miami, told his congregants: "Do you believe God would bring his people to his house to be contagious with the virus? Of course not". In Israel the virus is spreading 8 times faster in ultra-Orthodox communities because Orthodox Jews ignore the order to avoid gatherings. In Pakistan the influential Deobandi cleric Muhammad Taqi Usmani stated on national TV that Islam's founder Mohammed had revealed in a dream to a member of the sect "the cure for coronavirus." Asif Ashraf Jalali, a Pakistani cleric from the Barelvi sect of Islam, tweeted on March 15: "We shall hold All Pakistani Sunny conference in Lahore on March 21. No one can get sick except as per the will of Allah". South Korea reported its first case on January 20, but the epidemic was contained until February 18 when an outbreak tied to a branch of Shincheonji Church of Jesus flared up in the southern city of Daegu. A new coronavirus cluster emerged in March linked to a religious group in the northwestern province of Gyeonggi: the congregants had used saltwater to fight the virus. In India the virus was spread to many states by Muslims of the Tablighi Jamaat movement, who attended a large religious event in Delhi Nizamuddin organized by the sect's amir Maulana Saad Kandhalvi, and then traveled to other regions of the country (at least 440 were infected, of which at least 50 traveled to Tamil Nadu and 32 to Telangana). In Malaysia hundreds of early cases are also tied to the same sect that held a four-day event attended by 16,000 people in Kuala Lumpur (at least 620 were infected, including most of the cases later discovered in Brunei and ten cases in Thailand). In Iran the epidemic, that started in Qom, was spread by the pilgrims attracted to Qom by the head of Fatima Masumeh shrine in Qom on February 27: "We consider this holy shrine to be a place of healing." On March 16 angry crowds of fanatical worshippers stormed both Mashhad's Imam Reza shrine and Qom's Fatima Masumeh shrine that had been shut down by the government. France has linked 2,500 infections to the annual assembly of the Christian Open Door Church, held on February 17-24 in Mulhouse. India has linked 15,000 cases in Punjab state to Sikh religious leader Baldev Singh who returned to Punjab in early March from virus-plagued Italy and Germany, refused to self-quarantine, went preaching around the state and even attended the Hola Mohalla festival held on March 10-12 with a daily crowd of about 300,000 (he died of covid-19 on March 20 when 26 of the 38 cases in Punjab were his family members and friends). This epidemic may have not started and may have not spread if people had studied more science instead of listening to old legends. The anti-vaccine movement in parts of Europe and the USA is no less dangerous. Anti-scientific thinking is the most dangerous form of bioterrorism. Religion was probably "the" superspreader of covid-19.
    • The sad lesson learned from Italy is the price paid by families that really care for their elderly. In the USA and northern Europe it is commonplace for an elderly person to end up in a nursing home and spend the last 20 or 30 years of her/his life among strangers, most of whom are sick, dying and mentally impaired. It is a cruel ending of your life. In Italy most families refuse to do so and the elderly remain in the household. That could be the way the virus spread in traditional small towns of Italy: younger members of the family bring it home, and spread it to the older members. Grandparents have to start looking at their grandchildren as healthy carriers of deadly viruses.
    • All countries took a great risk when they closed universities. When you close a university, most students will go home. They may not want to go home but it's likely that their parents will want them to come home. No university screened its students before closing campus, which means that tens of thousands of unscreened young people spread through the country, possibly infecting families and towns that would otherwise be virus-free.
    • Something interesting is happening in Romania. More than 100,000 Romanians live and work in Italy. When the crisis erupted in Italy, many of these Romanians packed their belongings and drove to Romania. The effects of that inverted exodus are interesting. These returning emigrants become a double problem: 1. they are the ones who brought the virus to Romania; and 2. they didn't contribute to pay for the health care system of Romania because they were paying taxes in Italy. The same arguments will apply to any returning emigrant of any country.
    • Countries that don't have socialized medicine will now be more likely to get one: profit-driven medicine and health care (like in the USA) is chronically unprepared to deal with emergencies. Early, free, rapid and widespread testing is fundamental to limit the damage caused by an epidemic. Read how South Korea managed to have the lowest death rate of any country (for example, in this BBC article or in this Reuters article). Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore (countries that have massive interactions with mainland China) were hit early with the coronavirus, but they have very few cases. Taiwan has only 67 cases and a single death from covid-19. These are also the countries that, like China, made it mandatory to wear masks, which, for mysterious reasons, are considered useless in the USA (see The Bizarre Adventures of the Face Mask).
    • The world is rediscovering the importance of low-tech products. Silicon Valley, the largest concentration of the high-tech industry that the world has ever seen, the place that was working on immortality and super-intelligence, is suddenly without toilet paper and thermometers.
    • A big problem in third-world countries and in the USA is: guns. Did you buy your protective masks and food and all? Well, if you live in the USA, anybody can come and take them from you by just pointing a semi-automatic weapon at you. When there were only a handful of infected people in the USA, we already saw headlines such as: "Huge shortage - Bay Area clinics seek supplies of masks for coronavirus", "We Don't Have Enough Masks", "Coronavirus Outbreak Strains Global Medical-Mask", "Coronavirus fears stoke face mask hoarding", etc. Next to each headline they should add "and don't forget that 100 million people own a gun".
    • Sadly, we are also realizing that the information coming from a dictatorship (China) is more reliable than the information coming from a democracy (USA). The US government and its propaganda machine (Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, etc) engaged from the beginning in a massive program of disinformation about the severity of the epidemic. The dictator of China spoke rarely but he grasped the gravity of the situation from the very first time that he spoke. Chinese media may have lied about the numbers of people who actually died but were very clear about the gravity of the situation. Trump's many statements, instead, showed from the beginning that he had no idea what he was talking about. He created more confusion than anybody else. A foreign agent trying to created maximum damage to the USA could not have been more successful. (See Sinophobia & Covid-19 for more details).
    • Besides the epidemic of the virus itself, the free world has experienced another epidemic, that could turn out to be no less dangerous: the epidemic of disinformation on both traditional and social media. Fox News is singlehandedly responsible for causing the epidemic in many places of the USA, especially since its viewers tend to be older, precisely the category most vulnerable to the disease. We keep hearing that US readers and watchers don't trust the media anymore, but the fact of the matter is that they trust the media too much: their beliefs are shaped by the endless campaigns run on popular media such as the #1 cable TV station (Fox News) and the #1 radio show (Rush Limbaugh), both of which caused the epidemic to spread. An incredible number of "hearsay" on Facebook and Twitter became "facts" for millions of people. There will be increasing pressure on the free world to control (Chinese-style) what "information" is spread on social and traditional media. It is not difficult to divide the total number of deaths by the total number of cases and obtain the death rate, but Fox News failed to do it for weeks, misleading millions of viewers, many of whom are now infected and infecting others. It is incredible how many people repeated, re-posted and re-tweeted the rumor that a vaccine was already available and the covid-19 crisis would be short-lived. Rumors like this one have actually contributed to prolong the crisis because it discouraged people from taking precautions. Is the free world willing to pay this kind of price?
    • For a while the western world has been engulfed in a sort of civil war between populists and experts, whether it's about climate change or economics. The divise was clear yet again when the epidemic began: populists like Trump and Boris Johnson dismissed the epidemic as an exaggeration (Trump even called it a plot by the leftist and the "liberal" media) at the same time that the experts were sounding all sorts of alarm bells. As in previous cases, the populists have been forced by the facts to listen to the experts, but the result, like in previous cases, is that the disaster will not be as bad as it could have been. If at the end, thanks to the advice of the experts, the death toll from this virus will be approximately the same as the death toll from the flu, the experts will have won the case in the court of science, and saved millions of lives, but the populists may win the case in the court of public opinion by claiming "we told you all along that this was wildly exaggerated". In 2003 i distinctly remember Sean Hannity, now Fox News' most popular commentator, mocking the SARS epidemic as wildly exaggerated because it killed less than a thousand people. The experts are in a lose-lose situation: if the epidemic kills millions of people, they will feel that they failed; if the epidemic kills less than 100,000 people, the populists will accuse them of having exaggerated "as usual".
    • As the economic impact escalates, one can sense a shift in the perception of both the problem and the solution: this is a health problem that mainly affects elderly people who are already sick of something else, and it risks becoming an economic problem for the whole world. This was not completely evident when the epidemic was confined to Hubei province, but it is becoming very obvious now that Italy is publishing its data: so far in Italy only old and sick people have died; not a single healthy person has died. Let me translate in cruel terms: in order to save the lives of old people who will be dead soon anyway, we are causing a worldwide economic crisis. Are we destroying the world economy to save the lives of people who were dying anyway? It is a tough call: what are the chances of defeating the virus? and in how long? And what are the chances of causing a massive economic crisis while trying to defeat the virus during that period of time? If the standard of living declines dramatically because of these national shutdowns, then people will start dying (indirectly) of other things. A vaccine can take years, or even never come: are we going to keep entire nations under lockdown for that long? They don't say it aloud but i am sure that many Europeans are also thinking: "this virus is solving the problem of our bankrupt pension system". If the epidemic doesn't get contained quickly, this will become a serious discussion: how much are you willing to sacrifice (in jobs, stock market, freedom, etc) in order to save the lives of old sick people who will be dead soon anyway? The alternative scenario is one in which governments let the virus spread as it would naturally until a vaccine is found or the virus disappears by itself. This will cost the lives of millions of old sick people but save the standard of living of the other billions of people. There is also a chance that the survivors will have built up immunity against covid-19. Ironically, Europeans would end up being immune to the deadly virus whereas east Asians (who successfully contained it and saved their elderly population) will still be vulnerable to it.
    • A compromise idea, popularized by Israel's defense minister (see his speech) is to isolate the elders and let the young build up the immunity. Of course this is based on three assumptions: 1. The virus will not mutate into something more dangerous while it spreads worldwide (the flu of course mutates every year, sometimes it gets more dangerous, sometimes less); 2. A vaccine will eventually come (otherwise, when you turn a certain age, they will automatically lock you in isolation for the rest of your life); 3. If you build immunity now it will last for the rest of your life (a fact that is obviously false for the flu and many other diseases). In the short term, this solution would have an economic effect on the millions of poor families where grandparents take care of the children. In the long term, we may end up building cities for the elderly because confining elderly people in existing cities is too complicated. Instead of nursing homes we'll have "nursing cities". Here is Milano, populated by people aged 0 to 70, where life goes on normally, and here is MilanoVecchi, where life is tightly controlled to avoid contamination.
    • European countries have been asking for a centralized response directed by the European Union but then opted for individual customized actions, sometimes contradicting each other. The response in the USA was even more decentralized. Nobody trusts Trump and his gang of corrupt and incompetent officials. Therefore each state took action independently. US citizens correctly trust their state governors more than Washington politicians. Both in Europe and in the USA this epidemic may increase the centrifugal forces that are splitting unions apart. Small governments react faster and tend to be more competent. Look at the speed with which Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong reacted, and at the deadly delays that turned the USA into a case study in how to make a bad situation worse. For a while there has been evidence that small countries like Dubai in the Middle East, Singapore in Southeast Asia, Taiwan in east Asia, and Switzerland in Europe, work better than big ones. The crisis caused by this epidemic may further dilute the central power and further empower the periphery, a trend that could eventually lead to a return to the medieval city-state. Wouldn't California better off without Washington? Wouldn't Silicon Valley be better off without the rest of California? Wouldn't Stanford be better off if it were independent?
    • Given the prompt and massive actions taken by east Asian countries, it is likely that they will be covid-free in a relatively short term, whereas the delays and incompetence of Western governments (especially the US government) are likely to cause an escalating catastrophe in the West. Until a vaccine makes everybody comfortable again with international travelers, a consequence of this epidemic and of the way different governments acted will be that a clear divide will emerge between the infected countries (most likely the USA and Europe) and the covid-free countries (most likely all the east Asian countries), and this regardless of political allegiance, regardless of whether you are a US ally or not. If a vaccine is not found, why would Japan or Korea or Taiwan (let alone China), that have successfully contained the epidemic, allow Westerners into their countries? The covid-free countries will de facto create a block of more or less free movement of people from which Westerners will be kept out. (Alas, third-world countries are likely to be infected by Western travelers, so their fate is tied to the West).
    • Regardless of political allegiance, east Asia is facing again an economic crisis created by the incompetence of Western governments. First there was the financial crisis of 2008 (plus George W Bush's disastrous wars) and now there is the covid-19 epidemic spread by Western government's incompetence (plus Trump's various idiotic behaviors). This could be the last straw, after which not only China but the entire east Asia will decouple from the West. Could this epidemic encourage the "Asian tigers" to decouple from the USA? There was already widespread skepticism towards the USA in east Asia after the Bush wars and after the Great Recession of 2008, both widely perceived as self-inflicted wounds. Then canceling the TPP was perceived as another self-inflicted wound. Now east Asia, where the pandemic has been mostly contained, views this pandemic as, yet again, an example of US incompetence: the USA managed to turn the problem of a Chinese province into a global economic crisis.
    • There is a beneficiary of this epidemic: the planet. The national "lockdowns" have removed millions of cars from the roads and shut down thousands of polluting factories. One wonders if this virus is the planet's way to solve the problem of human-made climate change.
    • And, finally, the good news: China is recording fewer and fewer infections, and about 80% of those with symptoms have healed and are back to normal life. The epidemic seems to have peaked at 80,000 cases and 3,100 deaths (let's if the USA, with 1/4th of the population, will manage to do worse). One datum that was initially under-estimated about China is how little the virus spread outside of the original province. Now that we see how easily the virus spreads in Europe and the USA, the geographical distribution of infections in Chinese provinces shows that China was able from the beginning to contain the contagion (see picture below). For example, the population of Zhejiang province is bigger than Italy's but it only recorded one death. Cities of 20+ million people like Shanghai and Beijing only recorded a handful of deaths. Ditto for Taiwan: the whole of Taiwan only had 50 cases and 1 death. The Chinese are now terrified that the US government keeps repeating that this is nothing to worry about, which sounds like a recipe for disaster. (A previous version of this article predicted that soon China would be better off than the USA, and, unfortunately, that has happened even faster than i could imagine).
    See also:
    The Clown & the Virus,
    The Clown & the Virus - Part 2,
    Trump's Virus,
    Sinophobia & Covid-19,
    Sinophobia & Covid-19 in US Media,
    Was covid-19 made in the USA?
    TM, ®, Copyright © 2020 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
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  • (march 2020) The Bizarre Adventures of the Face Mask.

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