March 20, 2020
The One Country I Don’t Want to Visit Right Now
By Kim Iskyan
“Are you actually going back?,” one friend asked me incredulously.
It was as if I was getting into a time machine to visit the Middle Ages during the bubonic plague.
When I visited the U.S. in early March, most people there thought of the coronavirus (“COVID-19”) as something from “over there” – from Asia and Singapore, where I live.
A few days after I met a former colleague for lunch in Baltimore, he e-mailed to ask if I was sick… because he’d come down with something and… “I know not everyone living in Asia is infected, but… ”
And now? It’s Americans who are the new global don’t-touch-thems. The headlines and the White House make it sound like progress is being made. But the reality is different…
My kid brother is an attending physician at the emergency room of a big, urban public hospital in New Mexico. A normal day at the office for him contains the urgency, gore, and bodily fluids of an entire season of Grey’s Anatomy – only without a moody soundtrack and medical residents straight out of Vogue.
Right now, though, he’s catching up on paperwork and Breaking Bad in quarantine at a local Airbnb. A few days ago, he treated a man with coronavirus symptoms. The hospital then sent my brother into quarantine, so as to not potentially infect anyone else. He’s on his own, rather than risk transmitting anything to his kids and wife at home.
“It makes you second-guess every single cough or sneeze,” he told me. It will be a few more days before he knows whether the patient is COVID-19 positive.
“Days?” I asked. Here in Singapore, they’ve had three-hour COVID-19 test turnarounds since early March. “Days, yes,” he said. “It’s not that easy.”
While the situation is improving, COVID-19 testing kits are about as rare in the U.S. as a 1952 Mickey Mantle baseball card. Someone who might have it is first tested for the plain-vanilla flu and other possibilities. Only after those tests come back is the hospital permitted to test for the coronavirus. (Never mind that you can have the flu as well as COVID-19 at the same time.)
“But then after that, it’s quick, right?” I asked my brother.
“Well, then the kit has to go to the state testing center,” he said. “And they don’t work on the weekends, so that takes longer.”
Wait… In the U.S., a country where on any given Sunday you can buy gluten-free marshmallows, get a Darth Vader tattoo, or order out for baked Alaska… But during a pandemic, the lab guys need their weekend?
“Well, anyway, soon they’re getting more testing kits, right?” I asked. CNN said a few days ago that as of March 9, “public health labs in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., are able to test for the novel coronavirus.”
“It’s not that easy,” my brother said again. “Just because we have the tests doesn’t mean we have the reagents (essential chemical compounds that are in heavy demand). And then there aren’t enough lab guys to do the tests.” (And then there’s the weekend thing.)
I’m not a doctor, and I don’t play one on TV. But even I know that testing for COVID-19 is an essential piece of the puzzle of limiting coronavirus transmission.
Stay home and don’t touch your face, dear readers.
And whatever you do, don’t travel to India…
Right now, India has just 171 cases of COVID-19. That’s about as many as Colorado has (as of Thursday… these figures change rapidly).
But India is ripe to make the suffering and death in Italy look like a few broken arms at the roller rink by comparison. As Bloomberg reported on Tuesday:
“India could become the next global hotspot for virus cases, with experts warning containment measures that proved successful elsewhere in Asia may not work in the world’s second-most populous country.
[India]… is trying to contain the virus by closing its borders, testing incoming travelers and contact tracing from those who tested positive… [The general director of the Indian Council of Medical Research said] there was ‘no evidence’ of the transmission of the virus in the community.
But some experts in the nation of 1.3 billion people say that won’t be enough to contain the spread. Other measures like widespread testing and social distancing may be infeasible in cities with a high population density and rickety health infrastructure.”
A few days ago, I checked in with my friend Rahul, who runs a big investment research publishing company in Mumbai (formerly Bombay). Four times as many people live in the Mumbai metropolitan area as in Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, which is the fourth-largest metropolitan area in the U.S.
“Until last weekend, there wasn’t a rush to stock up on food. But even then, it was a controlled rush, and no one was fighting over toilet paper. I think it’s only dawning on people that it’s going to be serious,” Rahul said.
Rahul told me that he couldn’t find a parking place at the local park because there were so many people out and about.
But by Thursday, India was catching up to much of the rest of the world. “The entire situation has changed dramatically,” he said yesterday. “They’re shutting things down quickly. It’s not enough… But it’s happening, and I won’t be surprised if it’s a national lockdown.”
I’ve been to India only half a dozen times, and I’ve only visited a few big cities. But my enduring impression every time – and the reason that India is so susceptible to COVID-19 – is that there are so many people… everywhere… all the time.
It’s the world’s second most-populous country, with more than 4 times the population of America all stuffed into just 40% of the landmass of the continental U.S.
And you feel it, too… Whatever the time of day, there are people playing cricket, making tea, selling tissue packets, and milling about, everywhere. Think of the crowds when you’re leaving a concert or a baseball game… That’s what a regular day, anytime of day, in much of India is like.
And most of all, there’s no sense of personal space. Social distancing is difficult in any city – after all, the point of an urban center is high population density. But in much of India, sardines is the default position.
It’s not just India, either. “When community spread begins, social distancing will hardly be effective in a region with one-fourth of the world’s population,” Foreign Policy magazine wrote a few days ago about South Asia, encompassing Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, and a handful of other countries.
If it turns out that humidity and heat kills COVID-19 – which is held out as a hope for limiting the spread of the virus – then India might be all right. Of course, there are plenty of countries on the equator, where it’s summer now, that the coronavirus is still spreading like warm butter on hot bread.
And if you need any more evidence of the global “red-alert status” of COVID-19, my wife was almost a COVID-19 refugee in Dublin…
On Sunday night, she left Singapore to do some reconnaissance of Dublin neighborhoods and places to live. We’re planning on moving there this summer. And a little bit of a pandemic wasn’t going to derail our plans…
Until she got there, that is. “You might not be able to get back,” a flight attendant on the Qatar Airways flight from Doha to Dublin told her. “There probably won’t be many more flights out for a while.”
She got on the next available flight and returned home to Singapore – days before the country planned to impose a mandatory two-week, stay-at-home quarantine for anyone entering the country. If you leave your apartment or house, you can be fined $7,000 and/or imprisoned for six months.
The absolute proof of Ireland’s DEFCON 5 of sacrilege and panic was the closed pub at the airport… on St. Patrick’s Day.
If I only they would do the same thing in India.
Now here are some of the stories we’re reading…
Coronavirus Testing Chaos Across America
As cases of Covid-19 have exploded across the U.S., state and local governments are taking on the task of testing for the coronavirus that causes it – and they have been quickly overwhelmed.
Home diagnostics startup Everlywell is launching an at-home coronavirus test sample kit
Initially, Everlywell says it will have 30,000 at-home diagnostic kits available, though it hopes to eventually scale that up to be able to offer tests to up to 250,000 people weekly.
Trump taps emergency powers as virus relief plan proceeds
Trump tapped his authority under the 70-year-old Defense Production Act to give the government more power to steer production by private companies and try to overcome shortages in masks, ventilators, and other supplies.
World Health Organization backs call to avoid ibuprofen for coronavirus
The announcement supported a recent statement by the French health minister that ibuprofen may worsen the effects of COVID-19 and should be avoided.
Medical company threatens to sue volunteers that 3D-printed valves for life-saving coronavirus treatments
The valve typically costs about $11,000 – the volunteers made them for about $1.
What to Make of the Kooky Action in Gold
This goes against the conventional wisdom. Most folks believe gold is a crisis hedge that immediately goes up when stocks crash. But it isn’t always that simple.
Markets Enter New Phase – Where Cash Is All That Matters
In debt markets, the sell-everything approach drove down prices of safe investment grade bonds and government debt alongside stocks and commodities of nearly all stripes. Normally, when investors turn away from risky assets, they buy safer government debt – or if they are really frightened, gold. Investors appear to be putting their trust in only the shortest-term government bonds or cash.
And let us know who you think is the biggest COVID-19 scumbag at [email protected].
May you find your way through the chaos,
Chaos Chronicles Editor, American Consequences
With P.J. O’Rourke and the Editorial Staff
March 20, 2020