O florescer das famosas cerejeiras brancas e rosas leva milhares às ruas e parques do Japão para observar o fenômeno, que dura poucos dias e é reverenciado há mais de mil anos. Mas este ano a antecipação da florada tem preocupado cientistas, pois indica impacto nas mudanças climáticas.
Segundo registros da Universidade da Prefeitura de Osaka, em 2021, as famosas cerejeiras brancas e rosas floresceram totalmente em 26 de março em Quioto, a data mais antecipada em 12 séculos. As floradas mais cedo foram registradas em 27 de março dos anos 1612, 1409 e 1236.
A instituição conseguiu identificar a antecipação do fenômeno porque tem um banco de dados completo dos registros das floradas ao longo dos séculos. Os registros começaram no ano 812 e incluem documentos judiciais da Quioto Imperial, a antiga capital do Japão e diários medievais.
O professor de ciência ambiental da universidade da Prefeitura de Osaka, Yasuyuki Aono, responsável por compilar um banco de dados, disse à Agência Reuters que o fenômeno costuma ocorrer em abril, mas à medida que as temperaturas sobem, o início da floração é mais cedo.
“As flores de cerejeira são muito sensíveis à temperatura. A floração e a plena floração podem ocorrer mais cedo ou mais tarde, dependendo apenas da temperatura. A temperatura era baixa na década de 1820, mas subiu cerca de 3,5 graus Celsius até hoje”, disse.
Segundo ele, as estações deste ano, em particular, influenciaram as datas de floração. O inverno foi muito frio, mas a primavera veio rápida e excepcionalmente quente, então “os botões estão completamente despertos depois de um descanso suficiente”.
Na capital Tóquio, as cerejeiras atingiram o máximo da florada em 22 de março, o segundo ano mais cedo já registrado. “À medida que as temperaturas globais aumentam, as geadas da última Primavera estão ocorrendo mais cedo e a floração está ocorrendo mais cedo”, afirmou Lewis Ziska, da Universidade de Columbia, à CNN.
A Agência Meteorológica do Japão acompanha ainda 58 cerejeiras “referência” no país. Neste ano, 40 já atingiram o pico de floração e 14 o fizeram em tempo recorde. As árvores normalmente florescem por cerca de duas semanas todos os anos. “Podemos dizer que é mais provável por causa do impacto do aquecimento global”, disse Shunji Anbe, funcionário da divisão de observações da agência.
Dados Organização Meteorológica Mundial divulgados em janeiro mostram que as temperaturas globais em 2020 estiveram entre as mais altas já registradas e rivalizaram com 2016 com o ano mais quente de todos os tempos.
As flores de cerejeira têm longas raízes históricas e culturais no Japão, anunciando a Primavera e inspirando artistas e poetas ao longo dos séculos. Sua fragilidade é vista como um símbolo de vida, morte e renascimento.
Atualmente, as pessoas se reúnem sob as flores de cerejeiras a cada primavera para festas hanami (observação das flores), passeiam em parques e fazem piqueniques embaixo dos galhos e abusar das selfies. Mas, neste ano, a florada de cerejeiras veio e se foi em um piscar de olhos.
Com o fim do estado de emergência para conter a pandemia de Covid-19 em todas as regiões do Japão, muitas pessoas se aglomeraram em locais populares de exibição no fim de semana, embora o número de pessoas tenha sido menor do que em anos normais.
We’re one step closer to officially moving up hurricane season. The National Hurricane Center announced Tuesday that it would formally start issuing its hurricane season tropical weather outlooks on May 15 this year, bumping it up from the traditional start of hurricane season on June 1. The move comes after a recent spate of early season storms have raked the Atlantic.
Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 to November 30. That’s when conditions are most conducive to storm formation owing to warm air and water temperatures. (The Pacific ocean has its own hurricane season, which covers the same timeframe, but since waters are colder fewer hurricanes tend to form there than in the Atlantic.)
Storms have begun forming on the Atlantic earlier as ocean and air temperatures have increased due to climate change. Last year, Hurricane Arthur roared to life off the East Coast on May 16. That storm made 2020 the sixth hurricane season in a row to have a storm that formed earlier than the June 1 official start date. While the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration won’t be moving up the start of the season just yet, the earlier outlooks addresses the recent history.
“In the last decade, there have been 10 storms formed in the weeks before the traditional start of the season, which is a big jump,” said Sean Sublette, a meteorologist at Climate Central, who pointed out that the 1960s through 2010s saw between one and three storms each decade before the June 1 start date on average.
It might be tempting to ascribe this earlier season entirely to climate change warming the Atlantic. But technology also has a role to play, with more observations along the coast as well as satellites that can spot storms far out to sea.
“I would caution that we can’t just go, ‘hah, the planet’s warming, we’ve had to move the entire season!’” Sublette said. “I don’t think there’s solid ground for attribution of how much of one there is over the other. Weather folks can sit around and debate that for awhile.”
Earlier storms don’t necessarily mean more harmful ones, either. In fact, hurricanes earlier in the season tend to be weaker than the monsters that form in August and September when hurricane season is at its peak. But regardless of their strength, these earlier storms have generated discussion inside the NHC on whether to move up the official start date for the season, when the agency usually puts out two reports per day on hurricane activity. Tuesday’s step is not an official announcement of this decision, but an acknowledgement of the increased attention on early hurricanes.
“I would say that [Tuesday’s announcement] is the National Hurricane Center being proactive,” Sublette said. “Like hey, we know that the last few years it’s been a little busier in May than we’ve seen in the past five decades, and we know there is an awareness now, so we’re going to start issuing these reports early.”
While the jury is still out on whether climate change is pushing the season earlier, research has shown that the strongest hurricanes are becoming more common, and that climate change is likely playing a role. A study published last year found the odds of a storm becoming a major hurricanes—those Category 3 or stronger—have increase 49% in the basin since satellite monitoring began in earnest four decades ago. And when storms make landfall, sea level rise allows them to do more damage. So regardless of if climate change is pushing Atlantic hurricane season is getting earlier or not, the risks are increasing. Now, at least, we’ll have better warnings before early storms do hit.
When the polio vaccine was declared safe and effective, the news was met with jubilant celebration. Church bells rang across the nation, and factories blew their whistles. “Polio routed!” newspaper headlines exclaimed. “An historic victory,” “monumental,” “sensational,” newscasters declared. People erupted with joy across the United States. Some danced in the streets; others wept. Kids were sent home from school to celebrate.
One might have expected the initial approval of the coronavirus vaccines to spark similar jubilation—especially after a brutal pandemic year. But that didn’t happen. Instead, the steady drumbeat of good news about the vaccines has been met with a chorus of relentless pessimism.
The problem is not that the good news isn’t being reported, or that we should throw caution to the wind just yet. It’s that neither the reporting nor the public-health messaging has reflected the truly amazing reality of these vaccines. There is nothing wrong with realism and caution, but effective communication requires a sense of proportion—distinguishing between due alarm and alarmism; warranted, measured caution and doombait; worst-case scenarios and claims of impending catastrophe. We need to be able to celebrate profoundly positive news while noting the work that still lies ahead. However, instead of balanced optimism since the launch of the vaccines, the public has been offered a lot of misguided fretting over new virus variants, subjected to misleading debates about the inferiority of certain vaccines, and presented with long lists of things vaccinated people still cannot do, while media outlets wonder whether the pandemic will ever end.
This pessimism is sapping people of energy to get through the winter, and the rest of this pandemic. Anti-vaccination groups and those opposing the current public-health measures have been vigorously amplifying the pessimistic messages—especially the idea that getting vaccinated doesn’t mean being able to do more—telling their audiences that there is no point in compliance, or in eventual vaccination, because it will not lead to any positive changes. They are using the moment and the messaging to deepen mistrust of public-health authorities, accusing them of moving the goalposts and implying that we’re being conned. Either the vaccines aren’t as good as claimed, they suggest, or the real goal of pandemic-safety measures is to control the public, not the virus.
Five key fallacies and pitfalls have affected public-health messaging, as well as media coverage, and have played an outsize role in derailing an effective pandemic response. These problems were deepened by the ways that we—the public—developed to cope with a dreadful situation under great uncertainty. And now, even as vaccines offer brilliant hope, and even though, at least in the United States, we no longer have to deal with the problem of a misinformer in chief, some officials and media outlets are repeating many of the same mistakes in handling the vaccine rollout.
The pandemic has given us an unwelcome societal stress test, revealing the cracks and weaknesses in our institutions and our systems. Some of these are common to many contemporary problems, including political dysfunction and the way our public sphere operates. Others are more particular, though not exclusive, to the current challenge—including a gap between how academic research operates and how the public understands that research, and the ways in which the psychology of coping with the pandemic have distorted our response to it.
Recognizing all these dynamics is important, not only for seeing us through this pandemic—yes, it is going to end—but also to understand how our society functions, and how it fails. We need to start shoring up our defenses, not just against future pandemics but against all the myriad challenges we face—political, environmental, societal, and technological. None of these problems is impossible to remedy, but first we have to acknowledge them and start working to fix them—and we’re running out of time.
The past 12 months were incredibly challenging for almost everyone. Public-health officials were fighting a devastating pandemic and, at least in this country, an administration hell-bent on undermining them. The World Health Organization was not structured or funded for independence or agility, but still worked hard to contain the disease. Many researchers and experts noted the absence of timely and trustworthy guidelines from authorities, and tried to fill the void by communicating their findings directly to the public on social media. Reporters tried to keep the public informed under time and knowledge constraints, which were made more severe by the worsening media landscape. And the rest of us were trying to survive as best we could, looking for guidance where we could, and sharing information when we could, but always under difficult, murky conditions.
Despite all these good intentions, much of the public-health messaging has been profoundly counterproductive. In five specific ways, the assumptions made by public officials, the choices made by traditional media, the way our digital public sphere operates, and communication patterns between academic communities and the public proved flawed.
One of the most important problems undermining the pandemic response has been the mistrust and paternalism that some public-health agencies and experts have exhibited toward the public. A key reason for this stance seems to be that some experts feared that people would respond to something that increased their safety—such as masks, rapid tests, or vaccines—by behaving recklessly. They worried that a heightened sense of safety would lead members of the public to take risks that would not just undermine any gains, but reverse them.
The theory that things that improve our safety might provide a false sense of security and lead to reckless behavior is attractive—it’s contrarian and clever, and fits the “here’s something surprising we smart folks thought about” mold that appeals to, well, people who think of themselves as smart. Unsurprisingly, such fears have greeted efforts to persuade the public to adopt almost every advance in safety, including seat belts, helmets, and condoms.
But time and again, the numbers tell a different story: Even if safety improvements cause a few people to behave recklessly, the benefitsoverwhelmthe ill effects. In any case, most people are already interested in staying safe from a dangerous pathogen. Further, even at the beginning of the pandemic, sociological theory predictedthat wearing masks would be associated with increased adherence to other precautionary measures—people interested in staying safe are interested in staying safe—and empirical research quickly confirmedexactly that. Unfortunately, though, the theory of risk compensation—and its implicit assumptions—continue to haunt our approach, in part because there hasn’t been a reckoning with the initial missteps.
Rules in Place of Mechanisms and Intuitions
Much of the public messaging focused on offering a series of clear rules to ordinary people, instead of explaining in detail the mechanisms of viral transmission for this pathogen. A focus on explaining transmission mechanisms, and updating our understanding over time, would have helped empower people to make informed calculations about risk in different settings. Instead, both the CDC and the WHO chose to offer fixed guidelines that lent a false sense of precision.
In the United States, the public was initially told that “close contact” meant coming within six feet of an infected individual, for 15 minutes or more. This messaging led to ridiculous gaming of the rules; some establishments moved people around at the 14th minute to avoid passing the threshold. It also led to situations in which people working indoors with others, but just outside the cutoff of six feet, felt that they could take their mask off. None of this made any practical sense. What happened at minute 16? Was seven feet okay? Faux precision isn’t more informative; it’s misleading.
All of this was complicated by the fact that key public-health agencies like the CDC and the WHO were late to acknowledge the importance of some key infection mechanisms, such as aerosol transmission. Even when they did so, the shift happened without a proportional change in the guidelines or the messaging—it was easy for the general public to miss its significance.
Frustrated by the lack of public communication from health authorities, I wrote an article last July on what we then knew about the transmission of this pathogen—including how it could be spread via aerosols that can float and accumulate, especially in poorly ventilated indoor spaces. To this day, I’m contacted by people who describe workplaces that are following the formal guidelines, but in ways that defy reason: They’ve installed plexiglass, but barred workers from opening their windows; they’ve mandated masks, but only when workers are within six feet of one another, while permitting them to be taken off indoors during breaks.
Perhaps worst of all, our messaging and guidelines elided the difference between outdoor and indoor spaces, where, given the importance of aerosol transmission, the same precautions should not apply. This is especially important because this pathogen is overdispersed: Much of the spread is driven by a few people infecting many others at once, while most people do not transmit the virus at all.
After I wrote an article explaining how overdispersion and super-spreading were driving the pandemic, I discovered that this mechanism had also been poorly explained. I was inundated by messages from people, including elected officials around the world, saying they had no idea that this was the case. None of it was secret—numerous academic papers and articles had been written about it—but it had not been integrated into our messaging or our guidelines despite its great importance.
Crucially, super-spreading isn’t equally distributed; poorly ventilated indoor spaces can facilitate the spread of the virus over longer distances, and in shorter periods of time, than the guidelines suggested, and help fuel the pandemic.
Outdoors? It’s the opposite.
There is a solid scientific reason for the fact that there are relatively few documented cases of transmission outdoors, even after a year of epidemiological work: The open air dilutes the virus very quickly, and the sun helps deactivate it, providing further protection. And super-spreading—the biggest driver of the pandemic— appears to be an exclusively indoor phenomenon. I’ve been tracking every report I can find for the past year, and have yet to find a confirmed super-spreading event that occurred solely outdoors. Such events might well have taken place, but if the risk were great enough to justify altering our lives, I would expect at least a few to have been documented by now.
And yet our guidelines do not reflect these differences, and our messaging has not helped people understand these facts so that they can make better choices. I published my first article pleading for parks to be kept open on April 7, 2020—but outdoor activities are still banned by some authorities today, a full year after this dreaded virus began to spread globally.
We’d have been much better off if we gave people a realistic intuition about this virus’s transmission mechanisms. Our public guidelines should have been more like Japan’s, which emphasize avoiding the three C’s—closed spaces, crowded places, and close contact—that are driving the pandemic.
Scolding and Shaming
Throughout the past year, traditional and social media have been caught up in a cycle of shaming—made worse by being so unscientific and misguided. How dare you go to the beach? newspapers have scolded us for months, despite lacking evidence that this posed any significant threat to public health. It wasn’t just talk: Many cities closed parks and outdoor recreational spaces, even as they kept open indoor dining and gyms. Just this month, UC Berkeley and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst both banned students from taking even solitary walks outdoors.
Even when authorities relax the rules a bit, they do not always follow through in a sensible manner. In the United Kingdom, after some locales finally started allowing children to play on playgrounds—something that was already way overdue—they quickly ruled that parents must not socialize while their kids have a normal moment. Why not? Who knows?
On social media, meanwhile, pictures of people outdoors without masks draw reprimands, insults, and confident predictions of super-spreading—and yet few note when super-spreading fails to follow.
While visible but low-risk activities attract the scolds, other actual risks—in workplaces and crowded households, exacerbated by the lack of testing or paid sick leave—are not as easily accessible to photographers. Stefan Baral, an associate epidemiology professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, says that it’s almost as if we’ve “designed a public-health response most suitable for higher-income” groups and the “Twitter generation”—stay home; have your groceries delivered; focus on the behaviors you can photograph and shame online—rather than provide the support and conditionsnecessary for more people to keep themselves safe.
And the viral videos shaming people for failing to take sensible precautions, such as wearing masks indoors, do not necessarily help. For one thing, fretting over the occasional person throwing a tantrum while going unmasked in a supermarket distorts the reality: Most of the public has been complying with mask wearing. Worse, shaming is often an ineffective way of getting people to change their behavior, and it entrenches polarization and discourages disclosure, making it harder to fight the virus. Instead, we should be emphasizing safer behavior and stressing how many people are doing their part, while encouraging others to do the same.
Amidst all the mistrust and the scolding, a crucial public-health concept fell by the wayside. Harm reduction is the recognition that if there is an unmet and yet crucial human need, we cannot simply wish it away; we need to advise people on how to do what they seek to do more safely. Risk can never be completely eliminated; life requires more than futile attempts to bring risk down to zero. Pretending we can will away complexities and trade-offs with absolutism is counterproductive. Consider abstinence-only education: Not letting teenagers know about ways to have safer sex results in more of them having sex with no protections.
As Julia Marcus, an epidemiologist and associate professor at Harvard Medical School, told me, “When officials assume that risks can be easily eliminated, they might neglect the other things that matter to people: staying fed and housed, being close to loved ones, or just enjoying their lives. Public health works best when it helps people find safer ways to get what they need and want.””
Another problem with absolutism is the “abstinence violation” effect, Joshua Barocas, an assistant professor at the Boston University School of Medicine and Infectious Diseases, told me. When we set perfection as the only option, it can cause people who fall short of that standard in one small, particular way to decide that they’ve already failed, and might as well give up entirely. Most people who have attempted a diet or a new exercise regimen are familiar with this psychological state. The better approach is encouraging risk reduction and layered mitigation—emphasizing that every little bit helps—while also recognizing that a risk-free life is neither possible nor desirable.
Socializing is not a luxury—kids need to play with one another, and adults need to interact. Your kids can play together outdoors, and outdoor time is the best chance to catch up with your neighbors is not just a sensible message; it’s a way to decrease transmission risks. Some kids will play and some adults will socialize no matter what the scolds say or public-health officials decree, and they’ll do it indoors, out of sight of the scolding.
And if they don’t? Then kids will be deprived of an essential activity, and adults will be deprived of human companionship. Socializing is perhaps the most important predictor of health and longevity, after not smoking and perhaps exercise and a healthy diet. We need to help people socialize more safely, not encourage them to stop socializing entirely.
The Balance Between Knowledge And Action
Last but not least, the pandemic response has been distorted by a poor balance between knowledge, risk, certainty, and action.
Sometimes, public-health authorities insisted that we did not know enough to act, when the preponderance of evidence already justified precautionary action. Wearing masks, for example, posed few downsides, and held the prospect of mitigating the exponential threat we faced. The wait for certainty hampered our response to airborne transmission, even though there was almost no evidence for—and increasing evidence against—the importance of fomites, or objects that can carry infection. And yet, we emphasized the risk of surface transmission while refusing to properly address the risk of airborne transmission, despite increasing evidence. The difference lay not in the level of evidence and scientific support for either theory—which, if anything, quickly tilted in favor of airborne transmission, and not fomites, being crucial—but in the fact that fomite transmission had been a key part of the medical canon, and airborne transmission had not.
Sometimes, experts and the public discussion failed to emphasize that we were balancing risks, as in the recurring cycles of debate over lockdowns or school openings. We should have done more to acknowledge that there were no good options, only trade-offs between different downsides. As a result, instead of recognizing the difficulty of the situation, too many people accused those on the other side of being callous and uncaring.
And sometimes, the way that academics communicate clashed with how the public constructs knowledge. In academia, publishing is the coin of the realm, and it is often done through rejecting the null hypothesis—meaning that many papers do not seek to prove something conclusively, but instead, to reject the possibility that a variable has no relationship with the effect they are measuring (beyond chance). If that sounds convoluted, it is—there are historical reasons for this methodology and big arguments within academia about its merits, but for the moment, this remains standard practice.
At crucial points during the pandemic, though, this resulted in mistranslations and fueled misunderstandings, which were further muddled by differing stances toward prior scientific knowledge and theory. Yes, we faced a novel coronavirus, but we should have started by assuming that we could make some reasonable projections from prior knowledge, while looking out for anything that might prove different. That prior experience should have made us mindful of seasonality, the key role of overdispersion, and aerosol transmission. A keen eye for what was different from the past would have alerted us earlier to the importance of presymptomatic transmission.
Thus, on January 14, 2020, the WHO stated that there was “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission.” It should have said, “There is increasing likelihood that human-to-human transmission is taking place, but we haven’t yet proven this, because we have no access to Wuhan, China.” (Cases were already popping up around the world at that point.) Acting as if there was human-to-human transmission during the early weeks of the pandemic would have been wise and preventive.
Later that spring, WHO officials stated that there was “currently no evidence that people who have recovered from COVID-19 and have antibodies are protected from a second infection,” producing many articles laden with panic and despair. Instead, it should have said: “We expect the immune system to function against this virus, and to provide some immunity for some period of time, but it is still hard to know specifics because it is so early.”
Similarly, since the vaccines were announced, too many statements have emphasized that we don’t yet know if vaccines prevent transmission. Instead, public-health authorities should have said that we have many reasons to expect, and increasing amounts of data to suggest, that vaccines will blunt infectiousness, but that we’re waiting for additional data to be more precise about it. That’s been unfortunate, because while many, many things have gone wrong during this pandemic, the vaccines are one thing that has gone very, very right.
As late as April 2020, Anthony Fauci was slammed for being too optimistic for suggesting we might plausibly have vaccines in a year to 18 months. We had vaccines much, much sooner than that: The first two vaccine trials concluded a mere eight months after the WHO declared a pandemic in March 2020.
Moreover, they have delivered spectacular results. In June 2020, the FDA said a vaccine that was merely 50 percent efficacious in preventing symptomatic COVID-19 would receive emergency approval—that such a benefit would be sufficient to justify shipping it out immediately. Just a few months after that, the trials of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines concluded by reporting not just a stunning 95 percent efficacy, but also a complete elimination of hospitalization or death among the vaccinated. Even severe disease was practically gone: The lone case classified as “severe” among 30,000 vaccinated individuals in the trials was so mild that the patient needed no medical care, and her case would not have been considered severe if her oxygen saturation had been a single percent higher.
These are exhilarating developments, because global, widespread, and rapid vaccination is our way out of this pandemic. Vaccines that drastically reduce hospitalizations and deaths, and that diminish even severe disease to a rare event, are the closest things we have had in this pandemic to a miracle—though of course they are the product of scientific research, creativity, and hard work. They are going to be the panacea and the endgame.
And yet, two months into an accelerating vaccination campaign in the United States, it would be hard to blame people if they missed the news that things are getting better.
Yes, there are new variants of the virus, which may eventually require booster shots, but at least so far, the existing vaccines are standing up to them well—very, very well. Manufacturers are already working on new vaccines or variant-focused booster versions, in case they prove necessary, and the authorizing agencies are ready for a quick turnaround if and when updates are needed. Reports from places that have vaccinated large numbers of individuals, and even trials in places where variants are widespread, are exceedingly encouraging, with dramatic reductions in cases and, crucially, hospitalizations and deaths among the vaccinated. Global equity and access to vaccines remain crucial concerns, but the supply is increasing.
Here in the United States, despite the rocky rollout and the need to smooth access and ensure equity, it’s become clear that toward the end of spring 2021, supply will be more than sufficient. It may sound hard to believe today, as many who are desperate for vaccinations await their turn, but in the near future, we may have to discuss what to do with excess doses.
So why isn’t this story more widely appreciated?
Part of the problem with the vaccines was the timing—the trials concluded immediately after the U.S. election, and their results got overshadowed in the weeks of political turmoil. The first, modest headline announcing the Pfizer-BioNTech results in The New York Times was a single column, “Vaccine Is Over 90% Effective, Pfizer’s Early Data Says,” below a banner headline spanning the page: “BIDEN CALLS FOR UNITED FRONT AS VIRUS RAGES.” That was both understandable—the nation was weary—and a loss for the public.
Just a few days later, Moderna reported a similar 94.5 percent efficacy. If anything, that provided even more cause for celebration, because it confirmed that the stunning numbers coming out of Pfizer weren’t a fluke. But, still amid the political turmoil, the Moderna report got a mere two columns on The New York Times’ front page with an equally modest headline: “Another Vaccine Appears to Work Against the Virus.”
So we didn’t get our initial vaccine jubilation.
But as soon as we began vaccinating people, articles started warning the newly vaccinated about all they could not do. “COVID-19 Vaccine Doesn’t Mean You Can Party Like It’s 1999,” one headline admonished. And the buzzkill has continued right up to the present. “You’re fully vaccinated against the coronavirus—now what? Don’t expect to shed your mask and get back to normal activities right away,” began a recent Associated Press story.
People might well want to party after being vaccinated. Those shots will expand what we can do, first in our private lives and among other vaccinated people, and then, gradually, in our public lives as well. But once again, the authorities and the media seem more worried about potentially reckless behavior among the vaccinated, and about telling them what not to do, than with providing nuanced guidance reflecting trade-offs, uncertainty, and a recognition that vaccination can change behavior. No guideline can cover every situation, but careful, accurate, and updated information can empower everyone.
Take the messaging and public conversation around transmission risks from vaccinated people. It is, of course, important to be alert to such considerations: Many vaccines are “leaky” in that they prevent disease or severe disease, but not infection and transmission. In fact, completely blocking all infection—what’s often called “sterilizing immunity”—is a difficult goal, and something even many highly effective vaccines don’t attain, but that doesn’t stop them from being extremely useful.
As Paul Sax, an infectious-disease doctor at Boston’s Brigham & Women’s Hospital, put it in early December, it would be enormously surprising “if these highly effective vaccines didn’t also make people less likely to transmit.” From multiple studies, we already knew that asymptomatic individuals—those who never developed COVID-19 despite being infected—were much less likely to transmit the virus. The vaccine trials were reporting 95 percent reductions in any form of symptomatic disease. In December, we learned that Moderna had swabbed some portion of trial participants to detect asymptomatic, silent infections, and found an almost two-thirds reduction even in such cases. The good news kept pouring in. Multiple studies found that, even in those few cases where breakthrough disease occurred in vaccinated people, their viral loads were lower—which correlates with lower rates of transmission. Data from vaccinated populations further confirmed what many experts expected all along: Of course these vaccines reduce transmission.
What went wrong? The same thing that’s going wrong right now with the reporting on whether vaccines will protect recipients against the new viral variants. Some outlets emphasize the worst or misinterpret the research. Some public-health officials are wary of encouraging the relaxation of any precautions. Some prominent experts on social media—even those with seemingly solid credentials—tend to respond to everything with alarm and sirens. So the message that got heard was that vaccines will not prevent transmission, or that they won’t work against new variants, or that we don’t know if they will. What the public needs to hear, though, is that based on existing data, we expect them to work fairly well—but we’ll learn more about precisely how effective they’ll be over time, and that tweaks may make them even better.
A year into the pandemic, we’re still repeating the same mistakes.
The top-down messaging is not the only problem. The scolding, the strictness, the inability to discuss trade-offs, and the accusations of not caring about people dying not only have an enthusiastic audience, but portions of the public engage in these behaviors themselves. Maybe that’s partly because proclaiming the importance of individual actions makes us feel as if we are in the driver’s seat, despite all the uncertainty.
Psychologists talk about the “locus of control”—the strength of belief in control over your own destiny. They distinguish between people with more of an internal-control orientation—who believe that they are the primary actors—and those with an external one, who believe that society, fate, and other factors beyond their control greatly influence what happens to us. This focus on individual control goes along with something called the “fundamental attribution error”—when bad things happen to other people, we’re more likely to believe that they are personally at fault, but when they happen to us, we are more likely to blame the situation and circumstances beyond our control.
An individualistic locus of control is forged in the U.S. mythos—that we are a nation of strivers and people who pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. An internal-control orientation isn’t necessarily negative; it can facilitate resilience, rather than fatalism, by shifting the focus to what we can do as individuals even as things fall apart around us. This orientation seems to be common among children who not only survive but sometimes thrive in terrible situations—they take charge and have a go at it, and with some luck, pull through. It is probably even more attractive to educated, well-off people who feel that they have succeeded through their own actions.
You can see the attraction of an individualized, internal locus of control in a pandemic, as a pathogen without a cure spreads globally, interrupts our lives, makes us sick, and could prove fatal.
There have been very few things we could do at an individual level to reduce our risk beyond wearing masks, distancing, and disinfecting. The desire to exercise personal control against an invisible, pervasive enemy is likely why we’ve continued to emphasize scrubbing and cleaning surfaces, in what’s appropriately called “hygiene theater,” long after it became clear that fomites were not a key driver of the pandemic. Obsessive cleaning gave us something to do, and we weren’t about to give it up, even if it turned out to be useless. No wonder there was so much focus on telling others to stay home—even though it’s not a choice available to those who cannot work remotely—and so much scolding of those who dared to socialize or enjoy a moment outdoors.
And perhaps it was too much to expect a nation unwilling to release its tight grip on the bottle of bleach to greet the arrival of vaccines—however spectacular—by imagining the day we might start to let go of our masks.
The focus on individual actions has had its upsides, but it has also led to a sizable portion of pandemic victims being erased from public conversation. If our own actions drive everything, then some other individuals must be to blame when things go wrong for them. And throughout this pandemic, the mantra many of us kept repeating—“Wear a mask, stay home; wear a mask, stay home”—hid many of the real victims.
Study after study, in country after country, confirms that this disease has disproportionately hit the poor and minority groups, along with the elderly, who are particularly vulnerable to severe disease. Even among the elderly, though, those who are wealthier and enjoy greater access to health care have fared better.
The poor and minority groups are dying in disproportionately large numbers for the same reasons that they suffer from many other diseases: a lifetime of disadvantages, lack of access to health care, inferior working conditions, unsafe housing, and limited financial resources.
Many lacked the option of staying home precisely because they were working hard to enable others to do what they could not, by packing boxes, delivering groceries, producing food. And even those who could stay home faced other problems born of inequality: Crowded housing is associatedwith higher rates of COVID-19 infection and worse outcomes, likely because many of the essential workers who live in such housing bring the virus home to elderly relatives.
Individual responsibility certainly had a large role to play in fighting the pandemic, but many victims had little choice in what happened to them. By disproportionately focusing on individual choices, not only did we hide the real problem, but we failed to do more to provide safe working and living conditions for everyone.
For example, there has been a lot of consternation about indoor dining, an activity I certainly wouldn’t recommend. But even takeout and delivery can impose a terrible cost: One study of California found that line cooks are the highest-risk occupation for dying of COVID-19. Unless we provide restaurants with funds so they can stay closed, or provide restaurant workers with high-filtration masks, better ventilation, paid sick leave, frequent rapid testing, and other protections so that they can safely work, getting food to go can simply shift the risk to the most vulnerable. Unsafe workplaces may be low on our agenda, but they do pose a real danger. Bill Hanage, associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard, pointed me to a paper he co-authored: Workplace-safety complaints to OSHA—which oversees occupational-safety regulations—during the pandemic were predictive of increases in deaths 16 days later.
New data highlight the terrible toll of inequality: Life expectancy has decreased dramatically over the past year, with Black people losing the most from this disease, followed by members of the Hispanic community. Minorities are also more likely to die of COVID-19 at a younger age. But when the new CDC director, Rochelle Walensky, noted this terrible statistic, she immediately followed up by urging people to “continue to use proven prevention steps to slow the spread—wear a well-fitting mask, stay 6 ft away from those you do not live with, avoid crowds and poorly ventilated places, and wash hands often.”
Those recommendations aren’t wrong, but they are incomplete. None of these individual acts do enough to protect those to whom such choices aren’t available—and the CDC has yet to issue sufficient guidelines for workplace ventilation or to make higher-filtration masks mandatory, or even available, for essential workers. Nor are these proscriptions paired frequently enough with prescriptions: Socialize outdoors, keep parks open, and let children play with one another outdoors.
Vaccines are the tool that will end the pandemic. The story of their rollout combines some of our strengths and our weaknesses, revealing the limitations of the way we think and evaluate evidence, provide guidelines, and absorb and react to an uncertain and difficult situation.
But also, after a weary year, maybe it’s hard for everyone—including scientists, journalists, and public-health officials—to imagine the end, to have hope. We adjust to new conditions fairly quickly, even terrible new conditions. During this pandemic, we’ve adjusted to things many of us never thought were possible. Billions of people have led dramatically smaller, circumscribed lives, and dealt with closed schools, the inability to see loved ones, the loss of jobs, the absence of communal activities, and the threat and reality of illness and death.
Hope nourishes us during the worst times, but it is also dangerous. It upsets the delicate balance of survival—where we stop hoping and focus on getting by—and opens us up to crushing disappointment if things don’t pan out. After a terrible year, many things are understandably making it harder for us to dare to hope. But, especially in the United States, everything looks better by the day. Tragically, at least 28 million Americans have been confirmed to have been infected, but the real number is certainly much higher. By one estimate, as many as 80 million have already been infected with COVID-19, and many of those people now have some level of immunity. Another 46 million people have already received at least one dose of a vaccine, and we’re vaccinating millions more each day as the supply constraints ease. The vaccines are poised to reduce or nearly eliminate the things we worry most about—severe disease, hospitalization, and death.
Not all our problems are solved. We need to get through the next few months, as we race to vaccinate against more transmissible variants. We need to do more to address equity in the United States—because it is the right thing to do, and because failing to vaccinate the highest-risk people will slow the population impact. We need to make sure that vaccines don’t remain inaccessible to poorer countries. We need to keep up our epidemiological surveillance so that if we do notice something that looks like it may threaten our progress, we can respond swiftly.
And the public behavior of the vaccinated cannot change overnight—even if they are at much lower risk, it’s not reasonable to expect a grocery store to try to verify who’s vaccinated, or to have two classes of people with different rules. For now, it’s courteous and prudent for everyone to obey the same guidelines in many public places. Still, vaccinated people can feel more confident in doing things they may have avoided, just in case—getting a haircut, taking a trip to see a loved one, browsing for nonessential purchases in a store.
But it is time to imagine a better future, not just because it’s drawing nearer but because that’s how we get through what remains and keep our guard up as necessary. It’s also realistic—reflecting the genuine increased safety for the vaccinated.
Public-health agencies should immediately start providing expanded information to vaccinated people so they can make informed decisions about private behavior. This is justified by the encouraging data, and a great way to get the word out on how wonderful these vaccines really are. The delay itself has great human costs, especially for those among the elderly who have been isolated for so long.
Public-health authorities should also be louder and more explicit about the next steps, giving us guidelines for when we can expect easing in rules for public behavior as well. We need the exit strategy spelled out—but with graduated, targeted measures rather than a one-size-fits-all message. We need to let people know that getting a vaccine will almost immediately change their lives for the better, and why, and also when and how increased vaccination will change more than their individual risks and opportunities, and see us out of this pandemic.
We should encourage people to dream about the end of this pandemic by talking about it more, and more concretely: the numbers, hows, and whys. Offering clear guidance on how this will end can help strengthen people’s resolve to endure whatever is necessary for the moment—even if they are still unvaccinated—by building warranted and realistic anticipation of the pandemic’s end.
Hope will get us through this. And one day soon, you’ll be able to hop off the subway on your way to a concert, pick up a newspaper, and find the triumphant headline: “COVID Routed!”
Zeynep Tufekci is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and an associate professor at the University of North Carolina. She studies the interaction between digital technology, artificial intelligence, and society.
Many scientists are expecting another rise in infections. But this time the surge will be blunted by vaccines and, hopefully, widespread caution. By summer, Americans may be looking at a return to normal life.
Published Feb. 25, 2021Updated Feb. 26, 2021, 12:07 a.m. ET
Across the United States, and the world, the coronavirus seems to be loosening its stranglehold. The deadly curve of cases, hospitalizations and deaths has yo-yoed before, but never has it plunged so steeply and so fast.
Is this it, then? Is this the beginning of the end? After a year of being pummeled by grim statistics and scolded for wanting human contact, many Americans feel a long-promised deliverance is at hand.
Americans will win against the virus and regain many aspects of their pre-pandemic lives, most scientists now believe. Of the 21 interviewed for this article, all were optimistic that the worst of the pandemic is past. This summer, they said, life may begin to seem normal again.
But — of course, there’s always a but — researchers are also worried that Americans, so close to the finish line, may once again underestimate the virus.
So far, the two vaccines authorized in the United States are spectacularly effective, and after a slow start, the vaccination rollout is picking up momentum. A third vaccine is likely to be authorized shortly, adding to the nation’s supply.
But it will be many weeks before vaccinations make a dent in the pandemic. And now the virus is shape-shifting faster than expected, evolving into variants that may partly sidestep the immune system.
The latest variant was discovered in New York City only this week, and another worrisome version is spreading at a rapid pace through California. Scientists say a contagious variant first discovered in Britain will become the dominant form of the virus in the United States by the end of March.
The road back to normalcy is potholed with unknowns: how well vaccines prevent further spread of the virus; whether emerging variants remain susceptible enough to the vaccines; and how quickly the world is immunized, so as to halt further evolution of the virus.
But the greatest ambiguity is human behavior. Can Americans desperate for normalcy keep wearing masks and distancing themselves from family and friends? How much longer can communities keep businesses, offices and schools closed?
Covid-19 deaths will most likely never rise quite as precipitously as in the past, and the worst may be behind us. But if Americans let down their guard too soon — many states are already lifting restrictions — and if the variants spread in the United States as they have elsewhere, another spike in cases may well arrive in the coming weeks.
Scientists call it the fourth wave. The new variants mean “we’re essentially facing a pandemic within a pandemic,” said Adam Kucharski, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
The declines are real, but they disguise worrying trends.
The United States has now recorded 500,000 deaths amid the pandemic, a terrible milestone. As of Wednesday morning, at least 28.3 million people have been infected.
Yet the numbers are still at the horrific highs of November, scientists noted. At least 3,210 people died of Covid-19 on Wednesday alone. And there is no guarantee that these rates will continue to decrease.
“Very, very high case numbers are not a good thing, even if the trend is downward,” said Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston. “Taking the first hint of a downward trend as a reason to reopen is how you get to even higher numbers.”
In late November, for example, Gov. Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island limited social gatherings and some commercial activities in the state. Eight days later, cases began to decline. The trend reversed eight days after the state’s pause lifted on Dec. 20.
The virus’s latest retreat in Rhode Island and most other states, experts said, results from a combination of factors: growing numbers of people with immunity to the virus, either from having been infected or from vaccination; changes in behavior in response to the surges of a few weeks ago; and a dash of seasonality — the effect of temperature and humidity on the survival of the virus.
The vaccines were first rolled out to residents of nursing homes and to the elderly, who are at highest risk of severe illness and death. That may explain some of the current decline in hospitalizations and deaths.
But young people drive the spread of the virus, and most of them have not yet been inoculated. And the bulk of the world’s vaccine supply has been bought up by wealthy nations, which have amassed one billion more doses than needed to immunize their populations.
Vaccination cannot explain why cases are dropping even in countries where not a single soul has been immunized, like Honduras, Kazakhstan or Libya. The biggest contributor to the sharp decline in infections is something more mundane, scientists say: behavioral change.
Leaders in the United States and elsewhere stepped up community restrictions after the holiday peaks. But individual choices have also been important, said Lindsay Wiley, an expert in public health law and ethics at American University in Washington.
“People voluntarily change their behavior as they see their local hospital get hit hard, as they hear about outbreaks in their area,” she said. “If that’s the reason that things are improving, then that’s something that can reverse pretty quickly, too.”
The downward curve of infections with the original coronavirus disguises an exponential rise in infections with B.1.1.7, the variant first identified in Britain, according to many researchers.
“We really are seeing two epidemic curves,” said Ashleigh Tuite, an infectious disease modeler at the University of Toronto.
The B.1.1.7 variant is thought to be more contagious and more deadly, and it is expected to become the predominant form of the virus in the United States by late March. The number of cases with the variant in the United States has risen from 76 in 12 states as of Jan. 13 to more than 1,800 in 45 states now. Actual infections may be much higher because of inadequate surveillance efforts in the United States.
Buoyed by the shrinking rates over all, however, governors are lifting restrictions across the United States and are under enormous pressure to reopen completely. Should that occur, B.1.1.7 and the other variants are likely to explode.
“Everybody is tired, and everybody wants things to open up again,” Dr. Tuite said. “Bending to political pressure right now, when things are really headed in the right direction, is going to end up costing us in the long term.”
Another wave may be coming, but it can be minimized.
Looking ahead to late March or April, the majority of scientists interviewed by The Times predicted a fourth wave of infections. But they stressed that it is not an inevitable surge, if government officials and individuals maintain precautions for a few more weeks.
A minority of experts were more sanguine, saying they expected powerful vaccines and an expanding rollout to stop the virus. And a few took the middle road.
“We’re at that crossroads, where it could go well or it could go badly,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
The vaccines have proved to be more effective than anyone could have hoped, so far preventing serious illness and death in nearly all recipients. At present, about 1.4 million Americans are vaccinated each day. More than 45 million Americans have received at least one dose.
A team of researchers at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle tried to calculate the number of vaccinations required per day to avoid a fourth wave. In a model completed before the variants surfaced, the scientists estimated that vaccinating just one million Americans a day would limit the magnitude of the fourth wave.
“But the new variants completely changed that,” said Dr. Joshua T. Schiffer, an infectious disease specialist who led the study. “It’s just very challenging scientifically — the ground is shifting very, very quickly.”
Natalie Dean, a biostatistician at the University of Florida, described herself as “a little more optimistic” than many other researchers. “We would be silly to undersell the vaccines,” she said, noting that they are effective against the fast-spreading B.1.1.7 variant.
But Dr. Dean worried about the forms of the virus detected in South Africa and Brazil that seem less vulnerable to the vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna. (On Wednesday, Johnson & Johnson reported that its vaccine was relatively effective against the variant found in South Africa.)
About 50 infections with those two variants have been identified in the United States, but that could change. Because of the variants, scientists do not know how many people who were infected and had recovered are now vulnerable to reinfection.
South Africa and Brazil have reported reinfections with the new variants among people who had recovered from infections with the original version of the virus.
“That makes it a lot harder to say, ‘If we were to get to this level of vaccinations, we’d probably be OK,’” said Sarah Cobey, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago.
Yet the biggest unknown is human behavior, experts said. The sharp drop in cases now may lead to complacency about masks and distancing, and to a wholesale lifting of restrictions on indoor dining, sporting events and more. Or … not.
“The single biggest lesson I’ve learned during the pandemic is that epidemiological modeling struggles with prediction, because so much of it depends on human behavioral factors,” said Carl Bergstrom, a biologist at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Taking into account the counterbalancing rises in both vaccinations and variants, along with the high likelihood that people will stop taking precautions, a fourth wave is highly likely this spring, the majority of experts told The Times.
Kristian Andersen, a virologist at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, said he was confident that the number of cases will continue to decline, then plateau in about a month. After mid-March, the curve in new cases will swing upward again.
In early to mid-April, “we’re going to start seeing hospitalizations go up,” he said. “It’s just a question of how much.”
Summer will feel like summer again, sort of.
Now the good news.
Despite the uncertainties, the experts predict that the last surge will subside in the United States sometime in the early summer. If the Biden administration can keep its promise to immunize every American adult by the end of the summer, the variants should be no match for the vaccines.
Combine vaccination with natural immunity and the human tendency to head outdoors as weather warms, and “it may not be exactly herd immunity, but maybe it’s sufficient to prevent any large outbreaks,” said Youyang Gu, an independent data scientist, who created some of the most prescient models of the pandemic.
Infections will continue to drop. More important, hospitalizations and deaths will fall to negligible levels — enough, hopefully, to reopen the country.
“Sometimes people lose vision of the fact that vaccines prevent hospitalization and death, which is really actually what most people care about,” said Stefan Baral, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Even as the virus begins its swoon, people may still need to wear masks in public places and maintain social distance, because a significant percent of the population — including children — will not be immunized.
“Assuming that we keep a close eye on things in the summer and don’t go crazy, I think that we could look forward to a summer that is looking more normal, but hopefully in a way that is more carefully monitored than last summer,” said Emma Hodcroft, a molecular epidemiologist at the University of Bern in Switzerland.
Imagine: Groups of vaccinated people will be able to get together for barbecues and play dates, without fear of infecting one another. Beaches, parks and playgrounds will be full of mask-free people. Indoor dining will return, along with movie theaters, bowling alleys and shopping malls — although they may still require masks.
The virus will still be circulating, but the extent will depend in part on how well vaccines prevent not just illness and death, but also transmission. The data on whether vaccines stop the spread of the disease are encouraging, but immunization is unlikely to block transmission entirely.
“It’s not zero and it’s not 100 — exactly where that number is will be important,” said Shweta Bansal, an infectious disease modeler at Georgetown University. “It needs to be pretty darn high for us to be able to get away with vaccinating anything below 100 percent of the population, so that’s definitely something we’re watching.”
Over the long term — say, a year from now, when all the adults and children in the United States who want a vaccine have received them — will this virus finally be behind us?
Every expert interviewed by The Times said no. Even after the vast majority of the American population has been immunized, the virus will continue to pop up in clusters, taking advantage of pockets of vulnerability. Years from now, the coronavirus may be an annoyance, circulating at low levels, causing modest colds.
Many scientists said their greatest worry post-pandemic was that new variants may turn out to be significantly less susceptible to the vaccines. Billions of people worldwide will remain unprotected, and each infection gives the virus new opportunities to mutate.
“We won’t have useless vaccines. We might have slightly less good vaccines than we have at the moment,” said Andrew Read, an evolutionary microbiologist at Penn State University. “That’s not the end of the world, because we have really good vaccines right now.”
For now, every one of us can help by continuing to be careful for just a few more months, until the curve permanently flattens.
“Just hang in there a little bit longer,” Dr. Tuite said. “There’s a lot of optimism and hope, but I think we need to be prepared for the fact that the next several months are likely to continue to be difficult.”
Christopher Flavelle, Brad Plumer, Hiroko Tabuchi – Feb 20, 2021
Continent-spanning storms triggered blackouts in Oklahoma and Mississippi, halted one-third of U.S. oil production and disrupted vaccinations in 20 states.
Even as Texas struggled to restore electricity and water over the past week, signs of the risks posed by increasingly extreme weather to America’s aging infrastructure were cropping up across the country.
The week’s continent-spanning winter storms triggered blackouts in Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi and several other states. One-third of oil production in the nation was halted. Drinking-water systems in Ohio were knocked offline. Road networks nationwide were paralyzed and vaccination efforts in 20 states were disrupted.
The crisis carries a profound warning. As climate change brings more frequent and intense storms, floods, heat waves, wildfires and other extreme events, it is placing growing stress on the foundations of the country’s economy: Its network of roads and railways, drinking-water systems, power plants, electrical grids, industrial waste sites and even homes. Failures in just one sector can set off a domino effect of breakdowns in hard-to-predict ways.
Much of this infrastructure was built decades ago, under the expectation that the environment around it would remain stable, or at least fluctuate within predictable bounds. Now climate change is upending that assumption.
“We are colliding with a future of extremes,” said Alice Hill, who oversaw planning for climate risks on the National Security Council during the Obama administration. “We base all our choices about risk management on what’s occurred in the past, and that is no longer a safe guide.”
Sewer systems are overflowing more often as powerful rainstorms exceed their design capacity. Coastal homes and highways are collapsing as intensified runoff erodes cliffs. Coal ash, the toxic residue produced by coal-burning plants, is spilling into rivers as floods overwhelm barriers meant to hold it back. Homes once beyond the reach of wildfires are burning in blazes they were never designed to withstand.
Problems like these often reflect an inclination of governments to spend as little money as possible, said Shalini Vajjhala, a former Obama administration official who now advises cities on meeting climate threats. She said it’s hard to persuade taxpayers to spend extra money to guard against disasters that seem unlikely.
But climate change flips that logic, making inaction far costlier. “The argument I would make is, we can’t afford not to, because we’re absorbing the costs” later, Ms. Vajjhala said, after disasters strike. “We’re spending poorly.”
The Biden administration has talked extensively about climate change, particularly the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create jobs in renewable energy. But it has spent less time discussing how to manage the growing effects of climate change, facing criticism from experts for not appointing more people who focus on climate resilience.
“I am extremely concerned by the lack of emergency-management expertise reflected in Biden’s climate team,” said Samantha Montano, an assistant professor at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy who focuses on disaster policy. “There’s an urgency here that still is not being reflected.”
A White House spokesman, Vedant Patel, said in a statement, “Building resilient and sustainable infrastructure that can withstand extreme weather and a changing climate will play an integral role in creating millions of good paying, union jobs” while cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
And while President Biden has called for a major push to refurbish and upgrade the nation’s infrastructure, getting a closely divided Congress to spend hundreds of billions, if not trillions of dollars, will be a major challenge.
Heightening the cost to society, disruptions can disproportionately affect lower-income households and other vulnerable groups, including older people or those with limited English.
“All these issues are converging,” said Robert D. Bullard, a professor at Texas Southern University who studies wealth and racial disparities related to the environment. “And there’s simply no place in this country that’s not going to have to deal with climate change.”
Many forms of water crisis
In September, when a sudden storm dumped a record of more than two inches of water on Washington in less than 75 minutes, the result wasn’t just widespread flooding, but also raw sewage rushing into hundreds of homes.
Washington, like many other cities in the Northeast and Midwest, relies on what’s called a combined sewer overflow system: If a downpour overwhelms storm drains along the street, they are built to overflow into the pipes that carry raw sewage. But if there’s too much pressure, sewage can be pushed backward, into people’s homes — where the forces can send it erupting from toilets and shower drains.
This is what happened in Washington. The city’s system was built in the late 1800s. Now, climate change is straining an already outdated design.
DC Water, the local utility, is spending billions of dollars so that the system can hold more sewage. “We’re sort of in uncharted territory,” said Vincent Morris, a utility spokesman.
The challenge of managing and taming the nation’s water supplies — whether in streets and homes, or in vast rivers and watersheds — is growing increasingly complex as storms intensify. Last May, rain-swollen flooding breached two dams in Central Michigan, forcing thousands of residents to flee their homes and threatening a chemical complex and toxic waste cleanup site. Experts warned it was unlikely to be the last such failure.
Many of the country’s 90,000 dams were built decades ago and were already in dire need of repairs. Now climate change poses an additional threat, bringing heavier downpours to parts of the country and raising the odds that some dams could be overwhelmed by more water than they were designed to handle. One recent study found that most of California’s biggest dams were at increased risk of failure as global warming advances.
In recent years, dam-safety officials have begun grappling with the dangers. Colorado, for instance, now requires dam builders to take into account the risk of increased atmospheric moisture driven by climate change as they plan for worst-case flooding scenarios.
But nationwide, there remains a backlog of thousands of older dams that still need to be rehabilitated or upgraded. The price tag could ultimately stretch to more than $70 billion.
“Whenever we study dam failures, we often find there was a lot of complacency beforehand,” said Bill McCormick, president of the Association of State Dam Safety Officials. But given that failures can have catastrophic consequences, “we really can’t afford to be complacent.”
Built for a different future
If the Texas blackouts exposed one state’s poor planning, they also provide a warning for the nation: Climate change threatens virtually every aspect of electricity grids that aren’t always designed to handle increasingly severe weather. The vulnerabilities show up in power lines, natural-gas plants, nuclear reactors and myriad other systems.
Higher storm surges can knock out coastal power infrastructure. Deeper droughts can reduce water supplies for hydroelectric dams. Severe heat waves can reduce the efficiency of fossil-fuel generators, transmission lines and even solar panels at precisely the moment that demand soars because everyone cranks up their air-conditioners.
Climate hazards can also combine in new and unforeseen ways.
In California recently, Pacific Gas & Electric has had to shut off electricity to thousands of people during exceptionally dangerous fire seasons. The reason: Downed power lines can spark huge wildfires in dry vegetation. Then, during a record-hot August last year, several of the state’s natural gas plants malfunctioned in the heat, just as demand was spiking, contributing to blackouts.
“We have to get better at understanding these compound impacts,” said Michael Craig, an expert in energy systems at the University of Michigan who recently led a study looking at how rising summer temperatures in Texas could strain the grid in unexpected ways. “It’s an incredibly complex problem to plan for.”
Some utilities are taking notice. After Superstorm Sandy in 2012 knocked out power for 8.7 million customers, utilities in New York and New Jersey invested billions in flood walls, submersible equipment and other technology to reduce the risk of failures. Last month, New York’s Con Edison said it would incorporate climate projections into its planning.
As freezing temperatures struck Texas, a glitch at one of two reactors at a South Texas nuclear plant, which serves 2 million homes, triggered a shutdown. The cause: Sensing lines connected to the plant’s water pumps had frozen, said Victor Dricks, a spokesman for the federal Nuclear Regulatory Agency.
It’s also common for extreme heat to disrupt nuclear power. The issue is that the water used to cool reactors can become too warm to use, forcing shutdowns.
Flooding is another risk.
After a tsunami led to several meltdowns at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant in 2011, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission told the 60 or so working nuclear plants in the United States, many decades old, to evaluate their flood risk to account for climate change. Ninety percent showed at least one type of flood risk that exceeded what the plant was designed to handle.
The greatest risk came from heavy rain and snowfall exceeding the design parameters at 53 plants.
Scott Burnell, an Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman, said in a statement, “The NRC continues to conclude, based on the staff’s review of detailed analyses, that all U.S. nuclear power plants can appropriately deal with potential flooding events, including the effects of climate change, and remain safe.”
Several climate-related risks appeared to have converged to heighten the danger. Rising seas and higher storm surges have intensified coastal erosion, while more extreme bouts of precipitation have increased the landslide risk.
Add to that the effects of devastating wildfires, which can damage the vegetation holding hillside soil in place, and “things that wouldn’t have slid without the wildfires, start sliding,” said Jennifer M. Jacobs, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of New Hampshire. “I think we’re going to see more of that.”
The United States depends on highways, railroads and bridges as economic arteries for commerce, travel and simply getting to work. But many of the country’s most important links face mounting climate threats. More than 60,000 miles of roads and bridges in coastal floodplains are already vulnerable to extreme storms and hurricanes, government estimates show. And inland flooding could also threaten at least 2,500 bridges across the country by 2050, a federal climate report warned in 2018.
Sometimes even small changes can trigger catastrophic failures. Engineers modeling the collapse of bridges over Escambia Bay in Florida during Hurricane Ivan in 2004 found that the extra three inches of sea-level rise since the bridge was built in 1968 very likely contributed to the collapse, because of the added height of the storm surge and force of the waves.
“A lot of our infrastructure systems have a tipping point. And when you hit the tipping point, that’s when a failure occurs,” Dr. Jacobs said. “And the tipping point could be an inch.”
Crucial rail networks are at risk, too. In 2017, Amtrak consultants found that along parts of the Northeast corridor, which runs from Boston to Washington and carries 12 million people a year, flooding and storm surge could erode the track bed, disable the signals and eventually put the tracks underwater.
And there is no easy fix. Elevating the tracks would require also raising bridges, electrical wires and lots of other infrastructure, and moving them would mean buying new land in a densely packed part of the country. So the report recommended flood barriers, costing $24 million per mile, that must be moved into place whenever floods threaten.
The blasts at the plant came after flooding knocked out the site’s electrical supply, shutting down refrigeration systems that kept volatile chemicals stable. Almost two dozen people, many of them emergency workers, were treated for exposure to the toxic fumes, and some 200 nearby residents were evacuated from their homes.
More than 2,500 facilities that handle toxic chemicals lie in federal flood-prone areas across the country, about 1,400 of them in areas at the highest risk of flooding, a New York Times analysis showed in 2018.
Leaks from toxic cleanup sites, left behind by past industry, pose another threat.
Almost two-thirds of some 1,500 superfund cleanup sites across the country are in areas with an elevated risk of flooding, storm surge, wildfires or sea level rise, a government audit warned in 2019. Coal ash, a toxic substance produced by coal power plants that is often stored as sludge in special ponds, have been particularly exposed. After Hurricane Florence in 2018, for example, a dam breach at the site of a power plant in Wilmington, N.C., released the hazardous ash into a nearby river.
“We should be evaluating whether these facilities or sites actually have to be moved or re-secured,” said Lisa Evans, senior counsel at Earthjustice, an environmental law organization. Places that “may have been OK in 1990,” she said, “may be a disaster waiting to happen in 2021.”
Systems are designed to handle spikes in demand, but the wild and unpredictable weather linked to global warming will very likely push grids beyond their limits.
Published Feb. 16, 2021Updated Feb. 17, 2021, 6:59 a.m. ET
Huge winter storms plunged large parts of the central and southern United States into an energy crisis this week, with frigid blasts of Arctic weather crippling electric grids and leaving millions of Americans without power amid dangerously cold temperatures.
The grid failures were most severe in Texas, where more than four million people woke up Tuesday morning to rolling blackouts. Separate regional grids in the Southwest and Midwest also faced serious strain. As of Tuesday afternoon, at least 23 people nationwide had died in the storm or its aftermath.
Analysts have begun to identify key factors behind the grid failures in Texas. Record-breaking cold weather spurred residents to crank up their electric heaters and pushed power demand beyond the worst-case scenarios that grid operators had planned for. At the same time, a large fraction of the state’s gas-fired power plants were knocked offline amid icy conditions, with some plants suffering fuel shortages as natural gas demand spiked. Many of Texas’ wind turbines also froze and stopped working.
The crisis sounded an alarm for power systems throughout the country. Electric grids can be engineered to handle a wide range of severe conditions — as long as grid operators can reliably predict the dangers ahead. But as climate change accelerates, many electric grids will face extreme weather events that go far beyond the historical conditions those systems were designed for, putting them at risk of catastrophic failure.
Measures that could help make electric grids more robust — such as fortifying power plants against extreme weather, or installing more backup power sources — could prove expensive. But as Texas shows, blackouts can be extremely costly, too. And, experts said, unless grid planners start planning for increasingly wild and unpredictable climate conditions, grid failures will happen again and again.
“It’s essentially a question of how much insurance you want to buy,” said Jesse Jenkins, an energy systems engineer at Princeton University. “What makes this problem even harder is that we’re now in a world where, especially with climate change, the past is no longer a good guide to the future. We have to get much better at preparing for the unexpected.”
A System Pushed to the Limit
Texas’ main electric grid, which largely operates independently from the rest of the country, has been built with the state’s most common weather extremes in mind: soaring summer temperatures that cause millions of Texans to turn up their air-conditioners all at once.
While freezing weather is rarer, grid operators in Texas have also long known that electricity demand can spike in the winter, particularly after damaging cold snaps in 2011 and 2018. But this week’s winter storms, which buried the state in snow and ice, and led to record-cold temperatures, surpassed all expectations — and pushed the grid to its breaking point.
Texas’ grid operators had anticipated that, in the worst case, the state would use 67 gigawatts of electricity during the winter peak. But by Sunday evening, power demand had surged past that level. As temperatures dropped, many homes were relying on older, inefficient electric heaters that consume more power.
The problems compounded from there, with frigid weather on Monday disabling power plants with capacity totaling more than 30 gigawatts. The vast majority of those failures occurred at thermal power plants, like natural gas generators, as plummeting temperatures paralyzed plant equipment and soaring demand for natural gas left some plants struggling to obtain sufficient fuel. A number of the state’s power plants were also offline for scheduled maintenance in preparation for the summer peak.
The state’s fleet of wind farms also lost up to 4.5 gigawatts of capacity at times, as many turbines stopped working in cold and icy conditions, though this was a smaller part of the problem.
In essence, experts said, an electric grid optimized to deliver huge quantities of power on the hottest days of the year was caught unprepared when temperatures plummeted.
While analysts are still working to untangle all of the reasons behind Texas’ grid failures, some have also wondered whether the unique way the state manages its largely deregulated electricity system may have played a role. In the mid-1990s, for instance, Texas decided against paying energy producers to hold a fixed number of backup power plants in reserve, instead letting market forces dictate what happens on the grid.
On Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott called for an emergency reform of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the nonprofit corporation that oversees the flow of power in the state, saying its performance had been “anything but reliable” over the previous 48 hours.
‘A Difficult Balancing Act’
In theory, experts said, there are technical solutions that can avert such problems.
Wind turbines can be equipped with heaters and other devices so that they can operate in icy conditions — as is often done in the upper Midwest, where cold weather is more common. Gas plants can be built to store oil on-site and switch over to burning the fuel if needed, as is often done in the Northeast, where natural gas shortages are common. Grid regulators can design markets that pay extra to keep a larger fleet of backup power plants in reserve in case of emergencies, as is done in the Mid-Atlantic.
But these solutions all cost money, and grid operators are often wary of forcing consumers to pay extra for safeguards.
“Building in resilience often comes at a cost, and there’s a risk of both underpaying but also of overpaying,” said Daniel Cohan, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University. “It’s a difficult balancing act.”
In the months ahead, as Texas grid operators and policymakers investigate this week’s blackouts, they will likely explore how the grid might be bolstered to handle extremely cold weather. Some possible ideas include: Building more connections between Texas and other states to balance electricity supplies, a move the state has long resisted; encouraging homeowners to install battery backup systems; or keeping additional power plants in reserve.
The search for answers will be complicated by climate change. Over all, the state is getting warmer as global temperatures rise, and cold-weather extremes are, on average, becoming less common over time.
But some climate scientists have also suggested that global warming could, paradoxically, bring more unusually fierce winter storms. Some research indicates that Arctic warming is weakening the jet stream, the high-level air current that circles the northern latitudes and usually holds back the frigid polar vortex. This can allow cold air to periodically escape to the South, resulting in episodes of bitter cold in places that rarely get nipped by frost.
But this remains an active area of debate among climate scientists, with some experts less certain that polar vortex disruptions are becoming more frequent, making it even trickier for electricity planners to anticipate the dangers ahead.
All over the country, utilities and grid operators are confronting similar questions, as climate change threatens to intensify heat waves, floods, water shortages and other calamities, all of which could create novel risks for the nation’s electricity systems. Adapting to those risks could carry a hefty price tag: One recent study found that the Southeast alone may need 35 percent more electric capacity by 2050 simply to deal with the known hazards of climate change.
And the task of building resilience is becoming increasingly urgent. Many policymakers are promoting electric cars and electric heating as a way of curbing greenhouse gas emissions. But as more of the nation’s economy depends on reliable flows of electricity, the cost of blackouts will become ever more dire.
“This is going to be a significant challenge,” said Emily Grubert, an infrastructure expert at Georgia Tech. “We need to decarbonize our power systems so that climate change doesn’t keep getting worse, but we also need to adapt to changing conditions at the same time. And the latter alone is going to be very costly. We can already see that the systems we have today aren’t handling this very well.”
John Schwartz, Dave Montgomery and Ivan Penn contributed reporting.
The planet is hotter now than it has been for at least 12,000 years, a period spanning the entire development of human civilisation, according to research.
Analysis of ocean surface temperatures shows human-driven climate change has put the world in “uncharted territory”, the scientists say. The planet may even be at its warmest for 125,000 years, although data on that far back is less certain.
The research, published in the journal Nature, reached these conclusions by solving a longstanding puzzle known as the “Holocene temperature conundrum”. Climate models have indicated continuous warming since the last ice age ended 12,000 years ago and the Holocene period began. But temperature estimates derived from fossil shells showed a peak of warming 6,000 years ago and then a cooling, until the industrial revolution sent carbon emissions soaring.
This conflict undermined confidence in the climate models and the shell data. But it was found that the shell data reflected only hotter summers and missed colder winters, and so was giving misleadingly high annual temperatures.
“We demonstrate that global average annual temperature has been rising over the last 12,000 years, contrary to previous results,” said Samantha Bova, at Rutgers University–New Brunswick in the US, who led the research. “This means that the modern, human-caused global warming period is accelerating a long-term increase in global temperatures, making today completely uncharted territory. It changes the baseline and emphasises just how critical it is to take our situation seriously.”
The world may be hotter now than any time since about 125,000 years ago, which was the last warm period between ice ages. However, scientists cannot be certain as there is less data relating to that time.
One study, published in 2017, suggested that global temperatures were last as high as today 115,000 years ago, but that was based on less data.
The new research is published in the journal Nature and examined temperature measurements derived from the chemistry of tiny shells and algal compounds found in cores of ocean sediments, and solved the conundrum by taking account of two factors.
First, the shells and organic materials had been assumed to represent the entire year but in fact were most likely to have formed during summer when the organisms bloomed. Second, there are well-known predictable natural cycles in the heating of the Earth caused by eccentricities in the orbit of the planet. Changes in these cycles can lead to summers becoming hotter and winters colder while average annual temperatures change only a little.
Combining these insights showed that the apparent cooling after the warm peak 6,000 years ago, revealed by shell data, was misleading. The shells were in fact only recording a decline in summer temperatures, but the average annual temperatures were still rising slowly, as indicated by the models.
“Now they actually match incredibly well and it gives us a lot of confidence that our climate models are doing a really good job,” said Bova.
The study looked only at ocean temperature records, but Bova said: “The temperature of the sea surface has a really controlling impact on the climate of the Earth. If we know that, it is the best indicator of what global climate is doing.”
She led a research voyage off the coast of Chile in 2020 to take more ocean sediment cores and add to the available data.
Jennifer Hertzberg, of Texas A&M University in the US, said: “By solving a conundrum that has puzzled climate scientists for years, Bova and colleagues’ study is a major step forward. Understanding past climate change is crucial for putting modern global warming in context.”
Lijing Cheng, at the International Centre for Climate and Environment Sciences in Beijing, China, recently led a study that showed that in 2020 the world’s oceans reached their hottest level yet in instrumental records dating back to the 1940s. More than 90% of global heating is taken up by the seas.
Cheng said the new research was useful and intriguing. It provided a method to correct temperature data from shells and could also enable scientists to work out how much heat the ocean absorbed before the industrial revolution, a factor little understood.
Audrey Azoulay: Director-General, Unesco How will AI shape our lives post-Covid?
Covid-19 is a test like no other. Never before have the lives of so many people around the world been affected at this scale or speed.
Over the past six months, thousands of AI innovations have sprung up in response to the challenges of life under lockdown. Governments are mobilising machine-learning in many ways, from contact-tracing apps to telemedicine and remote learning.
However, as the digital transformation accelerates exponentially, it is highlighting the challenges of AI. Ethical dilemmas are already a reality – including privacy risks and discriminatory bias.
It is up to us to decide what we want AI to look like: there is a legislative vacuum that needs to be filled now. Principles such as proportionality, inclusivity, human oversight and transparency can create a framework allowing us to anticipate these issues.
This is why Unesco is working to build consensus among 193 countries to lay the ethical foundations of AI. Building on these principles, countries will be able to develop national policies that ensure AI is designed, developed and deployed in compliance with fundamental human values.
As we face new, previously unimaginable challenges – like the pandemic – we must ensure that the tools we are developing work for us, and not against us.
Earlier this summer, the Summit supercomputer at Oak Ridge National Lab in Tennessee set about crunching data on more than 40,000 genes from 17,000 genetic samples in an effort to better understand Covid-19. Summit is the second-fastest computer in the world, but the process — which involved analyzing 2.5 billion genetic combinations — still took more than a week.
When Summit was done, researchers analyzed the results. It was, in the words of Dr. Daniel Jacobson, lead researcher and chief scientist for computational systems biology at Oak Ridge, a “eureka moment.” The computer had revealed a new theory about how Covid-19 impacts the body: the bradykinin hypothesis. The hypothesis provides a model that explains many aspects of Covid-19, including some of its most bizarre symptoms. It also suggests 10-plus potential treatments, many of which are already FDA approved. Jacobson’s group published their results in a paper in the journal eLife in early July.
According to the team’s findings, a Covid-19 infection generally begins when the virus enters the body through ACE2 receptors in the nose, (The receptors, which the virus is known to target, are abundant there.) The virus then proceeds through the body, entering cells in other places where ACE2 is also present: the intestines, kidneys, and heart. This likely accounts for at least some of the disease’s cardiac and GI symptoms.
But once Covid-19 has established itself in the body, things start to get really interesting. According to Jacobson’s group, the data Summit analyzed shows that Covid-19 isn’t content to simply infect cells that already express lots of ACE2 receptors. Instead, it actively hijacks the body’s own systems, tricking it into upregulating ACE2 receptors in places where they’re usually expressed at low or medium levels, including the lungs.
In this sense, Covid-19 is like a burglar who slips in your unlocked second-floor window and starts to ransack your house. Once inside, though, they don’t just take your stuff — they also throw open all your doors and windows so their accomplices can rush in and help pillage more efficiently.
The renin–angiotensin system (RAS) controls many aspects of the circulatory system, including the body’s levels of a chemical called bradykinin, which normally helps to regulate blood pressure. According to the team’s analysis, when the virus tweaks the RAS, it causes the body’s mechanisms for regulating bradykinin to go haywire. Bradykinin receptors are resensitized, and the body also stops effectively breaking down bradykinin. (ACE normally degrades bradykinin, but when the virus downregulates it, it can’t do this as effectively.)
The end result, the researchers say, is to release a bradykinin storm — a massive, runaway buildup of bradykinin in the body. According to the bradykinin hypothesis, it’s this storm that is ultimately responsible for many of Covid-19’s deadly effects. Jacobson’s team says in their paper that “the pathology of Covid-19 is likely the result of Bradykinin Storms rather than cytokine storms,” which had been previously identified in Covid-19 patients, but that “the two may be intricately linked.” Other papers had previously identified bradykinin storms as a possible cause of Covid-19’s pathologies.
Covid-19 is like a burglar who slips in your unlocked second-floor window and starts to ransack your house.
As bradykinin builds up in the body, it dramatically increases vascular permeability. In short, it makes your blood vessels leaky. This aligns with recent clinical data, which increasingly views Covid-19 primarily as a vascular disease, rather than a respiratory one. But Covid-19 still has a massive effect on the lungs. As blood vessels start to leak due to a bradykinin storm, the researchers say, the lungs can fill with fluid. Immune cells also leak out into the lungs, Jacobson’s team found, causing inflammation.
And Covid-19 has another especially insidious trick. Through another pathway, the team’s data shows, it increases production of hyaluronic acid (HLA) in the lungs. HLA is often used in soaps and lotions for its ability to absorb more than 1,000 times its weight in fluid. When it combines with fluid leaking into the lungs, the results are disastrous: It forms a hydrogel, which can fill the lungs in some patients. According to Jacobson, once this happens, “it’s like trying to breathe through Jell-O.”
This may explain why ventilators have proven less effective in treating advanced Covid-19 than doctors originally expected, based on experiences with other viruses. “It reaches a point where regardless of how much oxygen you pump in, it doesn’t matter, because the alveoli in the lungs are filled with this hydrogel,” Jacobson says. “The lungs become like a water balloon.” Patients can suffocate even while receiving full breathing support.
The bradykinin hypothesis also extends to many of Covid-19’s effects on the heart. About one in five hospitalized Covid-19 patients have damage to their hearts, even if they never had cardiac issues before. Some of this is likely due to the virus infecting the heart directly through its ACE2 receptors. But the RAS also controls aspects of cardiac contractions and blood pressure. According to the researchers, bradykinin storms could create arrhythmias and low blood pressure, which are often seen in Covid-19 patients.
Bradykinin — especially at high doses — can also lead to a breakdown of the blood-brain barrier. Under normal circumstances, this barrier acts as a filter between your brain and the rest of your circulatory system. It lets in the nutrients and small molecules that the brain needs to function, while keeping out toxins and pathogens and keeping the brain’s internal environment tightly regulated.
If bradykinin storms cause the blood-brain barrier to break down, this could allow harmful cells and compounds into the brain, leading to inflammation, potential brain damage, and many of the neurological symptoms Covid-19 patients experience. Jacobson told me, “It is a reasonable hypothesis that many of the neurological symptoms in Covid-19 could be due to an excess of bradykinin. It has been reported that bradykinin would indeed be likely to increase the permeability of the blood-brain barrier. In addition, similar neurological symptoms have been observed in other diseases that result from an excess of bradykinin.”
Increased bradykinin levels could also account for other common Covid-19 symptoms. ACE inhibitors — a class of drugs used to treat high blood pressure — have a similar effect on the RAS system as Covid-19, increasing bradykinin levels. In fact, Jacobson and his team note in their paper that “the virus… acts pharmacologically as an ACE inhibitor” — almost directly mirroring the actions of these drugs.
By acting like a natural ACE inhibitor, Covid-19 may be causing the same effects that hypertensive patients sometimes get when they take blood pressure–lowering drugs. ACE inhibitors are known to cause a dry cough and fatigue, two textbook symptoms of Covid-19. And they can potentially increase blood potassium levels, which has also been observed in Covid-19 patients. The similarities between ACE inhibitor side effects and Covid-19 symptoms strengthen the bradykinin hypothesis, the researchers say.
ACE inhibitors are also known to cause a loss of taste and smell. Jacobson stresses, though, that this symptom is more likely due to the virus “affecting the cells surrounding olfactory nerve cells” than the direct effects of bradykinin.
Though still an emerging theory, the bradykinin hypothesis explains several other of Covid-19’s seemingly bizarre symptoms. Jacobson and his team speculate that leaky vasculature caused by bradykinin storms could be responsible for “Covid toes,” a condition involving swollen, bruised toes that some Covid-19 patients experience. Bradykinin can also mess with the thyroid gland, which could produce the thyroid symptoms recently observed in some patients.
The bradykinin hypothesis could also explain some of the broader demographic patterns of the disease’s spread. The researchers note that some aspects of the RAS system are sex-linked, with proteins for several receptors (such as one called TMSB4X) located on the X chromosome. This means that “women… would have twice the levels of this protein than men,” a result borne out by the researchers’ data. In their paper, Jacobson’s team concludes that this “could explain the lower incidence of Covid-19 induced mortality in women.” A genetic quirk of the RAS could be giving women extra protection against the disease.
The bradykinin hypothesis provides a model that “contributes to a better understanding of Covid-19” and “adds novelty to the existing literature,” according to scientists Frank van de Veerdonk, Jos WM van der Meer, and Roger Little, who peer-reviewed the team’s paper. It predicts nearly all the disease’s symptoms, even ones (like bruises on the toes) that at first appear random, and further suggests new treatments for the disease.
As Jacobson and team point out, several drugs target aspects of the RAS and are already FDA approved to treat other conditions. They could arguably be applied to treating Covid-19 as well. Several, like danazol, stanozolol, and ecallantide, reduce bradykinin production and could potentially stop a deadly bradykinin storm. Others, like icatibant, reduce bradykinin signaling and could blunt its effects once it’s already in the body.
Interestingly, Jacobson’s team also suggests vitamin D as a potentially useful Covid-19 drug. The vitamin is involved in the RAS system and could prove helpful by reducing levels of another compound, known as REN. Again, this could stop potentially deadly bradykinin storms from forming. The researchers note that vitamin D has already been shown to help those with Covid-19. The vitamin is readily available over the counter, and around 20% of the population is deficient. If indeed the vitamin proves effective at reducing the severity of bradykinin storms, it could be an easy, relatively safe way to reduce the severity of the virus.
Other compounds could treat symptoms associated with bradykinin storms. Hymecromone, for example, could reduce hyaluronic acid levels, potentially stopping deadly hydrogels from forming in the lungs. And timbetasin could mimic the mechanism that the researchers believe protects women from more severe Covid-19 infections. All of these potential treatments are speculative, of course, and would need to be studied in a rigorous, controlled environment before their effectiveness could be determined and they could be used more broadly.
Covid-19 stands out for both the scale of its global impact and the apparent randomness of its many symptoms. Physicians have struggled to understand the disease and come up with a unified theory for how it works. Though as of yet unproven, the bradykinin hypothesis provides such a theory. And like all good hypotheses, it also provides specific, testable predictions — in this case, actual drugs that could provide relief to real patients.
The researchers are quick to point out that “the testing of any of these pharmaceutical interventions should be done in well-designed clinical trials.” As to the next step in the process, Jacobson is clear: “We have to get this message out.” His team’s finding won’t cure Covid-19. But if the treatments it points to pan out in the clinic, interventions guided by the bradykinin hypothesis could greatly reduce patients’ suffering — and potentially save lives.
A simple mathematical mistake may explain why many people underestimate the dangers of coronavirus, shunning social distancing, masks and hand-washing.
Imagine you are offered a deal with your bank, where your money doubles every three days. If you invest just $1 today, roughly how long will it take for you to become a millionaire?
Would it be a year? Six months? 100 days?
The precise answer is 60 days from your initial investment, when your balance would be exactly $1,048,576. Within a further 30 days, you’d have earnt more than a billion. And by the end of the year, you’d have more than $1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 – an “undecillion” dollars.
If your estimates were way out, you are not alone. Many people consistently underestimate how fast the value increases – a mistake known as the “exponential growth bias” – and while it may seem abstract, it may have had profound consequences for people’s behaviour this year.
A spate of studies has shown that people who are susceptible to the exponential growth bias are less concerned about Covid-19’s spread, and less likely to endorse measures like social distancing, hand washing or mask wearing. In other words, this simple mathematical error could be costing lives – meaning that the correction of the bias should be a priority as we attempt to flatten curves and avoid second waves of the pandemic around the world.
To understand the origins of this particular bias, we first need to consider different kinds of growth. The most familiar is “linear”. If your garden produces three apples every day, you have six after two days, nine after three days, and so on.
Exponential growth, by contrast, accelerates over time. Perhaps the simplest example is population growth; the more people you have reproducing, the faster the population grows. Or if you have a weed in your pond that triples each day, the number of plants may start out low – just three on day two, and nine on day three – but it soon escalates (see diagram, below).
Many people assume that coronavirus spreads in a linear fashion, but unchecked it’s exponential (Credit: Nigel Hawtin)
Our tendency to overlook exponential growth has been known for millennia. According to an Indian legend, the brahmin Sissa ibn Dahir was offered a prize for inventing an early version of chess. He asked for one grain of wheat to be placed on the first square on the board, two for the second square, four for the third square, doubling each time up to the 64th square. The king apparently laughed at the humility of ibn Dahir’s request – until his treasurers reported that it would outstrip all the food in the land (18,446,744,073,709,551,615 grains in total).
It was only in the late 2000s that scientists started to study the bias formally, with research showing that most people – like Sissa ibn Dahir’s king – intuitively assume that most growth is linear, leading them to vastly underestimate the speed of exponential increase.
These initial studies were primarily concerned with the consequences for our bank balance. Most savings accounts offer compound interest, for example, where you accrue additional interest on the interest you have already earned. This is a classic example of exponential growth, and it means that even low interest rates pay off handsomely over time. If you have a 5% interest rate, then £1,000 invested today will be worth £1,050 next year, and £1,102.50 the year after… which adds up to more than £7,000 in 40 years’ time. Yet most people don’t recognise how much more bang for their buck they will receive if they start investing early, so they leave themselves short for their retirement.
If the number of grains on a chess board doubled for each square, the 64th would ‘hold’ 18 quintillion (Credit: Getty Images)
Surprisingly, a higher level of education does not prevent people from making these errors. Even mathematically trained science students can be vulnerable, says Daniela Sele, who researchs economic decision making at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. “It does help somewhat, but it doesn’t preclude the bias,” she says.
As I explored in my book The Intelligence Trap, intelligent and educated people often have a “bias blind spot”, believing themselves to be less susceptible to error than others – and the exponential growth bias appears to fall dead in its centre.
Most people will confidently report understanding exponential growth but then still fall for the bias
It was only this year – at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic – that researchers began to consider whether the bias might also influence our understanding of infectious diseases.
In March, Joris Lammers at the University of Bremen in Germany joined forces with Jan Crusius and Anne Gast at the University of Cologne to roll out online surveys questioning people about the potential spread of the disease. Their results showed that the exponential growth bias was prevalent in people’s understanding of the virus’s spread, with most people vastly underestimating the rate of increase. More importantly, the team found that those beliefs were directly linked to the participants’ views on the best ways to contain the spread. The worse their estimates, the less likely they were to understand the need for social distancing: the exponential growth bias had made them complacent about the official advice.
The charts that politicians show often fail to communicate exponential growth effectively (Credit: Reuters)
The researchers speculate that some of the graphical representations found in the media may have been counter-productive. It’s common for the number of infections to be presented on a “logarithmic scale”, in which the figures on the y-axis increase by a power of 10 (so the gap between 1 and 10 is the same as the gap between 10 and 100, or 100 and 1000).
While this makes it easier to plot different regions with low and high growth rates, it means that exponential growth looks more linear than it really is, which could reinforce the exponential growth bias. “To expect people to use the logarithmic scale to extrapolate the growth path of a disease is to demand a very high level of cognitive ability,” the authors told me in an email. In their view, simple numerical tables may actually be more powerful.
Even a small effort to correct this bias could bring huge benefits
The good news is that people’s views are malleable. When Lammers and colleagues reminded the participants of the exponential growth bias, and asked them to calculate the growth in regular steps over a two week period, people hugely improved their estimates of the disease’s spread – and this, in turn, changed their views on social distancing. Sele, meanwhile, has recently shown that small changes in framing can matter. Emphasising the short amount of time that it will take to reach a large number of cases, for instance – and the time that would be gained by social distancing measures – improves people’s understanding of accelerating growth, rather than simply stating the percentage increase each day.
Lammers believes that the exponential nature of the virus needs to be made more salient in coverage of the pandemic. “I think this study shows how media and government should report on a pandemic in such a situation. Not only report the numbers of today and growth over the past week, but also explain what will happen in the next days, week, month, if the same accelerating growth persists,” he says.
He is confident that even a small effort to correct this bias could bring huge benefits. In the US, where the pandemic has hit hardest, it took only a few months for the virus to infect more than five million people, he says. “If we could have overcome the exponential growth bias and had convinced all Americans of this risk back in March, I am sure 99% would have embraced all possible distancing measures.”
In November 1860, a young scientist from upstate New York named William Brewer disembarked in San Francisco after a long journey that took him from New York City through Panama and then north along the Pacific coast. “The weather is perfectly heavenly,” he enthused in a letter to his brother back east. The fast-growing metropolis was already revealing the charms we know today: “large streets, magnificent buildings” adorned by “many flowers we [northeasterners] see only in house cultivations: various kinds of geraniums growing of immense size, dew plant growing like a weed, acacia, fuchsia, etc. growing in the open air.”
Flowery prose aside, Brewer was on a serious mission. Barely a decade after being claimed as a US state, California was plunged in an economic crisis. The gold rush had gone bust, and thousands of restive settlers were left scurrying about, hot after the next ever-elusive mineral bonanza. The fledgling legislature had seen fit to hire a state geographer to gauge the mineral wealth underneath its vast and varied terrain, hoping to organize and rationalize the mad lunge for buried treasure. The potential for boosting agriculture as a hedge against mining wasn’t lost on the state’s leaders. They called on the state geographer to deliver a “full and scientific description of the state’s rocks, fossils, soils, and minerals, and its botanical and zoological productions, together with specimens of same.”
The task of completing the fieldwork fell to the 32-year-old Brewer, a Yale-trained botanist who had studied cutting-edge agricultural science in Europe. His letters home, chronicling his four-year journey up and down California, form one of the most vivid contemporary accounts of its early statehood.
They also provide a stark look at the greatest natural disaster known to have befallen the western United States since European contact in the 16th century: the Great Flood of 1861–1862. The cataclysm cut off telegraph communication with the East Coast, swamped the state’s new capital, and submerged the entire Central Valley under as much as 15 feet of water. Yet in modern-day California—a region that author Mike Davis once likened to a “Book of the Apocalypse theme park,” where this year’s wildfires have already burned 1.4 million acres, and dozens of fires are still raging—the nearly forgotten biblical-scale flood documented by Brewer’s letters has largely vanished from the public imagination, replaced largely by traumatic memories of more recent earthquakes.
When it was thought of at all, the flood was once considered a thousand-year anomaly, a freak occurrence. But emerging science demonstrates that floods of even greater magnitude occurred every 100 to 200 years in California’s precolonial history. Climate change will make them more frequent still. In other words, the Great Flood was a preview of what scientists expect to see again, and soon. And this time, given California’s emergence as agricultural and economic powerhouse, the effects will be all the more devastating.
Barely a year after Brewer’s sunny initial descent from a ship in San Francisco Bay, he was back in the city, on a break. In a November 1861 letter home, he complained of a “week of rain.” In his next letter, two months later, Brewer reported jaw-dropping news: Rain had fallen almost continuously since he had last written—and now the entire Central Valley was underwater. “Thousands of farms are entirely underwater—cattle starving and drowning.”
Picking up the letter nine days later, he wrote that a bad situation had deteriorated. All the roads in the middle of the state are “impassable, so all mails are cut off.” Telegraph service, which had only recently been connected to the East Coast through the Central Valley, stalled. “The tops of the poles are under water!” The young state’s capital city, Sacramento, about 100 miles northeast of San Francisco at the western edge of the valley and the intersection of two rivers, was submerged, forcing the legislature to evacuate—and delaying a payment Brewer needed to forge ahead with his expedition.
The surveyor gaped at the sheer volume of rain. In a normal year, Brewer reported, San Francisco received about 20 inches. In the 10 weeks leading up to January 18, 1862, the city got “thirty-two and three-quarters inches and it is still raining!”
Brewer went on to recount scenes from the Central Valley that would fit in a Hollywood disaster epic. “An old acquaintance, a buccaro [cowboy], came down from a ranch that was overflowed,” he wrote. “The floor of their one-story house was six weeks under water before the house went to pieces.” Steamboats “ran back over the ranches fourteen miles from the [Sacramento] river, carrying stock [cattle], etc., to the hills,” he reported. He marveled at the massive impromptu lake made up of “water ice cold and muddy,” in which “winds made high waves which beat the farm homes in pieces.” As a result, “every house and farm over this immense region is gone.”
Eventually, in March, Brewer made it to Sacramento, hoping (without success) to lay hands on the state funds he needed to continue his survey. He found a city still in ruins, weeks after the worst of the rains. “Such a desolate scene I hope never to see again,” he wrote: “Most of the city is still under water, and has been for three months … Every low place is full—cellars and yards are full, houses and walls wet, everything uncomfortable.” The “better class of houses” were in rough shape, Brewer observed, but “it is with the poorer classes that this is the worst.” He went on: “Many of the one-story houses are entirely uninhabitable; others, where the floors are above the water are, at best, most wretched places in which to live.” He summarized the scene:
Many houses have partially toppled over; some have been carried from their foundations, several streets (now avenues of water) are blocked up with houses that have floated in them, dead animals lie about here and there—a dreadful picture. I don’t think the city will ever rise from the shock, I don’t see how it can.
Brewer’s account is important for more than just historical interest. In the 160 years since the botanist set foot on the West Coast, California has transformed from an agricultural backwater to one of the jewels of the US food system. The state produces nearly all of the almonds, walnuts, and pistachios consumed domestically; 90 percent or more of the broccoli, carrots, garlic, celery, grapes, tangerines, plums, and artichokes; at least 75 percent of the cauliflower, apricots, lemons, strawberries, and raspberries; and more than 40 percent of the lettuce, cabbage, oranges, peaches, and peppers.
And as if that weren’t enough, California is also a national hub for milk production. Tucked in amid the almond groves and vegetable fields are vast dairy operations that confine cows together by the thousands and produce more than a fifth of the nation’s milk supply, more than any other state. It all amounts to a food-production juggernaut: California generates $46 billion worth of food per year, nearly double the haul of its closest competitor among US states, the corn-and-soybean behemoth Iowa.
You’ve probably heard that ever-more more frequent and severe droughts threaten the bounty we’ve come to rely on from California. Water scarcity, it turns out, isn’t the only menace that stalks the California valleys that stock our supermarkets. The opposite—catastrophic flooding—also occupies a niche in what Mike Davis, the great chronicler of Southern California’s sociopolitical geography, has called the state’s “ecology of fear.” Indeed, his classic book of that title opens with an account of a 1995 deluge that saw “million-dollar homes tobogganed off their hill-slope perches” and small children and pets “sucked into the deadly vortices of the flood channels.”
Yet floods tend to be less feared than rival horsemen of the apocalypse in the state’s oft-stimulated imagination of disaster. The epochal 2011–2017 drought, with its missing-in-action snowpacks and draconian water restrictions, burned itself into the state’s consciousness. Californians are rightly terrified of fires like the ones that roared through the northern Sierra Nevada foothills and coastal canyons near Los Angeles in the fall of 2018, killing nearly 100 people and fouling air for miles around, or the current LNU Lightning Complex fire that has destroyed nearly 1,000 structures and killed five people in the region between Sacramento and San Francisco. Many people are frightfully aware that a warming climate will make such conflagrations increasingly frequent. And “earthquake kits” are common gear in closets and garages all along the San Andreas Fault, where the next Big One lurks. Floods, though they occur as often in Southern and Central California as they do anywhere in the United States, don’t generate quite the same buzz.
But a growing body of research shows there’s a flip side to the megadroughts Central Valley farmers face: megafloods. The region most vulnerable to such a water-drenched cataclysm in the near future is, ironically enough, the California’s great arid, sinking food production basin, the beleaguered behemoth of the US food system: the Central Valley. Bordered on all sides by mountains, the Central Valley stretches 450 miles long, is on average 50 miles wide, and occupies a land mass of 18,000 square miles, or 11.5 million acres—roughly equivalent in size to Massachusetts and Vermont combined. Wedged between the Sierra Nevada to the east and the Coast Ranges to the west, it’s one of the globe’s greatest expanses of fertile soil and temperate weather. For most Americans, it’s easy to ignore the Central Valley, even though it’s as important to eaters as Hollywood is to moviegoers or Silicon Valley is to smartphone users. Occupying less than 1 percent of US farmland, the Central Valley churns out a quarter of the nation’s food supply.
At the time of the Great Flood, the Central Valley was still mainly cattle ranches, the farming boom a ways off. Late in 1861, the state suddenly emerged from a two-decade dry spell when monster storms began lashing the West Coast from Baja California to present-day Washington state. In central California, the deluge initially took the form of 10 to 15 feet of snow dumped onto the Sierra Nevada, according to research by the UC Berkeley paleoclimatologist B. Lynn Ingram and laid out in her 2015 book, The West Without Water, cowritten with Frances Malamud-Roam. Ingram has emerged as a kind of Cassandra of drought and flood risks in the western United States. Soon after the blizzards came days of warm, heavy rain, which in turn melted the enormous snowpack. The resulting slurry cascaded through the Central Valley’s network of untamed rivers.
As floodwater gathered in the valley, it formed a vast, muddy, wind-roiled lake, its size “rivaling that of Lake Superior,” covering the entire Central Valley floor, from the southern slopes of the Cascade Mountains near the Oregon border to the Tehachapis, south of Bakersfield, with depths in some places exceeding 15 feet.
At least some of the region’s remnant indigenous population saw the epic flood coming and took precautions to escape devastation, Ingram reports, quoting an item in the Nevada City Democrat on January 11, 1862:
We are informed that the Indians living in the vicinity of Marysville left their abodes a week or more ago for the foothills predicting an unprecedented overflow. They told the whites that the water would be higher than it has been for thirty years, and pointed high up on the trees and houses where it would come. The valley Indians have traditions that the water occasionally rises 15 or 20 feet higher than it has been at any time since the country was settled by whites, and as they live in the open air and watch closely all the weather indications, it is not improbable that they may have better means than the whites of anticipating a great storm.
All in all, thousands of people died, “one-third of the state’s property was destroyed, and one home in eight was destroyed completely or carried away by the floodwaters.” As for farming, the 1862 megaflood transformed valley agriculture, playing a decisive role in creating today’s Anglo-dominated, crop-oriented agricultural powerhouse: a 19th-century example of the “disaster capitalism” that Naomi Klein describes in her 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine.
Prior to the event, valley land was still largely owned by Mexican rancheros who held titles dating to Spanish rule. The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which triggered California’s transfer from Mexican to US control, gave rancheros US citizenship and obligated the new government to honor their land titles. The treaty terms met with vigorous resentment from white settlers eager to shift from gold mining to growing food for the new state’s burgeoning cities. The rancheros thrived during the gold rush, finding a booming market for beef in mining towns. By 1856, their fortunes had shifted. A severe drought that year cut production, competition from emerging US settler ranchers meant lower prices, and punishing property taxes—imposed by land-poor settler politicians—caused a further squeeze. “As a result, rancheros began to lose their herds, their land, and their homes,” writes the historian Lawrence James Jelinek.
The devastation of the 1862 flood, its effects magnified by a brutal drought that started immediately afterward and lasted through 1864, “delivered the final blow,” Jelinek writes. Between 1860 and 1870, California’s cattle herd, concentrated in the valley, plunged from 3 million to 630,000. The rancheros were forced to sell their land to white settlers at pennies per acre, and by 1870 “many rancheros had become day laborers in the towns,” Jelinek reports. The valley’s emerging class of settler farmers quickly turned to wheat and horticultural production and set about harnessing and exploiting the region’s water resources, both those gushing forth from the Sierra Nevada and those beneath their feet.
Despite all the trauma it generated and the agricultural transformation it cemented in the Central Valley, the flood quickly faded from memory in California and the broader United States. To his shocked assessment of a still-flooded and supine Sacramento months after the storm, Brewer added a prophetic coda:
No people can so stand calamity as this people. They are used to it. Everyone is familiar with the history of fortunes quickly made and as quickly lost. It seems here more than elsewhere the natural order of things. I might say, indeed, that the recklessness of the state blunts the keener feelings and takes the edge from this calamity.
Indeed, the new state’s residents ended up shaking off the cataclysm. What lesson does the Great Flood of 1862 hold for today? The question is important. Back then, just around 500,000 people lived in the entire state, and the Central Valley was a sparsely populated badland. Today, the valley has a population of 6.5 million people and boasts the state’s three fastest-growing counties. Sacramento (population 501,344), Fresno (538,330), and Bakersfield (386,839) are all budding metropolises. The state’s long-awaited high-speed train, if it’s ever completed, will place Fresno residents within an hour of Silicon Valley, driving up its appeal as a bedroom community.
In addition to the potentially vast human toll, there’s also the fact that the Central Valley has emerged as a major linchpin of the US and global food system. Could it really be submerged under fifteen feet of water again—and what would that mean?
In less than two centuries as a US state, California has maintained its reputation as a sunny paradise while also enduring the nation’s most erratic climate: the occasional massive winter storm roaring in from the Pacific; years-long droughts. But recent investigations into the fossil record show that these past years have been relatively stable.
One avenue of this research is the study of the regular megadroughts, the most recent of which occurred just a century before Europeans made landfall on the North American west coast. As we are now learning, those decades-long arid stretches were just as regularly interrupted by enormous storms—many even grander than the one that began in December 1861. (Indeed, that event itself was directly preceded and followed by serious droughts.) In other words, the same patterns that make California vulnerable to droughts also make it ripe for floods.
Beginning in the 1980s, scientists including B. Lynn Ingram began examining streams and banks in the enormous delta network that together serve as the bathtub drain through which most Central Valley runoff has flowed for millennia, reaching the ocean at the San Francisco Bay. (Now-vanished Tulare Lake gathered runoff in the southern part of the valley.) They took deep-core samples from river bottoms, because big storms that overflow the delta’s banks transfer loads of soil and silt from the Sierra Nevada and deposit a portion of it in the Delta. They also looked at fluctuations in old plant material buried in the sediment layers. Plant species that thrive in freshwater suggest wet periods, as heavy runoff from the mountains crowds out seawater. Salt-tolerant species denote dry spells, as sparse mountain runoff allows seawater to work into the delta.
What they found was stunning. The Great Flood of 1862 was no one-off black-swan event. Summarizing the science, Ingram and USGS researcher Michael Dettinger deliver the dire news: A flood comparable to—and sometimes much more intense than—the 1861–1862 catastrophe occurred sometime between 1235–1360, 1395–1410, 1555–1615, 1750–1770, and 1810–1820; “that is, one megaflood every 100 to 200 years.” They also discovered that the 1862 flood didn’t appear in the sediment record in some sites that showed evidence of multiple massive events—suggesting that it was actually smaller than many of the floods that have inundated California over the centuries.
During its time as a US food-production powerhouse, California has been known for its periodic droughts and storms. But Ingram and Dettinger’s work pulls the lens back to view the broader timescale, revealing the region’s swings between megadroughts and megastorms—ones more than severe enough to challenge concentrated food production, much less dense population centers.
The dynamics of these storms themselves explain why the state is also prone to such swings. Meteorologists have known for decades that those tempests that descend upon California over the winter—and from which the state receives the great bulk of its annual precipitation—carry moisture from the South Pacific. In the late 1990s, scientists discovered that these “pineapple expresses,” as TV weather presenters call them, are a subset of a global weather phenomenon: long, wind-driven plumes of vapor about a mile above the sea that carry moisture from warm areas near the equator on a northeasterly path to colder, drier regions toward the poles. They carry so much moisture—often more than 25 times the flow of the Mississippi River, over thousands of miles—that they’ve been dubbed “atmospheric rivers.”
In a pioneering 1998 paper, researchers Yong Zhu and Reginald E. Newell found that nearly all the vapor transport between the subtropics (regions just south or north of the equator, depending on the hemisphere) toward the poles occurred in just five or six narrow bands. And California, it turns out, is the prime spot in the western side of the northern hemisphere for catching them at full force during the winter months.
As Ingram and Dettinger note, atmospheric rivers are the primary vector for California’s floods. That includes pre-Columbian cataclysms as well as the Great Flood of 1862, all the way to the various smaller ones that regularly run through the state. Between 1950 and 2010, Ingram and Dettinger write, atmospheric rivers “caused more than 80 percent of flooding in California rivers and 81 percent of the 128 most well-documented levee breaks in California’s Central Valley.”
Paradoxically, they are at least as much a lifeblood as a curse. Between eight and 11 atmospheric rivers hit California every year, the great majority of them doing no major damage, and they deliver between 30 and 50 percent of the state’s rain and snow. But the big ones are damaging indeed. Other researchers are reaching similar conclusions. In a study released in December 2019, a team from the US Army Corps of Engineers and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography found that atmospheric-river storms accounted for 84 percent of insured flood damages in the western United States between 1978 and 2017; the 13 biggest storms wrought more than half the damage.
So the state—and a substantial portion of our food system—exists on a razor’s edge between droughts and floods, its annual water resources decided by massive, increasingly fickle transfers of moisture from the South Pacific. As Dettinger puts it, the “largest storms in California’s precipitation regime not only typically end the state’s frequent droughts, but their fluctuations also cause those droughts in the first place.”
We know that before human civilization began spewing millions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere annually, California was due “one megaflood every 100 to 200 years”—and the last one hit more than a century and a half ago. What happens to this outlook when you heat up the atmosphere by 1 degree Celsius—and are on track to hit at least another half-degree Celsius increase by midcentury?
That was the question posed by Daniel Swain and a team of researchers at UCLA’s Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences in a series of studies, the first of which was published in 2018. They took California’s long pattern of droughts and floods and mapped it onto the climate models based on data specific to the region, looking out to century’s end.
What they found isn’t comforting. As the tropical Pacific Ocean and the atmosphere just above it warm, more seawater evaporates, feeding ever bigger atmospheric rivers gushing toward the California coast. As a result, the potential for storms on the scale of the ones that triggered the Great Flood has increased “more than threefold,” they found. So an event expected to happen on average every 200 years will now happen every 65 or so. It is “more likely than not we will see one by 2060,” and it could plausibly happen again before century’s end, they concluded.
As the risk of a catastrophic event increases, so will the frequency of what they call “precipitation whiplash”: extremely wet seasons interrupted by extremely dry ones, and vice versa. The winter of 2016–2017 provides a template. That year, a series of atmospheric-river storms filled reservoirs and at one point threatened a major flood in the northern Central Valley, abruptly ending the worst multiyear drought in the state’s recorded history.
Swings on that magnitude normally occur a handful of times each century, but in the model by Swain’s team, “it goes from something that happens maybe once in a generation to something that happens two or three times,” he told me in an interview. “Setting aside a repeat of 1862, these less intense events could still seriously test the limits of our water infrastructure.” Like other efforts to map climate change onto California’s weather, this one found that drought years characterized by low winter precipitation would likely increase—in this case, by a factor of as much as two, compared with mid-20th-century patterns. But extreme-wet winter seasons, accumulating at least as much precipitation as 2016–2017, will grow even more: they could be three times as common as they were before the atmosphere began its current warming trend.
While lots of very wet years—at least the ones that don’t reach 1861–1862 levels—might sound encouraging for food production in the Central Valley, there’s a catch, Swain said. His study looked purely at precipitation, independent of whether it fell as rain or snow. A growing body of research suggests that as the climate warms, California’s precipitation mix will shift significantly in favor of rain over snow. That’s dire news for our food system, because the Central Valley’s vast irrigation networks are geared to channeling the slow, predictable melt of the snowpack into usable water for farms. Water that falls as rain is much harder to capture and bend to the slow-release needs of agriculture.
In short, California’s climate, chaotic under normal conditions, is about to get weirder and wilder. Indeed, it’s already happening.
What if an 1862-level flood, which is overdue and “more likely than not” to occur with a couple of decades, were to hit present-day California?
Starting in 2008, the USGS set out to answer just that question, launching a project called the ARkStorm (for “atmospheric river 1,000 storm”) Scenario. The effort was modeled on a previous USGS push to get a grip on another looming California cataclysm: a massive earthquake along the San Andreas Fault. In 2008, USGS produced the ShakeOut Earthquake Scenario, a “detailed depiction of a hypothetical magnitude 7.8 earthquake.” The study “served as the centerpiece of the largest earthquake drill in US history, involving over five thousand emergency responders and the participation of over 5.5 million citizens,” the USGS later reported.
That same year, the agency assembled a team of 117 scientists, engineers, public-policy experts, and insurance experts to model what kind of impact a monster storm event would have on modern California.
At the time, Lucy Jones served as the chief scientist for the USGS’s Multi Hazards Demonstration Project, which oversaw both projects. A seismologist by training, Jones spent her time studying the devastations of earthquakes and convincing policy makers to invest resources into preparing for them. The ARkStorm project took her aback, she told me. The first thing she and her team did was ask, What’s the biggest flood in California we know about? “I’m a fourth-generation Californian who studies disaster risk, and I had never heard of the Great Flood of 1862,” she said. “None of us had heard of it,” she added—not even the meteorologists knew about what’s “by far the biggest disaster ever in California and the whole Southwest” over the past two centuries.
At first, the meteorologists were constrained in modeling a realistic megastorm by a lack of data; solid rainfall-gauge measures go back only a century. But after hearing about the 1862 flood, the ARkStorm team dug into research from Ingram and others for information about megastorms before US statehood and European contact. They were shocked to learn that the previous 1,800 years had about six events that were more severe than 1862, along with several more that were roughly of the same magnitude. What they found was that a massive flood is every bit as likely to strike California, and as imminent, as a massive quake.
Even with this information, modeling a massive flood proved more challenging than projecting out a massive earthquake. “We seismologists do this all the time—we create synthetic seismographs,” she said. Want to see what a quake reaching 7.8 on the Richter scale would look like along the San Andreas Fault? Easy, she said. Meteorologists, by contrast, are fixated on accurate prediction of near-future events; “creating a synthetic event wasn’t something they had ever done.” They couldn’t just re-create the 1862 event, because most of the information we have about it is piecemeal, from eyewitness accounts and sediment samples.
To get their heads around how to construct a reasonable approximation of a megastorm, the team’s meteorologists went looking for well-documented 20th-century events that could serve as a model. They settled on two: a series of big storms in 1969 that hit Southern California hardest and a 1986 cluster that did the same to the northern part of the state. To create the ARkStorm scenario, they stitched the two together. Doing so gave the researchers a rich and regionally precise trove of data to sketch out a massive Big One storm scenario.
There was one problem: While the fictional ARkStorm is indeed a massive event, it’s still significantly smaller than the one that caused the Great Flood of 1862. “Our [hypothetical storm] only had total rain for 25 days, while there were 45 days in 1861 to ’62,” Jones said. They plunged ahead anyway, for two reasons. One was that they had robust data on the two 20th-century storm events, giving disaster modelers plenty to work with. The second was that they figured a smaller-than-1862 catastrophe would help build public buy-in, by making the project hard to dismiss as an unrealistic figment of scaremongering bureaucrats.
What they found stunned them—and should stun anyone who relies on California to produce food (not to mention anyone who lives in the state). The headline number: $725 billion in damage, nearly four times what the USGS’s seismology team arrived at for its massive-quake scenario ($200 billion). For comparison, the two most costly natural disasters in modern US history—Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Harvey in 2017—racked up $166 billion and $130 billion, respectively. The ARkStorm would “flood thousands of square miles of urban and agricultural land, result in thousands of landslides, [and] disrupt lifelines throughout the state for days or weeks,” the study reckoned. Altogether, 25 percent of the state’s buildings would be damaged.
In their model, 25 days of relentless rains overwhelm the Central Valley’s flood-control infrastructure. Then large swaths of the northern part of the Central Valley go under as much as 20 feet of water. The southern part, the San Joaquin Valley, gets off lighter; but a miles-wide band of floodwater collects in the lowest-elevation regions, ballooning out to encompass the expanse that was once the Tulare Lake bottom and stretching to the valley’s southern extreme. Most metropolitan parts of the Bay Area escape severe damage, but swaths of Los Angeles and Orange Counties experience “extensive flooding.”
As Jones stressed to me in our conversation, the ARkStorm scenario is a cautious approximation; a megastorm that matches 1862 or its relatively recent antecedents could plausibly bury the entire Central Valley underwater, northern tip to southern. As the report puts it: “Six megastorms that were more severe than 1861–1862 have occurred in California during the last 1800 years, and there is no reason to believe similar storms won’t occur again.”
A 21st-century megastorm would fall on a region quite different from gold rush–era California. For one thing, it’s much more populous. While the ARkStorm reckoning did not estimate a death toll, it warned of a “substantial loss of life” because “flood depths in some areas could realistically be on the order of 10–20 feet.”
Then there’s the transformation of farming since then. The 1862 storm drowned an estimated 200,000 head of cattle, about a quarter of the state’s entire herd. Today, the Central Valley houses nearly 4 million beef and dairy cows. While cattle continue to be an important part of the region’s farming mix, they no longer dominate it. Today the valley is increasingly given over to intensive almond, pistachio, and grape plantations, representing billions of dollars of investments in crops that take years to establish, are expected to flourish for decades, and could be wiped out by a flood.
Apart from economic losses, “the evolution of a modern society creates new risks from natural disasters,” Jones told me. She cited electric power grids, which didn’t exist in mid-19th-century California. A hundred years ago, when electrification was taking off, extended power outages caused inconveniences. Now, loss of electricity can mean death for vulnerable populations (think hospitals, nursing homes, and prisons). Another example is the intensification of farming. When a few hundred thousand cattle roamed the sparsely populated Central Valley in 1861, their drowning posed relatively limited biohazard risks, although, according to one contemporary account, in post-flood Sacramento, there were a “good many drowned hogs and cattle lying around loose in the streets.”
Today, however, several million cows are packed into massive feedlots in the southern Central Valley, their waste often concentrated in open-air liquid manure lagoons, ready to be swept away and blended into a fecal slurry. Low-lying Tulare County houses nearly 500,000 dairy cows, with 258 operations holding on average 1,800 cattle each. Mature modern dairy cows are massive creatures, weighing around 1,500 pounds each and standing nearly 5 feet tall at the front shoulder. Imagine trying to quickly move such beasts by the thousands out of the path of a flood—and the consequences of failing to do so.
A massive flood could severely pollute soil and groundwater in the Central Valley, and not just from rotting livestock carcasses and millions of tons of concentrated manure. In a 2015 paper, a team of USGS researchers tried to sum up the myriad toxic substances that would be stirred up and spread around by massive storms and floods. The cities of 160 years ago could not boast municipal wastewater facilities, which filter pathogens and pollutants in human sewage, nor municipal dumps, which concentrate often-toxic garbage. In the region’s teeming 21st-century urban areas, those vital sanitation services would become major threats. The report projects that a toxic soup of “petroleum, mercury, asbestos, persistent organic pollutants, molds, and soil-borne or sewage-borne pathogens” would spread across much of the valley, as would concentrated animal manure, fertilizer, pesticides, and other industrial chemicals.
The valley’s southernmost county, Kern, is a case study in the region’s vulnerabilities. Kern’s farmers lead the entire nation in agricultural output by dollar value, annually producing $7 billion worth of foodstuffs like almonds, grapes, citrus, pistachios, and milk. The county houses more than 156,000 dairy cows in facilities averaging 3,200 head each. That frenzy of agricultural production means loads of chemicals on hand; every year, Kern farmers use around 30 million pounds of pesticides, second only to Fresno among California counties. (Altogether, five San Joaquin Valley counties use about half of the more than 200 million pounds of pesticides applied in California.)
Kern is also one of the nation’s most prodigious oil-producing counties. Its vast array of pump jacks, many of them located in farm fields, produce 70 percent of California’s entire oil output. It’s also home to two large oil refineries. If Kern County were a state, it would be the nation’s seventh-leading oil-producing one, churning out twice as much crude as Louisiana. In a massive storm, floodwaters could pick up a substantial amount of highly toxic petroleum and byproducts. Again, in the ARkStorm scenario, Kern County gets hit hard by rain but mostly escapes the worst flooding. The real “Other Big One” might not be so kind, Jones said.
In the end, the USGS team could not estimate the level of damage that will be visited upon the Central Valley’s soil and groundwater from a megaflood: too many variables, too many toxins and biohazards that could be sucked into the vortex. They concluded that “flood-related environmental contamination impacts are expected to be the most widespread and substantial in lowland areas of the Central Valley, the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta, the San Francisco Bay area, and portions of the greater Los Angeles metroplex.”
Jones said the initial reaction to the 2011 release of the ARkStorm report among California’s policymakers and emergency managers was skepticism: “Oh, no, that’s too big—it’s impossible,” they would say. “We got lots of traction with the earthquake scenario, and when we did the big flood, nobody wanted to listen to us,” she said.
But after years of patiently informing the state’s decisionmakers that such a disaster is just as likely as a megaquake—and likely much more devastating—the word is getting out. She said the ARkStorm message probably helped prepare emergency managers for the severe storms of February 2017. That month, the massive Oroville Dam in the Sierra Nevada foothills very nearly failed, threatening to send a 30-foot-tall wall of water gushing into the northern Central Valley. As the spillway teetered on the edge of collapse, officials ordered the evacuation of 188,000 people in the communities below. The entire California National Guard was put on notice to mobilize if needed—the first such order since the 1992 Rodney King riots in Los Angeles. Although the dam ultimately held up, the Oroville incident illustrates the challenges of moving hundreds of thousands of people out of harm’s way on short notice.
The evacuation order “unleashed a flood of its own, sending tens of thousands of cars simultaneously onto undersize roads, creating hours-long backups that left residents wondering if they would get to high ground before floodwaters overtook them,” the Sacramento Beereported. Eight hours after the evacuation, highways were still jammed with slow-moving traffic. A California Highway Patrol spokesman summed up the scene for the Bee:
Unprepared citizens who were running out of gas and their vehicles were becoming disabled in the roadway. People were utilizing the shoulder, driving the wrong way. Traffic collisions were occurring. People fearing for their lives, not abiding by the traffic laws. All combined, it created big problems. It ended up pure, mass chaos.
Even so, Jones said the evacuation went as smoothly as could be expected and likely would have saved thousands of lives if the dam had burst. “But there are some things you can’t prepare for.” Obviously, getting area residents to safety was the first priority, but animal inhabitants were vulnerable, too. If the dam had burst, she said, “I doubt they would have been able to save cattle.”
As the state’s ever-strained emergency-service agencies prepare for the Other Big One, there’s evidence other agencies are struggling to grapple with the likelihood of a megaflood. In the wake of the 2017 near-disaster at Oroville, state agencies spent more than $1 billion repairing the damaged dam and bolstering it for future storms. Just as work was being completed in fall 2018, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission assessed the situation and found that a “probable maximum flood”—on the scale of the ArkStorm—would likely overwhelm the dam. FERC called on the state to invest in a “more robust and resilient design” to prevent a future cataclysm. The state’s Department of Water Resources responded by launching a “needs assessment” of the dam’s safety that’s due to wrap up in 2020.
Of course, in a state beset by the increasing threat of wildfires in populated areas as well as earthquakes, funds for disaster preparation are tightly stretched. All in all, Jones said, “we’re still much more prepared for a quake than a flood.” Then again, it’s hard to conceive of how we could effectively prevent a 21st century repeat of the Great Flood or how we could fully prepare for the low-lying valley that runs along the center of California like a bathtub—now packed with people, livestock, manure, crops, petrochemicals, and pesticides—to be suddenly transformed into a storm-roiled inland sea.
Summary: With widespread, sustained declines in fertility, the world population will likely peak in 2064 at around 9.7 billion, and then decline to about 8.8 billion by 2100 — about 2 billion lower than some previous estimates, according to a new study.
Improvements in access to modern contraception and the education of girls and women are generating widespread, sustained declines in fertility, and world population will likely peak in 2064 at around 9.7 billion, and then decline to about 8.8 billion by 2100 — about 2 billion lower than some previous estimates, according to a new study published in The Lancet.
The modelling research uses data from the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017 to project future global, regional, and national population. Using novel methods for forecasting mortality, fertility, and migration, the researchers from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine estimate that by 2100, 183 of 195 countries will have total fertility rates (TFR), which represent the average number of children a woman delivers over her lifetime, below replacement level of 2.1 births per woman. This means that in these countries populations will decline unless low fertility is compensated by immigration.
The new population forecasts contrast to projections of ‘continuing global growth’ by the United Nations Population Division, and highlight the huge challenges to economic growth of a shrinking workforce, the high burden on health and social support systems of an aging population, and the impact on global power linked to shifts in world population.
The new study also predicts huge shifts in the global age structure, with an estimated 2.37 billion individuals over 65 years globally in 2100, compared with 1.7 billion under 20 years, underscoring the need for liberal immigration policies in countries with significantly declining working age populations.
“Continued global population growth through the century is no longer the most likely trajectory for the world’s population,” says IHME Director Dr. Christopher Murray, who led the research. “This study provides governments of all countries an opportunity to start rethinking their policies on migration, workforces and economic development to address the challenges presented by demographic change.”
IHME Professor Stein Emil Vollset, first author of the paper, continues, “The societal, economic, and geopolitical power implications of our predictions are substantial. In particular, our findings suggest that the decline in the numbers of working-age adults alone will reduce GDP growth rates that could result in major shifts in global economic power by the century’s end. Responding to population decline is likely to become an overriding policy concern in many nations, but must not compromise efforts to enhance women’s reproductive health or progress on women’s rights.”
Dr Richard Horton, Editor-in-Chief, The Lancet, adds: “This important research charts a future we need to be planning for urgently. It offers a vision for radical shifts in geopolitical power, challenges myths about immigration, and underlines the importance of protecting and strengthening the sexual and reproductive rights of women. The 21st century will see a revolution in the story of our human civilisation. Africa and the Arab World will shape our future, while Europe and Asia will recede in their influence. By the end of the century, the world will be multipolar, with India, Nigeria, China, and the US the dominant powers. This will truly be a new world, one we should be preparing for today.”
Accelerating decline in fertility worldwide
The global TFR is predicted to steadily decline, from 2.37 in 2017 to 1.66 in 2100 — well below the minimum rate (2.1) considered necessary to maintain population numbers (replacement level) — with rates falling to around 1.2 in Italy and Spain, and as low as 1.17 in Poland.
Even slight changes in TFR translate into large differences in population size in countries below the replacement level — increasing TFR by as little as 0.1 births per woman is equivalent to around 500 million more individuals on the planet in 2100.
Much of the anticipated fertility decline is predicted in high-fertility countries, particularly those in sub-Saharan Africa where rates are expected to fall below the replacement level for the first time — from an average 4.6 births per woman in 2017 to just 1.7 by 2100. In Niger, where the fertility rate was the highest in the world in 2017 — with women giving birth to an average of seven children — the rate is projected to decline to around 1.8 by 2100.
Nevertheless, the population of sub-Saharan Africa is forecast to triple over the course of the century, from an estimated 1.03 billion in 2017 to 3.07 billion in 2100 — as death rates decline and an increasing number of women enter reproductive age. North Africa and the Middle East is the only other region predicted to have a larger population in 2100 (978 million) than in 2017 (600 million).
Many of the fastest-shrinking populations will be in Asia and central and eastern Europe. Populations are expected to more than halve in 23 countries and territories, including Japan (from around 128 million people in 2017 to 60 million in 2100), Thailand (71 to 35 million), Spain (46 to 23 million), Italy (61 to 31 million), Portugal (11 to 5 million), and South Korea (53 to 27 million). An additional 34 countries are expected to have population declines of 25 to 50%, including China (1.4 billion in 2017 to 732 million in 2100; see table).
Huge shifts in global age structure — with over 80s outnumbering under 5s two to one
As fertility falls and life expectancy increases worldwide, the number of children under 5 years old is forecasted to decline by 41% from 681 million in 2017 to 401 million in 2100, whilst the number of individuals older than 80 years is projected to increase six fold, from 141 million to 866 million. Similarly, the global ratio of adults over 80 years to each person aged 15 years or younger is projected to rise from 0.16 in 2017 to 1.50 in 2100, in countries with a population decline of more than 25%.
Furthermore, the global ratio of non-working adults to workers was around 0.8 in 2017, but is projected to increase to 1.16 in 2100 if labour force participation by age and sex does not change.
“While population decline is potentially good news for reducing carbon emissions and stress on food systems, with more old people and fewer young people, economic challenges will arise as societies struggle to grow with fewer workers and taxpayers, and countries’ abilities to generate the wealth needed to fund social support and health care for the elderly are reduced,” says Vollset.
Declining working-age populations could see major shifts in size of economies
The study also examined the economic impact of fewer working-age adults for all countries in 2017. While China is set to replace the USA in 2035 with the largest total gross domestic product (GDP) globally, rapid population decline from 2050 onward will curtail economic growth. As a result, the USA is expected to reclaim the top spot by 2098, if immigration continues to sustain the US workforce.
Although numbers of working-age adults in India are projected to fall from 762 million in 2017 to around 578 million in 2100, it is expected to be one of the few — if only — major power in Asia to protect its working-age population over the century. It is expected to surpass China’s workforce population in the mid-2020s (where numbers of workers are estimated to decline from 950 million in 2017 to 357 million in 2100) — rising up the GDP rankings from 7th to 3rd.
Sub-Saharan Africa is likely to become an increasingly powerful continent on the geopolitical stage as its population rises. Nigeria is projected to be the only country among the world’s 10 most populated nations to see its working-age population grow over the course of the century (from 86 million in 2017 to 458 million in 2100), supporting rapid economic growth and its rise in GDP rankings from 23rd place in 2017 to 9th place in 2100.
While the UK, Germany, and France are expected to remain in the top 10 for largest GDP worldwide at the turn of the century, Italy (from rank 9th in 2017 to 25th in 2100) and Spain (from 13th to 28th) are projected to fall down the rankings, reflecting much greater population decline.
Liberal immigration could help sustain population size and economic growth
The study also suggests that population decline could be offset by immigration, with countries that promote liberal immigration better able to maintain their population size and support economic growth, even in the face of declining fertility rates.
The model predicts that some countries with fertility lower than replacement level, such as the USA, Australia, and Canada, will probably maintain their working-age populations through net immigration (see appendix 2 section 4). Although the authors note that there is considerable uncertainty about these future trends.
“For high-income countries with below-replacement fertility rates, the best solutions for sustaining current population levels, economic growth, and geopolitical security are open immigration policies and social policies supportive of families having their desired number of children,” Murray says. “However, a very real danger exists that, in the face of declining population, some countries might consider policies that restrict access to reproductive health services, with potentially devastating consequences. It is imperative that women’s freedom and rights are at the top of every government’s development agenda.”
The authors note some important limitations, including that while the study uses the best available data, predictions are constrained by the quantity and quality of past data. They also note that past trends are not always predictive of what will happen in the future, and that some factors not included in the model could change the pace of fertility, mortality, or migration. For example, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected local and national health systems throughout the world, and caused over half a million deaths. However, the authors believe the excess deaths caused by the pandemic are unlikely to significantly alter longer term forecasting trends of global population.
Writing in a linked Comment, Professor Ibrahim Abubakar, University College London (UCL), UK, and Chair of Lancet Migration (who was not involved in the study), says: “Migration can be a potential solution to the predicted shortage of working-age populations. While demographers continue to debate the long-term implications of migration as a remedy for declining TFR, for it to be successful, we need a fundamental rethink of global politics. Greater multilateralism and a new global leadership should enable both migrant sending and migrant-receiving countries to benefit, while protecting the rights of individuals. Nations would need to cooperate at levels that have eluded us to date to strategically support and fund the development of excess skilled human capital in countries that are a source of migrants. An equitable change in global migration policy will need the voice of rich and poor countries. The projected changes in the sizes of national economies and the consequent change in military power might force these discussions.”
He adds: “Ultimately, if Murray and colleagues’ predictions are even half accurate, migration will become a necessity for all nations and not an option. The positive impacts of migration on health and economies are known globally. The choice that we face is whether we improve health and wealth by allowing planned population movement or if we end up with an underclass of imported labour and unstable societies. The Anthropocene has created many challenges such as climate change and greater global migration. The distribution of working-age populations will be crucial to whether humanity prospers or withers.”
The study was in part funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It was conducted by researchers at the University of Washington, Seattle, USA.
Materials provided by The Lancet. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
Stein Emil Vollset, Emily Goren, Chun-Wei Yuan, Jackie Cao, Amanda E Smith, Thomas Hsiao, Catherine Bisignano, Gulrez S Azhar, Emma Castro, Julian Chalek, Andrew J Dolgert, Tahvi Frank, Kai Fukutaki, Simon I Hay, Rafael Lozano, Ali H Mokdad, Vishnu Nandakumar, Maxwell Pierce, Martin Pletcher, Toshana Robalik, Krista M Steuben, Han Yong Wunrow, Bianca S Zlavog, Christopher J L Murray. Fertility, mortality, migration, and population scenarios for 195 countries and territories from 2017 to 2100: a forecasting analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study. The Lancet, 2020; DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(20)30677-2
Summary: Researchers describe a single function that accurately describes all existing available data on active COVID-19 cases and deaths — and predicts forthcoming peaks.
As of late May, COVID-19 has killed more than 325,000 people around the world. Even though the worst seems to be over for countries like China and South Korea, public health experts warn that cases and fatalities will continue to surge in many parts of the world. Understanding how the disease evolves can help these countries prepare for an expected uptick in cases.
This week in the journal Frontiers in Physics, researchers describe a single function that accurately describes all existing available data on active cases and deaths — and predicts forthcoming peaks. The tool uses q-statistics, a set of functions and probability distributions developed by Constantino Tsallis, a physicist and member of the Santa Fe Institute’s external faculty. Tsallis worked on the new model together with Ugur Tirnakli, a physicist at Ege University, in Turkey.
“The formula works in all the countries in which we have tested,” says Tsallis.
Neither physicist ever set out to model a global pandemic. But Tsallis says that when he saw the shape of published graphs representing China’s daily active cases, he recognized shapes he’d seen before — namely, in graphs he’d helped produce almost two decades ago to describe the behavior of the stock market.
“The shape was exactly the same,” he says. For the financial data, the function described probabilities of stock exchanges; for COVID-19, it described daily the number of active cases — and fatalities — as a function of time.
Modeling financial data and tracking a global pandemic may seem unrelated, but Tsallis says they have one important thing in common. “They’re both complex systems,” he says, “and in complex systems, this happens all the time.” Disparate systems from a variety of fields — biology, network theory, computer science, mathematics — often reveal patterns that follow the same basic shapes and evolution.
The financial graph appeared in a 2004 volume co-edited by Tsallis and the late Nobelist Murray Gell-Mann. Tsallis developed q-statitics, also known as “Tsallis statistics,” in the late 1980s as a generalization of Boltzmann-Gibbs statistics to complex systems.
In the new paper, Tsallis and Tirnakli used data from China, where the active case rate is thought to have peaked, to set the main parameters for the formula. Then, they applied it to other countries including France, Brazil, and the United Kingdom, and found that it matched the evolution of the active cases and fatality rates over time.
The model, says Tsallis, could be used to create useful tools like an app that updates in real-time with new available data, and can adjust its predictions accordingly. In addition, he thinks that it could be fine-tuned to fit future outbreaks as well.
“The functional form seems to be universal,” he says, “Not just for this virus, but for the next one that might appear as well.”
Em entrevista à Folha, Mokdad diz que a tendência de casos e mortes no país é de alta e que a situação pode ser ainda pior se governo e população não levarem a crise a sério e adotarem “lockdown” por duas semanas.
“As infeções e mortes vão crescer e, o mais assustador, haverá a sobrecarga total do sistema de saúde.” Caso cumpra o confinamento total por 14 dias, explica Mokdad, o Brasil conseguirá controlar a propagação do vírus e poderá fazer a reabertura das atividades econômicas de maneira estratégica –e até mais rapidamente.
Especialista em saúde pública, diz sofrer críticas por ter um modelo que varia bastante, mas, no caso da pandemia, prefere que suas projeções se ajustem com o tempo. “Se os brasileiros ficarem em casa por duas semanas, meus números vão baixar. E não porque fiz algo errado, mas porque os brasileiros fizeram algo certo.”
Qual a situação da pandemia no Brasil? Infelizmente o que vemos no Brasil é uma tendência de aumento de casos, que vai resultar no crescimento das mortes no país. Isso se dá por várias razões. Primeiro porque o país não entrou em “lockdown” cedo para impedir a propagação do vírus. O governo e a população brasileira não levaram isso a sério e não fizeram logo as coisas certas para impedir a transmissão do vírus.
Segundo, há muita disparidade no Brasil e a Covid-19 aumenta isso. Nesse caso, é preciso proteger não só os trabalhadores de saúde mas os trabalhadores de serviços essenciais, pessoas pobres que trabalham em funções que as obrigam a sair de casa. Elas não estão protegidas e estão morrendo. A terceira e mais importante preocupação é a sobrecarga do sistema de saúde. Se o país não agir, vai haver mais casos no inverno e não haverá tempo para se preparar. É perigoso e arriscado. Se você colocar tudo isso junto, o Brasil ainda vai enfrentar sérias dificuldades diante da Covid-19.
Em duas semanas, o IHME aumentou as projeções de morte no Brasil de 88 mil para mais de 125 mil até agosto. O que aconteceu? Adicionamos mais estados [de 11 para 19] na nossa projeção, isso é uma coisa. Mas estamos vendo no Brasil mais surtos e casos do que esperávamos. O país está testando mais e encontrando mais casos, mas, mesmo quando ajustamos para os testes, há uma tendência de alta.
No Brasil há também um erro de suposição quando falamos de circulação. Os dados [de mobilidade da população] são baseados no Facebook e no Google, ou seja, em smartphones, ou seja, em pessoas mais ricas. Percebemos que a circulação não parou nas favelas, por exemplo, em lugares onde pessoas mais pobres precisam sair para trabalhar. Se as pessoas se recusarem a levar isso a sério, infelizmente vamos ver mais casos e mortes.
Quais medidas precisam ser tomadas? Fechar escolas e universidades, impedir grandes aglomerações e encontros de pessoas, fechar os estabelecimentos não essenciais, igrejas, templos e locais religiosos. Nos locais essenciais, como mercados e farmácias, é preciso estabelecer regras, limitando o número de pessoas dentro, garantindo que elas se mantenham distantes umas das outras.
A última e mais importante coisa é pedir para quem precisa sair de casa—e sabemos que há quem precise— usar máscara e manter distância de 2 metros de outras pessoas. Para o sistema de saúde, é aumentar a capacidade de tratamento, de detectar cedo a chegada de um surto, fazendo rastreamento e o isolamento de casos, o que é um desafio para o Brasil, onde muitas vezes dez pessoas vivem em uma mesma casa.
Se o Brasil não cumprir essas medidas, qual é o pior cenário para o país? As infeções e mortes vão crescer e, a parte mais assustadora, haverá a sobrecarga total do sistema de saúde. Isso vai causar mais prejuízo à economia do que se fizer o isolamento por duas semanas. Se a população ficar em casa e levar isso a sério por duas semanas, registraremos diminuição da propagação do vírus e poderemos reabrir em fases. É preciso garantir que a retomada econômica seja feita de maneira estratégica, por setores.
É possível evitar o pico de 1.500 mortes diárias em julho e as 125 mil mortes até agosto se o país parar agora? Sim. O Brasil está em uma situação muito difícil e pode ser assim por muito tempo, mas ainda há esperança. Se o governo e a população pararem por duas semanas, podemos parar a circulação do vírus e reabrir o comércio. Se você olhar para estados americanos, como Nova York, depois que há o “lockdown”, as mortes e os casos diminuem. O “lockdown” salvou muitas vidas nos EUA. Fizemos as projeções para o Brasil de 125 mil mortes até 4 de agosto, mas não significa que vai acontecer, podemos parar isso. É preciso que cada brasileiro faça sua parte.
O presidente Jair Bolsonaro é contra medidas de distanciamento social, compara a Covid-19 com uma gripezinha e defende um medicamento com eficácia não comprovada contra a doença. Como essa postura pode impactar a situação do Brasil? Aqui nos EUA temos também uma situação política nesse sentido, infelizmente. Não sou político, vejo os números e dou conselhos a partir do que concluo deles. Pelos dados, o Brasil precisa de uma ação coordenada, caso contrário, vamos ter muitas perdas.
Mas precisamos ter uma coisa clara: Covid-19 não é uma gripe, causa mais mortalidade que gripe, a gripe não causa AVC e nem ataca os pulmões da maneira que a Covid-19 ataca. Contra Covid-19 não há medicamento e ponto final. Não tem vacina. Não é possível comparar Covid-19 e gripe. Fazer isso é passar mensagem errada. Dizer para a população que é possível sair e ver quem pega a doença é inaceitável, é falha de liderança.
Como ganhar a confiança dos governos e da população com projeções que variam tanto e com tanta gente trabalhando com dados sobre o tema? Há muita gente fazendo projeção mas, pela primeira vez na história da ciência, todos concordamos. Os números podem ser diferentes, mas a mensagem mais importante é a mesma: isso é um vírus letal e temos que levá-lo a sério. Meus números mudam porque as pessoas mudam. Se os brasileiros ficarem em casa por duas semanas, meus números vão baixar. E não porque fiz algo errado, mas porque os brasileiros fizeram algo certo. Aprendemos que o modelo muda se novos dados aparecem.
O sr. já foi acusado de ser alarmista ou de produzir notícias falsas quando seus números mudam? Acusado é demais, mas tem gente que fala que meus números são mais altos ou mais baixos do que deveriam ser, e isso eu nem resposto, porque não é um debate científico, é um debate político. No debate científico está todo mundo a bordo com a mesma mensagem.
Como é trabalhar tendo isso em vista, com números tão sensíveis e poderosos? A gente não dorme muito por esses dias, é muito trabalho. É muito difícil dizer que 125 mil pessoas vão morrer no Brasil até agosto. Isso não é um número, são famílias, amigos, é muito duro.
BRASILIA (Reuters) – As Brazil’s daily COVID-19 death rate climbs to the highest in the world, a University of Washington study is warning its total death toll could climb five-fold to 125,000 by early August, adding to fears it has become a new hot spot in the pandemic.
The forecast from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), released as Brazil’s daily death toll climbed past that of the United States on Monday, came with a call for lockdowns that Brazil’s president has resisted.
“Brazil must follow the lead of Wuhan, China, as well as Italy, Spain, and New York by enforcing mandates and measures to gain control of a fast-moving epidemic and reduce transmission of the coronavirus,” wrote IHME Director Dr. Christopher Murray.
Without such measures, the institute’s model shows Brazil’s daily death toll could keep climbing to until mid-July, driving shortages of critical hospital resources in Brazil, he said in a statement accompanying the findings.
On Monday, Brazil’s coronavirus deaths reported in the last 24 hours were higher than fatalities in the United States for the first time, according to the health ministry. Brazil registered 807 deaths and 620 died in the United States.
The U.S. government on Monday brought forward to Tuesday midnight enforcement of restrictions on travel to the United States from Brazil as the South American country reported the highest death toll in the world for that day.
Washington’s ban applies to foreigners traveling to the United States if they had been in Brazil in the last two weeks. Two days earlier, Brazil overtook Russia as the world’s No. 2 coronavirus hot spot in number of confirmed cases, after the United States.
Murray said the IHME forecast captures the effects of social distancing mandates, mobility trends and testing capacity, so projections could shift along with policy changes.
The model will be updated regularly as new data is released on cases, hospitalizations, deaths, testing and mobility.
Reporting by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Brad Haynes and Steve Orlofsky
Summary: At the beginning of a new wave of an epidemic, extreme care should be used when extrapolating data to determine whether lockdowns are necessary, experts say.
As the infectious virus causing the COVID-19 disease began its devastating spread around the globe, an international team of scientists was alarmed by the lack of uniform approaches by various countries’ epidemiologists to respond to it.
Germany, for example, didn’t institute a full lockdown, unlike France and the U.K., and the decision in the U.S. by New York to go into a lockdown came only after the pandemic had reached an advanced stage. Data modeling to predict the numbers of likely infections varied widely by region, from very large to very small numbers, and revealed a high degree of uncertainty.
Davide Faranda, a scientist at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), and colleagues in the U.K., Mexico, Denmark, and Japan decided to explore the origins of these uncertainties. This work is deeply personal to Faranda, whose grandfather died of COVID-19; Faranda has dedicated the work to him.
In the journal Chaos, from AIP Publishing, the group describes why modeling and extrapolating the evolution of COVID-19 outbreaks in near real time is an enormous scientific challenge that requires a deep understanding of the nonlinearities underlying the dynamics of epidemics.
“Our physical model is based on assuming that the total population can be divided into four groups: those who are susceptible to catching the virus, those who have contracted the virus but don’t show any symptoms, those who are infected and, finally, those who recovered or died from the virus,” Faranda said.
To determine how people move from one group to another, it’s necessary to know the infection rate, incubation time and recovery time. Actual infection data can be used to extrapolate the behavior of the epidemic with statistical models.
“Because of the uncertainties in both the parameters involved in the models — infection rate, incubation period and recovery time — and the incompleteness of infections data within different countries, extrapolations could lead to an incredibly large range of uncertain results,” Faranda said. “For example, just assuming an underestimation of the last data in the infection counts of 20% can lead to a change in total infections estimations from few thousands to few millions of individuals.”
The group has also shown that this uncertainty is due to a lack of data quality and also to the intrinsic nature of the dynamics, because it is ultrasensitive to the parameters — especially during the initial growing phase. This means that everyone should be very careful extrapolating key quantities to decide whether to implement lockdown measures when a new wave of the virus begins.
“The total final infection counts as well as the duration of the epidemic are sensitive to the data you put in,” he said.
The team’s model handles uncertainty in a natural way, so they plan to show how modeling of the post-confinement phase can be sensitive to the measures taken.
“Preliminary results show that implementing lockdown measures when infections are in a full exponential growth phase poses serious limitations for their success,” said Faranda.
Davide Faranda, Isaac Pérez Castillo, Oliver Hulme, Aglaé Jezequel, Jeroen S. W. Lamb, Yuzuru Sato, Erica L. Thompson. Asymptotic estimates of SARS-CoV-2 infection counts and their sensitivity to stochastic perturbation. Chaos: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Nonlinear Science, 2020; 30 (5): 051107 DOI: 10.1063/5.0008834
The tensions we now face between science, politics and economics also arose before the country’s most destructive volcanic eruption.
Mr. Roberts is a former editor at ProPublica and The Washington Post.
When I met David A. Johnston, it was on a spring evening, about a month before he would be erased from existence by a gigantic cloud of volcanic ash boiling over him at 300 miles per hour. He was coming through the door of a makeshift command center in Vancouver, Wash., the closest city to the graceful snow-capped dome of Mount St. Helens, a volcano that had been dormant for 123 years. This was April 1980, and Mr. Johnston, a 30-year-old geologist, was one of the first scientists summoned to monitor new warning signs from the mountain — shallow earthquakes and periodic bursts of ash and steam.
As a young reporter I had talked my way into the command center. At first Mr. Johnston was wary; he wasn’t supposed to meet the press anymore. His supervisors had played down the chance that the smoking mountain was about to explode, and they had already reprimanded him for suggesting otherwise. But on this night he’d just been setting measuring equipment deep in the surrounding forest, and his runner-thin frame vibrated with excitement, his face flushed under his blond beard, and Mr. Johnston couldn’t help riffing on the likelihood of a cataclysmic event.
“My feeling is when it goes, it’s going to go just like that,” he told me, snapping his fingers. “Bang!” At best, he said, we’d have a couple of hours of warning.
Mr. Johnston was mostly right. Early on a Sunday morning several weeks later, the mountain did blow, in the most destructive eruption in U.S. history. But there was no warning. At his instrument outpost, on a ridge more than five miles from the summit, Mr. Johnston had only seconds to radio in a last message: “Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!”
Monday, May 18, marks the 40th anniversary of the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption, and as we now face our own struggle to gauge the uncertain risks presented by nature, to predict how bad things will get and how much and how long to protect ourselves, it may be useful to revisit the tension back then between science, politics and economics.
The drama played out on a much smaller stage — one region of one state, instead of the whole planet — but many of the same elements were present: Scientists provided a range of educated guesses, and public officials split on how to respond. Business owners and residents chafed at the restrictions put in place, many flouted them, and a few even threatened armed rebellion. In the end, the government mostly accepted the analyses of Mr. Johnston and his fellow geologists. As a result, while the eruption killed 57 people and flattened hundreds of square miles of dense Pacific Northwest forestland, the lives of hundreds, perhaps thousands, were spared.
At the first warning signs, state and federal officials moved to distance people from the mountain. They sought to block nonessential visitors from nearby Spirit Lake, ringed with scout camps and tourist lodges. Other than loggers, few people hung around the peak year-round, but the population surged in late spring and summer, when thousands hiked, camped and moved into vacation homes. Many regulars dismissed the risk. Slipping past roadblocks became a popular activity. Locals sold maps to sightseers and amateur photographers that showed how to take old logging roads up the mountain. The owner of a nearby general store shared a common opinion of the threat: “It’s just plain bull. I lived here 26 years, and nothing like this happened before.”
Like the probability of a pandemic, though, it was well-established that one of the dozen or so volcanoes in the 800-mile Cascade Range might soon turn active. Averaging two eruptions a century, they were overdue. A 1978 report by the U.S. Geological Survey, where Mr. Johnston worked, identified Mount St. Helens as most likely to blow next. Yet forecasting how big the event could be was a matter of art as well as science. Geologists could model only previous explosions and list the possible outcomes. (“That position was difficult for many to accept, because they believed we could and should make predictions,” a U.S.G.S. report said later.)
Some scientists suggested a much larger evacuation, but uncertainty, a hallmark of their discipline, can be difficult for those making real-time public policy. The guidelines from federal and state representatives camped out in Vancouver, and from Washington’s governor, Dixy Lee Ray, often seemed in conflict. Moreover, the Weyerhaeuser Company, which owned tens of thousands of acres of timber, opposed logging restrictions, even as some crews got nervous about working near the rumbling dome.
By mid-April, a bulge grew on the north flank, a clue that highly pressurized magma was trapped and expanding. If it burst, a landslide might bury Spirit Lake. The governor, a conservative Democrat who was a biologist by training, finally agreed to stronger measures. She ordered an inner “red zone” where only scientists and law enforcement personnel could enter, and a “blue zone” open to loggers and property owners with day passes. If the zones didn’t extend as far as many geologists hoped, they were certainly an improvement.
Then the mountain got deceptively quiet. The curve of seismic activity flattened and turned downward. Many grew complacent, and restless. On Saturday, May 17, people with property inside the red zone massed in cars and pickup trucks at the roadblock on State Highway 504. Hearing rumors that some carried rifles, the governor relented, allowing them through, with a police escort, to check on their homes and leave again. The state patrol chief, Robert Landon, told them, “We hope the good Lord will keep that mountain from giving us any trouble.” The property owners vowed to return the next day.
The next day was Sunday. At 8:32 a.m., a powerful quake shook loose the snow-covered north face of Mount St. Helens, releasing the superheated magma, which roared out of the mountain in a lateral blast faster than a bullet train, over the spot where Mr. Johnston stood, mowing down 230 square miles of trees, hurling trunks into the air like twigs. It rained down a suffocating storm of thick gray ash, “a burning sky-river wind of searing lava droplet hail,” as the poet Gary Snyder described it. Mudflows clogged the river valleys, setting off deadly floods. A column of ash soared 15 miles high and bloomed into a mushroom cloud 35 miles wide. Over two weeks, ash would circle the globe. Among the 57 dead were three aspiring geologists besides Mr. Johnston, as well as loggers, sightseers and photographers.
About a week later, the Forest Service took reporters up in a helicopter. I had seen the mountain from the air before the eruption. Now the sprawling green wilderness that appeared endless and permanent had disappeared in a blink. We flew for an hour over nothing but moonscape. The scientists had done their best, but nature flexed a power far more deadly than even they had imagined.
Lawrence Roberts, a former editor at ProPublica and The Washington Post, is the author of the forthcoming “Mayday 1971: A White House at War, a Revolt in the Streets, and the Untold History of America’s Biggest Mass Arrest.”
Covid-19 isn’t going away soon. Two recent studies mapped out the possible shapes of its trajectory.
By Siobhan Roberts – May 8, 2020
By now we know — contrary to false predictions — that the novel coronavirus will be with us for a rather long time.
“Exactly how long remains to be seen,” said Marc Lipsitch, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “It’s going to be a matter of managing it over months to a couple of years. It’s not a matter of getting past the peak, as some people seem to believe.”
A single round of social distancing — closing schools and workplaces, limiting the sizes of gatherings, lockdowns of varying intensities and durations — will not be sufficient in the long term.
In the interest of managing our expectations and governing ourselves accordingly, it might be helpful, for our pandemic state of mind, to envision this predicament — existentially, at least — as a soliton wave: a wave that just keeps rolling and rolling, carrying on under its own power for a great distance.
The Scottish engineer and naval architect John Scott Russell first spotted a soliton in 1834 as it traveled along the Union Canal. He followed on horseback and, as he wrote in his “Report on Waves,” overtook it rolling along at about eight miles an hour, at thirty feet long and a foot or so in height. “Its height gradually diminished, and after a chase of one or two miles I lost it in the windings of the channel.”
The pandemic wave, similarly, will be with us for the foreseeable future before it diminishes. But, depending on one’s geographic location and the policies in place, it will exhibit variegated dimensions and dynamics traveling through time and space.
“There is an analogy between weather forecasting and disease modeling,” Dr. Lipsitch said. Both, he noted, are simple mathematical descriptions of how a system works: drawing upon physics and chemistry in the case of meteorology; and on behavior, virology and epidemiology in the case of infectious-disease modeling. Of course, he said, “we can’t change the weather.” But we can change the course of the pandemic — with our behavior, by balancing and coordinating psychological, sociological, economic and political factors.
Dr. Lipsitch is a co-author of two recent analyses — one from the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, the other from the Chan School published in Science — that describe a variety of shapes the pandemic wave might take in the coming months.
The Minnesota study describes three possibilities:
Scenario No. 1 depicts an initial wave of cases — the current one — followed by a consistently bumpy ride of “peaks and valleys” that will gradually diminish over a year or two.
Scenario No. 2 supposes that the current wave will be followed by a larger “fall peak,” or perhaps a winter peak, with subsequent smaller waves thereafter, similar to what transpired during the 1918-1919 flu pandemic.
Scenario No. 3 shows an intense spring peak followed by a “slow burn” with less-pronounced ups and downs.
The authors conclude that whichever reality materializes (assuming ongoing mitigation measures, as we await a vaccine), “we must be prepared for at least another 18 to 24 months of significant Covid-19 activity, with hot spots popping up periodically in diverse geographic areas.”
In the Science paper, the Harvard team — infectious-disease epidemiologist Yonatan Grad, his postdoctoral fellow Stephen Kissler, Dr. Lipsitch, his doctoral student Christine Tedijanto and their colleague Edward Goldstein — took a closer look at various scenarios by simulating the transmission dynamics using the latest Covid-19 data and data from related viruses.
The authors conveyed the results in a series of graphs — composed by Dr. Kissler and Ms. Tedijanto — that project a similarly wavy future characterized by peaks and valleys.
One figure from the paper, reinterpreted below, depicts possible scenarios (the details would differ geographically) and shows the red trajectory of Covid-19 infections in response to “intermittent social distancing” regimes represented by the blue bands.
Social distancing is turned “on” when the number of Covid-19 cases reaches a certain prevalence in the population — for instance, 35 cases per 10,000, although the thresholds would be set locally, monitored with widespread testing. It is turned “off” when cases drop to a lower threshold, perhaps 5 cases per 10,000. Because critical cases that require hospitalization lag behind the general prevalence, this strategy aims to prevent the health care system from being overwhelmed.
The green graph represents the corresponding, if very gradual, increase in population immunity.
“The ‘herd immunity threshold’ in the model is 55 percent of the population, or the level of immunity that would be needed for the disease to stop spreading in the population without other measures,” Dr. Kissler said.
Another iteration shows the effects of seasonality — a slower spread of the virus during warmer months. Theoretically, seasonal effects allow for larger intervals between periods of social distancing.
This year, however, the seasonal effects will likely be minimal, since a large proportion of the population will still be susceptible to the virus come summer. And there are other unknowns, since the underlying mechanisms of seasonality — such as temperature, humidity and school schedules — have been studied for some respiratory infections, like influenza, but not for coronaviruses. So, alas, we cannot depend on seasonality alone to stave off another outbreak over the coming summer months.
Yet another scenario takes into account not only seasonality but also a doubling of the critical-care capacity in hospitals. This, in turn, allows for social distancing to kick in at a higher threshold — say, at a prevalence of 70 cases per 10,000 — and for even longer breaks between social distancing periods:
What is clear overall is that a one-time social distancing effort will not be sufficient to control the epidemic in the long term, and that it will take a long time to reach herd immunity.
“This is because when we are successful in doing social distancing — so that we don’t overwhelm the health care system — fewer people get the infection, which is exactly the goal,” said Ms. Tedijanto. “But if infection leads to immunity, successful social distancing also means that more people remain susceptible to the disease. As a result, once we lift the social distancing measures, the virus will quite possibly spread again as easily as it did before the lockdowns.”
So, lacking a vaccine, our pandemic state of mind may persist well into 2021 or 2022 — which surprised even the experts.
“We anticipated a prolonged period of social distancing would be necessary, but didn’t initially realize that it could be this long,” Dr. Kissler said.
Claudio Maierovitch Pessanha Henriques – 6 de maio de 2020
Desde o início da epidemia de doença causada pelo novo coronavírus (Covid-19), a grande pergunta tem sido “quando acaba?” Frequentemente, são divulgadas na mídia e nas redes sociais projeções as mais variadas sobre a famosa curva da doença em vários países e no mundo, algumas recentes, mostrando a tendência de que os casos deixem de surgir no início do segundo semestre deste ano.
Tais modelos partem do pressuposto de que há uma história, uma curva natural da doença, que começa, sobe, atinge um pico e começa a cair. Vamos analisar o sentido de tal raciocínio. Muitas doenças transmissíveis agudas, quando atingem uma população nova, expandem-se rapidamente, numa velocidade que depende de seu chamado número reprodutivo básico, ou R0 (“R zero”, que estima para quantas pessoas o portador de um agente infeccioso o transmite).
Quando uma quantidade grande de pessoas tiver adoecido ou se infectado mesmo sem sintomas, os contatos entre portadores e pessoas que não tiveram a doença começam a se tornar raros. Num cenário em que pessoas sobreviventes da infecção fiquem imunes àquele agente, sua proporção cresce e a transmissão se torna cada vez mais rara. Assim, a curva, que vinha subindo, fica horizontal e começa a cair, podendo até mesmo chegar a zero, situação em que o agente deixa de circular.
Em populações grandes, é muito raro que uma doença seja completamente eliminada desta forma, por isso a incidência cresce novamente de tempos em tempos. Quando a quantidade de pessoas que não se infectaram, somada à dos bebês que nascem e pessoas sem imunidade que vieram de outros lugares é suficientemente grande, então a curva sobe novamente.
É assim, de forma simplificada, que a ciência entende a ocorrência periódica de epidemias de doenças infecciosas agudas. A história nos ilustra com numerosos exemplos, como varíola, sarampo, gripe, rubéola, poliomielite, caxumba, entre muitos outros. Dependendo das características da doença e da sociedade, são ciclos ilustrados por sofrimento, sequelas e mortes. Realmente, nesses casos, é possível estimar a duração das epidemias e, em alguns casos, até mesmo prever as próximas.
A saúde pública tem diversas ferramentas para interferir em muitos desses casos, indicados para diferentes mecanismos de transmissão, como saneamento, medidas de higiene, isolamento, combate a vetores, uso de preservativos, extinção de fontes de contaminação, vacinas e tratamentos capazes de eliminar os microrganismos. A vacinação, ação específica de saúde considerada mais efetiva, simula o que acontece naturalmente, ao aumentar a quantidade de pessoas imunes na população até que a doença deixe de circular, sem que para isso pessoas precisem adoecer.
No caso da Covid-19, há estimativas de que para a doença deixar de circular intensamente será preciso que cerca de 70% da população seja infectada. Isso se chama imunidade coletiva (também se adota a desagradável denominação “imunidade de rebanho”). Quanto à situação atual de disseminação do coronavírus Sars-CoV-2, a Organização Mundial da Saúde (OMS) calcula que até a metade de abril apenas de 2% a 3% da população mundial terá sido infectada. Estimativas para o Brasil são um pouco inferiores a essa média.
Trocando em miúdos, para que a doença atinja naturalmente seu pico no país e comece a cair, será preciso esperar que 140 milhões de pessoas se infectem. A mais conservadora (menor) taxa de letalidade encontrada nas publicações sobre a Covid-19 é de 0,36%, mais ou menos um vigésimo daquela que os números oficiais de casos e mortes revelam. Isso significa que até o Brasil atingir o pico, contaremos 500 mil mortes se o sistema de saúde não ultrapassar seus limites —e, caso isso aconteça, um número muito maior.
Atingir o pico é sinônimo de catástrofe, não é uma aposta admissível, sobretudo quando constatamos que já está esgotada a capacidade de atendimento hospitalar em várias cidades, como Manaus, Rio de Janeiro e Fortaleza —outras seguem o mesmo caminho.
A única perspectiva aceitável é evitar o pico, e a única forma de fazê-lo é com medidas rigorosas de afastamento físico. A cota de contatos entre as pessoas deve ficar reservada às atividades essenciais, entre elas saúde, segurança, cadeias de suprimento de combustíveis, alimentos, produtos de limpeza, materiais e equipamentos de uso em saúde, limpeza, manutenção e mais um ou outro setor. Alguma dose de criatividade pode permitir ampliar um pouco esse leque, desde que os meios de transporte e vias públicas permaneçam vazios o suficiente para que seja mantida a distância mínima entre as pessoas.
O monitoramento do número de casos e mortes, que revela a transmissão com duas a três semanas de defasagem, deverá ser aprimorado e utilizado em conjunto com estudos baseados em testes laboratoriais para indicar o rigor das medidas de isolamento.
Se conseguirmos evitar a tragédia maior, vamos conviver com um longo período de restrição de atividades, mais de um ano, e teremos que aprender a organizar a vida e a economia de outras formas, além de passar por alguns períodos de “lockdown” —cerca de duas semanas cada, se a curva apontar novamente para o pico.
Hoje, a situação é grave e tende a se tornar crítica. O Brasil é o país com a maior taxa de transmissão da doença; é hora de ficar em casa e, se for imprescindível sair, fazer da máscara uma parte inseparável da vestimenta e manter rigorosamente todos os cuidados indicados.
The critic Raymond Williams once wrote that every historical period has its own “structure of feeling.” How everything seemed in the nineteen-sixties, the way the Victorians understood one another, the chivalry of the Middle Ages, the world view of Tang-dynasty China: each period, Williams thought, had a distinct way of organizing basic human emotions into an overarching cultural system. Each had its own way of experiencing being alive.
In mid-March, in a prior age, I spent a week rafting down the Grand Canyon. When I left for the trip, the United States was still beginning to grapple with the reality of the coronavirus pandemic. Italy was suffering; the N.B.A. had just suspended its season; Tom Hanks had been reported ill. When I hiked back up, on March 19th, it was into a different world. I’ve spent my life writing science-fiction novels that try to convey some of the strangeness of the future. But I was still shocked by how much had changed, and how quickly.
Schools and borders had closed; the governor of California, like governors elsewhere, had asked residents to begin staying at home. But the change that struck me seemed more abstract and internal. It was a change in the way we were looking at things, and it is still ongoing. The virus is rewriting our imaginations. What felt impossible has become thinkable. We’re getting a different sense of our place in history. We know we’re entering a new world, a new era. We seem to be learning our way into a new structure of feeling.
In many ways, we’ve been overdue for such a shift. In our feelings, we’ve been lagging behind the times in which we live. The Anthropocene, the Great Acceleration, the age of climate change—whatever you want to call it, we’ve been out of synch with the biosphere, wasting our children’s hopes for a normal life, burning our ecological capital as if it were disposable income, wrecking our one and only home in ways that soon will be beyond our descendants’ ability to repair. And yet we’ve been acting as though it were 2000, or 1990—as though the neoliberal arrangements built back then still made sense. We’ve been paralyzed, living in the world without feeling it.
Now, all of a sudden, we’re acting fast as a civilization. We’re trying, despite many obstacles, to flatten the curve—to avoid mass death. Doing this, we know that we’re living in a moment of historic importance. We realize that what we do now, well or badly, will be remembered later on. This sense of enacting history matters. For some of us, it partly compensates for the disruption of our lives.
Actually, we’ve already been living in a historic moment. For the past few decades, we’ve been called upon to act, and have been acting in a way that will be scrutinized by our descendants. Now we feel it. The shift has to do with the concentration and intensity of what’s happening. September 11th was a single day, and everyone felt the shock of it, but our daily habits didn’t shift, except at airports; the President even urged us to keep shopping. This crisis is different. It’s a biological threat, and it’s global. Everyone has to change together to deal with it. That’s really history.
It seems as though science has been mobilized to a dramatic new degree, but that impression is just another way in which we’re lagging behind. There are 7.8 billion people alive on this planet—a stupendous social and technological achievement that’s unnatural and unstable. It’s made possible by science, which has already been saving us. Now, though, when disaster strikes, we grasp the complexity of our civilization—we feel the reality, which is that the whole system is a technical improvisation that science keeps from crashing down.
On a personal level, most of us have accepted that we live in a scientific age. If you feel sick, you go to a doctor, who is really a scientist; that scientist tests you, then sometimes tells you to take a poison so that you can heal—and you take the poison. It’s on a societal level that we’ve been lagging. Today, in theory, everyone knows everything. We know that our accidental alteration of the atmosphere is leading us into a mass-extinction event, and that we need to move fast to dodge it. But we don’t act on what we know. We don’t want to change our habits. This knowing-but-not-acting is part of the old structure of feeling.
Now comes this disease that can kill anyone on the planet. It’s invisible; it spreads because of the way we move and congregate. Instantly, we’ve changed. As a society, we’re watching the statistics, following the recommendations, listening to the scientists. Do we believe in science? Go outside and you’ll see the proof that we do everywhere you look. We’re learning to trust our science as a society. That’s another part of the new structure of feeling.
Possibly, in a few months, we’ll return to some version of the old normal. But this spring won’t be forgotten. When later shocks strike global civilization, we’ll remember how we behaved this time, and how it worked. It’s not that the coronavirus is a dress rehearsal—it’s too deadly for that. But it is the first of many calamities that will likely unfold throughout this century. Now, when they come, we’ll be familiar with how they feel.
What shocks might be coming? Everyone knows everything. Remember when Cape Town almost ran out of water? It’s very likely that there will be more water shortages. And food shortages, electricity outages, devastating storms, droughts, floods. These are easy calls. They’re baked into the situation we’ve already created, in part by ignoring warnings that scientists have been issuing since the nineteen-sixties. Some shocks will be local, others regional, but many will be global, because, as this crisis shows, we are interconnected as a biosphere and a civilization.
Imagine what a food scare would do. Imagine a heat wave hot enough to kill anyone not in an air-conditioned space, then imagine power failures happening during such a heat wave. (The novel I’ve just finished begins with this scenario, so it scares me most of all.) Imagine pandemics deadlier than the coronavirus. These events, and others like them, are easier to imagine now than they were back in January, when they were the stuff of dystopian science fiction. But science fiction is the realism of our time. The sense that we are all now stuck in a science-fiction novel that we’re writing together—that’s another sign of the emerging structure of feeling.
Science-fiction writers don’t know anything more about the future than anyone else. Human history is too unpredictable; from this moment, we could descend into a mass-extinction event or rise into an age of general prosperity. Still, if you read science fiction, you may be a little less surprised by whatever does happen. Often, science fiction traces the ramifications of a single postulated change; readers co-create, judging the writers’ plausibility and ingenuity, interrogating their theories of history. Doing this repeatedly is a kind of training. It can help you feel more oriented in the history we’re making now. This radical spread of possibilities, good to bad, which creates such a profound disorientation; this tentative awareness of the emerging next stage—these are also new feelings in our time.
Memento mori: remember that you must die. Older people are sometimes better at keeping this in mind than younger people. Still, we’re all prone to forgetting death. It never seems quite real until the end, and even then it’s hard to believe. The reality of death is another thing we know about but don’t feel.Video From The New Yorker Throwing Shade Through Crosswords
So this epidemic brings with it a sense of panic: we’re all going to die, yes, always true, but now perhaps this month! That’s different. Sometimes, when hiking in the Sierra, my friends and I get caught in a lightning storm, and, completely exposed to it, we hurry over the rocky highlands, watching lightning bolts crack out of nowhere and connect nearby, thunder exploding less than a second later. That gets your attention: death, all too possible! But to have that feeling in your ordinary, daily life, at home, stretched out over weeks—that’s too strange to hold on to. You partly get used to it, but not entirely. This mixture of dread and apprehension and normality is the sensation of plague on the loose. It could be part of our new structure of feeling, too.
Just as there are charismatic megafauna, there are charismatic mega-ideas. “Flatten the curve” could be one of them. Immediately, we get it. There’s an infectious, deadly plague that spreads easily, and, although we can’t avoid it entirely, we can try to avoid a big spike in infections, so that hospitals won’t be overwhelmed and fewer people will die. It makes sense, and it’s something all of us can help to do. When we do it—if we do it—it will be a civilizational achievement: a new thing that our scientific, educated, high-tech species is capable of doing. Knowing that we can act in concert when necessary is another thing that will change us.
People who study climate change talk about “the tragedy of the horizon.” The tragedy is that we don’t care enough about those future people, our descendants, who will have to fix, or just survive on, the planet we’re now wrecking. We like to think that they’ll be richer and smarter than we are and so able to handle their own problems in their own time. But we’re creating problems that they’ll be unable to solve. You can’t fix extinctions, or ocean acidification, or melted permafrost, no matter how rich or smart you are. The fact that these problems will occur in the future lets us take a magical view of them. We go on exacerbating them, thinking—not that we think this, but the notion seems to underlie our thinking—that we will be dead before it gets too serious. The tragedy of the horizon is often something we encounter, without knowing it, when we buy and sell. The market is wrong; the prices are too low. Our way of life has environmental costs that aren’t included in what we pay, and those costs will be borne by our descendents. We are operating a multigenerational Ponzi scheme.
And yet: “Flatten the curve.” We’re now confronting a miniature version of the tragedy of the time horizon. We’ve decided to sacrifice over these months so that, in the future, people won’t suffer as much as they would otherwise. In this case, the time horizon is so short that we are the future people. It’s harder to come to grips with the fact that we’re living in a long-term crisis that will not end in our lifetimes. But it’s meaningful to notice that, all together, we are capable of learning to extend our care further along the time horizon. Amid the tragedy and death, this is one source of pleasure. Even though our economic system ignores reality, we can act when we have to. At the very least, we are all freaking out together. To my mind, this new sense of solidarity is one of the few reassuring things to have happened in this century. If we can find it in this crisis, to save ourselves, then maybe we can find it in the big crisis, to save our children and theirs.
Margaret Thatcher said that “there is no such thing as society,” and Ronald Reagan said that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” These stupid slogans marked the turn away from the postwar period of reconstruction and underpin much of the bullshit of the past forty years.
We are individuals first, yes, just as bees are, but we exist in a larger social body. Society is not only real; it’s fundamental. We can’t live without it. And now we’re beginning to understand that this “we” includes many other creatures and societies in our biosphere and even in ourselves. Even as an individual, you are a biome, an ecosystem, much like a forest or a swamp or a coral reef. Your skin holds inside it all kinds of unlikely coöperations, and to survive you depend on any number of interspecies operations going on within you all at once. We are societies made of societies; there are nothing but societies. This is shocking news—it demands a whole new world view. And now, when those of us who are sheltering in place venture out and see everyone in masks, sharing looks with strangers is a different thing. It’s eye to eye, this knowledge that, although we are practicing social distancing as we need to, we want to be social—we not only want to be social, we’ve got to be social, if we are to survive. It’s a new feeling, this alienation and solidarity at once. It’s the reality of the social; it’s seeing the tangible existence of a society of strangers, all of whom depend on one another to survive. It’s as if the reality of citizenship has smacked us in the face.
As for government: it’s government that listens to science and responds by taking action to save us. Stop to ponder what is now obstructing the performance of that government. Who opposes it? Right now we’re hearing two statements being made. One, from the President and his circle: we have to save money even if it costs lives. The other, from the Centers for Disease Control and similar organizations: we have to save lives even if it costs money. Which is more important, money or lives? Money, of course! says capital and its spokespersons. Really? people reply, uncertainly. Seems like that’s maybe going too far? Even if it’s the common wisdom? Or was.
Some people can’t stay isolated and still do their jobs. If their jobs are important enough, they have to expose themselves to the disease. My younger son works in a grocery store and is now one of the front-line workers who keep civilization running.
My son is now my hero: this is a good feeling. I think the same of all the people still working now for the sake of the rest of us. If we all keep thinking this way, the new structure of feeling will be better than the one that’s dominated for the past forty years.
The neoliberal structure of feeling totters. What might a post-capitalist response to this crisis include? Maybe rent and debt relief; unemployment aid for all those laid off; government hiring for contact tracing and the manufacture of necessary health equipment; the world’s militaries used to support health care; the rapid construction of hospitals.Advertisement
What about afterward, when this crisis recedes and the larger crisis looms? If the project of civilization—including science, economics, politics, and all the rest of it—were to bring all eight billion of us into a long-term balance with Earth’s biosphere, we could do it. By contrast, when the project of civilization is to create profit—which, by definition, goes to only a few—much of what we do is actively harmful to the long-term prospects of our species. Everyone knows everything. Right now pursuing profit as the ultimate goal of all our activities will lead to a mass-extinction event. Humanity might survive, but traumatized, interrupted, angry, ashamed, sad. A science-fiction story too painful to write, too obvious. It would be better to adapt to reality.
Economics is a system for optimizing resources, and, if it were trying to calculate ways to optimize a sustainable civilization in balance with the biosphere, it could be a helpful tool. When it’s used to optimize profit, however, it encourages us to live within a system of destructive falsehoods. We need a new political economy by which to make our calculations. Now, acutely, we feel that need.
It could happen, but it might not. There will be enormous pressure to forget this spring and go back to the old ways of experiencing life. And yet forgetting something this big never works. We’ll remember this even if we pretend not to. History is happening now, and it will have happened. So what will we do with that?
A structure of feeling is not a free-floating thing. It’s tightly coupled with its corresponding political economy. How we feel is shaped by what we value, and vice versa. Food, water, shelter, clothing, education, health care: maybe now we value these things more, along with the people whose work creates them. To survive the next century, we need to start valuing the planet more, too, since it’s our only home.
It will be hard to make these values durable. Valuing the right things and wanting to keep on valuing them—maybe that’s also part of our new structure of feeling. As is knowing how much work there is to be done. But the spring of 2020 is suggestive of how much, and how quickly, we can change. It’s like a bell ringing to start a race. Off we go—into a new time.
A Guide to the Coronavirus
Twenty-four hours at the epicenter of the pandemic: nearly fifty New Yorker writers and photographers fanned out to document life in New York City on April 15th.
Editor’s note: The Economist is making some of its most important coverage of the covid-19 pandemic freely available to readers of The Economist Today, our daily newsletter. To receive it, register here. For our coronavirus tracker and more coverage, see our hub
IN THE 1970s Mori Masahiro, a professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, observed that there was something disturbing about robots which looked almost, but not quite, like people. Representations in this “uncanny valley” are close enough to lifelike for their shortfalls and divergences from the familiar to be particularly disconcerting. Today’s Chinese economy is exploring a similarly unnerving new terrain. And the rest of the world is following in its uncertain steps.
Whatever the drawbacks of these new lowlands, they are assuredly preferable to the abyss of lockdown. Measures taken to reverse the trajectory of the pandemic around the world have brought with them remarkable economic losses.
Not all sectors of the economy have done terribly. New subscriptions to Netflix increased at twice their usual rate in the first quarter of 2020, with most of that growth coming in March. In America, the sudden stop of revenue from Uber’s ride-sharing service in March and April has been partially cushioned by the 25% increase of sales from its food-delivery unit, according to 7Park Data, a data provider.
Yet the general pattern is grim. Data from Womply, a firm which processes transactions on behalf of 450,000 small businesses across America, show that businesses in all sectors have lost substantial revenue. Restaurants, bars and recreational businesses have been badly hit: revenues have declined some two-thirds since March 15th. Travel and tourism may suffer the worst losses. In the EU, where tourism accounts for some 4% of GDP, the number of people travelling by plane fell from 5m to 50,000; on April 19th less than 5% of hotel rooms in Italy and Spain were occupied.
According to calculations made on behalf of The Economist by Now-Casting Economics, a research firm that provides high-frequency economic forecasts to institutional investors, the world economy shrank by 1.3% year-on-year in the first quarter of 2020, driven by a 6.8% year-on-year decline in China’s GDP. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York draws on measures such as jobless claims to produce a weekly index of American economic output. It suggests that the country’s GDP is currently running about 12% lower than it was a year ago (see chart 1).
These figures fit with attempts by Goldman Sachs, a bank, to estimate the relationship between the severity of lockdowns and their effect on output. It finds, roughly, that an Italian-style lockdown is associated with a GDP decline of 25%. Measures to control the virus while either keeping the economy running reasonably smoothly, as in South Korea, or reopening it, as in China, are associated with a GDP reduction in the region of 10%. That chimes with data which suggest that if Americans chose to avoid person-to-person proximity of the length of an arm or less, occupations worth approximately 10% of national output would become unviable.
The “90% economy” thus created will be, by definition, smaller than that which came before. But its strangeness will be more than a matter of size. There will undoubtedly be relief, fellow feeling, and newly felt or expressed esteem for those who have worked to keep people safe. But there will also be residual fear, pervasive uncertainty, a lack of innovative fervour and deepened inequalities. The fraction of life that is missing will colour people’s experience and behaviour in ways that will not be offset by the happy fact that most of what matters is still available and ticking over. In a world where the office is open but the pub is not, qualitative differences in the way life feels will be at least as significant as the drop in output.
The plight of the pub demonstrates that the 90% economy will not be something that can be fixed by fiat. Allowing pubs—and other places of social pleasure—to open counts for little if people do not want to visit them. Many people will have to leave the home in order to work, but they may well feel less comfortable doing so to have a good time. A poll by YouGov on behalf of The Economist finds that over a third of Americans think it will be “several months” before it will be safe to reopen businesses as normal—which suggests that if businesses do reopen some, at least, may stay away.
Ain’t nothing but tired
Some indication that the spending effects of a lockdown will persist even after it is over comes from Sweden. Research by Niels Johannesen of Copenhagen University and colleagues finds that aggregate-spending patterns in Sweden and Denmark over the past months look similarly reduced, even though Denmark has had a pretty strict lockdown while official Swedish provisions have been exceptionally relaxed. This suggests that personal choice, rather than government policy, is the biggest factor behind the drop. And personal choices may be harder to reverse.
Discretionary spending by Chinese consumers—the sort that goes on things economists do not see as essentials—is 40% off its level a year ago. Haidilao, a hotpot chain, is seeing a bit more than three parties per table per day—an improvement, but still lower than the 4.8 registered last year, according to a report by Goldman Sachs published in mid-April. Breweries are selling 40% less beer. STR, a data-analytics firm, finds that just one-third of hotel beds in China were occupied during the week ending April 19th. Flights remain far from full (see chart 2).
This less social world is not necessarily bad news for every company. UBS, a bank, reports that a growing number of people in China say that the virus has increased their desire to buy a car—presumably in order to avoid the risk of infection on public transport. The number of passengers on Chinese underground trains is still about a third below last year’s level; surface traffic congestion is as bad now as it was then.
Wanting a car, though, will not mean being able to afford one. Drops in discretionary spending are not entirely driven by a residual desire for isolation. They also reflect the fact that some people have a lot less money in the post-lockdown world. Not all those who have lost jobs will quickly find new ones, not least because there is little demand for labour-intensive services such as leisure and hospitality. Even those in jobs will not feel secure, the Chinese experience suggests. Since late March the share of people worried about salary cuts has risen slightly, to 44%, making it their biggest concern for 2020, according to Morgan Stanley, a bank. Many are now recouping the loss of income that they suffered during the most acute phase of the crisis, or paying down debt. All this points to high saving rates in the future, reinforcing low consumption.
A 90% economy is, on one level, an astonishing achievement. Had the pandemic struck even two decades ago, only a tiny minority of people would have been able to work or satisfy their needs. Watching a performance of Beethoven on a computer, or eating a meal from a favourite restaurant at home, is not the same as the real thing—but it is not bad. The lifting of the most stringent lockdowns will also provide respite, both emotionally and physically, since the mere experience of being told what you can and cannot do is unpleasant. Yet in three main ways a 90% economy is a big step down from what came before the pandemic. It will be more fragile; it will be less innovative; and it will be more unfair.
Take fragility first. The return to a semblance of normality could be fleeting. Areas which had apparently controlled the spread of the virus, including Singapore and northern Japan, have imposed or reimposed tough restrictions in response to a rise in the growth rate of new infections. If countries which retain relatively tough social-distancing rules do better at staving off a viral comeback, other countries may feel a need to follow them (see Chaguan). With rules in flux, it will feel hard to plan weeks ahead, let alone months.
Can’t start a fire
The behaviour of the economy will be far less predictable. No one really knows for how long firms facing zero revenues, or households who are working reduced hours or not at all, will be able to survive financially. Businesses can keep going temporarily, either by burning cash or by tapping grants and credit lines set up by government—but these are unlimited neither in size nor duration. What is more, a merely illiquid firm can quickly become a truly insolvent one as its earnings stagnate while its debt commitments expand. A rise in corporate and personal bankruptcies, long after the apparently acute phase of the pandemic, seems likely, though governments are trying to forestall them. In the past fortnight bankruptcies in China started to rise relative to last year. On April 28th HSBC, one of the world’s largest banks, reported worse-than-expected results, in part because of higher credit losses.
Furthermore, the pandemic has upended norms and conventions about how economic agents behave. In Britain the share of commercial tenants who paid their rent on time fell from 90% to 60% in the first quarter of this year. A growing number of American renters are no longer paying their landlords. Other creditors are being put off, too. In America, close to 40% of business-to-business payments from firms in the spectator-sports and film industries were late in March, double the rate a year ago. Enforcing contracts has become more difficult with many courts closed and social interactions at a standstill. This is perhaps the most insidious means by which weak sectors of the economy will infect otherwise moderately healthy ones.
In an environment of uncertain property rights and unknowable income streams, potential investment projects are not just risky—they are impossible to price. A recent paper by Scott Baker of Northwestern University and colleagues suggests that economic uncertainty is at an all-time high. That may go some way to explaining the results of a weekly survey from Moody’s Analytics, a research firm, which finds that businesses’ investment intentions are substantially lower even than during the financial crisis of 2007-09. An index which measures American nonresidential construction activity 9-12 months ahead has also hit new lows.
The collapse in investment points to the second trait of the 90% economy: that it will be less innovative. The development of liberal capitalism over the past three centuries went hand in hand with a growth in the number of people exchanging ideas in public or quasi-public spaces. Access to the coffeehouse, the salon or the street protest was always a partial process, favouring some people over others. But a vibrant public sphere fosters creativity.
Innovation is not impossible in a world with less social contact. There is more than one company founded in a garage now worth $1trn. During lockdowns, companies have had to innovate quickly—just look at how many firms have turned their hand to making ventilators, if with mixed success. A handful of firms claim that working from home is so productive that their offices will stay closed for good.
Yet these productivity bonuses look likely to be heavily outweighed by drawbacks. Studies suggest the benefits of working from home only materialise if employees can frequently check in at an office in order to solve problems. Planning new projects is especially difficult. Anyone who has tried to bounce ideas around on Zoom or Skype knows that spontaneity is hard. People are often using bad equipment with poor connections. Nick Bloom of Stanford University, one of the few economists to have studied working from home closely, reckons that there will be a sharp decline in patent applications in 2021.
Cities have proven particularly fertile ground for innovations which drive long-run growth. If Geoffrey West, a physicist who studies complex systems, is right to suggest that doubling a city’s population leads to all concerned becoming on aggregate 15% richer, then the emptying-out of urban areas is bad news. MoveBuddha, a relocation website, says that searches for places in New York City’s suburbs are up almost 250% compared with this time last year. A paper from New York University suggests that richer, and thus presumably more educated, New Yorkers—people from whom a disproportionate share of ideas may flow—are particularly likely to have left during the epidemic.
Something happening somewhere
Wherever or however people end up working, the experience of living in a pandemic is not conducive to creative thought. How many people entered lockdown with a determination to immerse themselves in Proust or George Eliot, only to find themselves slumped in front of “Tiger King”? When mental capacity is taken up by worries about whether or not to touch that door handle or whether or not to believe the results of the latest study on the virus, focusing is difficult. Women are more likely to take care of home-schooling and entertainment of bored children (see article), meaning their careers suffer more than men’s. Already, research by Tatyana Deryugina, Olga Shurchkov and Jenna Stearns, three economists, finds that the productivity of female economists, as measured by production of research papers, has fallen relative to male ones since the pandemic began.
The growing gender divide in productivity points to the final big problem with the 90% economy: that it is unfair. Liberally regulated economies operating at full capacity tend to have unemployment rates of 4-5%, in part because there will always be people temporarily unemployed as they move from one job to another. The new normal will have higher joblessness. This is not just because GDP will be lower; the decline in output will be particularly concentrated in labour-intensive industries such as leisure and hospitality, reducing employment disproportionately. America’s current unemployment rate, real-time data suggest, is between 15-20%.
The lost jobs tended to pay badly, and were more likely to be performed by the young, women and immigrants. Research by Abi Adams-Prassl of Oxford University and colleagues finds that an American who normally earns less than $20,000 a year is twice as likely to have lost their job due to the pandemic as one earning $80,000-plus. Many of those unlucky people do not have the skills, nor the technology, that would enable them to work from home or to retrain for other jobs.
The longer the 90% economy endures, the more such inequalities will deepen. People who already enjoy strong professional networks—largely, those of middle age and higher—may actually quite enjoy the experience of working from home. Notwithstanding the problems of bad internet and irritating children, it may be quite pleasant to chair fewer meetings or performance reviews. Junior folk, even if they make it into an office, will miss out on the expertise and guidance of their seniors. Others with poor professional networks, such as the young or recently arrived immigrants, may find it difficult or impossible to strengthen them, hindering upward mobility, points out Tyler Cowen of George Mason University.
The world economy that went into retreat in March as covid-19 threatened lives was one that looked sound and strong. And the biomedical community is currently working overtime to produce a vaccine that will allow the world to be restored to its full capacity. But estimates suggest that this will take at least another 12 months—and, as with the prospects of the global economy, that figure is highly uncertain. If the adage that it takes two months to form a habit holds, the economy that re-emerges will be fundamentally different.
Many Americans have been living under lockdown for a month or more. We’re all getting antsy. The president is talking about a “light at the end of the tunnel.” People are looking for hope and reasons to plan a return to something — anything — approximating normalcy. Experts are starting to speculate on what lifting restrictions will look like. Despite the relentless, heroic work of doctors and scientists around the world, there’s so much we don’t know.
We don’t know how many people have been infected with Covid-19.
We don’t know the full range of symptoms.
We don’t always know why some infections develop into severe disease.
We don’t know the full range of risk factors.
We don’t know exactly how deadly the disease is.
We don’t have answers to more detailed questions about how the virus spreads, including: “How many virus particles does it even take to launch an infection? How far does the virus travel in outdoor spaces, or in indoor settings? Have these airborne movements affected the course of the pandemic?”
We don’t know for sure how this coronavirus first emerged.
We don’t know if people will continue to adhere to social distancing guidelines once infections go down.
We don’t know when states will be able to test everyone who has symptoms.
We don’t know if the United States could ever deploy the number of tests — as many as 22 million per day — needed to implement mass testing and quarantining.
We don’t know if we can implement “test and trace” contact tracing at scale.
We don’t know whether smartphone location tracking could be implemented without destroying our privacy.
We don’t know if or when researchers will develop a successful vaccine.
We don’t know how many vaccines can be deployed and administered in the first months after a vaccine becomes available.
We don’t know how a vaccine will be administered — who will get it first?
We don’t know if a vaccine will be free or costly.
We don’t know if a vaccine will need to be updated every year.
We don’t know how, when we do open things up again, we will do it.
We don’t know if people will be afraid to gather in crowds.
We don’t know if people will be too eager to gather in crowds.
We don’t know what socially distanced professional sports will look like.
We don’t know what socially distanced workplaces will look like.
We don’t know what socially distanced bars and restaurants will look like.
We don’t know when schools will reopen.
We don’t know what a general election in a pandemic will look like.
We don’t know what effects lost school time will have on children.
We don’t know if the United States’s current and future government stimulus will stave off an economic collapse.
We don’t know whether the economy will bounce back in the form of a “v curve” …
Or whether it’ll be a long recession.
We don’t know when any of this will end for good.
There is, at present, no plan from the Trump White House on the way forward.
We’re working on a project about the ways people’s lives might be permanently altered by the coronavirus, even after the pandemic subsides. In what ways do you think your life will change in the long term? What will be your new “normal”?
The world has never faced a hunger emergency like this, experts say. It could double the number of people facing acute hunger to 265 million by the end of this year.
Published April 22, 2020; Updated April 23, 2020, 6:39 a.m. ET
NAIROBI, Kenya — In the largest slum in Kenya’s capital, people desperate to eat set off a stampede during a recent giveaway of flour and cooking oil, leaving scores injured and two people dead.
In India, thousands of workers are lining up twice a day for bread and fried vegetables to keep hunger at bay.
And across Colombia, poor households are hanging red clothing and flags from their windows and balconies as a sign that they are hungry.
“We don’t have any money, and now we need to survive,” said Pauline Karushi, who lost her job at a jewelry business in Nairobi, and lives in two rooms with her child and four other relatives. “That means not eating much.”
The coronavirus pandemic has brought hunger to millions of people around the world. National lockdowns and social distancing measures are drying up work and incomes, and are likely to disrupt agricultural production and supply routes — leaving millions to worry how they will get enough to eat.
The coronavirus has sometimes been called an equalizer because it has sickened both rich and poor, but when it comes to food, the commonality ends. It is poor people, including large segments of poorer nations, who are now going hungry and facing the prospect of starving.
“The coronavirus has been anything but a great equalizer,” said Asha Jaffar, a volunteer who brought food to families in the Nairobi slum of Kibera after the fatal stampede. “It’s been the great revealer, pulling the curtain back on the class divide and exposing how deeply unequal this country is.”
Already, 135 million people had been facing acute food shortages, but now with the pandemic, 130 million more could go hungry in 2020, said Arif Husain, chief economist at the World Food Program, a United Nations agency. Altogether, an estimated 265 million people could be pushed to the brink of starvation by year’s end.
“We’ve never seen anything like this before,” Mr. Husain said. “It wasn’t a pretty picture to begin with, but this makes it truly unprecedented and uncharted territory.”
The world has experienced severe hunger crises before, but those were regional and caused by one factor or another — extreme weather, economic downturns, wars or political instability.
This hunger crisis, experts say, is global and caused by a multitude of factors linked to the coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing interruption of the economic order: the sudden loss in income for countless millions who were already living hand-to-mouth; the collapse in oil prices; widespread shortages of hard currency from tourism drying up; overseas workers not having earnings to send home; and ongoing problems like climate change, violence, population dislocations and humanitarian disasters.
Already, from Honduras to South Africa to India, protests and looting have broken out amid frustrations from lockdowns and worries about hunger. With classes shut down, over 368 million children have lost the nutritious meals and snacks they normally receive in school.
There is no shortage of food globally, or mass starvation from the pandemic — yet. But logistical problems in planting, harvesting and transporting food will leave poor countries exposed in the coming months, especially those reliant on imports, said Johan Swinnen, director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington.
While the system of food distribution and retailing in rich nations is organized and automated, he said, systems in developing countries are “labor intensive,” making “these supply chains much more vulnerable to Covid-19 and social distancing regulations.”
Yet even if there is no major surge in food prices, the food security situation for poor people is likely to deteriorate significantly worldwide. This is especially true for economies like Sudan and Zimbabwe that were struggling before the outbreak, or those like Iran that have increasingly used oil revenues to finance critical goods like food and medicine.
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In the sprawling Petare slum on the outskirts of the capital, Caracas, a nationwide lockdown has left Freddy Bastardo and five others in his household without jobs. Their government-supplied rations, which had arrived only once every two months before the crisis, have long run out.
“We are already thinking of selling things that we don’t use in the house to be able to eat,” said Mr. Bastardo, 25, a security guard. “I have neighbors who don’t have food, and I’m worried that if protests start, we wouldn’t be able to get out of here.”
As wages have dried up, half a million people are estimated to have left cities to walk home, setting off the nation’s “largest mass migration since independence,” said Amitabh Behar, the chief executive of Oxfam India.
On a recent evening, hundreds of migrant workers, who have been stuck in New Delhi after a lockdown was imposed in March with little warning, sat under the shade of a bridge waiting for food to arrive. The Delhi government has set up soup kitchens, yet workers like Nihal Singh go hungry as the throngs at these centers have increased in recent days.
“Instead of coronavirus, the hunger will kill us,” said Mr. Singh, who was hoping to eat his first meal in a day. Migrants waiting in food lines have fought each other over a plate of rice and lentils. Mr. Singh said he was ashamed to beg for food but had no other option.
“The lockdown has trampled on our dignity,” he said.
Refugees and people living in conflict zones are likely to be hit the hardest.
The curfews and restrictions on movement are already devastating the meager incomes of displaced people in Uganda and Ethiopia, the delivery of seeds and farming tools in South Sudan and the distribution of food aid in the Central African Republic. Containment measures in Niger, which hosts almost 60,000 refugees fleeing conflict in Mali, have led to surges in the pricing of food, according to the International Rescue Committee.
The effects of the restrictions “may cause more suffering than the disease itself,” said Kurt Tjossem, regional vice president for East Africa at the International Rescue Committee.
Ahmad Bayoush, a construction worker who had been displaced to Idlib Province in northern Syria, said he and many others had signed up to receive food from aid groups, but that it had yet to arrive.
“I am expecting real hunger if it continues like this in the north,” he said.
The pandemic is also slowing efforts to deal with the historic locust plague that has been ravaging the East and Horn of Africa. The outbreak is the worst the region has seen in decades and comes on the heels of a year marked by extreme droughts and floods. But the arrival of billions of new swarms could further deepen food insecurity, said Cyril Ferrand, head of the Food and Agriculture Organization’s resilience team in eastern Africa.
Travel bans and airport closures, Mr. Ferrand said, are interrupting the supply of pesticides that could help limit the locust population and save pastureland and crops.
As many go hungry, there is concern in a number of countries that food shortages will lead to social discord. In Colombia, residents of the coastal state of La Guajira have begun blocking roads to call attention to their need for food. In South Africa, rioters have broken into neighborhood food kiosks and faced off with the police.
And even charitable food giveaways can expose people to the virus when throngs appear, as happened in Nairobi’s shantytown of Kibera earlier this month.
“People called each other and came rushing,” said Valentine Akinyi, who works at the district government office where the food was distributed. “People have lost jobs. It showed you how hungry they are.”
Yet communities across the world are also taking matters into their own hands. Some are raising money through crowdfunding platforms, while others have begun programs to buy meals for needy families.
On a recent afternoon, Ms. Jaffar and a group of volunteers made their way through Kibera, bringing items like sugar, flour, rice and sanitary pads to dozens of families. A native of the area herself, Ms. Jaffar said she started the food drive after hearing so many stories from families who said they and their children were going to sleep hungry.
The food drive has so far reached 500 families. But with all the calls for assistance she’s getting, she said, “that’s a drop in the ocean.”
Reporting was contributed by Anatoly Kurmanaev and Isayen Herrera from Caracas, Venezuela; Paulina Villegas from Mexico City; Julie Turkewitz from Bogotá, Colombia; Ben Hubbard and Hwaida Saad from Beirut, Lebanon; Sameer Yasir from New Delhi; and Hannah Beech from Bangkok.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb is “irritated,” he told Bloomberg Television on March 31st, whenever the coronavirus pandemic is referred to as a “black swan,” the term he coined for an unpredictable, rare, catastrophic event, in his best-selling 2007 book of that title. “The Black Swan” was meant to explain why, in a networked world, we need to change business practices and social norms—not, as he recently told me, to provide “a cliché for any bad thing that surprises us.” Besides, the pandemic was wholly predictable—he, like Bill Gates, Laurie Garrett, and others, had predicted it—a white swan if ever there was one. “We issued our warning that, effectively, you should kill it in the egg,” Taleb told Bloomberg. Governments “did not want to spend pennies in January; now they are going to spend trillions.”
The warning that he referred to appeared in a January 26th paper that he co-authored with Joseph Norman and Yaneer Bar-Yam, when the virus was still mainly confined to China. The paper cautions that, owing to “increased connectivity,” the spread will be “nonlinear”—two key contributors to Taleb’s anxiety. For statisticians, “nonlinearity” describes events very much like a pandemic: an output disproportionate to known inputs (the structure and growth of pathogens, say), owing to both unknown and unknowable inputs (their incubation periods in humans, or random mutations), or eccentric interaction among various inputs (wet markets and airplane travel), or exponential growth (from networked human contact), or all three.
“These are ruin problems,” the paper states, exposure to which “leads to a certain eventual extinction.” The authors call for “drastically pruning contact networks,” and other measures that we now associate with sheltering in place and social distancing. “Decision-makers must act swiftly,” the authors conclude, “and avoid the fallacy that to have an appropriate respect for uncertainty in the face of possible irreversible catastrophe amounts to ‘paranoia.’ ” (“Had we used masks then”—in late January—“we could have saved ourselves the stimulus,” Taleb told me.)
Yet, for anyone who knows his work, Taleb’s irritation may seem a little forced. His profession, he says, is “probability.” But his vocation is showing how the unpredictable is increasingly probable. If he was right about the spread of this pandemic it’s because he has been so alert to the dangers of connectivity and nonlinearity more generally, to pandemics and other chance calamities for which COVID-19 is a storm signal. “I keep getting asked for a list of the next four black swans,” Taleb told me, and that misses his point entirely. In a way, focussing on his January warning distracts us from his main aim, which is building political structures so that societies will be better able to cope with mounting, random events.
Indeed, if Taleb is chronically irritated, it is by those economists, officials, journalists, and executives—the “naïve empiricists”—who think that our tomorrows are likely to be pretty much like our yesterdays. He explained in a conversation that these are the people who, consulting bell curves, focus on their bulging centers, and disregard potentially fatal “fat tails”—events that seem “statistically remote” but “contribute most to outcomes,” by precipitating chain reactions, say. (Last week, Dr. Phil told Fox’s Laura Ingraham that we should open up the country again, noting, wrongly, that “three hundred and sixty thousand people die each year “from swimming pools — but we don’t shut the country down for that.” In response, Taleb tweeted, “Drowning in swimming pools is extremely contagious and multiplicative.”) Naïve empiricists plant us, he argued in “The Black Swan,” in “Mediocristan.” We actually live in “Extremistan.”
Taleb, who is sixty-one, came by this impatience honestly. As a young man, he lived through Lebanon’s civil war, which was precipitated by Palestinian militias escaping a Jordanian crackdown, in 1971, and led to bloody clashes between Maronite Christians and Sunni Muslims, drawing in Shiites, Druze, and the Syrians as well. The conflict lasted fifteen years and left some ninety thousand people dead. “These events were unexplainable, but intelligent people thought they were capable of providing convincing explanations for them—after the fact,” Taleb writes in “The Black Swan.” “The more intelligent the person, the better sounding the explanation.” But how could anyone have anticipated “that people who seemed a model of tolerance could become the purest of barbarians overnight?” Given the prior cruelties of the twentieth century, the question may sound ingenuous, but Taleb experienced sudden violence firsthand. He grew fascinated, and outraged, by extrapolations from an illusory normal—the evil of banality. “I later saw the exact same illusion of understanding in business success and the financial markets,” he writes.
“Later” began in 1983, when, after university in Paris, and a Wharton M.B.A., Taleb became an options trader—“my core identity,” he says. Over the next twelve years, he conducted two hundred thousand trades, and examined seventy thousand risk-management reports. Along the way, he developed an investment strategy that entailed exposure to regular, small losses, while positioning him to benefit from irregular, massive gains—something like a venture capitalist. He explored, especially, scenarios for derivatives: asset bundles where fat tails—price volatilities, say—can either enrich or impoverish traders, and do so exponentially when they increase the scale of the movement.
These were the years, moreover, when, following Japan, large U.S. manufacturing companies were converting to “just-in-time” production, which involved integrating and synchronizing supply-chains, and forgoing stockpiles of necessary components in favor of acquiring them on an as-needed basis, often relying on single, authorized suppliers. The idea was that lowering inventory would reduce costs. But Taleb, extrapolating from trading risks, believed that “managing without buffers was irresponsible,” because “fat-tail events” can never be completely avoided. As the Harvard Business Reviewreported this month, Chinese suppliers shut down by the pandemic have stymied the production capabilities of a majority of the companies that depend on them.
The coming of global information networks deepened Taleb’s concern. He reserved a special impatience for economists who saw these networks as stabilizing—who thought that the average thought or action, derived from an ever-widening group, would produce an increasingly tolerable standard—and who believed that crowds had wisdom, and bigger crowds more wisdom. Thus networked, institutional buyers and sellers were supposed to produce more rational markets, a supposition that seemed to justify the deregulation of derivatives, in 2000, which helped accelerate the crash of 2008.
As Taleb told me, “The great danger has always been too much connectivity.” Proliferating global networks, both physical and virtual, inevitably incorporate more fat-tail risks into a more interdependent and “fragile” system: not only risks such as pathogens but also computer viruses, or the hacking of information networks, or reckless budgetary management by financial institutions or state governments, or spectacular acts of terror. Any negative event along these lines can create a rolling, widening collapse—a true black swan—in the same way that the failure of a single transformer can collapse an electricity grid.
COVID-19 has initiated ordinary citizens into the esoteric “mayhem” that Taleb’s writings portend. Who knows what will change for countries when the pandemic ends? What we do know, Taleb says, is what cannot remain the same. He is “too much a cosmopolitan” to want global networks undone, even if they could be. But he does want the institutional equivalent of “circuit breakers, fail-safe protocols, and backup systems,” many of which he summarizes in his fourth, and favorite, book, “Antifragile,” published in 2012. For countries, he envisions political and economic principles that amount to an analogue of his investment strategy: government officials and corporate executives accepting what may seem like too-small gains from their investment dollars, while protecting themselves from catastrophic loss.
Anyone who has read the Federalist Papers can see what he’s getting at. The “separation of powers” is hardly the most efficient form of government; getting something done entails a complex, time-consuming process of building consensus among distributed centers of authority. But James Madison understood that tyranny—however distant it was from the minds of likely Presidents in his own generation—is so calamitous to a republic, and so incipient in the human condition, that it must be structurally mitigated. For Taleb, an antifragile country would encourage the distribution of power among smaller, more local, experimental, and self-sufficient entities—in short, build a system that could survive random stresses, rather than break under any particular one. (His word for this beneficial distribution is “fractal.”)
We should discourage the concentration of power in big corporations, “including a severe restriction of lobbying,” Taleb told me. “When one per cent of the people have fifty per cent of the income, that is a fat tail.” Companies shouldn’t be able to make money from monopoly power, “from rent-seeking”—using that power not to build something but to extract an ever-larger part of the surplus. There should be an expansion of the powers of state and even county governments, where there is “bottom-up” control and accountability. This could incubate new businesses and foster new education methods that emphasize “action learning and apprenticeship” over purely academic certification. He thinks that “we should have a national Entrepreneurship Day.”
But Taleb doesn’t believe that the government should abandon citizens buffeted by events they can’t possibly anticipate or control. (He dedicated his book “Skin in the Game,” published in 2018, to Ron Paul and Ralph Nader.) “The state,” he told me, “should not smooth out your life, like a Lebanese mother, but should be there for intervention in negative times, like a rich Lebanese uncle.” Right now, for example, the government should, indeed, be sending out checks to unemployed and gig workers. (“You don’t bail out companies, you bail out individuals.”) He would also consider a guaranteed basic income, much as Andrew Yang, whom he admires, has advocated. Crucially, the government should be an insurer of health care, though Taleb prefers not a centrally run Medicare-for-all system but one such as Canada’s, which is controlled by the provinces. And, like responsible supply-chain managers, the federal government should create buffers against public-health disasters: “If it can spend trillions stockpiling nuclear weapons, it ought to spend tens of billions stockpiling ventilators and testing kits.”
At the same time, Taleb adamantly opposes the state taking on staggering debt. He thinks, rather, that the rich should be taxed as disproportionately as necessary, “though as locally as possible.” The key is “to build on the good days,” when the economy is growing, and reduce the debt, which he calls “intergenerational dispossession.” The government should then encourage an eclectic array of management norms: drawing up political borders, even down to the level of towns, which can, in an epidemiological emergency, be closed; having banks and corporations hold larger cash reserves, so that they can be more independent of market volatility; and making sure that manufacturing, transportation, information, and health-care systems have redundant storage and processing components. (“That’s why nature gave us two kidneys.”) Taleb is especially keen to inhibit “moral hazard,” such as that of bankers who get rich by betting, and losing, other people’s money. “In the Hammurabi Code, if a house falls in and kills you, the architect is put to death,” he told me. Correspondingly, any company or bank that gets a bailout should expect its executives to be fired, and its shareholders diluted. “If the state helps you, then taxpayers own you.”
Some of Taleb’s principles seem little more than thought experiments, or fit uneasily with others. How does one tax more locally, or close a town border? If taxpayers own corporate equities, does this mean that companies might be nationalized, broken up, or severely regulated? But asking Taleb to describe antifragility to its end is a little like asking Thomas Hobbes to nail down sovereignty. The more important challenge is to grasp the peril for which political solutions must be designed or improvised; society cannot endure with complacent conceptions of how things work. “It would seem most efficient to drive home at two hundred miles an hour,” he put it to me.“But odds are you’d never get there.”