Capitalism in the Time of Covid-19

Praise the Lord and Pass the Ionizer! See 99.99%. Photo from CBSNews.com.

Who said our economy shut down during shelter-in-place? Based on the nature of advertisements, businesses seem to be thriving–businesses targeted at selling masks, toilet paper, and chloroquine tablets, in particular. The innovation of greed has been a marvel to behold as this pandemic created, in just a few weeks, a whole sub-industry of quackery preying on people’s needs, fears, and hopes.

Counterfeit: Rascal Rollover

Despite the gutting of budgets for critical government health agencies like the CDC and FDA, the handful of people there are kept very busy posting about bogus companies. For example, the Wall Street Journal last week wrote about how thousands of overseas medical suppliers were using a fake Delaware registry as their representative. Pop over to the CDC, and you can easily find a handy list of how to tell if a company is falsely claiming their product is endorsed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Hint: they might misspell NIOSH.

What’s crazy isn’t so much that an Asian company might market a product in the U.S. with the fancy label “Air Queen,” or that they might sell a lot of masks which aren’t medical-grade. What’s crazy is that they bothered to create a fake Letter of Approval from the NIOSH, which the NIOSH then has to post with a “We Don’t Endorse this Crap….” label. Instead of working to design and manufacture whatever they would need to make masks that are medical-grade, it’s obviously much cheaper to create a fake letter of endorsement. But since American consumers wouldn’t care whether the letter has the correct government agency on it, there must be a middle-market supplier who needed to be convinced, which requires someone to be on top of determining what the transport paperwork looks like for such agencies. That’s damn elaborate!

However, as the founder of Quackwatch Dr. Stephen Barrett told NPR, when the AIDS crisis arose, those who touted fake cancer cures started touting fake AIDS cures. He called it “Rascal Rollover.” With Covid-19, the Rascals roll on.

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Not Playing Ball

Sports Fan, the Word of the Day is avarice. That seems to cover it well at least for fans, network executives, owners, and players. Some owners and some players anyway, as how professional sports purveyors are planning to address opening of their sport in our Covid-soaked world varies dramatically by sport. If, like me, you are desperately greedy to watch some games besides a 13-2 baseball donnybrook from 2015 or the Doritos Cornhole Championships, then let me give you a rundown of plans for some of the national sports leagues. How those leagues differ in approach reveals a lot about their industry.

A new revenue stream for sports franchises! Photo from NBAStore.com. Made in China.

Let’s also agree that we don’t want anyone playing who might risk getting Covid-19. I’m not in the camp that thinks we can achieve herd immunity by letting the disease burns its way through or that only weenies wear masks. Any of these players and leagues could decide as they move forward–as they did on March 12th–that it’s too dangerous to risk the health of players, coaches, and surrounding support workers. We don’t yet know if any sport is safe enough. What is true is that this disease won’t discriminate between a linebacker and a knuckleball set-up pitcher.

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We Do Not Protest Too Much

We’ve been down this road before. It has helped.

This past week has embraced us with the feeling of a watershed moment. Peaceful protests are still the central focus across the country, while incidents of mayhem seem to have died down. History shows that something good often comes out of it, impossible as it may seem at the time.

1963 Civil rights march, photo at Gallup.com, from US National Archives.

When Gallup conducted polls in the early 1960s, both before and after the 1963 March on Washington (the “I Have a Dream” speech), respondents said that such massed protests hurt the cause of civil rights. Not by a bare majority either; in May 1964, 74% of those polled by Gallup said that non-violent protests “hurt the Negro’s cause for racial equality. ” It’s hard to see the watershed when the waterfall is still falling on our heads.

Protests, historically, have followed a particular pattern. Oppression. Uprising, partly peaceful/partly violent. Masses come together. Law enforcement cracks down. More mass protests, more crackdowns. Trials with verdicts, rarely with justice satisifed. But later, some change. Society inches forward over the rubble.

Here are a few examples from the last seven centuries or so.

Negotiations Go Better when You Don’t Spit on the King

The Peasants’ Rebellion of 1381 is an early example of mass protests which led to positive change, though it took a squirrely path to get there. Let me set the scene. The Black Death had ravaged Eurasia and North Africa, where by the 1350s, somewhere between 30-60% of the population had succumbed. Peasants died by the millions, but the landowners and wealthy were also not spared, leading to a labor shortage and inflation. Laborers demanded higher wages and more autonomy, and some got it from the barons who depended on the peasants to work their farms for income. At the same time, England was engaging in continuous skirmishes with France on their own soil and across the Channel, and constant war was expensive. All of it sounds rather familiar.

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Mom Always Said Wash Your Hands

Today is a perfect time to honor our healthcare professionals, celebrate international women’s month, and remind you to lather up. Consider it a threefer. All hail to midwives, nurses, and mom.

Poster from Foodsafetynews.com. October 15, 2016 was Global Handwashing Day, though we might have missed that.

Aqueducts and Aquamaniles APlenty

Contrary to some beliefs, bathing and hand-washing is not a historically recent phenomenon, but was a practice widely dispersed across many cultures for centuries. The Romans, Greeks, Mesoamericans, and Japanese all incorporated bathing into their daily routines. Even into the Dark Ages, where food was eaten mainly with the hands, it was customary to rinse off before dining. Special ewers were provided for noble feasters, but even commoners might prepare a hand-washing solution with herbs, like making tea.

Pour faire eaue a laver mains sur table mectez boulir de la sauge, puis coulez l’eaue et faictes reffroidier jusques a plus que tiedes. Ou vous mectez comme dessus camomille et marjolaine, ou vous mectez du rommarin, et cuire avec l’escorche d’orenge. Et aussi feuilles de lorier y sont bonnes.

To make water for washing hands at the table. Boil sage, strain the water and let cool to a little more than tepid. Or take camomille and marjoram in stead [of sage], or rosemary, and boil with orange peel. Bay leaves are also good.

From Coquinaria, A Recipe for Washing Hands
A medieval aquamanile, for rinsing hands before dinner. Photo at Coquanilia.
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Gimme Shelter, Gimme Testing Data

On Day 2 of our Alameda County Shelter-in-place order, I am creating graphs, mostly for my sanity. Today’s topic is data, in particular, Covid-19 testing data. If you’re a data geek like me, this is for you.

I have blathered on for days (?or is it weeks? I’ve lost track…days seem like weeks) that our biggest problem right now is lack of testing. We don’t know what we don’t know. Because the U.S. didn’t roll out testing capacity early on, people who feel sick or at risk for Covid haven’t been able to get tested. We’ve heard that for weeks and are still hearing it. Because people who know they’re sick can’t get tested, we have no idea who is sick and how many would test positive. Without knowing that, everyone has to STOP moving. That’s the problem right now.

Yes, it’s definitely a problem that hospitals are starting to become overwhelmed and might become swamped. It’s definitely a problem that travel is cancelled and that there is a black market for toilet paper and sanitizers. (Anybody know where we can get some ramen? That turns out to be a big concern in our house.) It’s an even bigger problem that we don’t know how long this will last, and we won’t know until there’s a robust testing structure in place. South Korea put in an excellent testing structure early on, and they seem to be moving into a better part of the pandemic curve. We can learn something from their experience, and we can learn something looking at data.

The Most Important Data Is Under-Reported

The problem has been a lack of good data, and good testing data is still hit and miss. In a world that’s used to hitting the “refresh” button every minute and seeing numbers update, having data that is only reported every few days or not at all is killer to the psyche. Up until about a week ago, data on how many people were being tested was nearly impossible to find. This was due partly because few had been tested; I might also speculate that some didn’t want the public to know just how few that was.

I can illustrate this by looking at Daily Case data compared with Daily Testing data. Here is the number of cases in California, shown per day and total to date. By the way, note that the red bars (daily cases) are linked to numbers on the left side and the purple line (cases to date) linked to the right side. Showing data on different axes is important because if you show cumulative and daily on the same graph, the cumulative would make the daily increases too small to see. You would have no sense of the underlying infection curve.

Graph of California Covid cases
Graph by kajmeister based on data sources in COVID Tracking project.
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