Thursday, January 30, 2020

"Fear Itself." (Or why the coronavirus scare reveals that our biggest enemies are ourselves)

"...let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself,"
Fear has kept us alive for as long as man has walked this Earth. We are hard-wired to be scared of the dark, to be afraid of creepy-crawlies, to be afraid of heights, to be afraid of pain. In times of fear, we seek to others for comfort and guidance. When we were hunter-gatherers, each time this instinct fires, it was to protect ourselves from some kind of immediate danger. So we retreat, seek shelter in larger groups, acquire information, and hopefully regroup for tomorrow.

When we were alone, fear was good; something nice to have to keep ourselves alive. But in today's interconnected society, if fear grips a majority -- not even that, just a significant percentage of the population -- our society breaks down. 

The city of Wuhan (it's still a city of 11 million people -- bigger than any American cities. In fact, bigger than New York and Chicago put together) has been under quarantine for the past week. The number of people infected with the virus keeps rising, and people are still overcrowding hospitals where workers were already working to the point of exhaustion. The Chinese tradition for colds and flus is to visit hospitals earlier than their American and European counterparts, and exacerbated with an actual flu, the number of people seeking comfort in hospitals and nurses out of panic -- when they currently are not in serious danger -- is overwhelming existing resources.

It's not supposed to be this empty. Photo attributed to GanYuke_ on Weibo.
 Our infrastructure and public resources are built upon the assumption that everything is going "okay," with a little bit of leeway. Have you seen a hub-and-spoke wheel map for airlines? It is the precise reason why hundreds of flights are delayed elsewhere when severe weather rips through a major hub city.

The existence of hub cities save airlines a lot of money because planes can always be routed and repurposed going through a major hub, like Chicago, instead of flying back and forth in between smaller cities - like Des Moines and Madison. But if a snowstorm sweeps through Chicago, passengers in a nearby city waiting for the plane to come in from Chicago could see themselves impacted until hours after the storm has passed. This is the effect of a little bit of strain on a local part of the system, now imagine if the strain was in multiple places, and the cause was a panicking population.

Delta Flight Routes as of 2020-01-30. Note the major hub cities.
 It's not hard to see the effects in Wuhan already: supermarket shelves are being cleared out and some vendors raising prices based on supply and demand are fined tens of thousands of dollars. Masks are in short supply. The city is virtually shut off from the outside world as whole industries like airline and tourism suffer from the effects of the lack of travel.

And this is just one city, in one country. Imagine if the virus broke out in Thailand and in India at the same time (there are already at least one confirmed case in each country, and with the sheer population density. The resource drain with the panicked population all of a sudden clamoring for at least several weeks' worth of food could set a nation's economy back. Yes, the corona virus is here, and yes, it is a serious concern. But I think the bigger concern at this stage is the millions upon millions of other people who will severely test the limits of state resources as they suddenly find themselves quarantined and not knowing what comes next.

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