Covid-19 Complexity

This is one variation of Ouroboros, a snake eating its own tail — doesn’t recognize its own tail.. Here Ouroboros is also shown in the form of the universal symbol for infinity, signifying deep, hidden feedback connections that we might never be able to fathom with human brains.


Covid-19 as a Complex Process

Most us are sick of Covid-19 news, sick of news about environmental threats, and sick of political theatrics. Public response is part of this news. Covid-19 is an example of a complex system. I like to check news stories against Worldometers coronavirus data. Data is reported by nations globally, but you can drill way down in Worldometers’ US data. Most journalists cite Johns Hopkins data, but Worldometers parallels it and seems to update faster. However, it does not compare local caseloads with healthcare capacities, crucial for local decision making. That said, Worldometers’ counts and ratios stir questions about the reporting:

What is a reported Covid-19 case? Tested positive? Using what test? Shows symptoms? Drilling down are sub-categories like, “On medical watch.” Or, “Under investigation.” Or just, “Pending.” A lack of sure-fire testing compels wait-and-watch. Definitions are inconsistent.

Reporting of new deaths and cases follows a weekly pattern. Light on weekends; heavy on Mondays. Worldometers collects case and death counts however agencies report them; then compiles them into a common format for comparison, a grind common to all big databases. Blips mark agencies changing the basis of reporting, or dumping backlogs into their reporting system. This collecting and reconciling process itself must interpret data. Dispassionate data?

Death rates per million population vary markedly. So do deaths as a fraction of reported cases. Are different countries experiencing different viral mutants? How do authorities determine if someone died of Covid-19, especially deaths at home? After an epidemic, this categorical fuzz evaporates. Without attributing cause, compare an area’s total deaths during an epidemic with its totals prior to the epidemic. Extra deaths might be Covid-19, overdoses, or even homicides. Conclusion: pandemic numbers are useful indicators, but precision is impossible.  

Journalists cherry pick data to support stories necessary to hook readers. Raw data makes dull news. Personalizing it hooks readers. Why is Australia featured more than Taiwan or Viet Nam? Just guessing, perhaps because illustrative stories are easier to obtain from Australia.

Case rate and death rate curves seem unrelated to advanced medical technology. High tech countries have been hit worse than Haiti. One is tempted to speculate on each populace’s underlying mobility, pre-existing conditions, and exposure to the outdoors.

With about a fourth of both world cases and world deaths, the United States’ handling of the pandemic is far from exemplary. But so far, it’s no worse than all European countries combined (seen by poking a fine-print button on Worldometers). However, European curves now slope down more steeply than those of most US states. Far-Eastern countries? Thus far, their Covid-19 records beat the rest of the world. Pandemics are old hat to them. They quickly quelled their initial outbreaks. Now they are now playing whack-a-mole on sporadic new outbreaks.

Famously, when Covid-19 first struck, neither Sweden nor Brazil locked down to slow contagion. Now, Brazilian Covid-19 cases are unabated. Swedish curves are tapering down.

Sweden’s deaths per million compare with those of the UK, which locked down, but belatedly, so the UK took a much deeper hit to GNP. Was Sweden’s approach to herd immunity better – better never than late? For that matter, what indicator signifies that herd immunity has arrived? Covid-19 is so unpredictable that models of it vary, and epidemiologists disagree.

Finally, many countries (and US states) show “bathtub curves.” Covid-19 tails off, then flares again. Far Eastern countries attack new flares immediately. Australia’s curves show this – and that the Aussies were a little slow stomping on their last flare.

Social Learning Experiences

We wish Covid-19 to simply disappear, never to return. Fat chance. Updates confound old news daily. Investigations into SARS CoV-2 infection suggest that forming immunity to it is somewhat iffy, while a third or so of adults say that they would not take a vaccine were one available. Being airborne, containing SARS CoV-2 virus disrupts life, rankling everybody. Authorities’ advice to the public necessarily shifts over time. Social media platforms like Facebook struggle to stem disinformation, from armchair experts touting magic cures, to conspiracy theorists fingering “villains.” The psychology of each viral outbreak influences our learning about it, and Covid-19’s sneaky nature makes it a social learning challenge.

The SARS CoV-2 virus is likely to hang around, flaring up again and again – like the flu, only more deadly. Ebola has not disappeared either, but it does not transmit through air, food, or water; only by direct contact with the bodily fluids of a victim. Therefore, slowing Ebola is much less disruptive. However, Ebola’s death rate averages about 50% of all persons who contract it; about 25 times more lethal than Covid-19. Word travels fast to take Ebola seriously. Contracting it is a near-death sentence. This urgency is missing from Covid-19.

Flu, many of us can shrug off. Depending on your risk tolerance, you might skip vaccination. Covid-19 health risk is in between Ebola and the flu. Low enough death rate to tempt us to shrug it off, but highly transmissible. At first hearing, Covid-19 is abstract, like Asian typhoons. It becomes personal when someone we know suffers a life-altering case. Its sneaky unpredictability roils pandemic information with the mud of denial and disinformation.

Covid-19 is a learning experience for epidemiologists; and a confusing one for the rest of us. Characteristics of Covid-19 surprised experts trusting that experience with similar viruses would predict its course. Wrong. Doctors had to learn on the fly how to treat it better. Ventilators proved not to be a miracle. Youth are less vulnerable than the old, but as the virus spreads, more victims are now young. Some who dared the virus to nail them were nailed dead. And it is not just a lung disease. Survivors of severe cases suffer aftereffects – from Covid-19 and from the trauma of treating it. Organ damaged survivors may never fully recover. And unfortunately, children can be asymptomatic spreaders of a high viral load of SARS CoV-2.

Adding to confusion is mixed evidence on whether a vaccine will confer immunity, and so, for how long. In three months, survivors’ antibody concentrations diminish to almost nil – but maybe immune systems will kick in based on alternate ways for them to detect a SARS CoV-2 attack. So will plasma infusions work? However, the Chinese report that two of their survivors appear to have contracted Covid-19 again. Are these relapses or reinfections? If reinfections, SARS CoV-2 may be like common cold viruses; too many mutations for a vaccine to hit them all, so all we can do is build up our general immune system resistance.

However, vaccines are being rushed to trial, which risks deploying one with significant side effects, or that triggers more lethal mutations. Investors are betting which company might cross the finish line first. Is this a big money bonanza, or a thank-you-for-your-service public project?

The objective of a vaccine is to confer “herd immunity,” but Covid-19 is so squirrelly that the epidemiological standard of 60% of the population testing positive for antibodies is not a good indicator of herd immunity. Epidemiological models are adding more and more twists intended to make them more predictive, but if steady-state herd immunity is no guarantee that some of us won’t continue to contract Covid-19, it will morph into a recurring endemic.

Finally, the newest surprise is to health professionals dreading the combination of Covid-19 with winter flu season. Reports from the Southern Hemisphere on their winter flu season is that the flu never really arrived. Maybe reduced human contact from Covid-19 isolation suppressed it. One can only speculate.

The Environmental Connection

The Compression Institute has a long list of existential threats to life as we know it. Pandemics are just a partial line on this list. Yet, decades ago Nobel Laureate Joshua Lederberg warned that viral disease was mankind’s future biggest threat. (Specialists who recognize the downsides of “progress” in their field typically consider that threat to be our most serious one.)

Covid-19’s changes are a foretaste of many more to come, and not so far in the future. What will happen is impossible to precisely forecast. All we can do is prepare to care for ourselves when nothing stays the same, basing our economies on preparedness rather than growth.

The advanced world is vulnerable to viral pandemics for three major reasons: High human population density, so contagion spreads quickly. High human mobility, even globally, so contagion spreads widely. And Compression, our endless usurpation of nature’s space creating more opportunities for viruses to mutate and spark pandemics – among many other negative effects.

Pandemic disasters kill humans. Epizootic disasters kill animals, wild or domesticated. Some animals are susceptible to Covid-19. Large scale animal feeding operations periodically suffer flash epizootics, mentioned in passing by mainline media. Most viewers see them as a problem for somebody far away. Likewise, a single pathogen can wipe out huge tracts of field crops in a hurry – too bad. We trust that distant farmers will fix it. So far, we have trusted technical fixes to keep disasters in check while we keep expanding our economy. Now this strategy is past its use-by date. When non-human life isn’t healthy, human life isn’t healthy, but when many stages removed from nature, we may not see the connections. We have to grasp how utterly we depend on that big complex system called nature. 

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