Wednesday, March 4, 2020

A COVID-19 Analogy: Snowstorm

Here at the Billy Rubin blog we're fond of medical analogies to blizzards, and as I see article after article breathlessly talking about coronavirus-this and coronavirus-that, and what still seems to be mass panic across the world, it may be helpful to think about the coming COVID-19 epidemic in terms of how those of us who live in snowy climates think of bad snowstorms. Which is to say, they can be bad and disruptive--and even deadly--but people have learned to cope with them. And with the proper approach, they can be weathered, but that doesn't mean they don't put a lot of strain on the system.

A massive snowstorm makes travel difficult at best; that drains the workforce of workers who make or do things. (Yes, there's telecommuting, but no, that won't work for, say, plumbers and electricians, who are, you know, important to making things run.) Schools shut down so even people who might be able to make it in are otherwise occupied. Overall, the economic impacts are real, but temporary, and mostly remain confined to cold-weather areas and don't ripple all the way through the economy.

People die in snowstorms, generally by power and heat loss, or through heart attacks of people with heart disease who head out to shovel snow (I saw this during my residency more than once). Do a lot of people die? No. But does a bad snowstorm strain the system if a bunch of frostbitten or collapsing snow shovelers require emergency medical care? Yep.

That's this coronavirus in a nutshell, though with some important differences. The first involves economic impact: the epidemic isn't just limited to a small part of one country, but will shut down the workforce everywhere. Supply chains of products are international, so the effects of China's aggressive containment policies will very likely have a negative impact on the global economy for months. And a snowstorm lasts days; this is already two months old, and it's hard to guess when the workforce brownouts will stop--though I don't think six months is an unreasonable estimate.

And people will die, just as they do in bad blizzards. Any given individual who gets infected is unlikely to die, just like your chance of dying in a snowstorm is fairly low. But that doesn't mean you can't attribute a number of deaths directly to the storm. And again, the storm will hit the entire country (indeed, nearly every country). In aggregate, it will add up to a lot of people.

Just as with snowstorms, there are protective measures that reduce risk, and the most important of these is well as "social distancing"--keeping yourself at arm's length (though the CDC says 6 feet) from people, particularly those with symptoms. It won't reduce the risk to zero, just as no intervention can prevent the hazards associated with a blizzard. But it isn't hopeless, and shouldn't cause mass panic.

Analogies are tricky, but hopefully this one helps give a little context to the numbers.


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