Thursday Reads: Ghost Cities In the Time of Coronavirus

Congress Street near Boston City Hall, typically teaming with tourists and vehicle traffic at 2pm on a Sunday is empty due to the coronvirus, March 16, 2020 (Jim Michaud, MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)

Good Afternoon!!

We truly are living in a whole new world now, and we may never return to the old one.

Gideon Litchfield at MIT Technology Review, March 17, 2020: We’re not going back to normal.

To stop coronavirus we will need to radically change almost everything we do: how we work, exercise, socialize, shop, manage our health, educate our kids, take care of family members.

We all want things to go back to normal quickly. But what most of us have probably not yet realized—yet will soon—is that things won’t go back to normal after a few weeks, or even a few months. Some things never will.

Seattle traffic merging onto interstate, 3PM, Thurs. March 15, Amanda Snyder, Seattle Times

It’s now widely agreed (even by Britain, finally) that every country needs to “flatten the curve”: impose social distancing to slow the spread of the virus so that the number of people sick at once doesn’t cause the health-care system to collapse, as it is threatening to do in Italy right now. That means the pandemic needs to last, at a low level, until either enough people have had Covid-19 to leave most immune (assuming immunity lasts for years, which we don’t know) or there’s a vaccine.

How long would that take, and how draconian do social restrictions need to be? Yesterday President Donald Trump, announcing new guidelines such as a 10-person limit on gatherings, said that “with several weeks of focused action, we can turn the corner and turn it quickly.” In China, six weeks of lockdown are beginning to ease now that new cases have fallen to a trickle.

But it won’t end there. As long as someone in the world has the virus, breakouts can and will keep recurring without stringent controls to contain them. In a report yesterday (pdf), researchers at Imperial College London proposed a way of doing this: impose more extreme social distancing measures every time admissions to intensive care units (ICUs) start to spike, and relax them each time admissions fall. Here’s how that looks in a graph.

The orange line is ICU admissions. Each time they rise above a threshold—say, 100 per week—the country would close all schools and most universities and adopt social distancing. When they drop below 50, those measures would be lifted, but people with symptoms or whose family members have symptoms would still be confined at home.

A woman in New York walks through a lightly trafficked Times Square on March 16.Seth Wenig AP

What counts as “social distancing”? The researchers define it as “All households reduce contact outside household, school or workplace by 75%.” That doesn’t mean you get to go out with your friends once a week instead of four times. It means everyone does everything they can to minimize social contact, and overall, the number of contacts falls by 75%.

Under this model, the researchers conclude, social distancing and school closures would need to be in force some two-thirds of the time—roughly two months on and one month off—until a vaccine is available, which will take at least 18 months (if it works at all). They note that the results are “qualitatively similar for the US.”

I strongly recommend reading the rest at the link above. Like many other publications, Technology Review has made their coronavirus coverage free to everyone.

Another excellent source of information about the coronavirus can be found at Tulane University School of Health and Tropical Medicine, which is publishing a daily newsletter with lists of articles and up-to-date numbers of Covid-19 cases around the world.


We’ve all seen photos of young people partying down in Florida for spring break. They’ve been led to believe that they aren’t vulnerable to Covid-19, but that’s not true.

The New York Times: Younger Adults Make Up Big Portion of Coronavirus Hospitalizations in U.S.

American adults of all ages — not just those in their 70s, 80s and 90s — are being seriously sickened by the coronavirus, according to a report on nearly 2,500 of the first recorded cases in the United States.

The report, issued Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that — as in other countries — the oldest patients had the greatest likelihood of dying and of being hospitalized. But of the 508 patients known to have been hospitalized, 38 percent were notably younger — between 20 and 54. And nearly half of the 121 patients who were admitted to intensive care units were adults under 65, the C.D.C. reported.

Wuhan, China, Feb 4, 2020, pop 11 million

“I think everyone should be paying attention to this,” said Stephen S. Morse, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. “It’s not just going to be the elderly. There will be people age 20 and up. They do have to be careful, even if they think that they’re young and healthy.”

The findings served to underscore an appeal issued Wednesday at a White House briefing by Dr. Deborah Birx, a physician and State Department official who is a leader of the administration’s coronavirus task force. Citing similar reports of young adults in Italy and in France being hospitalized and needing intensive care, Dr. Birx implored the millennial generation to stop socializing in groups and to take care to protect themselves and others.

“You have the potential then to spread it to someone who does have a condition that none of us knew about, and cause them to have a disastrous outcome,” Dr. Birx said, addressing young people.

In the C.D.C. report, 20 percent of the hospitalized patients and 12 percent of the intensive care patients were between the ages of 20 and 44, basically spanning the millennial generation.

See also this piece at The New York Times: A Deadly Coronavirus Mix in Florida: An Aging Population and Lots of Young Visitors.

Young people–at least the ones in Florida right now–don’t seem to be taking this seriously.

And Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis isn’t helping. NBC News: Florida governor refuses to shut down beaches amid spread of coronavirus.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis refused to issue an order to close the state’s beaches, despite fears regarding the spread of the coronavirus.

He instead signed an order that would limit parties on beaches to 10 people per group and force any businesses authorized to sell liquor to reduce occupancy by half, DeSantis told reporters Tuesday. The governor said that local governments can make their own decisions but that his order would follow the latest guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“What we’re going to be doing for the statewide floor for beaches, we’re going to be applying the CDC guidance of no group on a beach more than 10 and you have to have distance apart if you’re going to be out there,” DeSantis said. “So that applies statewide.”

DeSantis is a Republican, of course.


Why is Covid-19 so contagious and difficult to treat?

The problem is that the coronavirus was transmitted to humans from animals and therefore we have no natural immunity to the disease. David Quammen is a science writer wrote a book, Spillover, about  these animal-to-human infections–known as zoonotic diseases–was in 2012. From the NYT review by Dwight Garner:

In his powerful and discomfiting new book, “Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic,” the science writer David Quammen cites a dismal word we’ll be getting used to in the coming decades, whether we like it or not: zoonosis.

Rome, Italy, March 5, 2020

A zoonosis is an animal infection that, through a simple twist of fate, becomes transmissible to humans. Maybe that twist is a needle prick, or contact with an exotic animal or hiking downwind of the wrong farm.

“It’s a mildly technical term,” he admits, but probably not for long. “It’s a word of the future, destined for heavy use in the 21st In his powerful and discomfiting new book, “Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic,” the science writer David Quammen cites a dismal word we’ll be getting used to in the coming decades, whether we like it or not: zoonosis….

Ebola and bubonic plague are zoonoses. So are, he writes, in a list that peals off the tongue like a distraught Allen Ginsberg poem or an outstanding list of death metal band names, “monkeypox, bovine tuberculosis, Lyme disease, West Nile fever, Marburg virus disease, rabies, hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, anthrax, Lassa fever, Rift Valley fever, ocular larva migrans, scrub typhus, Bolivian hemorrhagic fever, Kyasanur forest disease, and a strange new affliction called Nipah encephalitis, which has killed pigs and pig farmers in Malaysia.”

A couple in Barcelona, Spain, embrace in Catalunya Square on March 15.David RamosGetty I mages

AIDS, he adds, that destroyer of 30 million people, is of zoonotic origin.

In “Spillover” Mr. Quammen investigates many of these diseases, some more than others. He describes the baffled horror of initial outbreaks and then tracks calmly backward. He talks to virologists, doctors, field biologists and survivors about how the animal-to-human infection came to pass. He hopscotches the globe like a journalistic Jason Bourne. Often there aren’t doctors left to be interviewed. The medical personnel who first came into contact with sick patients are frequently dead.

Here’s an article by Quammen in from the January 28, 2020 New York Times: We Made the Coronavirus Epidemic. It may have started with a bat in a cave, but human activity set it loose.

The latest scary new virus that has captured the world’s horrified attention, caused a lockdown of 56 million people in China, disrupted travel plans around the globe and sparked a run on medical masks from Wuhan, Hubei Province, to Bryan, Texas, is known provisionally as “nCoV-2019.” It’s a clunky moniker for a lurid threat.

The name, picked by the team of Chinese scientists who isolated and identified the virus, is short for “novel coronavirus of 2019.” It reflects the fact that the virus was first recognized to have infected humans late last year — in a seafood and live-animal market in Wuhan — and that it belongs to the coronavirus family, a notorious group. The SARS epidemic of 2002-3, which infected 8,098 people worldwide, killing 774 of them, was caused by a coronavirus, and so was the MERS outbreak that began on the Arabian Peninsula in 2012 and still lingers (2,494 people infected and 858 deaths as of November).

Police officers patrol the empty Trocadero plaza next to the Eiffel Tower in Paris on March 17, 2020, Francois Mori AP

Despite the new virus’s name, though, and as the people who christened it well know, nCoV-2019 isn’t as novel as you might think.

Something very much like it was found several years ago in a cave in Yunnan, a province roughly a thousand miles southwest of Wuhan, by a team of perspicacious researchers, who noted its existence with concern. The fast spread of nCoV-2019 — more than 4,500 confirmed cases, including at least 106 deaths, as of Tuesday morning, and the figures will have risen by the time you read this — is startling but not unforeseeable. That the virus emerged from a nonhuman animal, probably a bat, and possibly after passing through another creature, may seem spooky, yet it is utterly unsurprising to scientists who study these things.

Read the rest at the NYT.

Three interviews with David Quammen to check out:

Orion Magazine, March 17, 2020: Why David Quammen Is Not Surprised.

Bozeman Daily Chronicle, February 28, 2020: Quammen: Coronavirus epidemic not a one-time threat.

An audio interview with Quammen at Scientific American, March 18, 2020: David Quammen: How Animal Infections Spill Over to Humans.

One more article about zoonotic diseases from Scientific American, March 18, 2020: Destroyed Habitat Creates the Perfect Conditions for Coronavirus to Emerge.

Those are my recommended reads (and one listen) for today. What stories have you been following?

46 Comments on “Thursday Reads: Ghost Cities In the Time of Coronavirus”

  1. dakinikat says:

    Another disaster presser …

    and we’re on our way to being a hot spot

  2. bostonboomer says:

    Now that it’s too late . . .

  3. bostonboomer says:

    • quixote says:

      Yeah. It would have been bad for business. :massive eyeroll:

      I track all kinds of international news, New Zealand among them. They’re currently desperately trying to follow Singapore’s trajectory — who managed to keep the spread fairly slow through stringent social distancing, isolation, and quarantine. They’re testing all over the country to map any community spread *ahead* of symptoms appearing, which is when you need to do it since SARS-Cov2 (current official name for the virus, covid-19 for the disease, another 🙄 ) spreads from asymptomatic people. (Chalk one up for bostonboomer who’s been right about this from the start!) They’re also providing a lot, probably not enough even so, financial support to help people stay home without going bankrupt.

      So they seem to be doing a lot of stuff right, aren’t they? Well, they have a Labour government, approx equivalent to our Democrats. And guess what the country’s right wing is moaning about?

      “Oh, but it’s so bad for business!” See eg NZ Herald web site. That’s yesterday. When it’s not hard to see what’s happening elsewhere.

      I am not making this up. It’s like some god with a horrible sense of humor decided to run an experiment comparing the “pro-business” (it isn’t in any but the shortest term) and science-based approaches.

    • dakinikat says:

      He kept quiet to bail out of the market first …

      • VT Holder says:

        Does anyone wonder why Trump refused to cease shaking hands? He even bragged that he was now adapting at this morning’s appearance. He is reputed to be a germaphobe, yet feels confidently ok with all these close administrators, senators shoulder to shoulder with no worries. And yeah, he’s had the test and WH doctors (unnamed) say he’s negative. Could it be ,there may already be an antidote or vaccine ?

        • bostonboomer says:

          I don’t believe he’s a germophobe. That’s just another lie. If he were afraid of germs he wouldn’t have been having unprotected sex with porn stars and Playboy centerfolds.

          I have no idea why they stand up there all bunched together. Maybe they are as stupid as they sound. That could be why Tony Fauci isn’t coming to the briefings anymore, lol.

        • quixote says:

          No, there couldn’t be a vaccine. There is no way to do the lab work fast enough for anyone to have that already. (My day job was biology prof. Really. There is no way.)

          Margaret Sullivan of WaPo had the likeliest explanation: he’s front and center in a crowd to show that he’s the Big Pants, and to have a crowd to shovel the blame onto when things don’t work.

          Like his answer to Alcindor. ‘There’s a lot of people in the administration. One of them did it.’ etc etc

          And he can’t do without the crowd because he falls apart without a chorus of cheerleaders. It’s a desperate need for him. More desperate than avoiding viruses.

          And, yes: Where is Fauci??

  4. bostonboomer says:

    Here’s what happens if the government “leaders” decide to save themselves and let the rest of us die.


    Even as President Trump says he tested negative for coronavirus, the COVID-19 pandemic raises the fear that huge swaths of the executive branch or even Congress and the Supreme Court could also be disabled, forcing the implementation of “continuity of government” plans that include evacuating Washington and “devolving” leadership to second-tier officials in remote and quarantined locations.

    But Coronavirus is also new territory, where the military itself is vulnerable and the disaster scenarios being contemplated — including the possibility of widespread domestic violence as a result of food shortages — are forcing planners to look at what are called “extraordinary circumstances”.

    Above-Top Secret contingency plans already exist for what the military is supposed to do if all the Constitutional successors are incapacitated. Standby orders were issued more than three weeks ago to ready these plans, not just to protect Washington but also to prepare for the possibility of some form of martial law.

    According to new documents and interviews with military experts, the various plans – codenamed Octagon, Freejack and Zodiac – are the underground laws to ensure government continuity. They are so secret that under these extraordinary plans, “devolution” could circumvent the normal Constitutional provisions for government succession, and military commanders could be placed in control around America.

    “We’re in new territory,” says one senior officer, the entire post-9/11 paradigm of emergency planning thrown out the window. The officer jokes, in the kind of morbid humor characteristic of this slow-moving disaster, that America had better learn who Gen. Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy is.

    He is the “combatant commander” for the United States and would in theory be in charge if Washington were eviscerated. That is, until a new civilian leader could be installed.

    • quixote says:

      Well, the military is pretty much *supposed* to make those plans. That’s what they’re there for. The civilian government is the one who’s supposed to be taking care of all of us, not just central command and control. That’s what *it* is there for, and it’s been AWOL from its job.

    • palhart says:

      Putting us under martial law has been a fear that I’ve kept at the edge of my thinking because, to Trump, it would be so enjoyable that we would not be released from it as long as he “rules.” He could finally be an autocrat like the ones he admires and could command until he dies or is “committed.”

  5. bostonboomer says:

    Dr. Fauci was missing from the coronavirus briefing for the second day. Now I’m beginning to believe that he’s been muzzled.

  6. bostonboomer says:

  7. dakinikat says:

  8. bostonboomer says:

    We should close off the borders to Florida.

  9. NW Luna says:

    BB, dakinikat and JJ — You all are doing a fabulous job of your posts lately! Not that you don’t anyway, but especially given all the shit and more shit going on now.

  10. MsMass says:

    Trump is an incompetent, lying, selfish conman. There’s no way he should be in charge of a life threatening pandemic response. How many have to die before the repugs wake up and kick his sorry ass to the curb?
    I can’t imagine how the arrogant doctors that I know can put up with his incompetence. Maybe if they have to work dangerously long hours with inadequate PPE, they will be too beaten down to resist.
    There’s just no excuse for this kind of bungling- the best people should be running this show and it just isn’t happening.

  11. NW Luna says:

    My Senator! I love her!

  12. roofingbird says:

    Newsom anticipates 56% of CA could be infected by May. That Scientific American article left me mule headed. Even assuming the problems with marketing foods are correct, they have been doing it that way for centuries. They, and we, have been eating wild animals for centuries. It just isn’t some wild animal that caused this, even if that was the transmission vector. We just don’t know how much of a toxic load animals have been carrying as a consequence of a sick environment, or for how long.

    • NW Luna says:

      Agree. Evolution is real. Every so often a new microbe which is hazardous to H. sapiens is going to emerge; it was just a matter of time. Globalization makes it easy for the pathogen to spread much farther than it would prior to development of mass travel by air, and to a certain extent by rail, and city-sized cruise ships.

      Most humans are short-sighted and believe that if it’s never yet happened in their lifetime it’s not going to. That’s why people still live in 100-yr and 50-yr floodplains, and in slide areas, as just a couple of examples.

      Earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, tornados, disease, climate change… I’m angry and resigned to the reality that most humans aren’t realistic. Our current politicians/people in power are callous, selfish, irresponsible grifters. How many of us survive depends in large part on how prepared, caring, and responsible our city, county, and state officials are. Also how profit-oriented our medical systems and employers are.

    • quixote says:

      Not exactly, rb. Yes, people have been catching new diseases from animals (and they probably from us) forever. But even a mere 150 years ago, there was no air travel to spread it far and wide. For most of human history, it would have infected a small area, the people there would build up immunity.

      Plus, the longer diseases circulate in human populations, the less harmful they become. That’s simply because a bacteria or virus whose hosts aren’t too sick spread it much better, so it has a better chance of surviving. Evolution at work.

      If the chain of transmission managed to cross long distances to non-immune populations, you got rare events like the Black Death. Now, since we travel everywhere very fast, the chain doesn’t get broken and the events are not rare.

      It’s one thing that can’t be blamed on the sick environment. It can be blamed on people being stupid about communicable diseases.

      • bostonboomer says:

        I’m reading David Quammen’s book “Spillover” right now. It’s fascinating. I just ordered his most recent book, which is about how studies have shown that a small percentage of human evolution comes through these viruses. I know I’m not explaining it correctly.

        In this New York Times bestseller and longlist nominee for the National Book Award, “our greatest living chronicler of the natural world” (The New York Times), David Quammen explains how recent discoveries in molecular biology affect our understanding of evolution and life’s history.

        In the mid-1970s, scientists began using DNA sequences to reexamine the history of all life. Perhaps the most startling discovery to come out of this new field—the study of life’s diversity and relatedness at the molecular level—is horizontal gene transfer (HGT), or the movement of genes across species lines. It turns out that HGT has been widespread and important; we now know that roughly eight percent of the human genome arrived sideways by viral infection—a type of HGT.

        In The Tangled Tree, “the grandest tale in biology….David Quammen presents the science—and the scientists involved—with patience, candor, and flair” (Nature). We learn about the major players, such as Carl Woese, the most important little-known biologist of the twentieth century; Lynn Margulis, the notorious maverick whose wild ideas about “mosaic” creatures proved to be true; and Tsutomu Wantanabe, who discovered that the scourge of antibiotic-resistant bacteria is a direct result of horizontal gene transfer, bringing the deep study of genome histories to bear on a global crisis in public health.

        “David Quammen proves to be an immensely well-informed guide to a complex story” (The Wall Street Journal). In The Tangled Tree, he explains how molecular studies of evolution have brought startling recognitions about the tangled tree of life—including where we humans fit upon it. Thanks to new technologies, we now have the ability to alter even our genetic composition—through sideways insertions, as nature has long been doing. “The Tangled Tree is a source of wonder….Quammen has written a deep and daring intellectual adventure” (The Boston Globe).

  13. quixote says:

    One interesting factoid coming out of sequencing: there’s some pangolin DNA in there. It’s possible illegal sale of an endangered pangolin is what started this whole mess, if that was the intermediate animal between bats and humans.

    If confirmed, a major, massive karmic bite in the butt.

    • quixote says:

      Good God. Remember the high and far-off times when having a good useful leader was just normal? You didn’t get all choked up from the sudden reminder of all we’ve lost?

      • NW Luna says:

        You didn’t get all choked up from the sudden reminder of all we’ve lost?

        Been doing that since Jan 2017 and it’s getting worse all the time.

  14. palhart says:

    Timeline of first month of the COVID-19 before Trump scraps this reporting:

    1. (12-31-2019) — The animal to human leap — Several people report virus symptoms later tied
    to Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood Market

    2. (1-7-2020) — Cause identified — 2019 nCov9

    3. (1-9-2020) — First Fatality — recorded in Wuhan. (Trump’s WH brain-dead, no public notice)

    4. (1-13through15-2020) — International exposure — Thailand and Japan confirm 2019-ncov9

    5. (1-17-2020) — China screens air passengers

    6. (1-23-2020) — City of Wuhan quarantined

    7, (1-24-2020) — Hospital overwhelmed

    Trump’s denying this reality and blaming the reports as false has delayed our response by at least 2 months.