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The Virus is a Time Machine
Raúl Ilargi Meijer

Around mid-January I started including coronavirus news in the daily Automatic Earth “Debt Rattle” news aggregators, and wrote the first essay on the topic on January 29. Tons of people since have asked why, but I thought the virus had “potential”. Though not everybody would agree, I still think that. So the Debt Rattles are full of coronavirus these days.

For a proper understanding, we must remember that China was 4-5 weeks too late in reporting the disease, and after that the west was 4-5 weeks late in acting on the news. This happens simply because a politician who cries wolf will have a short career, and reporters, certainly today, follow that same model.

I explained 5 weeks ago why this happens the way it does in China in The Party and the Virus, but western countries’ political and media systems are structured very much the same way. Being early to warn does not help your job prospects. Unless you’re 100% sure, but then you won’t be alone and there’s nothing left to warn about. So might as well stay mum.

Until you must speak, and then you’re way behind, and you’ll be as wrong as you are late. Cast in stone. Bias “R” Us. But then, that’s why there’s the Automatic Earth. The Matrix is never perfectly sealed.

In the case of COVID19, the story is not about the numbers of cases or fatalities at any given point after two months and change, it’s about the disruption it will cause. We have a highly contagious virus that can cause death. That is all you need to know really. Feel free to claim that reactions and measures are over the hill, but no government has the option to say things are not all that bad and it’s business as usual.

They all tried again though. It’s in their job description. One of their tasks is to prevent panic, and yes, they use that to hide their ignorance behind, but they still must do it. But that’s alright, because all halfway smart people know what to do when a politician says not to panic.

However, they will still quarantine you and close borders, no matter what you think. Politicians are dead set to react too late, and then when they do, to order measures that are over the top and at best partly effective. But it’s not them, it’s the model they function within.

I first said this days ago, that it’s easy for people to look past that reality, but it’s always good to see Nassim Taleb share that view, that what you think about your own situation is not an option for politicians:


And people comparing COVID 19 to seasonal flu are therefore way off base. It’s not apples and oranges, it’s apples and baseballs -if not baseball bats-. Both are round but they have little else in common. The seasonal flu has been around since at least 1899, when the first epidemic was reported, what ever that meant back then.

The COVID19 virus is, far as we know, 3 months and change old. So any numbers you can toss around, of so many people killed by one and not the other, are pretty much meaningless. They are completely different entities that just happen to perhaps look alike if you don’t look to close. You can bring up the comparison, but you don’t say a thing about COVID19 if you do.

There are more interesting things to say about COVID 19. Unlike seasonal flu (largely), this one is not standing still. That means it will take 12-18 months to develop a vaccine, while any given year’s vaccine vs that year’s “normal” flu takes a few weeks. That difference may not say it all, but it comes close.

The most striking characteristic of the virus may be, if not should be, its exponential (or quadratic, if you will) progress once it gets hold. Ben Hunt tweeted earlier today, in reaction to Rome shutting down a quarter of the entire country, that “Italy is a time machine that shows us our future. Why do we ignore it?” But it’s not just Italy. It’s a pattern, it’s a dynamic, it’s motion. All things that regular flu is not.

And here’s what that dynamic looks like:

First, South Korea till March 4. when it had 5,621 cases. Today it has 7,313. But it is suspicious; they have very few deaths AND very few recovered cases. Well over 90% of cases are unresolved, way more than in other countries. It also has by far the largest numbers infected per million people.


Italy till March 4. when it had 3,089 cases. Today it has 7,375. 1,492 new cases today, and 133 new deaths (366 total). Ouch. 25% more cases, 57% more deaths.


China may have leveled off a little (who knows, really?), but the rest of the world is just getting started.


The US is starting to get in line:

And this pair of graphs from Worldometer just keeps going as well:

COVID19 is not a point in space, it’s not standing still. You can’t look at it and compare it to anything else around today, because it moves much faster. Let’s try this vein:

I would suggest we’re looking at something like this:

Wave 0: Wuhan/Hubei (11/58.5 million people)
Wave 1: Rest of China (1.375 million people, total China 1,435)
Wave 2: Italy, South Korea, Iran (59, 51 and 81 million people)

And the next wave could well be, given their development in new cases, countries that are following the early phases of the graphs for Italy and South Korea above:

Wave 3: US, Germany, France, Spain (?!) (330, 83, 67, 47 million people)

The UK is a candidate with its 66.8 million people, but it’s either cheating (don’t test) or it may “have to wait” for Wave 4. Note: the US doesn’t have all that many cases either, but its death rate is high.

I mention the numbers of inhabitants because Wave 3 may also include some countries with fewer people (Wave 3.5?):

Switzerland, Sweden, Belgium, Netherlands (8.5, 10.1, 11.5 and 17.1 million people) are all countries with relatively small populations and relatively high numbers of new cases that may well contain the same sort of clusters that have caused the explosion in cases in Wave 1 countries. We can not predict excatly what happens, but we can see trendlines.

The virus is a time machine in the sense that whereas we can -in theory- assume that the regular flu moves in human time, COVID19 very much appears to move in virus time. Almost something you would ask a quantum theorist to look into.

Meanwhile of course you can theorize about the possibility that this is a bioweapon, but first of all that doesn’t help any patients right now, and second it’s only interesting if you can find out whether it was made on purpose or by accident, released by accident or on purpose, and was it the Chinese, the Americans, the Russians, the British, or someone else, why did they do it, why does it target which group, etc etc.

This thing plays out today, not in an imaginary future where you may have found out the who what and why. In the meantime, people are dying.

If you look at the graphs for Italy and South Korea above, you can see your future. Not in a precise way, but certainly in a general one. You can see ahead. Time machine.


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