A COVID-19 interim report (1): Panic

  • Models

This is the first of what will be a long series of stories about the questions COVID-19 poses and the answers the data provides, and the questions they raise again during the first 41 weeks of the pandemic. They are interim reports. They follow the data analysis and precede the experiments with toy worlds to further investigate the questions raised.

They thus summarize the results (until today) of my COVID-19 project and give an impression of what can be deduced by a citizen from the registered data on infections and deaths per day.

This data is derived from an EU database and processed from December 31, 2019 to October 13, 2020. That is 41 weeks. For comparison, 9 jurisdictions have been chosen. Initially (country codes in alphabetical order) BRA, CHN, DEU, FRA, GBR, KOR, NLD, USA and ZAF, later FRA was replaced by IRL (also European but since September 15 with a regulation that follows a roadmap).

Provocative

It’s week 42 of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Netherlands is in (the beginning of) the second wave with the rest of Europe. Hospitals are filling up again. New partial lock-downs are ordered here and there. The availability of effective vaccines is eagerly awaited. Today the Hindustan Times has a hopeful report:

The Beijing-based Sinovac Biotech’s vaccine — called CoronaVac — is being offered in the city of Jiaxing to care givers, especially epidemic-prevention workers, public service personnel and port inspectors, and will eventually be offered to regular citizens, the state media reported on Friday, quoting officials […] The Sinovac vaccine is in late stage trials in Brazil, Indonesia and Turkey, and the company has said that an interim analysis of phase 3 trial data could come as early as November, news agency Reuters reported […] Last week, China announced it will join COVAX, an international initiative aimed at ensuring equitable global access to Covid-19 vaccines, becoming the largest economy to support the initiative so far.

Hindustan Times October 17 2020

China is apparently far with a vaccine and is ready to share it. The news stated on Dutch radio, on the same day, that the Dutch government does not intend to use a Chinese vaccine even if it were on the market, tested and found effective and all. English and Dutch alternatives are preferred.

This illustrates that COVID not only raises epidemiological but also geo-political questions (in addition to the well-known social, economic and legal issues). Before looking at this in more detail with simulation games, I will now, after 41 weeks, finish the data analysis-based part of this project with the interim reports that follow.

1. Panic

On March 19 (in the second week in which the pandemic caused fatalities in the Netherlands) fear struck. The most disturbing models of how epidemics develop have been circulating. Soon the hockey stick appeared. I show two in Fig. 1. They are two exponential curves.

The first shows how COVID-19 infections would spread across the Netherlands if the pandemic continued uninhibited from a single initial infection around the end of February (week 8): the whole of the Netherlands (17 million people) would be infected by June 18 if the reproduction rate remained as it was (2.39).

The second curve (black) shows how the COVID-19 death toll would grow if every 140 infections resulted in 1 death (the lower limit of how – based on observations in Wuhan – it was thought about on March 30 in Nature). That means: 0.7% deaths of the number of infected. The number of deaths would thus reach 17 million on July 18 (if the size of the Dutch population would have been large enough).

Given the fact that there are no more than 17 million Dutch people, the number of Dutch COVID victims under the above assumptions would be approximately 120 thousand. Sufficient cause for concern, especially because those deaths would pile up at the hospitals and their doors within the few weeks it would take to reach that number.

Fig. 1. Reasons for panic: 17 million / 140 = 121.429

FIG. 1 shows two forms of the same model (based on a R0 of 2.39). The rendering outlines how long it takes for 17 million infections to be produced by one. That lasts from the first infection in the Netherlands on February 29 (week 8) to June 18 (week 25). That is 17 weeks, or a little over 3 months. Every reason for panic. And thus it arose. When the Prime Minister asked for it on March 23 (that is in week 12), the whole of the Netherlands was prepared to participate cooperatively.

The image of Fig. 1 is threatening and counter-intuitive at the same time. And neither does it match reality as it would unfold. But I didn’t know that at the time.

I myself took action on March 19 from the conviction that gaining more insight is necessary to be able to behave as a responsible citizen. The kaleidoscopically disordered and contradictory insights launched by a host of often self-declared pundits had begun to swarm over the media. They instilled too little confidence in me to provide guidance.

At the time I thought it would take little effort to find the footing I was looking for.

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