Today’s picture is a hazy day in summer in New York City. Our accompaniment is Simon and Garfunkel’s “Hazy Shade of Winter.”June 28, 2009 — Central Park, New York City
This morning, as part of my daily report on the spread of coronavirus in western countries, I posted a chart showing that Italy’s daily death rate from COVID-19 seems to have hit its peak. That got me curious about all the other countries. Do any of them also show signs of being near their peak? Here’s the full set:
Note that all these charts begin on March 1 and the y-axis is just plain old daily deaths. I’ve used a 6-day rolling average to smooth out the noise.
There’s no good news here. Spain is showing a few glimmers of peaking, but none of the other countries looks anywhere close. We’re all still on the early exponential part of the curve and probably at least two weeks away from our respective peaks.
Based on cellphone location data, the New York Times was able to draw a map of where and when people started complying with coronavirus stay-at-home orders. The answer is infuriating:
The map doesn’t look this way because people in the South are idiots. It’s almost certainly because they’re conservative and they watch a lot of Fox News. They also listen to President Trump. And Rush Limbaugh. And what they heard was that the coronavirus was “just a bad cold.” That “within a couple of days it’s going to be down to close to zero.” That the hysteria was nothing but a “new hoax” from Democrats who want to bring down the president.
For weeks that’s what they heard. And they believed it. And so they resisted taking it seriously. That’s starting to shift now that Trump and the conservative noise machine have changed their tune, but it’s several weeks too late. What a shameful performance.
Health experts say they now believe nearly one in three patients who are infected are nevertheless getting a negative test result. They caution that only limited data is available, and their estimates are based on their own experience in the absence of hard science.
That picture is troubling, many doctors say, as it casts doubt on the reliability of a wave of new tests developed by manufacturers, lab companies and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most of these are operating with minimal regulatory oversight and little time to do robust studies amid a desperate call for wider testing.
WTF is going on? Our test is still inaccurate. The WHO test is apparently very accurate, but it’s available only to low-income countries. The Chinese test is questionable. The German test is . . . who knows?
This is insane. How long will it take the richest country in the world to develop a coronavirus test that’s (a) accurate and (b) can be produced in the millions?
And what’s up with the WHO test, anyway? Maybe they focus on providing test kits to poor countries, but that doesn’t mean they can’t give rich countries the specifications for their test and then let them manufacture it. Why not do that?
Every time this comes up, it seems like “we’re really close” and there’s no need for the WHO test. How about if this time we just go ahead and set up a track to manufacture it? Worst case, we don’t need it and it’s a tiny bit of wasted effort. Best case, it saves our skins. That’s a pretty easy tradeoff.
This headline is not a joke. Here’s the chart showing initial unemployment claims through this week:
The Washington Post says this is a “stunning sign of an economic collapse.” EPI calls it a “portrait of disaster.” That’s nonsense. It’s a deliberately engineered temporary freeze. And one of the reasons we should be able to get through it without permanent damage is that we passed a rescue bill that vastly increases unemployment benefits. We want lots of people to apply for benefits. The more the better.
So yes, this is good news. It means that laid-off workers are applying for benefits, and nearly all of them will see no reduction in their income. In fact, many will see an increase.
Now, having said that, I’ll backtrack on my suggestion that states shouldn’t have too much trouble handling the volume of applications. I figured they could probably muddle through 3 million applications, but now we’re up to 10 million. That’s going to be a mess. Still, just knowing that help is on the way should be a huge relief for workers who have lost their jobs for the duration.
POSTSCRIPT: I will add one thing to this. The rescue bill may replace income, but it doesn’t replace lost health insurance. This is obviously a big deal, but I don’t know how big. It depends on how many laid-off workers had health coverage in the first place. It depends on how long their coverage stays in place after a layoff. It depends on how accessible COBRA is. It depends on whether you qualify for subsidies under Obamacare. There are a lot of variables here and I don’t know how they’ll all play out.
Here’s the coronavirus growth rate through April 1. First, though, some good news:
It looks very much like Italy has just about hit its peak, which means that its daily death rate should start declining soon. And the bad news? The rest of us aren’t close. We still have weeks to go before we peak and start to decline.
One thing to note: with the exception of Spain and Britain, it’s now looking as if every country is at least slightly below the Italian trendline. It’s hard to know if this means we’ll have fewer deaths than Italy or if we’ve just flattened the curve a bit and spread things out. We’ll have to wait and see.
How to read the charts: Let’s use France as an example. For them, Day 0 was March 5, when they surpassed one death per 10 million by recording their sixth death. They are currently at Day 27; total deaths are at 673x their initial level; and they have recorded a total of 60.3 deaths per million so far. As the chart shows, this is below where Italy was on their Day 27.
The raw data from Johns Hopkins is here.
I’ve been whining for a while about the stimulus checks in the coronavirus bill getting outsized attention even though the expanded unemployment benefits are far bigger and more important. So it’s only fair that I hand the microphone over to a fellow whiner who wants everyone to know that the coronavirus rescue bill also authorizes a huge money hose aimed at small businesses as long as the money is . . .
. . . used for payroll costs, interest on mortgages, rent, and utilities (due to likely high subscription, at least 75% of the forgiven amount must have been used for payroll)
The program starts on April 3. Here is William Winecoff of the University of Indiana:
I can’t believe everyone is missing the news of the day: The US just went full-Denmark on payroll support. Except better (assuming quick expansion to large corporations). I haven’t smiled in weeks. I’m beaming. If we keep recapitalizing this as needed we could actually avoid a Depression.
It’s a loan program. But loans are fully forgiven if 75% or more of them go towards payrolls. Including benefits. And (rapid) rehires. So it should function like a grant program. The reason why it is structured as a loan program is because it can be administered through FDIC banks, credit unions, etc.
If this works well, you can walk into your local bank and get cash fast. Maybe on the spot? But the banks can’t profit; no fees allowed. Also no collateral, no personal guarantees required….Payroll support is for 8 weeks, which buys us a good amount of time. Also creates infrastructure if it needs to be expanded further.
So, as I read it, and if it works, it’s full payroll support, for free, without having to go through the SBA directly, and also support for business rent/mortgage/utilities payments. That’s huge! And because it’s a Treasury program it can be easily backstopped by the Fed, which allows for quick expansion if needed (it will be needed). Unless I’m missing something this is a very big deal. It needs to be expanded to ALL workers, not just small businesses, and it will need more funding support (and/or something creative like a Fannie/Freddie for SMEs). But I never thought this admin would do something this decent.
They’ve released the application form. Very simple.
Yep. This is all correct. So here’s a summary of the assistance that the coronavirus rescue bill provides for ordinary people:
- A $1,200 check for just about everyone with a middle-class income or less. That’s almost $3,000 for a family of three.
- A program that encourages small businesses to keep workers employed by funding their payroll costs.
- For those workers who are laid off anyway, an expanded unemployment insurance program that replaces 100 percent or more of your normal income up to $50-60,000 (depending on what state you live in).
This adds up to about a trillion dollars, and virtually all of it is for non-rich people. Is everyone starting to get an idea of why I’ve been so enthusiastic about the way this bill ended up? It’s pretty damn good.
In a new survey from the Pew Research Center, 79 percent of Fox viewers say the media is exaggerating the risks of the coronavirus pandemic. And there’s more: 39 percent believe the virus was developed in a lab—presumably a Chinese bioweapons lab.
Fox viewers aren’t the only ones who are misinformed or prone to conspiracy theories, but they sure are the most likely. This is hardly a surprise from the network that brought you Benghazi and her emails, but it’s been astonishing to see just how far they’ll go to turn nearly anything into a partisan issue.
We have a a hummingbird buzzing around our yard right now, and I decided to try taking a picture of it using fill flash. The idea is to heavily underexpose the picture so that the ambient light produces almost no image. Instead, nearly all the light comes from the flash, which is very fast and can stop even rapid movement like a hummingbird’s wings.
So I went out Tuesday morning and staked out a position near our Salvia Amistad plant. By good fortune our hummingbird came by in less than a minute, and by further good fortune one of the pictures I took turned out pretty well. It shows our little guy just at the moment his beak is about meet breakfast.
On a down note, you can see that the hummingbird’s wings weren’t stopped by the flash. Maybe it’s not as fast as I thought. Or maybe my exposure setting was wrong. I’ll try again some other day.March 31, 2020 — Irvine, California
On a normal day in America about 8,000 people die. When the coronavirus pandemic hits its peak—probably in late April—it will likely claim about 4,000 lives per day. For a week or two, our national death rate will increase by 50 percent from its normal level.
But there’s also another way of looking at this. We would normally expect about 3 million people to die this year. If the coronavirus pandemic kills 150,000 people, that’s a 5 percent increase in our normal death rate.
Or this: the population of the United States is 330 million. If the pandemic kills 150,000 people, that’s a death rate of 0.05 percent.
Pick your poison. Are you a glass-half-empty or a glass-half-full kind of person?
This is currently the issue that has a stranglehold on the back of my mind:
Peru tried to do everything right. Officials declared an early national lockdown — and backed it up with 16,000 arrests. Yet confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus are surging, up nearly 60 percent since last weekend. In Egypt, observers say a repressive government is vastly undercounting the infected. In Brazil, where the president has dubbed Latin America’s largest outbreak a “fantasy,” numbers are skyrocketing.
….Epidemiologists and other public health experts say the coronavirus is poised to spread dangerously south, engulfing developing nations already plagued by fraying health-care systems, fragile governments and impoverished populations for whom social distancing can be practically impossible. They warned of an amplified global crisis in the coming weeks, striking nations that can least afford it at a time when wealthy countries are likely to be too preoccupied with outbreaks of their own to offer the kind of assistance they’ve extended during episodes of disease that were confined to the developing world.
I don’t know why the coronavirus initially took hold in the temperate regions of the northern hemisphere. If we’re lucky, it really does have something to do with our cool climate, which might mean that the virus will spread less quickly in hotter tropical regions. But I don’t know if I’d count on that. One thing we know for sure is that once a single person dies, it means the virus has settled in enough that it can’t be stopped without strict and universal countermeasures.
Economically, I think the global north can weather the coronavirus pandemic. We are not undergoing a normal recession, after all, where recovery is slow because nobody knows for sure when it’s really over. On the contrary: the day will come, eventually, when we can declare victory. In the meantime, the months of lockdown have acted as something of a forced savings regime. When the crisis is over, there will be huge pent-up demand and the economy should rebound quickly.
But that’s treating the northern hemisphere like an island. It’s not. We are connected to the rest of the world, and if the rest of the world turns into an economic disaster area it will have a big effect on us. There will be ongoing supply chain disruptions. There will be bond defaults. There will be currency crises. There will be stock market crashes.
This will be devastating for the countries at the epicenter, but it will probably also be devastating for us. In the worst case, it could turn a temporary regional recession into a whopping global depression.
Anyway, that’s what’s in the back of my mind. What’s in the back of yours?
Italy’s disastrous coronavirus epidemic was kicked off by a soccer match in Bergamo that authorities decided not to cancel. In South Korea it was meetings of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus. In Spain it was—again—soccer matches, which weren’t shut down until mid-March. In Louisiana it was Mardi Gras. In Florida it was spring break. In France it was a five-day gathering of the Christian Open Door church. So count me as disgusted by this:
At any other time, in a predominantly Christian nation that enshrines freedom of worship in the Constitution, the news would sound absurd or terrifying: “Pastor arrested after holding church services.” But that’s what happened this week when sheriff’s deputies handcuffed a Tampa, Fla., minister for violating municipal stay-at-home orders by gathering hundreds to worship….Brown, now out on bail, has complained of “religious bigotry.”
….In Louisiana, police issued a summons Tuesday to the pastor of Life Tabernacle Church in Central, La., near Baton Rouge, after he held services for 1,200 people in violation of state limits. “Never been more proud to be persecuted for the faith like my savior,” the Rev. Tony Spell shot back.
…R.R. Reno, editor of First Things, a prominent conservative Christian magazine, recently said in an article that politicians have been correct to put forth “stern measures to slow the spread of the virus.” But he added that churches should stay open. “When we worship, we join the Christian rebellion against the false lordship of the principalities and powers that claim to rule our lives, including sickness and death,” Reno wrote this month.
Idiots. I won’t pretend to offer Biblical advice to these guys, but at the very least they should care about hurting others even if God does protect them. And this kind of obduracy most definitely has the potential to hurt a lot of people. Shut ’em down, all of them.
Here’s the coronavirus growth rate through March 31. Italy continues to slowly flatten and still has a chance of peaking within a week. Everybody else is tracking about the same as usual too.
I’ve gotten a lot of comments lately about the particular way I construct my charts. The most frequent questions have to do with my choice of Day 0 and whether or not I should simply show absolute death tolls rather than growth rates.
Day 0 is an interesting question. I am a per-capita guy: I think you need to account for a country’s population to get an accurate picture of how they’re doing. That’s why I chose to count Day 0 as the first day that deaths surpassed one in ten million. I figure that 33 deaths in the United States is about equivalent to 6 deaths in Italy.
But there’s an argument for simply assigning Day 0 to the day with the very first death. After all, in the early stages of an epidemic the numbers are so small that the size of the country doesn’t really matter: it’s going to grow at an exponential rate for at least several weeks until it starts to hit resistance as a significant percentage of the population becomes infected. So let’s take a look at mortality rates counting from the day of the first COVID-19 death in each country:
Note that I’m still using deaths per million. Especially now that we have more than a month of the pandemic under our belts, I can’t persuade myself that this is wrong. Using absolute deaths seems like nothing but a way to make big countries look gratuitously bad. It’s like calling California the drunk driving capital of the country without mentioning that this is only because it has more people than any other state.
As it turns out, this chart doesn’t look all that different from my usual batch. Using a different definition of Day 0 just doesn’t change much. For now, then, I’m going to keep them the way they are so that they’re comparable from day to day. I may change them later if I need to.
How to read the charts: Let’s use France as an example. For them, Day 0 was March 5, when they surpassed one death per 10 million by recording their sixth death. They are currently at Day 26; total deaths are at 588x their initial level; and they have recorded a total of 52.7 deaths per million so far. As the chart shows, this is slightly below where Italy was on their Day 26.
The raw data from Johns Hopkins is here.
Here’s the latest projection of the US death toll from the coronavirus pandemic:
The top government scientists battling the coronavirus estimated Tuesday that the deadly pathogen could kill between 100,000 and 240,000 Americans, in spite of the social distancing measures that have closed schools, banned large gatherings, limited travel and forced people to stay in their homes….The conclusions generally match those from similar models by public health researchers around the globe.
As dire as those predictions are, Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx said the number of deaths could be much higher if Americans do not follow the strict guidelines to keep the virus from spreading, and they urged people to take the restrictions seriously.
This strikes me as about right. I am optimistically hoping for no more than 150,000 deaths, based entirely on my belief that Americans are going to be pretty good about complying with countermeasures for at least a couple of months. If I’m wrong about that, the number could go much higher.
Yesterday I showed you Segerstrom Hall at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts. Today I’ll show you the rest: the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts. Perhaps you can guess who donated the lion’s share of the funding for this complex?
This is an interesting picture. It’s a panorama of four shots stitched together by Photoshop, but for some reason Photoshop refused to merge the two leftmost shots. Eventually I had to do it myself, and the fact that I could do it at all means that it was a fairly easy stitch. So why wouldn’t Photoshop do it? I’ve run into this before, and it’s almost always with images that look like they’re really easy. It’s very strange.March 28, 2020 — Costa Mesa, California
We have good news and bad news on the unemployment benefit front:
The federal government will this week release funds from a coronavirus stimulus package to boost jobless benefits, but how quickly those payments reach laid-off workers depends on overburdened state unemployment systems, the head of the U.S. Labor Department said in an interview….He said funds to increase jobless payments by $600 a week—more than double the existing maximum in some states—will be distributed to states this week, but he doesn’t know when states will make such payments to individuals. The enhanced benefits were included in the roughly $2 trillion stimulus package that was recently signed into law.
So the firehose is connected to a hydrant and ready to go, but we’re not quite sure when the hook-and-ladder will get it to where the water is needed.
But it should be soon. I keep hearing that the “creaky” unemployment systems at the state level are going to be a problem, and sure, 3 million new claims in a single week is a lot. On the other hand, during the height of the Great Recession states processed nearly that many new claims each month for over a year. That’s a pretty big number too, so those systems can’t be all that creaky.
A reader emails me with a complaint after reading about the very generous unemployment benefits in the coronavirus rescue bill:
I would like to draw attention to a major flaw in the unemployment formula. I work in a grocery store, the epicenter of panic and the only place people can congregate—and believe me, they congregate. I’m deemed an essential worker. Basically if I don’t go to work, society collapses and you all starve (hyperbole, maybe? Maybe not).
I bring home between $550 and $650 a week. If I were laid off, I would be bringing home over $850. How is that fair? Why should we put our lives at risk for people who can’t stay home even when the government pays them to? Why shouldn’t we shut the grocery stores?
That’s a very good question, isn’t it? Back in 2009, a similar question paralyzed action during the Great Recession. From a macroeconomic point of view, giving mortgage relief to households would have been a very good idea. But at a personal level, people objected to the idea of doling out cash to homeowners who had lied about their income when they bought a big house or used a refi to install a shiny new kitchen. Why help them when those of us who had been prudent weren’t getting anything?
This is very much the same. The broad economic goal of the unemployment expansion is to give lots of money to people who are likely to spend it, which is those with low incomes. But on a personal level, that feels deeply unfair. Why should they get more than me just because they got laid off and I didn’t?
The best answer I have is that giving in to that sense of resentment turned out to be a terrible idea back when mortgages were at the heart of an economic meltdown. We should have sucked it up and doled out the cash even though it felt unfair in some cases. It’s now eleven years later, and hopefully we’ve learned our lesson: this time we’ll dole out the cash in the most efficient and targeted way possible even if it feels unfair in some cases.
On a personal level, the best I can say is that there’s a lot of luck inherent in life. Sometimes you’re the lucky one and sometimes you’re not. In the great scheme of things, this is a fairly minor and temporary bit of luck and I can hardly begrudge it to people who have been on the short end of the stick their entire lives.
BY THE WAY: This is why I’m not a politician. I’m sure this answer would convince no one who lacks pointed ears. But I’ll bet Bill Clinton could whomp up something good in a few minutes of free time.
Wuhan is where the coronavirus originated, and Wuhan is therefore the first place we’re seeing it end. But are we? Wuhan is “reopening,” but their version of reopening is more stringent than our version of total lockdown:
People are allowed out of their residential complexes only if they have a return-to-work pass issued by their employer, and only if the government-issued health code on their cellphone glows green — not orange or red — to show that they are healthy and cleared for travel. Residents report that some complexes deemed infection-free have quietly lost that status, without explanation.
In the malls that opened this week, people must stand five feet apart on escalators, and clothes that customers have tried on must be sprayed with disinfectant. Subway passengers must wear masks and sit two seats apart; footage on state media showed near-deserted cars and stations.
But even with all these restrictions still in place, apparently it’s not working:
Chinese authorities are discovering that allowing people — even those without fevers who are wearing surgical masks and are doused in hand sanitizer — to get too close to each other risks a new rise in infections. Recent media reports have focused on “silent carriers,” and studies have found that as many as one-third of people infected with the coronavirus show delayed or no symptoms. “The possibility of a new round of infections remains relatively high,” National Health Commission spokesman Mi Feng said Sunday.
This is pretty bad news. Wuhan isn’t showing a “steady decline” in new cases. They haven’t “passed the peak.” They have literally gone to zero and stayed there for nearly two weeks:
Despite this, and even with fairly stringent social distancing measures remaining in effect, they are still shutting down movie theaters and karaoke bars and have continued their ban on foreigners entering China.
The next few weeks will be critical for the rest of us. As I mentioned this morning, the key to understanding the spread of COVID-19 is understanding how well various countermeasures work. Wuhan is our first field test of this. If it fails even with countermeasures still in effect nearly a month after the number of new cases had dropped dropped to less than 2 percent of their peak—and a week after new cases had gone to zero—we might have a very long wait ahead of us.
We’re about two months behind Wuhan. If we follow their path, we’ll be in lockdown at least through the end of May. Probably longer, since our countermeasures will never be as draconian as theirs. End of June?
Here’s the coronavirus growth rate through March 30. I have gotten many emails from Swedes telling me that weekends are sacred in Sweden and that’s why their numbers didn’t go up much on Saturday or Sunday. Nobody was at work to report them. Sure enough, they took a big jump on Monday and are now back on the Italian track. You can read more here about Sweden’s fatalistic approach to the pandemic. “Yes, there has been an increase,” explains their chief epidemiologist, “but it’s not traumatic so far. Of course, we’re going into a phase in the epidemic where we’ll see a lot more cases in the next few weeks, more people in the ICU, but that’s just like any other country — nowhere has been able to slow down the spread considerably.” Apparently the government is so trusted in Sweden that everyone is buying into this. It’s possible that we’re conducting a high-stakes field test here of whether high trust in government is necessarily a good thing.
FWIW, I’ve gotten some similar emails about Germany, suggesting that their low death rate is because they aren’t recording lots of COVID-19 deaths properly. That could be, but I’d suggest that their death rate isn’t really all that low, so there’s nothing much to explain. Switzerland and the US are the only two countries that look solidly below the Italian trendline. Canada probably is too, but it’s a little too early to tell.
How to read the charts: Let’s use France as an example. For them, Day 0 was March 5, when they surpassed one death per 10 million by recording their sixth death. They are currently at Day 25; total deaths are at 505x their initial level; and they have recorded a total of 45.2 deaths per million so far. As the chart shows, this is slightly below where Italy was on their Day 25.
The raw data from Johns Hopkins is here.
It’s worth a quick note to point out that we no longer have any real idea of how deadly the coronavirus pandemic is going to be in the US. We’ve long since passed the point where the key to understanding the likely spread of the pandemic was a better understanding of the virus itself. What matters going forward is the countermeasures we put in place to stop its transmission routes.
Somebody should feel free to stop me if I’m wrong here, but we’re in terra incognita on that score. We’ve never had a widespread pandemic where we’ve put in place strict and widespread countermeasures, and that means we’re just guessing at how effective they are. The guess of an epidemiologist might be better than the guess of a blogger, but it’s still just a guess. We simply have no experience to draw on.
When this is all over we’ll spend years trying to assess which measures worked well and which ones didn’t. But even with time it will be difficult to untangle all the various threads and make sense of them. We don’t have that time now, so we’re flying blind.
This is the main reason you see estimates ranging wildly from 80,000 deaths to half a million. These size of the estimates all depend on which countermeasures you think we’ll adopt; how well they’ll work; how long we’ll keep them in place; and how seriously people will take them. Unfortunately, even the smartest epidemiologist in the world has a limited insight into things like that. So we just don’t know.