Sorry, but I Have To Write About the Coronavirus

2x04 Sorry, but I Have To Write About the Coronavirus

This is an earlier issue than usual. I've yet to miss a self-imposed every-three-week deadline for this newsletter this year, but this will be the first time I've actually moved one up and published it sooner. I was also hesitant to write it, but I feel obligated to. I'm sure you're being bombarded with news stories, emails, and Facebook posts to the point of either paranoia, anxiety, or exhaustion, so I apologize in advance for adding to that, but there are some key themes that need addressing as we move forward in both society and the technology industry.

I promise that the next issue will get back to the technology themes that you signed up for. We've scheduled that for four weeks from now instead of the normal three week rotation to give a breather since this one is only a week after the previous issue.

It usually takes me a week or two to fully flesh out one of these issues. As I've started writing this the Microsoft MVP Summit (a conference for people who received the Microsoft MVP award during the year) has just been canceled. I canceled my attendance about two weeks earlier, and honestly, I was surprised that Microsoft waited this long to respond considering they are in the Seattle/Redmond/Bellevue area, and Seattle seems to be ground zero for the coronavirus in the US (although New York seems to have taken over).

I'll use the term "coronavirus" here as a blanket term for our current pandemic. Bear in mind that the coronvavirus typically denotes a group of viruses that cause respiratory infections, while SARS-CoV-2 is the official designation for the current strain that is circulating and causing issues. Furthermore, COVID-19 is the designation for the infectious disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 strain.

This comes on the heals of Facebook canceling their developer conference, and several gaming companies pulling out of a games developer conference. These are all important measures for the containment of any virus—don't travel if you don't have to. Now news has come that SXSW—one of the largest conferences in the United States—is canceling it's show this year. Forget about the conference: This is a huge hit to the local economy in Texas, as well as a detriment to every company that participates in—or is contracted by—SXSW. There are some companies whose entire year of revenue and planning will be directly impacted.

Let's dispel some rumors first.

Look. I'm grateful that when the numbers all pan out, the mortality rate for the coronavirus will be much lower and perhaps close to the flu (although some estimates point to a 10x multiplier). Let's not downplay the health impact. If you're posting on your Facebook about how you're not worried and it's just like the flu... well, you're not looking at the big picture.

Yes, if you look at those aged 50 and younger, the mortality rate is significantly similar to the seasonal flu. Yes, death from complications is related to pneumonia, lung inflammation, and other respitory issues, and people with pre-existing conditions are more likely to have these complications. But let's consider a few factors: The coronovirus is more communicable than the flu, the incubation period is much longer, and the virus survives on surfaces much longer. These factors alone point to a situation where those most suspectible to having complications due to flu-like viruses are now more likely to come into contact with the virus, get infected, and suffer from those complications. This is why the mortality rate looks higher with the current data—it's skewed towards those exhibiting more symptoms and who have more complications. In fact, it's likely many more are infected than is being reported, but none of this makes it less dangerous or less important to contain.

Why is containment important?

Despite the surge in outbreaks, and likely lower mortality rates than we're currently seeing, containment is still a top priority for two primary reason:

  • Once the virus reaches a certain threshold of infection, it becomes endemic in the population, and will continue to circulate at steady levels.
  • An escalation of cases without containment would overwhelm the healthcare system, causing more fatalities because of a lack of facilities, care-givers, etc.

"That's one of the most dangerous things about this," Ron Klain, who led the response to the 2014 Ebola epidemic under the Obama administration, said in February. "What if all of a sudden 10,000 sick people needed hospitalization in a major city? There's no 10,000 extra beds sitting around someplace."

Currently, the first point is looking more and more like a lost cause, but the second point is now more critical than ever.

And to those saying: "So what it's just like the flu," ask any doctor or pulmonologist if they would like to eradicate the flu completely, and they'd say yes. The last thing they want is another respitory disease floating around.

Trend lines in government

Okay, since I'm not a doctor that's enough of my opinion. If you want to keep track of the coronavirus is greater detail, I recommend the Coronadaily newsletter, which gives the most up-to-date news on the virus and it's impact. Let's move on to why you signed for this newsletter to begin with: The future of computing.

In order to understand the impact of this virus on the technology industry, we first need to take a peak at the trends in government to set ourselves up.

The first is the effect that a lack of funding has on a health crisis such as this, and it didn't start with the Trump administration. Public service organizations such as NASA, the CDC, the FDA, the NIH, and the NSF have all experienced seismic cuts from the Bush administration to Obama's battle with sequestration and the hold-everything-hostage Republicans to Trump and the current Republican party's nearly unconscionable anti-science stance. But this isn't just a singular institution or political party: many governments and institution, while battling budgeting differences, took a stance that since no epidemic was currently happening, then why should we fund research into stopping one?

I know that's a pretty blanket statement, and it draws a lot of generalizations, but this newsletter often looks at the comparison of long-term thinking versus short-term thinking, and unfortunately budgeting and investing has turned into a short-sighted game. That will clearly cost us here, and not just in America, but across borders. Scientific research funding has experienced massive cuts because governments and corporations are looking for the short-term gains to build growth and appease shareholders instead of the long-term legacy that scientific discovery brings.

The next trend to pay attention to is immigration policy: As America and many European countries continue to flirt with nationalism, immigration policy is getting tougher. Health crises, outbreaks, and possible pandemics like the current coronavirus outbreak is going to cause nationalist leaders and parties to continue to push back on trade, immigration, and travel policies that are seen as globalist and open-border-enabling. And it won't just be health crises that fuel this fire. There is a large potential for our current climate crisis to be manipulated into anti-immigration policies.

A final trend to review is the current progressive drive for "Medicare for All," as a way to fix a lot of what ails our current healthcare system in the United States (apologies to our non-US readers). While Democratic candidates for the 2020 presidential election have focused on healthcare reform to differing degrees, the conservative side of the spectrum has been busy trying to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, while pushing back on Medicare for All as socialism. With the coronavirus outbreak, there are mounting concerns over who foots the bill in such a crisis, and considering the immediate, harsh economic impact that outbreaks tend to deliver, an extended economic impact over healthcare costs will further exacerbate a potential recession. The Trump administation has largely been able to point to the economy as a driving reason for reelection, but if we dip into a recession because of the coronavirus outbreak, that eliminates Trump's most significant positive. This has led to plans for covering medical expenditures that could largerly be considered "socialist" or "Medicare for All," but the Trump administration has been very careful with their wording and presentation because of political sensitivity.

Trend lines in technology

There are many positive things that have come up due to these recent developments: Namely, data visualizations that let us experience the somewhat futility of the containment efforts. Even University of Virginia students are busy hacking away at open source data to present the situations before us.

Most impressive—and useful—is perhaps the Johns Hopkins University dashboard which has also made it's data available via GitHub.

In fact, the age of data visualizations is here and thriving: From the New York Times all the way to this excellent dashboard from Singapore. Dr. Joel Selanikio has an excellent blog post reviewing various visualizations and their impact and meaning for the coronavirus outbreak, and if you really want to do a deep-dive, Andrzej Leszkiewicz has a great Twitter account and web site spilling over with graphical representations of what we know and don't know about the coronavirus.

There are so many dashboards—and so much data visualization being done—that you have to remind yourself that the people who build truly useful data visualizations, and crunch and analyze the numbers, have special training to do so. It's easy to get lost in the numbers and misintepret the wrong thing. Leszkiewicz has a good look at the often reported case fatality rate that the media keeps quote and why it's a bad metric. This pushback against some of the fatality reporting is also shared by mathematician Adam Kucharski—author of a forthcoming book called The Rules of Contagion.

Drowning in data can be detrimental if used poorly, but it's better than no data at all. These dashboard wouldn't even be possible without the drive towards open source software and open data. As I mentioned previously, Johns Hopkins has all their data aggregates on GitHub, and the rest of the scientific community has been utilizing as many code and data sharing tools as possible, working colloboratively, to better understand this virus. French AI researcher Francois Lagunas even has a Jupyter Notebook of comparative analysis by country) that is easily shared.

You know what works well with data: Our current pattern recognition-heavy artificial intelligence algorithms. One benefit (I use that term loosely) of the relationship between the Chinese government and its huge technology firms is the ability to move fast and in unison on a given target. Alibaba recently announced that they've designed an artificial intelligence-powered diagnostic system that could test for the conoravirus in a matter of seconds. My expectation is that we'll see many more of the big technology companies and research institutions come up with meaningful applications of AI for diagnosis, treatment, and modeling, and this is only further catalyzed by the available amounts of data, and the willingness of researchers to share.

Much has been made about the problems with testing kits, and when you combine those issues with the propensity for human anxiety to drive people to the emergency room, we have a recipe for overwhelming the healthcare system, which—as mentioned above—is one of the things we're trying to prevent. In line with Big Tech stepping up their game, money from Big Tech has a role to play too. The Gates Foundations, for example, has invested 20 million dollars into an at-home test kit for coronavirus detection, and they aren't the only ones jumping at the chance to bring something to market. The Gates Foundation has also invested 100 million dollars to improve detection of the virus, accelerate the development of vaccines, and repurpose old drugs.

In the technology industry a lot our work can be done in isolation, with limited interaction, or with the Internet as our friend. Many of the technology giants in Seattle have instituted a work-from-home policy, while Twitter has recently asked its global force of employees to work from home as well. This work-from-home capability is not exclusive to the technology industry—many in other industries are capable as well, but as a society, we still cling to this idea of visible hours = work, and give the employee who sits at the desk twiddling his or her thumbs greater marks for "work" than the invisible co-worker from home who works 10-12 hours with regularity. There is still a sigma attached to working from home because corporations feel that an unseen employee is an uncontrolled employee. Considering the advanced collaboration tools that we have today, it's almost unthinkable that even technology companies like Microsoft, Amazon, and others still have individual contributor or team lead positions that require you to be on-site in their corporate headquarters. I have to wonder if that culture is about to change significantly.

As a last point, it'll be interesting to see how interactive behaviors change as a result of this outbreak. Most people are half-joking about the Western tradition of handshakes potentially going away, but one thing I've keyed in on is payments and payment processing. A lot of people use credit cards to make payments, and with chip readers, most of those payment terminals require interaction like pushing buttons or touching screens. Credit card terminals have become just as dirty as using money. Could we finally see NFC payments like Apple Pay (utilitizing your cell phone) take off more? It's certainly faster, and now it might actually be safer.

St. John's Irish Red Ale

St. John's Irish Red Ale

I know it's a Bots and Beer newsletter, but I was actually hesitant to do a beer picture this issue considering the seriousness of the theme. Let's tread lightly with an Irish Red Ale from the upstart Toms River Brewing—a local New Jersey craft brewery that will likely get hit hard economically if self-isolation and quarantines become on-going in the United States. Many craft brewing companies like Toms River rely heavily on in-brewery sales and local events: Two things that will be greatly impacted if events continue to be canceled and gatherings are discouraged.


Header photo by Studio Incendo.