First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme ‘impact.’ Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.
This is Nassim Nicholas Taleb describing a ‘black swan’ as per the book he wrote under the same guise just before the 2008 financial crisis1Described by The Sunday Times as one of the twelve most influential books since World War II..
Glancing at the criteria, I think it’s safe to say that we’re in the midst of another with COVID-192I caveat this with the fact that we have actually been warned time and time again that the world is not prepared enough for a global pandemic. In 2018, the head of the World Health Organization warned, “A devastating epidemic could start in any country at any time and kill millions of people because we are still not prepared.” Also in 2018, Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates said he had raised the issue of a “large and lethal” pandemic with President Trump..
These are unprecedented times:
- Most of the world is in some sort of lockdown
- Governments are prepared to pump an ‘unlimited’ supply of funds as part of the biggest bailout in modern history
- All time worst quarter-on-quarter annualised growth rates forecast for Q2
- Unfortunately, there is no vaccine in the foreseeable future
This morning I woke up, made myself a coffee and went out to the balcony — spring is most certainly here. It was pleasant — sunny, yet fresh. I looked out at the square that our apartment faces. Empty. Not a person in sight.
I’m hoping that means I woke up to a different mindset in London. Different in that people actually start to self isolate.
The catalyst for the emptiness was no doubt the Prime Minister’s address to the nation last night. He announced tougher ‘suppression’ measures for us as a nation to ‘flatten the curve’ and stop the spread of COVID-19. We’re now not to leave our homes unless it is for essential items. We should not be in groups greater than two in public, we should be working from home if possible, alongside quite a few other measures…
Long story, short: Stay at home. Save lives.
SO, WHAT TO WRITE ABOUT?
When I started to plan this post, I was left scratching my head — what angle should I take? What should I cover? What do I want to achieve…to make reading this worth your while?
What follows is a brief take on stuff that has happened and is currently happening — tied to topics that I find interesting.
I understand the danger of trying to sound like an expert, give any predictions, or worse yet, dole out advice. So instead, I’m simply offering a commentary — condensing what I’ve read.
I briefly cover the UK government’s approach, and their dramatic U-turn on strategy. As well as the impact to our economy — and its main participants. I summarise what government stimuli will need to achieve over the next couple of months in order to soften the recession that we’re no doubt entering.
Of course I couldn’t resist commenting on technology. First, how some of the world’s largest tech companies are assisting. And second, focusing on artificial intelligence and machine learning — how are these fields helping in the fight?
To conclude, we take a bit of a respite. I searched for silver linings — some good news coming out of all of this. To remain sane. And, on the back of a book I just wrote, ’10 Minute Guide to Mental Fitness’, I wanted to summarise some of the main takeaways on how to keep mentally resilient through these stressful and anxious times.
THE UK GOVERNMENT’S APPROACH
The radical U-turn in strategy
How can you chart the right course through a turbulent and dangerous new sea with no reliable map or GPS?
We are all part of the living experiment that is about to find out.
After failing to mandate widespread social distancing at the start of the crisis, an approach that went against the grain of the rest of the world and advice from the World Health Organization, the UK government eventually made a U-turn.
There is no one right answer about how to tackle a pandemic caused by an entirely novel virus. Assumptions and models, and the past performance of other diseases like influenza, might be helpful grist for the theoretical mill but ultimately are not crystal balls. There are too many unknowns.
Is viral infection capable of stimulating adequate herd immunity3The resistance to the spread of a contagious disease within a population that results if a sufficiently high proportion of individuals are immune to the disease, especially through vaccination.; does it even protect a victim against subsequent reinfection? Will the virus flag in summer, leading to a “second wave” in winter, or carry on undaunted? Will it come back year on year, or vanish like its cousin in 2003? Will all the rushed-out vaccines upon which we are all pinning our hopes actually work next year when they are finally deployed? We just don’t know.
We are also hampered by incomplete data: in the absence of sufficient testing in many parts of the world, including the UK, it’s difficult to piece together the epidemiological pixels needed to clarify the entire image.
One of the main contributing factors in convincing Boris and his team to consider a U-turn in strategy was this paper written by a team at Imperial College.
Covering it briefly…
The goal: R<1
The goal is to keep reproduction, or “R,” below one (R<1) – with each case infecting fewer than one other person, on average.
The authors of the study say there are two routes to try to get there:
Mitigation, “slowing but not necessarily stopping epidemic spread – reducing peak healthcare demand while protecting those most at risk of severe disease from infection.” This is done by isolating suspected cases and their households, and social distancing the elderly and people at highest risk of serious illness.
Suppression, or basically, lockdown, which “aims to reverse epidemic growth, reducing case numbers to low levels” by social distancing the entire population “indefinitely” and closing schools and universities.
The study’s models show that, painful as lockdown may be for many of us, it works. Without any lockdown or social distancing measures, we can expect peak mortality in approximately three months. In this scenario, 81% of the UK and US populations would be infected, with 510,000 dying in the UK and 2.2 million dying in the US.
In contrast, isolating confirmed and suspected cases and social distancing the elderly and vulnerable would “reduce peak critical care demand by two-thirds and halve the number of deaths.”
The impact to the UK economy
Economies around the world are intentionally shutting down.
Governments want their populations to stay at home. This is different from the 2008 crisis where policymakers wanted to stimulate consumer and business demand, as soon as possible.
The key here is keeping the country ‘ticking over’ until people can return to work, and return to spending. Failing to do so will set off a huge domino effect and cause havoc many times greater than what we saw in 2008.
These stimulus packages have two distinct phases.
The first phase is while the virus remains a threat, and it’s really a misnomer to even call it a “stimulus.” At that point, we’re not trying to restart economic activity, because it can’t for the sake of public health.
However long the quarantine lasts, it completely blows up the regular rules of capitalism, and the normal ways we all make money. People won’t go to work, but they’ll still need incomes. Businesses won’t make sales, but they’ll still need revenue etc.
The second phase will be stimulus as we traditionally think of it: a big influx of public spending and investment to kickstart economic activity again once the virus has been dealt with.
Here in the UK, the Bank of England has cut interest rates again in an emergency move as it tries to support the UK economy in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. It is the second cut in interest rates, bringing them down to 0.1% from 0.25%. Interest rates are now at the lowest ever in the Bank’s 325-year history. The Bank said it would also increase its holdings of UK government and corporate bonds by £200 billion with an effort to lower the cost of borrowing.
The faster we can safely leave our homes, the better it will be for jobs and production. But reigniting the economy will be no easy or automatic task — and one made much harder if the government allows businesses across the country to collapse.
Forget about a V-shaped recession and recovery. It’s going to look like a Nike swoosh, as economist Joseph Brusuelas described it. A sharp decline, followed by an agonisingly slow healing process.
I read about a plan for the US that came from Columbia University economist Glenn Hubbard and AEI’s Michael Strain. They suggest firms borrow $1 trillion from banks — many of whom already have a business relationship with the firms — to help cover 12 weeks of missed revenue, including payroll and rent. The government would later pay off the loans, provided the companies did not lay off workers. So it’s basically a grant with one simple string attached.
HAS TECHNOLOGY HELPED?
As we focus on the ‘suppression’ route laid out by the Imperial team — big tech has been quick to get the right message out to the masses, stay home.
This is a quick, easy to implement, huge win.
Big tech have also been working with governments around the world to help innovate and build. There’s a shortage of ventilators, due to the peak not being flattened enough.
I purposefully haven’t jumped into the race amongst all the biotechs to find a COVID-19 treatment. This morning I read a great article from Bloomberg Businessweek that summarises it well.
What about machine learning and AI?
AI is proving to be helpful in tracking the outbreak, diagnosing patients, disinfecting areas, and speeding up the process of finding a cure for COVID-19.
I’m biased in saying this, but machine learning might be one of the most effective weapons we have in the fight against COVID-19.
We won’t win the war on COVID-19 until we develop a vaccine that can immunise everyone against the virus. But developing new drugs and medicine is a very lengthy and costly process. It can cost more than a billion dollars and take up to 12 years. That’s the kind of timeframe we don’t have as the virus continues to spread at an accelerating pace.
Fortunately, AI can help speed up the process. DeepMind recently declared that it has used deep learning to find new information about the structure of proteins associated with COVID-19. This is a process that could have taken many more months.
Understanding protein structures can provide important clues to the COVID-19 vaccine formula. DeepMind is one of several companies who are engaged in the race to unlock the vaccine. It has leveraged the result of decades of machine learning progress as well as research on protein folding.
IDecember, BlueDot, an artificial intelligence platform that tracks infectious diseases around the world, flagged a cluster of ‘unusual pneumonia’ cases happening around a market in Wuhan, China. Nine days later WHO released a statement declaring the discovery of a “novel coronavirus” in a hospitalised person with pneumonia in Wuhan.
You have probably seen the COVID-19 screenings at border crossings and airports. Health officers use thermometer guns and visually check travellers for signs of fever, coughing, and breathing difficulties. Now, computer vision algorithms can perform the same at large scale. An AI system developed by Chinese tech giant Baidu uses cameras equipped with computer vision and infrared sensors to predict people’s temperatures in public areas. The system can screen up to 200 people per minute and detect their temperature within a range of 0.5 degrees Celsius. The AI flags anyone who has a temperature above 37.3 degrees. The technology is now in use in Beijing’s Qinghe Railway Station.
Alibaba, another Chinese tech giant, has developed an AI system that can detect COVID-19 in chest CT scans. According to the researchers who developed the system, the AI has a 96% accuracy. The AI was trained on data from 5,000 coronavirus cases and can perform the test in 20 seconds as opposed to the 15 minutes it takes a human expert to diagnose patients. It can also tell the difference between COVID-19 and ordinary viral pneumonia. The algorithm can give a boost to the medical centres that are already under a lot of pressure to screen patients for COVID-19 infection. The system is reportedly being adopted in 100 hospitals in China.
Scientific community coming together
In a briefing last week research leaders across tech, academia and the government joined the White House to announce an open data set full of scientific literature on the novel coronavirus. The COVID-19 Open Research Dataset, known as CORD-19, will also add relevant new research moving forward, compiling it into one centralised hub. The new data set is machine readable, making it easily parsed for machine learning purposes — a key advantage according to researchers involved in the ambitious project.
The database brings together nearly 30,000 scientific articles about the virus known as SARS-CoV-2. as well as related viruses in the broader coronavirus group. Around half of those articles make the full text available. Critically, the database will include pre-publication research from resources like medRxiv and bioRxiv, open access archives for pre-print health sciences and biology research.
There’s a post floating around social media which has done a good job of finding some good news amongst all of this. I’ve done my best to fact check and verify that what they’ve said is correct.
- Vaccine development: An experimental vaccine developed by Moderna Inc. began the first stage of a clinical trial on Monday, with testing on 45 healthy adults in Seattle. link
- China’s new cases plummet: China has now closed down its last temporary hospital built to handle COVID-19. Not enough new cases to warrant them. link
- Drugs that work: Doctors in India have successfully treated two Italian patients with COVID-19, administering a combination of drugs — principally Lopinavir and Ritonavir, alongside Oseltamivir and Chloroquine. Several are now suggesting the same medical treatment, on a case-by-case basis, globally. link link
- Antibodies to the rescue: Researchers at the Erasmus Medical Center claim to have found an antibody that can fend off infection by COVID-19. link
- Stores re-opening: Apple has reopened all 42 of its Apple retail stores in China. link
- Readings from ESA’s Sentinel-5P satellite show that over the past six weeks, levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) over cities and industrial clusters in Asia and Europe were markedly lower than in the same period last year. link
STAYING ‘MENTALLY FIT’
Most health advice can be boiled down to simple behaviours, like eating a balanced diet, exercising and getting good sleep.
During a pandemic like COVID-19, these actions are especially crucial for maintaining you physical and mental well-being. But social distancing complicates things. How are you supposed to eat right when you’re living on non-perishables? How can you work out when you’re cooped up at home? How can you sleep when you’re anxious about, well, everything?
Make sure you have a plan for groceries, create meals consisting of a starch, a protein and produce. Buy fruits and vegetables, cut them up and put them in your freezer, because they can be used for months to come. Sturdy vegetables and starches — like broccoli and sweet potatoes — keep for a long time outside the freezer. Avoid stress eating at the moment if possible, and limit alcohol intake.
You may not be able to go to the gym, but it’s okay to walk, run or bike outside, so long as you keep a safe distance — ideally about six feet — from other people. There are also plenty of no-equipment-required exercises — like squats, burpees, sit-ups, planks, push-ups and mountain climbers — you can do in even a small space.
Managing stress and anxiety is crucial for getting enough sleep—and getting enough sleep is crucial for just about every other aspect of your health. Yoga and meditation are great tools for managing stress, and they can be done in a small space. You can also turn to apps like Headspace for mindfulness.