Coronavirus Daily Double from Ugo Bardi

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Published originally on Cassandra's Legacy on April 16 & 20, 2020

Discuss these articles at the Medicine & Health Table inside the Diner

 

Thursday, April 16, 2020

 

 

Collapse: The Coronavirus is not a Cause, it is a Trigger

 

 

 

Is the epidemic going to cause civilization to collapse? It may happen for good reasons

 

 

This is a version of the article that I published on the English version of "Al Arabiya" On March 26, 2020. It is not the same text I published there — but I kept the wonderful illustration by Steven Castelluccia. It perfectly conveys the concept of "Seneca Cliff"

Do you remember the story of the straw that broke the camel’s back? It is an illustration of how overloaded systems are sensitive to small perturbations. Could the COVID-19 epidemic be the straw that breaks the back of the world’s economy?

Like an overloaded camel, the world’s economy is strained by at least two tremendous burdens: one is the increasing costs of production of mineral resources (don’t be fooled by the current low prices of oil: prices are one thing, costs are another). Then, there is pollution, including climate change, also weighing on the economy. These two factors define the condition called “overshoot,” occurring when an economic system is consuming more resources than nature can replace. Sooner or later, an economy in overshoot has to come to terms with reality. It means that it can’t continue to grow: it must decline.

These considerations can be quantified. It was done for the first time in 1972 with the famous report The Limits to Growth sponsored by the Club of Rome. Widely disbelieved at the time, today we recognize that the model used for the study had correctly identified the trends of the world’s economy. The results of the study showed that the double burden of resource depletion and pollution would bring economic growth first to a halt and then cause it to collapse, probably at some moment during the first decades of the 21st century. Even with very optimistic assumptions on the availability of natural resources and of new technologies the calculations show that the collapse could at best be postponed, but not avoided. Many later studies confirmed these results: collapse turns out to be a typical feature of systems in overshoot, a phenomenon called sometimes the “Seneca Cliff” from a sentence of the ancient Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca.

 

The base case scenario calculated in the 1972 version of "The Limits to Growth" 

The coronavirus, in itself, is a minor perturbation, but the system is poised for collapse and the epidemics may trigger it. We already saw how the world’s economy is fragile: it nearly collapsed in 2008 under the relatively small perturbation of the crash of the subprime mortgage market. At that time, it was possible to contain the damage but, today, the fragility of the system has not improved and the coronavirus may be a stronger perturbation. The collapse of entire sectors of the economy, such as the tourism industry (more than 10% of the world’s gross product), is already ongoing and it may be impossible to stop it from spreading to other sectors.

So, what exactly is it going to happen to us? Since we started with mentioning a camel, we may also mention a famous statement by Shaykh Rāshid that we can summarize as, "My father rode a camel, I drive a Mercedes, my son will ride a camel." Might that sentence have been truly prophetic?

Indeed, the coming crisis might turn out to be so bad to push us back to the Middle Ages. But it is also true that all major epidemics in history have seen a robust rebound after the collapse. Consider that, in the mid-14th century, the “black death” killed perhaps 40% of the population of Europe but, a century later, Europeans were discovering America and starting their attempt of conquering the world. It may be that the black death was instrumental in this rebound: the temporary reduction of the European population had freed the resources necessary for a new leap forward.

Could we see a similar rebound of our society in the future? Why not? After all, the coronavirus could be doing us a favor by forcing us to abandon the obsolete and polluting fossil fuels we use today. The current low market prices are the result of the contraction of the demand and are likely to be the straw that breaks the back of the oil industry. That will leave space for new and more efficient technologies. Today, solar energy has become so cheap that it is possible to think of a society fully based on renewable energy. It won’t be easy, but recent studies show that it can be done.

That doesn’t mean that the near term collapse can be avoided. The transition to a new energy infrastructure will require enormous investments, impossible to find in a moment of economic contraction we expect for the near future. But, in the long run, the transition is unavoidable and there is hope for a "Seneca rebound" toward a new society based on clean and renewable energy, no more plagued by the threats of depletion and climate change. It will take time, but we can heal the poor camel’s back.

 

 

 

 

 

——————————————————————

Monday, April 20, 2020

 

 

How effective is a hard lockdown against the COVID epidemics? The data say not so much

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Data about the mortality of the coronavirus epidemic start being available. Above, a list of mortality rates for Western European countries (including the US) taken from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) of the University of Washington. The data are ordered by the projected number of deaths per million inhabitants. In addition, I built a "lockdown score," also based on the data reported by IHME (except for the US, where different states chose different options). It would be difficult to say that these data support the idea that a "hard" lockdown that includes a stay home order is more effective than a looser kind of lockdown. (for a live version of the table, write to me at ugo.bardi(whirlette)unifi.it)
 

Your friend has a headache. She takes a pill and, after a while, she feels much better. And she is sure that it was because of the pill. Maybe, but how does she know that the headache didn't go away by itself? Was the pill a homeopathic medicine? In this case, you could tell her that she ingested pure sugar, unlikely to cure anything. But, if you ever tried something like that, you know that it is nearly impossible to un-convince someone who believes to have been healed by the miraculous powers of homeopathy or the like. It is a typical problem of medical studies: how do you know that a treatment is effective? That's why there exist precise rules defining how you can test a new drug or treatment.

Now, let's go to the coronavirus epidemic: practically every region in the world has been affected and practically every government has implemented some kind of rules to stop the epidemic from diffusing, from voluntary social distancing (Sweden) to stay home orders enforced by the police. Almost everywhere, most people are convinced that the lockdown has been effective in reducing the spread of the epidemics. Maybe, but how can we say? Not having a "blank experiment" to compare with, it might be argued that all these new rules are the equivalent of homeopathic pills: a little sugar and nothing else.

Right now, the data are still uncertain, but they are accumulating and I think we can at least try some sort of preliminary analysis by comparing the results of countries where the lockdown rules have been implemented in different ways. An especially interesting way to do that is to look at the data from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) of the University of Washington. These data are good for this purpose because:

1. The IHME provides a large dataset for several relatively homogeneous countries in Europe in addition to the US.

2. The data include projections for the total mortality at the end of the epidemic cycle and so we can compare countries where the epidemic started at different moments

3. The data also include a list of the rules implemented by each government, whether they include "stay home" orders which we may see as defining a "hard" lockdown, or just invites to citizens to maintain a certain distance from each other. (but note that a "hard" lockdown in Western countries is much softer than the versioni implemented in China and other Asian countries)

Here is an example of the IHME projections. In the case of Italy, you see how the epidemic follows its typical curve and it is going down after the acute phase is over.
 

Note that I focused on the records on mortality because they seem to be the most reliable ones, unlike those on infected people that depend on the number of tests. About Italy, I checked with independent data on the excess mortality from all causes from the Euromomo site. It seems that the mortality rates coincide, these data are reasonably good.

The results I found for several countries are shown in the table at the beginning of this post (not the complete data set, only Western Europe). You can peruse the table yourself (for a "live" version, write to me) and come to your own conclusion. In practice, the mortality rates range from a maximum of about 700/million to a minimum of 10-20. I cannot find a clear relationship between the mortality rate and the harshness of the rules imposed by local governments.

My impression is that the kind of "hard" lockdown imposed in countries such as Italy or Spain didn't help so much, perhaps not at all. For instance, Germany and Austria do well in the list without the need for a stay home order. But, of course, you might also focus on Sweden's relatively poor performance to argue that very loose rules are not a good idea. However, in this case, you might also note that Norway, a country similar to Sweden, is doing much better also with a relatively soft lockdown. Then you might consider other factors, for instance, population density. A colleague of mine (Claudio Della Volpe) examined the data for this factor and he found that there may be a weak dependence but, at present, it cannot be said for sure.

So, my conclusion is that the hard lockdown is unjustified and probably useless, but let me repeat: these are PRELIMINARY data and this is a TENTATIVE analysis, justified only on the urgency we have to manage the epidemic the best we can. Consider that the lockdown is causing a lot of suffering for a lot of people and risks leading us to complete collapse. We should try to do what we can to understand if it is effective. Let me also note that I am NOT DENYING that the COVID-19 virus is killing people, and I AM NOT SAYING that nothing should be done to stop the spreading the epidemics. (and I am not saying that the virus is an engineered bioweapon, or that it is an evil plot to enslave all of us, gosh!). I just placed on line the data I found for the benefit of the readers of Cassandra's Legacy who may interpret them the way they like. When we'll have better data, we'll be able to arrive at more solid conclusions.

As a final note, the story of the coronavirus epidemics shows how we humans tend to politicize/polarize everything. Not that the virus itself, poor critter, is left- or right-leaning, but by now the Right and the Left have taken sides. The right in the US is against a hard lockdown, while the left favors it. At this point, speaking against the lockdown turns you automatically into a Trumpist and a supporter of the NRA, if not of the Ku-Klux-Clan (and of Bolsonaro, too!).

As an example, yesterday I posted on Facebook a link to a study by Yitzhak Ben Israel, (*) of Tel Aviv University that seems to support the idea that most lockdown rules are not very effective against the virus (and note that I didn't even say I thought the paper was correct — I can't read Hebrew!). But, as I should have expected  I was defamed and abused just for having linked that obvious piece of Israeli propaganda, surely a hoax thought to support the bad orange man and his ilk (surprisingly, my readers on Facebook seem to be familiar enough with Hebrew to be able to easily detect the mistakes in a scientific paper written in that language).

So, why is the stay-home ruling "Left" while no stay home is "Right"? Beats me. For those of you who can understand Italian, I leave you with a scene from a movie by Francesco Nuti, where he examines various kinds of cold meats concluding, among other things, that mortadella (bologna) is communist, while prosciutto cotto (cooked ham) is fascist.

(*) Dr. Ben Israel was so kind to send me a version of his paper in English. If you would like to have it, write to me

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Knarf plays the Doomer Blues

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