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'Don’t Kumbaya'

Tim sits in a plinth displaying his back of tattoos

David Walsh

Posted on Friday 20 March 2020

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Monday 23–Sunday 29 March 2020

Downstairs from me, Tim is sitting on a plinth. Tim’s job may be unique, in that he could continue to do it if he becomes coronavirus-positive, and also because it’ll stop him becoming coronavirus-positive. When Tim asked (indirectly) if he could keep sitting in an empty museum while this crisis unfolded, I was flabbergasted. I shouldn’t have been. It’s his job. Dereliction of duty is much more derelict when the Earth is yawing. Tim maintains he’s hardly begun his endurance performance. He sees himself growing old on that pedestal (but only in summer).

I have something to learn from Tim. Maybe it’s about honour. Maybe it’s about commitment. I don’t know, because I haven’t learned it yet. But I learnt this from Wikipedia: in Aleppo, Syria, Saint Simeon Stylites spent thirty-seven years atop a pillar, and died in situ in 459 AD. I don’t think I have much to learn from Saint Simeon’s heroic asceticism, but there may be something to learn from this: the pillar became a holy site, then a church, and was then added to the UNESCO World Heritage List. It served (from 2013) as an Islamist logistics base. In 2016, Saint Simeon’s pillar was destroyed in a Russian rocket attack.

At the entrance to Mona, a few remaining staff are constructing a gate. That’ll keep me in, and it’ll keep the few stragglers who continue to turn up out. Yesterday (Thursday 26 March), some French tourists were surprised when informed that Mona was shut. A couple of days before, an obviously disturbed guy wandered around looking for me. Security herded him off the property, but not before he gave me the messages he was tasked to deliver: ‘There’s still time to repent.’ And, ‘Jesus loves you.’

Perhaps Jesus does love me. Perhaps he loves me enough to protect me from the cataclysm that evolution’s bounty and statistical mechanics have set in place. It’s dicey, since the power of prayer must be bounded, but maybe the enormous commitment to prayer from Saint Stylites all those years ago will save me now. In the meantime, I’m struggling with the calculus of utilitarianism. If the greater good must be served, how many lives would legitimately be spent to protect a sacred site like the Church of Saint Simeon the Stylite? Or to destroy it?

If serving the greater good (utilitarianism) is our new master, how draconian can the enforcement of measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus be? A couple of agent-based models of the Australian bit of the pandemic (they simulated our entire population) suggest that if we get eighty per cent of our population to follow the hygiene edicts of our political masters (stay home, wash your hands, don’t get too close), then the R number—the number of infections generated by each COVID-19 sufferer—will drop to less than one and the disease will rapidly be eliminated (reinfection from elsewhere notwithstanding). But evidence also suggests eighty per cent of people will not be told what to do.

According to many reports, some of those who violated government-imposed coronavirus measures in Wuhan were welded inside their homes; others were tied to poles and publicly humiliated. We could never violate individual rights like that here, of course. Even if it saved the lives of millions of people (notional people who were faced with no risk at the time of the intervention, however—those who would have been placed in harm’s way only by unfettered exponential disease growth).

So, what do we do about the two coronavirus-infected people who went shopping in the Mornington Peninsula yesterday (if they did)? We could fine them, of course, but they just came back from skiing in Aspen, so money might not be much of an issue for them. We could weld them inside their homes. That’d work for those two, but it might not serve as much of a deterrent for others. But if we shot them? Sure, that’d be a significant infringement of their rights, but everyone else would bloody well stay at home thereafter. So, two lives would save hundreds or thousands, and the economy. Of course, there’s a tiny chance that tomorrow an effective treatment for COVID-19 would arise, and then we would have shot those two selfish arseholes for nothing. And that’d be a waste of bullets. If conspiracies were real, the government (or some vigilantes purporting to represent the government) could shoot a couple of inconsiderate wastrels in the name of the greater good, and we’d all be able to sing ‘Kumbaya’ again. That isn’t a proposal. I personally think the leading advocate for ‘greater good’ thinking, Peter Singer, is a self-indulgent sophist, but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong...

Just as Mona’s web lords uploaded my first COVID-19 diary blog, our website went down (it’s still broken, but we have a temporary site feeding you my propaganda). Apparently we are the victims of a denial of service attack. My first diary blog post has come and gone a few times, but I know at least seventeen people were able to read it (because we got that many comments). One of the commenters pointed out that I need a lot more than 183 people before one of them shares my birthday. He’s right. That’s because those 183 people might share each other’s birthdays. I have a one in 365 chance of sharing a birthday with the first person. And one in 365 chance of sharing a birthday with the second person, minus the chance of them having the same birthday. The third person might share a birthday with the other two. And so on. That’s pretty obvious, but in my rush to demonstrate the difference between everyone interacting and a group interacting with one person, I missed it. So there you go—my flimsy authority has been undermined, and, no doubt, will be undermined again. The correct answer: 253. My correspondent told me that, but I recalculated it out of sheer bloody-mindedness—I was hoping he was wrong, too. And with 365 birthdays, the chance of you sharing one with anyone is a surprisingly low sixty-four per cent.

In the previous diary, I attempted to demonstrate that we aren’t really equipped to understand exponential growth. But I didn’t say that COVID-19 won’t (quite) grow exponentially. There are at least two reasons why. The first: the population of the Earth doesn’t have completely homogenous connections with each other. There are borders, and there are islands, and cities and tiny outback towns. No connections would mean no spreading. But we are more and more global, and there are more and more connections. Isolated populations will experience COVID-19 exponential growth initially, and then start to show the characteristics of the second reason (which I’ll get to in a moment). Since these little pockets of (nearly) exponential growth are in heterogenous populations, and they run their courses at different times, the resultant global growth is a power law. It’s not as explosive as exponential, but it’s bloody fast (and a number of models are trying to fit parameters to the curve—I think that’s counterproductive, and I’ll get to that, too)1.

The second reason disease growth isn’t exponential is the widely discussed ‘herd immunity’. I’m not sure ‘herd immunity’ is the right term, since it usually refers to the disease protection conferred on those not immunised by a sufficiently large proportion of the population who are immunised. Consider measles. Measles has an R of about 12. Therefore, to confer protection on the unvaccinated portion of the population, ninety-two per cent must be vaccinated. Anti-vaxxers benefit from herd immunity provided that the required immunisation percentage is maintained, since there is a slight risk to vaccination. So, in a typically annoying tragedy of the commons situation, you may be better off not vaccinating your kids against measles as long as everybody else does. The upshot of all this is only about eighty-five per cent of the population has received the MMR vaccination, and that’s a tad low, so there are still occasional measles outbreaks. However, vaccination against measles has preserved about 1.4 million lives.

COVID-19 has an R of about 2.2. For the pandemic to collapse, that number needs to be less than one. That can be achieved by reducing contacts, as demonstrated in China, but it can also be achieved if many of the contacts that do occur have already suffered COVID-19 and recovered. In fact, it requires about fifty-four per cent of the population to have recovered (1-1/2.2). If the mortality rate is one per cent, that would mean the death of about half a per cent of the population. It’s like herd immunity, but the vaccine is death.

It’s Saturday night now and, as I’ve done on many other Saturday nights, I’m watching a live gig from titanium-tonsilled Australian balladeer Ben Salter. This is different, though, because I’m watching Ben live on YouTube, cast to a screen in our bedroom. It’s awkward, but that gives it freshness. Just a couple of weeks ago, Ben played a gig at an event for Kirsha’s school garden project (it’s about getting kids who don’t know what carrots are to grow carrots—it seems to work). Anyway, we were all joking about COVID-19. Ben said, ‘The government is talking about limiting public gatherings to fifty—some say that’ll be the end of live music. It shouldn’t be a problem for me, though.’ Now the government has limited gatherings to ten, so Ben’s online, and every high note that YouTube strangles reminds me how much the world has changed. Two weeks ago, I knew about COVID-19, and I knew about exponential growth, and I had estimated that there will be 45,000 cases in Australia by Easter, but it was so big I had a failure of belief. And now Italy’s there, and Spain’s there, and the United States is there. Germany’s also there, and that opens a crack to let a sliver of hope through, because Germany isn’t reporting many deaths. If there must be hope, though, it squeezes through the breach that China and South Korea made. China was there, but isn’t anymore. And South Korea has made progress with measures that are potentially enforceable by non-totalitarian states. South Korea is considering restarting horseracing. Astonishingly, Australia hasn’t stopped horseracing yet (many are astonished that it continues in non-COVID times—not me, though, I’ve got too much skin in the game). And the last few days there are signs that the Australian curve might be becoming slightly less steep. Australian Minister for Health, Greg Hunt, claims that the daily case multiplier is now 1.15. If he is right, that would give us about 27000 COVID-19 cases by Easter Sunday. The longer term multiplier, 1.2, would give us about 46000.

I failed to believe the potential scale of the catastrophe, even with the evidence laid out before me. It’s no wonder, then, that many who will barely be affected, or who want to protect the status quo, aren’t heeding warnings. I want to understand how ideology affects the way we respond to COVID-19. I’ve got lots of other things I want to try to understand, but it’s been a week since I finished the last diary entry (identified cases in Australia then were 1160, today 3580). Before I go, though, let’s hear from a spokesperson for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia, Steven Scoutas:

Anyone showing signs of illness should stay away from church gatherings. But once we decide to go to church, we believe there is absolutely no possibility of contracting disease from the holy cup.

Steven Scoutas is most likely right, of course. And once this is all over, perhaps we should investigate the possibility that consecrated chalices defend us against all manner of contaminants and infective agents. However, the Precautionary Principle demands that, in the meantime, we pretend that Steven is wrong. We should also doubt opinions and statistical models that suggest moderation (even if they are as likely to be right as Steven). The science we should heed is that which guides us to an understanding of the worst-case scenario, so that we can respond to it. The downside is too unpalatable to seek an easy way out.

If you got this far, you are a committed reader. I’ve been trying to show, in part, that human foibles tend to make us act as though the universe is benign, and as though nothing really changes. In these days of online education, your homework is to read a much better writer than me dealing with the same themes: To Build a Fire.

1 Not in this blog, apparently.