Covid Lockdown. Some Questions

By Omar Ali 19 Comments

When the novel Coronavirus started its spread outside of China very little was known about it and it is no surprise that countries acted to slow or stop the pandemic by locking down their citizens to various extents. Some countries (most notably UK and Sweden) tried to “push through” to herd immunity but then had a LOT of cases and transitioned to various degrees of lockdown. Others like the US tried a “worst of both worlds” response, with the President being skeptical of lockdowns, but reluctantly going along with them for a while  before shifting back to passive-aggressive sabotage of whatever his science advisors were telling him (whether they were correct or not is a separate issue). Pakistan’s PM had Trump-like instincts in this matter and unlike the US, his lockdown did not last long and was never very effective. This led to an early surge of cases and deaths (after Ramadan, when lockdown first failed) but to the surprise of most observers (including me), this outbreak then seemed to slow down and now there are ongoing cases, but the health system is definitely NOT being overwhelmed and the worse seems behind us. Meanwhile India continues to have varying degrees of lockdown (and because Indian officialdom has relatively more ability to enforce such things, these  also seem to have been more real than any Pakistani lockdown ever was) and is seeing a major increase in cases. When people talk about this they frequently bring up the fact that testing and tracking are not necessarily at “first world” levels in either country, so real numbers may be very different from what is being reported. This is true, but we do see what is happening in hospitals, so the fact that the system has not been overwhelmed is still something we can say.  Beyond that, I have no special knowledge or data. So I thought I would put up a post and get some answers from the hive mind:

  1. Where can non-experts like us find the best data on Covid? There are many sites, which ones do commentators prefer and why?
  2. Why is Pakistan NOT experiencing a dramatic health emergency due to Covid in spite of having given up on lockdowns? Is there pre-existing immunity? something else? Or just fewer old people? is there more to come?
  3. IF Pakistan is not seeing a major increase in deaths, should India continue its current level of lockdown? Do we expect Indian immunity and spread characteristics to be very different from Pakistan?
  4. What is the expert consensus now on various details such as “doing X is cost-effective, but Y should be abandoned”.. I mean what is the best source (sources) for answering such questions? One assumes that the “authorities” spend a lot of time analyzing information to determine what worked and what was just a waste of effort? Are the detailed recommendations evidence-based? Should any of them be changed? (for example, why is my dentist open for cleanings, but my barber is not? things like that, are they evidence based? and what does the evidence say?)

I look forward to being enlightened. Meanwhile, stay safe and happy.

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A risk factor for COVID-19 in South Asians

By Razib Khan 12 Comments

The major genetic risk factor for severe COVID-19 is inherited from Neandertals:

A recent genetic association study (Ellinghaus et al. 2020) identified a gene cluster on chromosome 3 as a risk locus for respiratory failure in SARS-CoV-2. Recent data comprising 3,199 hospitalized COVID-19 patients and controls reproduce this and find that it is the major genetic risk factor for severe SARS-CoV-2 infection and hospitalization (COVID-19 Host Genetics Initiative). Here, we show that the risk is conferred by a genomic segment of ~50 kb that is inherited from Neandertals and occurs at a frequency of ~30% in south Asia and ~8% in Europe.

The highest frequency is in the 1000 Genomes Bangladesh sample. 60%. In a study of Europeans all things equal the risk allele at this locus increases odds of respiratory failure by a factor of 1.75. This isn’t really the major factor; age and hypertension, all the things you know, matter more. But, it’s not trivial either to increase risk by 1.75.

If you are on 23andMe and got tested before the summer of 2017, the older chips has a marker for the locus that’s informative (in LD with the haplotype). This link should take you there. I’m TT homozygote. Modern human. A C is for Neanderthals.

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Covid-19 Fault Lines and Consequences

By sbarrkum 13 Comments

Note: This was drafted alt least a month before and posted on 23rd May 2020, two days before the Floyd killing occurred (25th May 2020). I have pointedly left off the US, because it was inevitable.   In other countries mentioned,  instability ranged from possible to probable.

Is this the Big One as they say for Economy, Finance and Society

Since 1998 was working in Wall Street. A lot of my work involved Risk in billion dollar portfolios. Most people, look at the upside, but because of my work started looking at the downside and its effects.  By 2003 or so there was some focus on what is called fat tail risk, a higher than normal probability of the downside.  By about 2005 or the chatter was about a collapse of the housing market, i.e. Mortgage Backed Securities (MBS).  Then 2008 Financial collapse happened.  However, the underlying economic structural issues were not fixed. The Too Big to Fail Bankers (TBTF) and oligarchs were bailed out and the average joe hung out to dry.  Those who predicted the 2008 Financial crash, once again warned of a knock on on Finance/Economy would make the dominoes fall and much bigger financial crash.    The Covid-19 Pandemic is a sledge hammer, shattering the dominoes.

As seen financial collapse was expected and predicted. Even the pandemic was not unexpected.  These are not Black Swans, i.e. unexpected events.

To quote from 2011 article by Matt Stoller

And while this may not be hitting the elite segments of the economy right now, there will be no escape from a flu pandemic or significant food shortage. The re-engineering of our global supply chain needs to happen—and it will happen, either through good leadership or through collapse.

Couple of Points/Factors to think About

The Virus War: Make no mistake, this is the real war on Terror. The enemy is invisible, insidious and within.  Normally wars have some breathing space, bombs fall and then a few days of respite.  This war is like water torture a continuous drip drip of sickness and death.  Eventually fatigue sets in, and many become immune to the daily numbers of sickness and death. The Stalinist “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic” becomes the reality, with the death of humanity.

Nation State:  Democracy, mature or not is not a panacea in this kind of crisis. The nation state with the population vested in sacrifices for their common good and destiny is the most well placed to ride out this crisis (eg Korea, Taiwan).  Unhappily, globalization has eroded the common purpose of a nation state.  At the upper end of society, the educated and high wealth are vested in the nation coming together.  The fault lines are at the lower end of society.  Semi-skilled and unskilled are pitted against immigrants.  The poor are divided by racial lines.  This part of society has no vested interest in a democracy or a nation state.

eg. Singapore Fault Lines: The unskilled immigrant low paid labor (1.1 million, 20% of the population) were out of sight, and out of mind. Singapore seemed to have stopped the spread as of March 23, 509 cases and 2 death. The numbers started then exploding, April 23 a single day, the new cases were 1,037.    55 Singaporeans and 982 low skilled immigrants.

Supply Lines: As the unskilled and semi-skilled, low wage workers start to fall sick, expect supply line disruption.  That is food and essentials delivery from warehouse to the local grocery store or supermarket. Maybe an essential pin to fix your motor is no longer available.  Workers in distant Banana Republics, working for multinationals like Dole are going to fall sick and no longer work.

City vs Rural: Cities are dependent on food supply lines, power and water to name the least. Resources are dependent on City/Local govt.  Sense of community, is questionable.  Rural communities on the other hand for the most part can be self sufficient assuming they have one critical resource, water available locally.  Obviously, suburban are intermediate, once again the critical factor being locally available water.

Now to look at a few countries, and their strengths or vulnerabilities based on the above four factors.

NOTE: These are NOT PREDICTIONS.  Factors and issues to think about,

Sri Lanka (my Home country)

Positives:
80% Rural with most rural having locally available water. Even meat, i.e. hunting (against the law) is becoming quite common  (supply lines).  Older generation (over 60’s) has been thru this in 70-77 i.e. Economy collapsed, and we had to be self reliant.

Middle
Nation State:  In 2009 a nationalistic govt ended a 30 year separatist war. After loosing elections in 2015, the nationalistic govt is back in power in Nov 2019. I think they will ensure Nation State, by jack boot if necessary.

Negative:
City dwellers, specially in the high rises (6 -10 floors I think) for former slum dwellers.  Will there be power to supply water to the overhead tanks.  Will this part of society fracture.

To me the biggest threat is nearby India.  not as in the Govt sponsored invasion.  What is to prevent a couple of hundreds of fishing boat making a concerted rush to Sri Lanka.  This not without historical precedent, in the 50’s to 70’s there were many illegal immigrants from India.

UK

Positives
An economy and reserves, with right policies can mitigate the economic downsides.
Suburban towns that border large estates. i.e sheep and other food sources.
Negatives
The cities with immigrants and non English citizens not buying into the nation state

New Zealnd
The perfect place to wait out the Pandemic

Positives
Far away from the rest of the world. Self sufficient in food. More sheep and cattle than people.

Negatives
The Maori (15% of population) + Pacific Islanders (5% ?). The Haka is the cool dance of NZ/Maori and the All Blacks.  But many forget that Maori are warlike, and the Haka peruperu is a war dance.
If things go bad, are the Maori going to buy into a Nation state run by the Pakeah. (The cracks are there already)

Hedging Your Risk

Since 2005 I have advised friend and family specially in the US not to rely on house value, 401K, but to go for gold and rural property with own water source.

It is still not too late for gold as a hedge.  That is even with the price of USD 1,800/oz (May 23 2020).   Not much can be done with house, unless you are able to get a home equity loan.  The same with a 401K, take out a loan.  Buy gold, maybe if nothing really happens, sell the gold and pay back loans.  At worst, a small loss.  If the economy collapses, declare bankruptcy and hang onto/sell the gold.

Tried to keep this short as possible.  Once again much is what I have been reading since 2005.  Most or all predicted the 2008 Financial Crisis.  Post 2008 they have been warning of a much larger financial crisis, possibly caused by pandemics or break in global supply lines.  To name most Nouriel Roubini, Raguram Ranjan, Satyajit Das,  Matt Stoller, Matt Tabibi,   The blogs, CalculatedRisk (pre 2008 with Tanta. From Tanta’s posts learnt more about MBS than from text books), NakedCapitalism and ZeroHedge often highlighted these authors/finance analysts giving an alternate view of finance and economy.  Much of their predictions are in play now.

To conclude, as I started.
Is this the Big One as they say for Economic, Finance and Society

Too many references.  So just two.
The Big Cycles Over The Last 500 Years, Ray Dalio May 21, 2020

The Collapse of Complex Societies: Joseph Tainter 1988
Tainter lays out his theory of decline: as societies become more complex, the costs of meeting new challenges increase, until there comes a point where extra resources devoted to meeting new challenges produce diminishing and then negative returns. At this point, societies become less complex (they collapse into smaller societies). For Tainter, social problems are always (ultimately) a problem of recruiting enough energy to “fuel” the increasing social complexity which is necessary to solve ever-newer problems.

I had not read this prior to the current chaos in the US or when I wrote above.
For the uninitiated, Nature is the top most science journal. If you can get even a letter published, equivalent to 10 peer reviewed journal articles
Peter Turchin in Nature* 2010, predicting instability in the US by 2020

Sereno Barr-Kumarakulasinghe
May 2020, WilpattuHouse.com

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Leadership in Crisis Times; Who is your Wallfacer?

By Omar Ali 22 Comments

In Cixin Liu’s sci-fi trilogy (The Three Body Problem), humanity is under attack by a more advanced alien civilization. The aliens have sent sophons (modified photons) that can read/see/hear everything that is outside our heads, but they cannot read minds (apparently the Trisolarians have not solved the mind-body problem either), so the UN selects some people to be “wallfacers”; selected humans who are given free rein to develop a strategy to stop the aliens; they keep their strategy hidden inside their own minds, while using whatever resources humanity can put in their hands. In some sense, charismatic leaders are a bit like wallfacers; we trust their leadership without necessarily knowing what goes on in their head. As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to rage, we have the organized (relatively transparent) commissions and committees of the world hard at work, trying to figure out the best possible strategy. But much is unknown about the pandemic and how it will play out, especially in economic and political domains; in such times, leadership matters more because sane people disagree and no algorithm can decide who is right. The leader really has to lead, to make difficult decisions, to take original initiatives, to look for fresh answers. So who, out of the current crop of world leaders, is likely to do something above (or well below) “normal” handling?

  1. Trump. My view is not a secret. He is a corrupt narcissistic conman and a disaster. That does not mean he is wrong about everything and his critics are correct. In some cases his instincts may turn out to be better than those of the bureaucrats and traditional politicians, who maybe fighting the last war with yesterday’s methods (and whose own corruption and blind spots gifted us Trump in the first place). But he is batshit ignorant, he does not want to learn, he is not interested in anything beyond his own welfare. I expect nothing from him. I don’t even think he is seriously thinking about what to do, other than what he can get for his own re-election (see how he has managed to discover that stopping immigration is an anti-viral move at this time). That said, I am aware that there are sane people who like him and I encourage them to tell us more in the comments section 🙂
  2. Xi Jinping. Comrade Xi and his team are a black box to me. Please add your opinion in the comments section. I do think he is a Chinese patriot and I think China has many competent people at high levels of government and they have high standards of professionalism in midlevel people; I expect them to do some things very well, but it is also a dictatorship; dictatorships breed yes men and sycophants. Which brings us back to Xi, who I dont know anything about. So please comment..
  3. Putin. The Czar of all the Russians is clearly an intelligent and capable man. He has been in power for a long time. That breeds overconfidence and limits reality testing. Also, his country has less money than the first two. But the list of outsiders who paid the price for underestimating Russians is a long one; they are an amazing people, regularly screwing up on a massive scale and then regularly performing well beyond expectations.  What do you think it will be this time?
  4. Merkel. She seems highly intelligent and Germany can never be underestimated, but while I expect her to do a competent job, I do not expect unexpected miracles. No big “out of the box” moves. Which may be a good thing.
  5. Modi. His fans love him the way Trumpists love Trump; he is their only hope in an elite that otherwise does not have their pet projects as priority number one. Unlike Trump, he is not a conman, he is probably sincerely trying to make India stronger (whether he is succeeding or not is a separate question). But other than thinking he is sincere, I remain almost completely ignorant about his qualities as an individual. To hear his opponents say it, he is a bigoted non-entity, a “small man”, neither intelligent, nor well informed and certainly not well-intentioned. Supporters have a different view, but I am not sure how much of that is based on any real knowledge of the person, as opposed to his carefully cultivated persona (and their own projections/hopes). As far as i can tell, he is surrounded by yes men, doesn’t take criticism well and keeps his private thoughts to himself (in this at least, he is the polar opposite of Trump). So the bottom line is, I don’t know if he is capable of something above and beyond whatever capabilities the Indian state has collectively. Those abilities may be good enough (or better than nothing), but that does not seem to hold out the hope of any “out of the box” brilliant moves. Conversely, it also means they will not do crazy stuff.
  6. Imran Khan. The less said, the better. I will be happy if his regime turns out to have done about average. I fear they may do worse than average.
  7. Bojo. Baby Churchill may not be Churchill. Lets hear it in the comments.

What else? who is your wallfacer? and why? (I clearly know nothing about the leaders of South Korea, Taiwan or Japan.. feel free to tell us more about them in the comments section)

Just to be clear, I am not talking about “routine” response to the pandemic. That is important and it follows protocols and plans developed by bureaucrats and public health professionals, for better AND for worse. The thought here was that there may be an opportunity here for some nation to go beyond that level (or to significantly sink below it). IF that happens, who is likely to outperform the herd, who is likely to underperform? (e.g. I am guessing that Trump will under-perform, by American standards).  For the purposes of this post, I am thinking more about the economic and political consequences, not so much the caseload and death rate. 

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Browncast episode 88: Phillipe Lemoine, covid-19 “optimism”

By Razib Khan 6 Comments

Another BP Podcast is up. You can listen on LibsynAppleSpotify,  and Stitcher (and a variety of other platforms). Probably the easiest way to keep up the podcast since we don’t have a regular schedule is to subscribe to one of the links above!

You can also support the podcast as a patron. The primary benefit now is that you get the podcasts considerably earlier than everyone else. This website isn’t about shaking the cup, but I have noticed that the number of patrons plateaued a long time ago. This month has been our biggest traffic month ever, and I think our corona-casts have been popular (patrons also get access to one that you can’t find on the public feed).

I would though appreciate more positive reviews! Alton Brown’s “Browncast” has 30 reviews on Stitcher alone! Help make us the biggest browncast! At least at some point.

This week I talked to Phillipe Lemoine about his blog post Are we headed toward an unprecedented public health disaster? A philosopher by training, Phillipe is now working as a data scientist, and he has been looking a the patterns of fatality in Europe for the past several weeks.

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India and COVID-19

By Razib Khan 44 Comments

India Is the World’s Second-Most Populous Country. Can It Handle the Coronavirus Outbreak?:

India has conducted nearly 5,000 COVID-19 tests so far, according to the World Health Organization, which says that the “country is responding with urgency as well as transparency.” But so far, India has only reported 74 confirmed COVID-19 cases and one death, on Thursday. Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute tells TIME that count is “just not right.” He believes there must be many more cases, but they have just not been identified. “I’m deeply worried that there’s a lot of community transmission and we are just not aware of it because there is not widespread testing,” he says.

Kushal Mehra assures me the hospitals don’t report anything crazy. It’s been a while, how come there hasn’t been a major outbreak? Some researchers suggest a warm climate (others are skeptical).

What are you guys hearing? While India and Pakistan have very few cases, Iran is now above 10,000 (likely far more). There are mass graves being dug outside of Qom.

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