Jacques Mattheij

Technology, Coding and Business

COVID19 Predictions for 2021

More than a year ago already I posted a fictional COVID19 retrospective, reading it back today it is pretty eerie to see how many of the predictions made in it have come true or are about to become true.

Because I didn’t actually dare to write it down as predictive I figured I should improve on this, after all, what use is it to predict stuff without attaching the label prediction to it? It’s a bit cowardish. So, this time, I am affixing the label prediction to this post.

Warning: what follows is not going to be happy stuff, if you want to stay optimistic and/or are easily perturbed then please skip this post. There is some good news too but it is definitely in the minority.

The past year has given us many reasons to reflect on the way that we have - with very few exceptions - dealt with this pandemic so far. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the richer democracies in the world have on average done an absolutely piss poor job of dealing with this challenge. Based on the performance so far I’ve attempted to extrapolate the next phase of the pandemic. How many of these things will happen in the coming year I do not know, but I strongly believe that the bulk of them will happen and relatively soon.

This will take many years

To start off with one that definitely won’t happen in 2021: COVID19 isn’t going away from one day to the next in the next couple of months, like many people - also around me - seem to believe. People are already planning their holiday destinations and can’t wait to go ‘back to normal’. Sorry to rain on your parade: normal is what you are living in right now, and likely will be ‘normal’ for the foreseeable future. If you don’t like that: vote for better politicians. The people in charge have on the whole been plagued by short term thinking which has resulted in a much longer track for this pandemic than what it could have been. So far none of them have owed up to this, in fact the bulk are still claiming that they are doing fine. And as long as people believe that COVID19 is here to stay.

The lives of everybody alive today and our societies as a whole will be permanently changed

Some of the changes to our society will not be temporary, they will be permanent. The degree to which people can safely join in mass rallies, demonstrations, parties and so on will diminish, to the point that it likely will be socially unacceptable to invite more than a few people to any kind of gathering. Social distancing as we call it now will become ‘best practice’ for most of the human race, which will dramatically alter some societies and strongly influence the remainder. Each and every one of us will be personally affected, either because we are directly affected due to COVID19 and its effects on our bodies or because someone in our direct vicinity will be. Pretending it doesn’t exist is going to be impossible for all but a very lucky few, who will soon be relegated to the fringes of society (if they aren’t already there).

If you haven’t been affected yet, that’s a matter of time

Given the numbers so far and the average number of contacts that people tend to have if you or yours haven’t been affected yet then you are simply lucky. But that luck will run out and in time you too will be joining the crowds of the people that have been directly affected by COVID19, either personally because you get ill or indirectly because someone you love or care for will get ill.

Solving this will require a radically different playbook than the one followed so far

Governments the world over (with a few exceptions) have so far been following a fairly predictable path in their attemts at controlling COVID19: they have tried to turn it into a numbers game and have given the economy priority over the people that make up our societies. The end result of that is that we have now lost several million people, that our economies have suffered anyway and that COVID19 is still here and raging uncontrollably in many places on the planet. We’ve given the virus time to mutate and mutate it has. One new strain after another is hitting us and it is a matter of time before we end up with a variety that is either going to be harder to test for or that does not respond as well to the treatments and vaccines available today. Solving this will require a radically different plan of attack, one that recognizes that this is a global problem rather than a number of disconnected local problems and that as long as there is a single country in the world where COVID19 can roam freely that we are all at risk. The EU (which is where I live, so it is a bit easier to see this effect in practice for me) is a perfect example of how not to do this: every country has its own rules and regulations resulting in regions right next to each other attempting to combat COVID19 with widely disparate rule sets resulting in sub-optimal outcomes for both regions due to the interwoveness of our societies. On paper these solutions all look good but in practice they simply can not work: the virus does not recognize our artificial and imaginary constructs such as borders and regions of governmental control.

We won’t go back to ‘how things were’

As much as I would like to go back to November 2019 when life was still normal (and I didn’t have a nice case of long COVID which robs me of quite a bit of my energy on a daily basis) I’m sorry to say that it isn’t going to happen. Yes, that’s really bad news. The reason why we won’t be going back is because (1) as long as we haven’t solved it for real there is no option to go back and (2) once we do solve it we will realize how exposed we have been for all these years that we were simply very lucky. Zoonotic events (the point in time where a pathogen jumps the species barrier, where a virus or other thing than can make us ill for instance jumps from an animal into the much larger target pool of humanity) happen with some regularity. There have been quite a few of these over the last couple of years and every time it was controlled relatively quickly. But this time around we have been shown that that was mostly luck, rather than planning and good practice. Our societies will eventually - somewhere in the next couple of years - figure out how to combat this virus effectively. But the price will be astronomical and we will realize that we will not be able to do this again soon, or possibly at all. As a result we will change how we live, permanently. The number of people on the planet is now so large that if we do not curb our enthusiasm for leisure travel and mass events that we are essentially inviting the next COVID like pandemic. So our practices will change, and our lives will change right along with that.

This pandemic will make us stronger

Finally, a bit of good news. Yes, this pandemic will make us stronger, much stronger. If beating it requires cooperation on a world-wide level (or at a minimum at the level of all directly connected land masses) then we will do so. If it requires the rich and the poor countries to work together, with the realization that as long as a single country is not able to control the virus that we will see periodical resurgences, (which I expect will happen until that realization will set in) then eventually we will do so too. As a result we will put the tools in place to deal with other problems as well: corruption, mass poverty and so on. Humanity will emerge much stronger, COVID19 is our common enemy, the one that will unite us. And on a personal level, just like the survivors of wars tend to be much less focused on their own personal affairs but tend to be focused on rebuilding their societies we too will emerge as stronger people. Of course in the intermediate we will have to deal with the egoists and the short term thinkers who can’t look further than their next consumption or holiday in the sun. But that will pass as one-by-one they too will be personally affected by COVID19. At some point we will reach a critical mass when we will collectively say ‘enough’. Some of us are already there (and have been for a while), for others it will be a much longer journey. But eventually nobody will be able to avoid coming to that realization. And a certain mr. Darwin will have a word or two to say to those that plan to continue to ignore reality. In that sense COVID19 is a pretty harsh teacher, if you can’t change your ways through cognition then it will likely be an evolutionary correction.

Many more people will get ill

and Many more people will die

I wished I could sugarcoat this one, but I am afraid that this is simply what we will have to expect. For every resurgence of the virus you have to count a 6 to 9 month response time if everything goes the way it should. Each COVID ‘wave’ to date has been higher than the last. Depending on how you count we are now in the third or the fourth wave, and the official death toll is already in the millions (3 million+ as of this writing). Unofficcialy the numbers are much higher, two times as high does not seem exaggerated, quite possibly higher than that. And that’s before we get into the number of people who have had a serious bout of the disease and who are quite probably even today struggling with the aftermath. This group of people, the ones that didn’t die but are significantly diminished in their capacity to partake in society is growing rapidly and will be one of the most costly components in the final bill of COVID when it is eventually presented.

There will always be some who are in denial

Their numbers will gradually dwindle, but statistically speaking there will always be people who deny that COVID is real, who will attach other delusions to COVID, and who will in general be unhelpful and will disturb reasonable discourse on the subject as well as who will try to subvert any concrete plans on how to deal with this. Democracy being what it is these people will likely find a way to be represented. How much of this we can accept without giving up elements of that democracy I do not know, but just looking at my own country and seeing how COVID deniers have seats in parliament and are using the crisis to stir up their ugly little schemes is bothering me considerably. We will have to find a way to deal with this without harming our democratic institutions beyond repair.

Rich and poor will be further apart than ever before

The wealthy people - individually, and as wealthy countries - will find themselves set much further apart from the rest of the world or their societies than before. This will create friction and envy and if not addressed in a direct and satisfactory manner will have a very negative effect in the short term. Rich countries will have to help poor countries, if only because if they do not those poor countries will end up as the sources of endless waves of new COVID strains. At the same time, the rich countries will have to do so without taking advantage of the poor, a temptation that they will find hard to resist. The same goes on a more personal level, people with means will have to step up and help carry the load for those in their society who are less fortunate. If only because if they do not there eventually won’t be enough of a society left. COVID19 has the potential to utterly wreck us as long as we remain focused on our own problems without seeing the problems of our neighbors. Looking away will no longer be an option that we can afford.

Everybody will find out what their personal borders are

Sooner or later each of us, those reading this and everybody else will find that they too have a border where they will say ‘enough’. When - and for now still if - that happens and this reaches critical mass is when we can finally tackle this problem for real. Until then we are in a holding pattern trying to limit the damage but we will not be able to solve anything in a permanent matter. One for all and all for one is the only way out of this swamp, keep in mind that this whole disaster started with a single person being infected with the virus.

Failing politicians and their henchmen will be held accountable

With every new wave it is clear that our politicians and the various institutions at their disposal are utterly failing in their first obligation to us all: to keep us safe. The economy - as harsh as it may sound - will have to take a backseat to healthcare. If that means that we will have to forego leisure travel, dining out, wars and other luxuries then so be it. It is a price worth paying and only those politicians that will have their priorities straight will survive this crisis in the longer term. Jacinda Ardern will not be seen as unique, but as the first of many, who will replace the ones that failed their populations and who will be held personally accountable for the messes they made.

Our medical knowledge will improve

We will vastly improve our medical knowledge on how to deal with (novel) viruses, the first improvements will mostly affect those groups of viruses that have much in common with the Coronavirus responsible for COVID19,after that we will find more ways to deal with other viruses and there will be more general improvements as well. Cures will be found for diseases that are at the moment incurable. We will develop new insights into how viruses attack our bodies and what we can do to help our immune systems to deal with them.

The big question for me - and I hope I’m not alone in this - is when is it going to be enough? How many people will have to die before we realize that our current approach isn’t working and that it is now COVID-19:3 Humanity:0, and that all of the countermeasures so far have been a rearguard fight but that no real solution is in sight? In 2022? In 2023? In 2030? The sooner the better. The fewer people that will get ill, will end up with long term effects (so called ‘long COVID’) and quite possibly die.

A pandemic requires a global approach with local coordination, to ensure that the effects in one spot don’t end up annihilating progress in another. This will have a huge effect on the concept of sovereignity. For Europe for instance it translates into fitting in into some worldwid plan and to get everybody to implement countermeasures in lock-step, something that will find a lot of resistance. But I strongly believe it is the only way forward. As long as we do not do that countries will turn more and more into little islands, with as direct result that our larger structures will fall apart, the opposite of what is required to really deal with this.

We are at the end of the ago of ‘I’ and at the beginning of the age of ‘we’. This is a tough wake-up call for many, who have been told their whole life long that the individual is the thing that matters most even if that is at the expense of the rest. Now we suddenly have to do a full 180, realize that without ‘we’ there is no ‘I’ to begin with. It will be a difficult thing for a large number of individuals. But over time I expect the numbers to shift to the point where being egoistic about this will be socially unacceptable, and where societies that don’t want to see it that way will become unacceptable to the rest of the world. The only way out is with each other, and for each other.

Stay safe.

Piano Practice Software Progress

First an apology. I started this project because during the first 9 months of the COVID-19 pandemic business was down to a fraction of what it was before then, and I had a lot of time on my hand. But that has changed now and there is a lot of work in my ‘day job’, so I don’t have a whole lot of time to work on the piano software (or to play piano, for that matter). Even so I try to play at least an hour every day, just to unwind from the work, and while doing that I make notes of the things that I think should be improved.

So slowly but steadily there have been a number of subtle but important changes to the way the software works. The first thing that I noticed is that when importing certain midi tracks into PianoJacq it would sometimes really mess up the splitting of the notes across the hands if this had not already been done in the track itself. This is highly irritating because the score then looks terrible and you can’t really play the piece from it. That’s solved now so if you had issues importing certain files then maybe try again.

Then, it was asked, multiple times to label the scores with the names of the notes. This is a trivial thing to do, but what I really wanted is not that trivial: to label the score also with the names of the chords. I spent a day or two on WikiPedia getting the names and offsets of all the chords that I could find and turned them into a huge table with a little bit of software that could then, given a set of notes tell you which chord that is. Lots of help from pilot users there to point out errors in the tables, special mention to Ludwig Weinzierls who helped track down a particularly nasty case of a misidentified chord. The speed slider was another oft repeated request, I made the range ‘down’ a lot lower, you can now go to 1/5th of real time speed to help you to practice really hard passages, and I added some visual feedback to help determine how fast the slider has been set.

To make the score more logical the speed was then used as a multiplier, so you don’t get a 100% score for playing a piece perfectly at 50% of normal speed, but 50%. This makes it easier to compare scores from different tempos of playing the same piece. Another neat change is that the software will now pre-emptively mark notes ‘red’ that you have played wrong in the last 10 passes. So that if you come across a red note you know to be a bit more careful. I added the beginnings of a gamification mode, at the top right of the screen there is now a counter that gives you a rough idea of how much practice you’ve put in, with bonus points for perfect playthroughs.

Another major change is that the autopilot is now locked in with respect to the length of the part you are practicing so it no longer switches back to short sections every time you make an error, and that it strongly prefers accuracy over speed which makes you practice slower to get things perfect rather than to rip through a piece to make it faster. This has helped my own practice tremendously and has improved the quality of my playing quite a bit.

I’ve tried very hard to keep UI changes to an absolute minimum so there should be no confusion when you use the newer version, and there is nothing to update, just refresh the page if you still have it open and you’ll be running the new version right away. Also note that the code is on gitlab if you want to inspect it, there are plenty of comments in there to explain how it all works.

If you have ideas for improvements or run into bugs please let me know either through email via jacques@modularcompany.com or via gitlab.

I’ve been asked multiple times to post a video of what the software looks like when it is in use, so here is a short piece, I’m super shy about the playing so apologies ahead of time, but this should at least give you an idea of what you can do with it. The piano is a Yamaha P-515, which I bought about a year ago, the trills are played much slower than they should be because the software does not yet understand the concept of a trill in the notation (it uses midi as its file format and the original midi spec does not have the concept of ornamentation such as is common in classical music).

Enjoy, and if you have a better video let me know, I’ll be happy to post it.

At the request of HackerNews a screenshot of the new version:

My Friends the Complot Theory Believers

I have friends from all walks of life. Most of them are smart and skilled. Some of them believe the most outrageous things. For instance, there is this one couple that I know that refuse to believe in 911 on odd days and on even days they will go to great lengths to push their theories that it was all make believe, that it never happened and that if it did happen it was all special effects. Nothing, and I really mean nothing, will ever get them to change their minds on this.

Abbie Richards has created a helpful little diagram to allow you to place yourself - and others - on a spectrum going from grounded in reality on one end to detached from reality on the other. My friends are well on the way to ‘detached from reality’, if they aren’t already there. The interesting bit - to me - is that in regular life they are doing just fine. They have their own business, make good money, they vote. And they believe and propagate absolute bullshit.

This is a problem. Not just because they are my friends - well, that too is a bit problematic - but it creates fertile soil for other bullshit to grow in. The whole thing goes back to the time just after 911 when speculation was rife with who did it. Even though there were plenty of indications who did it of course like any big media event (the moon landings, the JFK assassination and so on) there are always details that are less than clear. And into this lack of clarity the wedge of speculation is driven with relentless energy by a few compassionate souls. A few? You’d hope. But unfortunately, also unfortunately for them, my friends are not alone. They’ve found like-minded souls all over the world who will help them to persist in their beliefs, and who in fact make things worse. Much worse.

To the point that my friends are - unfortunately - no longer my friends. They have become so totally ensnared in this web of complot theory adherents that it has become impossible to have a normal conversation with them about anything. It has affected their business, and it is starting affect their health. They are wondering why I can’t see what they see. I am wondering why they, who are obviously intelligent, could stray so far from the path of science and objective reality. But when it happens one step at the time and when ordinary people start tuning you out eventually all this is left is the in-group that will still accept you, and from there on in it gets worse in a hurry.

For now they are only a danger to themselves. But it probably wouldn’t take much to put them on the path to being a danger to others as well, for now they are mostly active online and in real life only by trying to convince others to join them in their madness. I can see some parallels with impressionable youngsters that are radicalized to attack our societies. They too believe - and probably with better reasons - that the world is out to get them. Their radicalization follows a similar path. And they too are a danger to themselves and likely to others.

How many of these people there are I have absolutely no idea. But after Snowdon it has become a lot harder to argue that someone is a conspiracy nut case. After all, that’s exactly what the people who wouldn’t stop about the degree to which our lives are being spied on were labelled as. And then Edward Snowden proved them all right, and in fact, in many cases showed that things were much worse than even the most die hard alu-foil wearing mad hatter had predicated.

How far does this rabbit hole go down? Well, to give you just one sample (and yes, there really are people that believe this), according to one particular theory armies of child molesters live in underground tunnels, proof of which is that a number of these children were liberated. According to some of these stories the tunnels are 40 to 50 km deep, are connected by a network of high speed rail and there are 100’s of thousands of people there. No kidding. And anything you would like to say against that proves that (1) you are one of ‘them’, (2) that you have been brainwashed by ‘MSM’ (the ‘mainstream media, the root of all evil in complottistan) and (3) that you are to be shunned.

It’s a vicious cycle. Start off with one idea based on whatever you think you know something about that doesn’t mesh with what you read in the newspaper or see on TV, and a couple of years later (19 in this case) and both you and your spouse are ready for the funny farm. It’s been painful to watch this, even from afar. Such incredibly smart and talented people, how could they get so lost? And if they could get lost like that, what’s to stop me from getting lost in a similar way? Or you, the reader, for that matter.

Because quite likely all of us have some angle where sufficient applied stress will cause us to depart from reality as we know it into the twilight zone of half truths and outright lies. Once your calibration is off on one subject that can be used against you to break you away further and further. And we are not trained on how to arm ourselves against this at all. In fact, quite a lot of our upbringing goes the other way, we are conditioned to respect authority, to believe lots of stuff uncritically. For the most part all of that is benign and to our benefit. But once those very powerful levers are corrupted it is pretty easy to manipulate people into believing outrageous lies and to sometimes even act on those believes, in some cases with disastrous consequences.

I’m not sure what to do about this. I’ve given up on my friends, fully realizing that that makes their situation worse. But I just can’t deal with the degree to which they have slid off into the abyss, it is too hard to watch, remembering them as they were seems to be the easy way out. For those two there are probably 100’s of thousands if not millions (more?) of others who are equally detached from reality. They still vote, they are probably a relatively small step away from acting on their beliefs. It’s a powderkeg waiting for the right match to be thrown in. Too bad we don’t have a way to detoxify our brains from factually wrong information.

Pianojacq, an easy way to learn to play the piano

I’m pretty sure that the hardest choice in my life to date has been the one between my two loves: music on the hand and computer programming on the other. The programming won out, I figured it would be a much more lucrative field to pursue a career in, besides it was a much better match for my talents. From the age of 5-8 I did violin lessons and hated every moment of it. Then from 8-10 I did piano, and hated that about as much. At 17 at the insistence of a friend (hi M.) I bought a saxophone because I loved the sound of it and learned how to play. No note reading involved, just playing along with music that I liked and I had enless fun with it. Due a complication stemming from a double pneumonia I ended up having to give it up but it gave a lot of satisfaction. Then I tried the flute for a bit but it did not give me the same feeling.

Learning how to play an instrument is an exercise in frustration, especially in the beginning. There is so much beautiful music and yet, you can’t play any of it. But it need not be that way. What if you could come up with a way to gradually learn how to play while still making nice music in the process?

Kids - today, but in the past probably just as much - are living in a world of very powerful temptations. Video games honed to be super addictive and all kinds of other distractions compete with homework and the acquisition of other skills. I’ve got a couple of those and while they are pretty clever the degree to which they are glued to their computers (and tablets) worries me. Yes, I try to be a responsible parent but it isn’t always easy to win that argument, especially not because my own days are spent in front of the computer professionally.

When COVID-19 hit I decided to re-kindle my love for making music. Piano again, but this time because I wanted it, not because of pressure from the outside and in my own way, and on my own, focusing on making music rather than the ‘boring parts’, I figured if I can stay interested that will one day come as well. So far so good. Now, six months later and with the help of various software tools I’m getting better at playing and reading notes. These tools left me feeling they could be improved upon. There is a lot of software out there that helps you play, I found one called ‘Pianobooster’ that I liked a lot. But it too had its shortcomings. So I decided to make a much updated version of it, running in the browser and with a bunch of modifications to the ui (the code is all new) to form the engine of a keyboard teaching suite. Today I’m happy to announce that it is now finished to the point where it is hopefully already useful to others.

Here an early beta version of it is used by one of my sons (Luca):

To give some context, normally you can’t get Luca away from his video games with a crowbar. After being given access to the software and the score of one of his favorite pieces of music (Alan Walker’s ‘Faded’) he went from not being able to read notes at all to being able to play along with it in the space of a few days. On one of these he was at the keyboard for five hours at a stretch to practice. Obviously, his technique needs (a lot of) work and it is only the right hand part but (1) he’s having fun doing it and (2) there is a lot of progress. A colleague of mine in Poland who collaborated on this project (Radek) had a similar experience with his son (only they did the Minecraft theme).

The way the software works is very simple: you find a midi file of the piece that you want to practice, upload it into the software and you’re off the races. Having a midi capable keyboard is a must (and a nice screen certainly helps). Unfortunately, because Mozilla is too busy improving the world instead of their browser and WebMIDI is not supported on Firefox you have to use Chrome otherwise it won’t work. There are still some obvious shortcomings: rests are not dealt with at all yet, and the score rendering can definitely be improved in many places. But the start is there and if it is useful for us then it may be useful to you. We’ve had some very early beta testers and I would really like to thank them for their contributions and bug reports, without them this would not be at the state of polish and functionality that it is. The software does not require a service, subscription or account to be created, all of the data is stored on your local computer. There is a very powerful ‘auto’ mode that automatically creates little lessons to practice based on the parts where you are still weak, and a neat progress indicator shows you how you are doing on the way to mastery of the piece you are practicing.

Having a half decent midi file of the piece that you want to practice is a must, there are many sources for such midi files, we’ve built in three simple test files into the software so you have something to start with, but if you want more than that you will have to add the files yourself (which is trivial, using the interface in the software).

So, if you have a midi capable keyboard laying around and you want to improve your piano playing skills, head on over to PianoJacq.com, which is our working title for the testbed of the engine. In time we will build a much more complete service around it but for now it should already be useful enough to be exposed to a larger audience and to give people the opportunity to help shape it with us. In that light: feature requests, bug reports, any kind of feedback, both positive and negative is much appreciated. Enjoy!, Jacques Mattheij, Radek Korbecki & Andrew Fiorillo.

The software is not ‘open source’, we have not yet decided on how we plan to go forward with this project in the longer term, but the code is on GitLab and if you want to see what makes it tick or suggest improvements then of course you are more than welcome to do so. One of the focal points was to make it work independent of any server and you can just as easily deploy it from a zip file on your local computer as you can run it on the web, so it will even work when you have no internet connection or if something should happen to our company, which is in line with how I think web applications should be distributed. Note that it would have been trivial for us to force our users into a relationship with us by having to make an account and we made a very conscious choice not to do this.

COVID-19 Round 2 is Here

If you’ve been following the news you probably are aware that the number of people that test positive for COVID-19 is rapidly rising. As most people that know a bit about historical pandemics have warned about. The ‘second wave’ is a fairly typical thing with respiratory diseases because during the summer month these are usually at a disadvantage. People are at the peak of their resistance, more outdoors and the moisture conditions in the air do not favor transmission. UV light tends to damage the genetic material of viruses, which are particularly sensitive to that. And so in the summer the number of virus infection cases drops and the number of dead and hospitalized people will also go down.

But that’s not reason to become complacent and doing so would be a very grave mistake. Let me explain why. First of all, the virus is now well established. When in January of this year it had to start from near zero it is now very well established in our population, there are more than a million people that are contagious right now, compared to a handful in January. This head start means that the ramp-up will be extremely quick. Just how quick we do not know but chances are that in three weeks time we will be looking at a sitution much worse than it is today. There is already some evidence for this. The virus also has a good 6 to 7 months ahead of it to do its work instead of only 3 for most of the world in January. That translates into many more chances of infecting people. The daily number of dead is low right now because the dead typically lag the infections by anywhere from two to six weeks, though it has already been shown that COVID-19 can kill rapidly it does not necessarily do that, and as ICU capacity is still able to absorb the gravely ill it will reduce the number of dead considerably. Once that is exceeded though it will flip instantly from being just ‘bad’ to very serious indeed.

And finally, and most importantly: people are sick and tired of all the anti COVID-19 measures and are more than happy to stick their heads in the sand and wish for it all to go away. The political arena is - again - filled with talk about whether or not we should choose for our health or the economy. Let me make something very plain here: it is not a choice between the health on the one side and the economy on the other. COVID-19 will continue to hurt us economically until there is a vaccin or we get our act together and decide to deal with it frontally. The damage to our health is the part that is - in principle - optional, or at least, a good part of it.

But you can’t choose to have great health and a good economy. You can’t choose to have a good economy and have a lot of people die because the disease will have its financial impact either way. So the whole idea that there is a choice here is abject nonsense, we are going to hit some pretty hard times in the next couple of months and come April next year there will be a different world. Unfortunately, only very few statesmen and women today are good at managing a crisis. They are excellent captains for seeing the boat through many years of fair weather. They do not know - nor should we expect of them, after all they’ve had little or no possibility to train for this - how to manage a crisis of these proportions. Their concern for their image, popularity and chances for re-election are more of a concern than simply doing what it takes to get this behind us.

There are some exceptions. New Zealand, Finland, Western Australia and the Baltics still stand out as examples of how we could have dealt with this. Unfortunately, those are a rarity and the fact that these countries internal mobility and external connectivity to the rest of the world are relatively low made it an easier problem for them to deal with. But regardless of the special circumstances, they did what they had to and they did so when it mattered.

We are now at a crucial point in time: any delay in strong countermeasures today will be reflected in the total body count at the end of this ride, and it is not just people dying that we should be worried about. COVID-19 has a fair chance of affecting you for much longer than that you are actually ill if you have a severe cases of it. And the really long term effects (as in decade+) won’t be known for many years so we are all guessing about what they could be, but if there are any they likely will not be good.

Reacting decisively, forcefully and without delay could make the difference between a disaster of epic proportions or something that we will barely remember in twenty years. Unfortuntely our current crop of politicians is more concerned with their image and chances for re-election than they are with the simple truth of the matter: this crisis is not going to be solved by talking about it or slow-walking it. Right now COVID-19 has shown to have the potential to kill one in 850 inhabitants (Belgium as the current worst sample case), and by the time this is over than number will likely be much higher. Fortunately almost all countries in the world are doing better than that today. The next six months will most likely be much worse than the preceding six months. Once - if, hopefully - we get to the point where the ICUs will be overrun again this could go very fast beyond our ability to control. If we fail to do that the body count will dwarf what has happened so far. I’m not saying that lightly.

Additional complications in the form of ‘covidiots’ (people who deny the virus is real, who will encourage others to take risks, who take part in large scale demonstrations and who in general seem to live in denial) are going to be a much bigger problem than they have been so far. Fringe political groups have found that by playing the ‘they are out to get us’ card that they are able to command much more attention than they were able to do so far with their more limited agendas (such as: fomenting racial hate and general subversion), as a result their numbers are swelling and people in larger groups are somehow always more stupid than each of them individually leading to some very predictable results. COVID-19 has been successfully hijacked by these groups who ultimately just want to use it to further their agendas. Be smart and realize that if you find yourself on the same side of some argument as the fringe groups that you are most likely being taken for a ride.

The same goes for the people who are systemically downplaying the risk because of ‘the economy’, as though the economy works in some kind of idealized vacuum instead of that we are all part of it. Then there are those who would like to emphasize that the economy being bad by itself causes increased mortality due to suicides and other side-effects. This is true, but not on a magnitude that comes even close to the primary effects of COVID-19, forget about the comparison if you include the secondary effects (for instance: overworked health care personnel and people that do not die right away but who are affected for a long time, possibly the rest of their lives). All these ‘reasonable voices’ do nothing to minimize the actual effect and could very well cause people who would otherwise take this more serious to get ill or lose their lives.

All in all we have a rough time ahead of us. The perfect storm, you could say. Within a six month period we are going to face the worst health crisis in the last century or so, a very tumultuous election in the United States (where, unfortunately COVID-19 is now a political football), Brexit (the exit of the UK from the European Union, in a nutshell a bunch of small fish trying to increase their apparent size by reducing the size of the pond, hurting their country and their economy in the process) and higher and higher tensions in Belarus, which could very easily cause a repeat performance of what happened in Ukraine.

“May you live in interesting times” never was a blessing, it always was a curse. We are living - for better or for worse - in very interesting times. Just how interesting we are to a very large extent in control of ourselves. Even if our governments fail us in their duty to decisively put an end to this we all can contribute. If you’re doing to make the argument that ‘the economy’ is more important than a couple of million lives: what if it is your life? Your parents’ life or your childs life? What if the economy will go down the drain anyway? If you don’t know then at least don’t make life harder for those that do take this serious and that are not going to stand idly by.

Keep in mind that this virus does not have legs to walk on or wings to fly with. We provide it, we hand carry it from one infected person to the next and we all contribute to this unless we actively work against that.

  • If you don’t have to go out, then don’t.
  • If you can avoid travel then do so. Contrary to popular belief there is no right to three holidays per year and holiday travellers are identified as a very large fraction of the ability of the virus to spread internationally.
  • If you have to travel do it in such a way that minimizes contact with others.
  • In general, until this crisis is over, minimize your contact with others.
  • If you can afford it: order your shopping to be delivered, supermarkets are a very nice place to spread from the point of view of the virus.
  • If you bring your kids to school or collect them (assuming schools will stay open) stay away from crowds of waiting parents, agree with your children where you will pick them up and let them walk the last 100 meters or so to school by themselves.
  • Avoid crowds of all kinds.
  • Don’t stand up close to other people if you can avoid it, distance is a very good way to stop the virus to move from one person to the next.
  • If it is possible: work from home. Offices are a very good place for exchange of viruses unless the building has been explicitly designed not to be (and they never are), as is public transport where you will be up close and personal with a few hundred people on every trip.
  • Wear a mask, when going out near others even if it isn’t perfect it will reduce transmission.
  • Wash your hands.
  • Don’t be manipulated by people who can’t wait to pull you down to their personal level of misery. For instance, I’ve been told that I am afraid and living in fear. That’s not the case, I guarantee it. I’m just a realist: this is an airborne virus that has shown a high enough mortality that it it concerns me and there is as of today no cure. It would be madness to invite this into my life if I can avoid it so I treat it like any other danger, I try to structure my life in such a way that I minimize my chances of getting it. Just like if I’m going to have to jump out of an airplane I’ll make sure to wear a parachute. Fear of falling is a different thing than fear of impact and no amount of peer pressure will make me give that up. As a result of my previous blog post on this subject I received a bunch of nastygrams and some really not cool hatemail. But I really could not care less. I’m not a shill for ‘big pharma’, don’t have anybody pay me because I’m an ‘influencer’ (what a term that is anyway), and don’t write this under a pseudonym. (If you are seriously doubting this please read the message at the end of this article carefully). This is not a hacked account, I’m a real person with a pretty broad interest part of which is biology and contagious diseases. If you are a layperson chances are that I’ll know more about this stuff than you do. If you are a virologist or epidemicist you are 100% sure to know more than I do. But in general I think that what is written here is going to be supported by the vast bulk of the people in the know out there. The few that are rowing against the stream on this will end up being found either geniuses or idiots, only time will tell. In the meantime, play it safe.
  • Remember: you don’t have to show symptoms to be contagious. Others don’t have to show symptoms to be contagious to you.
  • Ignore covidiots, if you have them in your family explain that they are welcome to accelerate their own demise but that you want to live and be healthy, and would like for yourself not to be a transport device for the virus and that as far as you are concerned they are part of the problem and definitely not part of the solution.
  • Better safe than sorry: every day the media are full of stories that are quite possibly true but that may have an agenda behind them. For instance, recently there was a big hoopla over air travel having never resulted in a known infection. Such stories, even though they give momentary relief from the daily litany of misery typically are not based in fact. Reduction to absurdity will show easily that they are nonsense, but they gain traction nonetheless. Just ignore them. Keep practicing the same simple set of rules and do your thing to reduce the virus’ ability to move around. Once the ‘all clear’ is given we will all be back to normal in no time but until then keep yourself and those you care for safe by reducing your chances of contracting the virus or becoming a part of the virus’ travel agency if you should get infected yourself. If and when there is a major development it will not be something that you will only hear about by one expert from a single country, it will be broadly carried and spread all over the planet. This is much too big an issue that you can expect some individual somewhere to have privileged information for very long.
  • A vaccine is being developed, in parallel by a lot of companies that are all fairly well positioned to get results. Even so, these are not magic potions. They will need to be tested properly and produced in quantity before they can have effect. Even today it is not guaranteed that a useful vaccine will be developed at all (sorry Russia, but I’m going to discount your contribution here on account of past performance when it comes to manipulating the public with figures and statements that later turned out to be absolutly false). When and if a vaccine is released that is both safe and with good results for those that are vaccinated producing it in quantity will take some time. In the intermediary period continuing to practice social distancing will be the most potent weapon we have against the virus.

Hopefully enough smart people taking this serious will be able to diminish the impact to the point that those that wish to pretend it doesn’t exist are more than balanced out. Other good news is that treatment protocols have advanced significantly and your chances of survival are now better than they were in March or April if you should contract the disease and develop a severe case requiring hospitalization or even a stay in the ICU. Still, you would not wish this virus on your worst enemy, and if you can avoid it then please do so.

And finally, if you are a COVID-19 denier or general complot theory adherent, or still think this is just another flu, I’d like you to take careful note of the following handy and short NHS approved guide which has world-wide applicability (by @gammonmag):