Science


Recently in conversation with one of my players I was led to ponder whether or not SpaceX is revolutionizing space travel, and whether it has driven costs down to new record levels. My initial response was skeptical, but upon reflection I thought there should be data on this, and it should be possible to make some judgements about whether SpaceX is really doing what people claim. This post is an attempt to understand whether SpaceX rockets, in particular the Falcon 9, really are as cheap as people say, whether SpaceX has revolutionized space travel, and what we can expect in the future from this country or from rocketry in general. The key objectives are to:

  • Determine the truth of the claims about the cost of SpaceX rockets
  • Compare these claims with historical trends in rocket prices
  • Examine the role of reusable rockets in these trends

I hope by the end of this post to penetrate some of the hype around this company’s work, and understand a little more about the economics of space travel generally. A warning: this post is likely to be long, involves lots of dry figures, and is predicated on the assumption that Musk is a dishonest businessman.

Why do this?

First of all, why do this at all? Partly because it’s a rainy public holiday here and I have nothing better to do, but mostly because I think Elon Musk is an utter and complete fraud, who lies about all his companies’ activity, over-hypes his products, delivers dangerous, over-priced or poor quality goods, and wrecks the companies he runs. This is obvious for Tesla, Solar City and (now) Twitter, so it doesn’t seem unreasonable that the same would be true of SpaceX. But unlike Tesla and Twitter, SpaceX does seem to be delivering an actual usable product to high performance standards, so maybe its achievements buck the general Musk trend towards hyperbole and failure? However, on the flip side, Musk has spent a lot of time hyping his plans to go to Mars with SpaceX and everything about that project is obvious vapourware, hype and bullshit. The Youtube Common Sense Skeptic channel goes through this in great detail, showing how every aspect of everything Musk says about his Mars plans is completely and insanely untrue. So why should we assume the rest of his SpaceX plans are anything different? Remember, the first rule about liars is that if you know someone has lied repeatedly and consistently in the past, you should not trust anything they tell you now.

So actually I think it is possible SpaceX is burning money hand over fist, lying about the price of its launches and losing money on them. It’s a “disruptive start up” and it’s not uncommon for this kind of business to over-hype its product while burning through huge amounts of venture capital money. They do this either because they’re built on a completely unrealistic business model and refuse to admit it (Uber, Wework, and Theranos are examples of this); or they hope to smash regulatory hurdles to reduce costs and become profitable (AirBNB, Uber, Lyft); they’re straight-out fraud and hoping to burn through the money and no-one will notice (Theranos); they’re hoping to drive down the price so far that their competitors go bust and then they can ramp up prices before the venture capital runs out (Uber); they’re a business idea that depends on hype and people not noticing how awful the actual product is (AirBNB); or they’re hoping for a breakthrough that will suddenly render their business model profitable, or is the secret reason they’re doing it all (Uber’s self-driving taxi idea). It’s possible that this is what SpaceX is doing – keeping prices low and burning through venture capital in hopes of pushing out its opposition so that it can start charging monopoly rates, and/or hoping for a breakthrough in tech that will lower prices so much it can actually compete.

The history of rocket prices

Launching stuff into space doesn’t come cheap, and getting stuff up there is a big technological challenge. Humans have been launching rockets into space since 1957, and the general trend has been to see lower costs over time, with a noticeable hiccup in costs during the Space Shuttle era when the price of re-using the vehicle itself considerably inflated costs. Figure 1 shows the long-term pattern of prices for major rockets, and is divided into approximately four stages of development, characterised as Vanguard (when the first rockets were developed), Saturn V (when non-reusable rocket technology matured), Shuttle (when prices rose for the use of this orbital vehicle) and Falcon, when SpaceX started dropping prices. I took Figure 1 from a paper by Harry Jones, entitled The Recent Large Reduction in Space Launch Cost. I will recreate figure 1 with some changes later in this post.

Figure 1: Historical trend in rocket launch prices

Rocket launch prices are typically given in dollars per kg; figure 1 shows them in current 2018 prices (so early prices have been adjusted for inflation) but not, as far as I know, in purchase-power-parity prices (a few of the data points in the picture are from non-US sources; we’ll come back to that). Most rockets last for long periods of time, and the prices given in the figure are for the first launch date, not for example the last date, or tracking price over time. A good rule of thumb for a rocket launch is to assume it might cost about $10,000 per kg, and a typical rocket will launch 4000 – 20000 kg into space at a cost of between 50-200 million dollars. It’s not cheap to get shit up there!

But note the extremely low price of Falcon 9: it is listed as $2,700 per kg in Figure 1, which is enormously cheaper than the nearest competitor. Figure 2, which I took from a reddit post, shows different prices alongside the price of other rocket companies currently in operation – there are now a lot of startups in the commercial space industry, since Obama deregulated it in 2010, and these have been pushing their own prices down. In Figure 2 you can see a different set of figures for Falcon 9, with the reusable having a price of $4,133 per kg, and Falcon 9 divided into two kinds of launch (reusable and expendable). Figure 2 puts Falcon 9 prices to low earth orbit in a similar range to the Russian Proton M, or the US Vulcan rocket.

Figure 2: Launch prices for various rockets from a Reddit SpaceX forum

But as I will show, the prices listed in these figures are dishonest, and we will discuss the true price of launching Falcon 9. We will also analyze the data from Figure 1 in a little more detail, and see what we can learn from it.

Claims about SpaceX

The common claims made about how SpaceX has “revolutionized” space travel are available at booster sites like Space.com, which lists 8 mostly bullshit ways in which SpaceX has completely transformed space travel. For an example of bullshit consider their claim that it has made the uniforms fashionable … also note the uncritical reference to “German-American” rocket pioneer Werner von Braun (spoiler: he was a Nazi). In amongst the various nonsense we can find two main claims:

  1. SpaceX has reduced the cost of space travel, typically people giving unsourced claims that it has driven prices down, or using phrases that Musk himself constantly uses but clearly doesn’t understand like “by an order of magnitude”.
  2. SpaceX has developed completely new technology like reusable rockets which have both helped to push down the price of star travel and opened up new fields

Neither of these claims, as we will see, has any basis in reality. Incidentally, during this search for claims about SpaceX, I learnt that Musk claims to have spent 350 million dollars developing Falcon 9 and 750 million developing Falcon Heavy. I will use these numbers even though I don’t believe anything Musk says.

Methods

For this post I have performed three main analyses:

  • Analysis of SpaceX funding sources and costs
  • Analysis of SpaceX launch activity and prices
  • Analysis of the history of rocket launch prices

Here I briefly describe the methods I used for each of these analyses.

SpaceX Funding and costs

SpaceX obtains funding from launching rockets, Starlink subscriptions, government contracts, and venture capital. For launch prices I used the stated prices on the SpaceX website and associated forums, generally given at 62 million for a new Falcon 9 rocket and 50 million for a recycled one. Data on Starlink subscriptions I obtained from a website called nextbigfuture, for what that’s worth. I obtained contract information from a search on the govconwire.com website, which lists contracts and funding. Venture capital information I obtained from crunchbase.com. I put this data in mostly for 2017 onward (government contracts), 2010 onward (launches), 2016 onward (Starlink) and 2002 onward (venture capital). Note that some contract data is for “potential” contracts, which may vary in detail on delivery, but I wasn’t able to work out exactly how and when the money was delivered. For some obvious future contracts I did not include them as a funding source, but my numbers on government contracts are definitely shaky because of this.

For costs I used information on the total number of Starlink satellites launched from Wikipedia, cost of a satellite from nextbigfuture, and vague reports on Falcon 9 launch costs sourced around the web – about 50 million dollars for a launch of a new rocket, and 15 million for a reused rocket (these figures are attributed to Musk in interviews but seem dodgy to me). I used google to get the total number of current employees and their average salary (11,000 or so, at an average salary of $90,000) and assumed on-costs of 30%.

Note that SpaceX is not a public company and it is difficult to identify exactly how much money it has or is using. I do not know if it pays dividends on the shares it sold, what its rental or real estate costs are, how much money it is burning in fines and compensation, and any interest repayments on loans. This is only a blog post, after all!

SpaceX launch activity and prices

I obtained Falcon 9 launch data from Kaggle, though I think it’s just a scrape from the Wikipedia website. This data contains the date of the launch, the booster used, the client, the payload and its weight, whether the booster was new or used, and the result of both the launch itself and the attempt to recycle the booster. A small number of launches were classified launches for US government defense contractors, with no information on the weight or type of payload.

I also visited the SpaceX website and put in data on small payloads for their Rideshare plan, which confirmed that for all payload weights up to 800kg SpaceX charges $6000/kg, much higher than the sticker price and generally consistent with the prices in Figure 2 for other mature competitors. Not quite revolutionary is it …

Once I downloaded this data and did some unpleasant work importing it to Stata I produced some basic summaries of the data, such as mean payload weights, maximum weights, proportion of flights that were government contracts, etc. I also calculated a price/kg for each flight based on the sticker price of 62 million for a new rocket or 50 million for a recycled one, and also attempted to identify rockets that were new on launch and were not recycled (these would be “expendable” rockets).

Analysis of the history of rocket prices

I imported data from the Jones paper (it is provided in the Appendix) and added some additional information: I categorized rockets as communist or non-communist, and added some additional data for Falcon 9 launches based on the analysis of launch prices to give some more reasonable numbers for these launch prices. I deleted Falcon Heavy (which I don’t have launch data on and which seems largely to be vapourware at the moment) and made a fake data point for Communist launches in 2018 (these are still happening – China has a whole communist space station now!).

I then fitted a regression model of natural log of launch price per kg by year, with a term for communist/non-communist, generated the predicted values of price per kg from this model, and plotted curves for communist and non-communist launches. I plotted these against the observed price data and added Falcon 9 data separately. I ran the models and plotted for launches after 1961, because the first 4 years of the rocket program were, obviously, slightly special.

This gives a reproduction of Figure 1 with a little more detailed statistical analysis, with very different implications.

Results

The first thing I want to say before we get into details is that the sticker price everyone reports for Falcon 9, of $2700 / kg to launch into low earth orbit, is a lie, or at least very dishonest. This is taken from the SpaceX website description of Falcon 9, which states that it has a payload of 22,800 kg, and the common price of 62 million dollars for a launch of a new rocket. This is dishonest because it gives the payload for a fully expendable Falcon 9 rocket, but this rocket does not exist. No Falcon 9 is intended to be fully expendable, and if such a rocket existed it would need a separate production line to the current Falcon 9s in use. Reusable rockets need to be more robust and stronger than expendable ones, which means they have a different frame and fairings. This discussion of reusability makes clear that up to 40% of the payload can be lost in a reusable rocket due to the need to have a stronger structure and to keep some fuel for re-entry. You can’t just build a reusable rocket and use it as if it were expendable! This is backed up by the data – in 165 flights on which I have data, no flight ever flew at full payload, but there are multiple flights at a maximum value of 16,250 kg. The true maximum payload of the Falcon 9 rocket is 16,250 kg, not 22,800kg, and it will never fly at this value. In case you doubt me, note that all the max payload flights were Starlink deliveries, and it is just inconceivable that SpaceX would never use the full payload of their rockets to deliver their own satellites to orbit. The hard limit on a Falcon 9 rocket is 16,250kg, and the website is lying.

As we will see, this sticker price is also dishonest because in reality the rockets only ever fly fully laden when they are delivering Starlink satellites, and often the price paid by commercial buyers is much higher than 62 million. We will explore this below.

SpaceX funding and costs

SpaceX has been burning through money at a staggering rate. Here are my estimates of its income streams:

  • Approximately $7.5 billion in venture capital since 2017
  • Approximately $15 billion in government contracts since 2016
  • Approximately $3 billion in commerical launch fees since 2016
  • Approximately $3.75 billion in Starlink subscriptions since 2016

This amounts to about $4.8 billion in income per year. Its annual costs over the same period appear to be about $3.7 billion if we assume a recycled rocket costs 15 million to launch, a new rocket 50 million, and a starlink satellite costs $250,000 to build.

From this we should assume that SpaceX is making $1 billion per year in profit, if it has no dividend payment, interest or other expenses. Obviously this isn’t true (someone probably has to buy some stationery!) and maybe its other operating costs overrun this spare billion. But I think the story is likely dire. Why is SpaceX raising venture capital worth a billion a year if it is also getting enormous amounts of money in government contracts? I would suggest it is because it is losing money hand over fist on launches, which actually cost a half billion more than Musk is letting on, and/or rocket development (particularly Falcon Heavy and the Starship project) are costing an enormous amount more than he has let on.

Let’s also note that more than half of SpaceX’s revenue is government contracts. Without those government contracts, it would be dead in the water. Note that some of these contracts cover specific launch tasks, and almost always pay much more per launch than the SpaceX sticker price. For example, the Heliosphere contract pays 109 million to launch a satellite for NASA in 2024, while the cargo resupply mission to the ISS covers 32 flights for $14 billion (about $400 million per flight). Nobody in NASA seems to believe that the cost of a single mission is a mere $50 million!

SpaceX launch costs

The data on SpaceX launches covers Falcon 9 launches from 2002 to mid-2022, for a total of 165 launches. Of these 45 (26.5%) are aerospace/military contracts, and 52 (30.6%) are SpaceX flights, mostly delivering starlink satellites to low earth orbit (LEO) were they can vandalize the night sky in service of a poor-quality internet supply. Most of the flights (80.6%) used recycled boosters, and only in 12 flights (7.1%) was a new rocket used with no attempt to recover the booster – these 12 flights are the only ones that potentially used an “expendable” rocket. Of these 12 flights, seven were to GTO, which has a sticker payload of 8,300 kg. The maximum payload in those 7 flights was only 5600 kg, well below the sticker payload.

In fact most flights of the Falcon 9 have been far below its maximum payload. Figure 3 shows the mean, median, minimum and maximum payload by orbital destination for the 153 launches on which this data is available. No GTO flight has reached the sticker payload of 8300 kg, and the largest payload for LEO is 16250kg (all these flights were starlink deliveries, when the incentive and opportunity to use the maximum payload was greatest). Note the LEO(ISS) weights – these are deliveries to the International Space Station. Under the contract linked above, these flights are being paid for at somewhere between 100 and 400 million dollars per flight, giving a ludicrously high cost of – on average – between $20,000 and $85,000 per kg. This is potentially more expensive than the space shuttle, depending on the content and nature of the contract.

Figure 3: Mean, median, minimum and maximum payload weights by orbital destination, Falcon 9 flights to mid-2022

Figure 4 converts the values in Figure 3 to price/kg, assuming a price of $62 million for a new rocket or $50 million for a reusable rocket and ignoring higher prices for NASA or NRO contracts. These are to the best of my ability to tell the minimum price charged by SpaceX – in reality it is probably charging a lot more. For example on 30th June 2021 a Falcon 9 was launched that carried 88 rideshare payloads – this probably cost $6000/kg, judging from the website, and so the whole flight could have cost as much as $98 million. Even then, this figure is low compared to some of the low earth orbit launches, which could have cost as much as $360,000 per kg.

Figure 4: Mean, median, minimum and maximum price per kg, in thousands of dollars, for Falcon 9 launches to 2022

Figure 4 makes very clear that the sticker or theoretical price of rocket launches has almost no relationship to the actual costs, which can be much larger depending on the type of cargo shipped and the nature of the orbit it is sent to. This should be borne in mind in the next section.

Analysis of the history of launch prices

Figure 5 shows the price/kg of rocket launches from 1962 to 2018, with launches coloured blue for non-communist and red for communist states. Corresponding lines of best fit from the regression model are shown in the same colour, and some indicative Falcon 9 launch prices are plotted at the end in green. For indicative Falcon 9 prices I chose a) the median LEO price of $3210/kg; b) the optimum true LEO price of $3030/kg; c) a likely ISS supply price of $7,880/kg based on a $134 million contract; and d) the dishonest website price everyone quotes of $2,700/kg. We could also include $6000/kg, which is cited on the website for rideshares, but I forgot to, and can’t be bothered making this figure again.

Figure 5: Historical launch prices and modeled trends for communist and non-communist states, 1962 – 2018

As can be seen, the Falcon 9 optimum and some of its median launch costs are on the curve for communist systems, while the optimum ISS launch contract price lies just above the historical trend for US rockets. In fact, the predicted price for 2022 for the US system would be about $6000/kg, which is exactly the rideshare price that SpaceX cites on their website.

So in fact, far from revolutionizing the cost of launching rockets, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 is exactly consistent with the long-term historical decline in prices observed for launches from the US or its allies (mostly Japan). SpaceX have done nothing to advance the price of launches except to be there, commercializing a mature technology.

Conclusion

The final conclusion of all of this is that SpaceX are lying about the price to launch stuff into space on their rockets, and the media are uncritically repeating their fabricated price without checking its validity, comparing it with other prices available on the SpaceX website, comparing it with the prices that would be implied by SpaceX’s government contracts, or looking at the evidence from actual SpaceX flight data. The true price of launching stuff into space on a SpaceX rocket is likely more like $6,000/kg, more than twice the number they are citing.

Furthermore, this price is not a revolutionary drop in the cost of launching, and is in fact entirely consistent with the historical trend in US rocket launch prices. The best prices Falcon X manages to achieve are also not unusual, being simply normal prices for a Chinese or Russian rocket. The claim that SpaceX is doing anything special to drive down rocket prices is just more Muskrat hype, with no basis in reality at all.

It is also clear that reusability has not driven down the price of launches. Reusability incurs a payload penalty, since the rocket needs to be stronger and some fuel needs to be reserved for re-entry. Reusability is also not a radical new idea: the space shuttle’s booster rockets were reusable, and SpaceX’s sole advance on this 1980s technology has been to land them on a barge rather than beside one. This likely speeds up the time to return them to use, and slightly reduces the penalty incurred for robustness (since the rockets don’t need to resist the crash into the water) but it also significantly increases the amount of reserve fuel needed for re-entry. In fact United Launch Alliance (ULA), a SpaceX competitor, analysed reusability and found that it does not necessarily deliver much cost benefit for these reasons. There are formulae for the calculation of how many re-uses are needed for a recyclable rocket to be cheaper than an expendable one, available at the documents linked in this discussion board, and they suggest that in general it only reduces costs in the long-run by about 5%. So no, SpaceX has not revolutionized anything in this regard either.

So in conclusion, SpaceX is not revolutionizing space travel, it has not driven prices down at all relative to the long-term trend, launches with SpaceX cost considerably more than their PR suggests, and SpaceX is essentially a low-quality internet service provider with a side-hustle in military contracting, being heavily propped up by murky venture capital. Elon Musk is not, and never will be, anything except a scammer, and in future decades people will look back on how he was viewed in this period with confusion, scorn and disbelief.

The stars are falling through these broken skies

Like tears they dance across our opened eyes

One glimpse of dream

Has found me in this endless knowing

Threads past all the stars to make you shine

Two silver rings

That draw me close in careless motion

And dance across the depths of sea and sky

And nothing now could keep me from your side

Amhose, Warrior-poet, before her disappearance at the Battle of the Scarred Peak

[Editors note: this is a rough translation to modern Pelagic of one of the early essays written by Amhose, famed Warrior-poet and philosopher. She was not famous for her scientific or astronomical skills, but was well known for several volumes of work – some now lost – summarizing the theories and ideas of other philosophers, poets and astrologers, in a relatively objective (though one cannot say impassive) way. This essay is not her most famous, which most people commonly accept to be her love poems entitled Only if for a Night, but it is a clear and relatively modern perspective on what various philosophers, astrologers and other thinkers have theorized about the stars]

Prologue

We have all had this experience, or should have if we are to count ourselves adults and fully-formed souls in these difficult times: you wake in the early hours before battle, your lover’s bronzed skin a streak of liquid amber against the rugs and blankets of your battle-tent, flickering in the last light of the candle that was the last witness of your best exertions. Your mind is still, calm with the last langour of lust sated, not yet urgent and twitching with the sense of the coming battle. You stir, your lover murmurs some sweet words, but you are quiet, and anyway it is better to rest before the coming bloody dawn, so you slide out of bed and slip on a gown, wondering “why am I awake?” And as always before the battle you find yourself standing outside the tent, the first light of dawn roseate on the far horizon, the sun shard gone, its strange play of silver and faint blue-greens lost from the darkness. In its place the stars blaze, a million tiny points of light that could be just over your head, close enough to reach, or a bow’s shot away, or so far away that no bird or magic could ever reach them. Elusive points of light, purposeless, cold, so near yet so far. You have killed under their indifferent flickering light, they have served as props for some empty declaration of love that wooed a stranger to your bed, they have witnessed your quiet tears for comrades dead and lovers lost and secrets buried, though doubtless they cared not at all. Always there, silent, inscutable, unknown, unreachable. What are they? You stare at them as you sip your drink and the camp lightens slowly, inexorably as the dawn light streaks the sky pink and the storm clouds of distant battle gather in your heart.

What are they? Do they have a purpose? What can we make of them? I have wondered for years, and as I wandered this land I have asked many people – farmers, warriors, rimewardens, maidens, crones, old men in the market place and young men in my bed, Astrologers, bakers, beggars and lords – and I have learnt many theories about their strange, constant, alien beauty. Sadly the study of these stars is relatively new, having only begun long after we settled our peoples after the Harrowing, and mostly confined to the idiosyncratic interests of a few Astrologers. The dwarves use them for navigation but are reported to have a singular lack of interest in them beyond that, and although the elves are known to be able to communicate under the stars, there theories of the origin or nature of their friends in the sky are a mystery to humans. Is this by design or simply because of their lack of interest in humans? Regardless, study of the stars is limited and relatively new, and questions far more common than answers. Here, then, let me describe what I have learnt. Perhaps after I am gone – after we all are gone – someone will be able to make sense of the ramblings of many philosophers, and come to some ultimate conclusion about these elusive points of light. Or perhaps not. In any case, let us consider the folly of modern thought about this strangest and most impenetrable mystery of our lands and skies.

The facts

Abraxis, in his timeless work Logic and its Inquities, argues that before we even begin with first principles we should confirm and agree upon those facts which are incontrovertible with respect to the matter at hand, and those things that we can confirm and all agree upon with the evidence of our own senses. Only then, Abraxis argues, can we begin to build a theory of that which we do not know. Had Abraxis followed his own guidance he might have noticed what was happening between his young wife and the dairy maid, and would not thus have ended his life so when the truth was revealed to him that fatal day on the rocks above that part of coast we now call Abraxis Reach; but his own failings notwithstanding, his method is as solid as a steel sword in a firm grip. Let us then confirm some facts, and ascertain some basic details about what everyone agrees our senses tell us about this strange topic (by which I refer of course to the stars, not Abraxis’s failed love life).

We humans have lived on the Archipelago for 1000 years, but because of the Harrowing we lost all our knowledge of the time before we came here, and do not know where we came from or why we came here. Elves, dwarves and deepfolk lived here in grace and savagery before we arrived, but it is not known whether Wildlings and Changelings came with us, before us, after us, or were always here. Humans began to settle towns and cities permanently about 800 years ago, after the end of the Harrowing, with the help of elves and dwarves, and have been building a coherent, continued history for 700 years or so. During that time conflict with deepfolk has been constant, though it ebbs and flows, and I am unlucky to have been born at the peak of one of those flows, which is why the hands that write this text are calloused from sword rather than ploughshare. That lost 300 years of history have cursed us to an uncertain community: We do not know how long we were in the Archipelago before the deepfolk turned on us and the Harrowing began, whether one generation or several, and the reason the Harrowing ended and the story of how humans first settled permanent towns and cities is also shrouded in mystery, though we believe that it was done with help from the elves and the dwarves. The elves taught us stonework, the dwarves made us shipwrights, and the Wildlings taught us to fight. Now we have spread out across all the lands where they did not live, and naturally when we stand on those lands under the night sky we look to the stars.

The stars are a mystery, as is the sunshard. We can see them on a clear night, indicating that they must lie behind the most distant clouds, and they clearly generate or shine with light. Some stars are fixed in the firmanent, some move erratically, and some move in stable patterns that repeat over generations. Some, it is believed, are on stable patterns that repeat so slowly that we may have seen them only once since the Harrowing, and perhaps maybe those others which appear erratic are simply moving in patterns too slow or too complex to have been measured in the short space of human history. Stars have been known to disappear, but our catalogue of these tiny flickering lights in the sky is incomplete, and so we do not know if new ones are born. No one has seen a star during the day, but they can be seen when the sun shard is dancing. It is also known that elves can dream under the stars and share those dreams with each other, though little is known about the elven relationship with the stars beyond this. We can view stars with a telescope, but they simply appear as larger lights with no detail or further structure. So what are they, and what do great thinkers believe about them?

The theories

Let us immediately dispense with the most outlandish notions, for though we are here to discuss speculation we must not humour insanity. The scholar-physician Banu Delecta, for example, believes stars to be distant equivalents of our own sun, which may be warming other lands as our sun warms ours, and beneath which it is even possible other humans – or stranger creatures – live. We obviously reject such nonsense out of hand. Let us also reject also the stranger pscyho-philosophical musings, such as those of the idiot-savant Kanta, who believed that the stars are an extension of human dreaming, and that if we all willed it so we could eliminate night altogether, and live a lifetime of perpetual daylight. Kanta believed that the stars were a representation of all the souls of humanity, shining in the sky as they allowed their own fears and confusion to create a shroud of night over the earth. After 30 days without sleep, it is said that Kanta lost his own mind, and thankfully so his theories were lost to us in his mad apotheosis on the isle of Kaen. Dragons, perhaps, also do not accept preposterous theories of the universe.

So to more tangible explanations of the nature of the stars. Many scholars have proposed that they are fragments of our own sun, cast far across the sky in an ancient cataclysm that weakened the sun and left embers of it burning in the deeps of night. Some say this cataclysm accompanied or even triggered our arrival in the Archipelago, while others believe it predated that event and even predates the the arrival of elves and dwarves in the Archipelago, if indeed they ever arrived here and are not native to these shores. This theory explains the extinction of stars, which are perhaps embers burning out, and the strange movements of others – perhaps some of those embers are still careening though the darkness of empty space beyond our skies, spinning and tumbling in fire through the distant heavens. If so then one day they will all fade, and the sky will become a clean black slate. But this theory does not explain why we cannot see stars in the day, or why some of these chunks of light are not larger than others.

Analactia proposed a Two Worlds Theory, in which the darkness of the night sky is a shroud between our world and another, and our sun most also move around and between that other world, which is why it is not in our own sky constantly. Then, the shroud between the worlds is sometimes rent or torn or has tiny holes, and so we can see the light of that other world as the sun traverses its daytime sky, shining through the rents in the sky to remind us that our sun will return. This theory is complete in its own right, but it raises many questions, and in particular I am concerned to know when the denizens of that other world will find a way through the shroud of night, so that I must fight them. Others, such as the renegade Astrologer Zenobix, have proposed a many worlds version of this theory, though these are less attractive except in that they offer a wider array of opponents for me to one day face in battle.

A variant of this Two Worlds theory is the much-derided Two Levels theory. In this idea the world of the deepfolk is actually somehow removed from ours, and is a kind of inverse world in which our sun shines during our night, and the deepfolk are in every sense an inverse of us – cruel where we are kind, hating our day and loving our night while they love their day and hate their night, rich in steel where we are poor, and so on. In this Two Levels theory the land of the deepfolk is on the other side of the sky, not underground, and the tunnels where we find and fight the deepfolk are simply entries to the other world, and the stars are variously the rents between those worlds, or the ways in which all forms of immorality seep into our world through the thin veil that separates us. I have fought deepfolk above and belowground, and I am sure that they have no sunlight in the world where they live, so I do not accept this theory. They are horrible pale-skinned monsters who crawl beneath the earth in darkness and ordure, and that is all the philosophy we need to understand them.

Other philosophers, such as Nedia the Younger, suggest that the sky is a kind of realm of the spirit, and our souls become stars fixed in that firmanent after we die. In Nedia’s cosmology, the sun departs from the sky for half of the day so that we may see the souls that have left us, and when we sleep we draw closer to the collective memory of our ancestors. In Nedia the Younger’s celestial vision our dreams are a way of drawing collective wisdom from those who lived on this earth before us, and we inherited this practice in a weakened form from the elves, who are able to commune with their own ancestors in their dreams, and can use the firmament as a medium of communication precisely because they understand as a people that it is the medium in which lost souls are embalmed. Some have observed – often somewhat critically – that the elves have no such theory of their own souls (indeed, anyone who has fought alongside elves might be led to wonder if they have souls at all!), and others have pointed out that simple mathematics suggests that if this theory is true ultimately the sky will become a single field of brilliant light and we will never again be able to sleep under the burdensome brilliance of our own ancestors’ post-mortem glow. How will I be able to take a new lover when all my past lovers who died in battle (not with me (mostly)) are up there looking down on me? I cast my salt-thanks regularly in appreciation of tents, against the possibility that this theory holds any truth.

The Romantics claim that the stars are a remnant of our tears from the Harrowing, fixed in the firmanent to remind us of our suffering. This is why the three stars known as Sword, Sigh and Tear circle back to their fixed positions over the Archipelago every year at the time of the Harrowing, and why the stars burn brightest at that time. They are the permanent reminder of that tragedy, and also the reason that the stars stir in so many of us feelings of regret, longing, sadness and hope. The Romantics, of course, have idiosyncratic ideas about dwarves and elves, which might explain why their theory does not consider the pre-existing history of the elves and dwarves on this matter (but we all know that if the Romantics had their way, there would be no dwarves or elves). I cannot credit the Romantics with any philosophical or scientific depth, and in general consider their few remaining adherents to be good for nothing except cheap banter, drinking songs, and an occasional robust brawl. I doubt their cosmological theories hold up much better than their brawling skills, either.

My personal belief is that this is all nonsense. The stars simply are, they have always been in the sky and always will, sometimes changing and sometimes dying, sometimes fixed and eternal. They move on patterns of no relevance to our own lives, and any finding that a star or a constellation affects matters in the Archipelago is simply coincidence, or the result of humans fitting patterns of our lives to the movements of the stars. For example, perhaps during the Harrowing humans fixed the Sword, Sigh and Tear as a good measure of time, and decided to define a year that way, so that after the Harrowing was over the beginning of years was fixed to those stars, and they have no connection otherwise to our history of torment and exile. We are here, they are there, and the deepfolk are beneath us, plotting and scheming. So it is that I must put aside my pen, again, cease my reading and speculation about the nature of the heavens, pick up my sword against the one and only threat that faces all of us, and act on the only philosophy that matters – the complete and utter extermination of deepfolk. The stars will be in their fixed, cold movements in the heavens long after I am gone, and I cannot change that, but I hope the deepfolk will be dead and gone by my hand, in my lifetime, and that at the end of that great fight I can turn my face up to the stars’ cold indifference, show them the blood on my hands, and tell them that I do not care what they are because I am, I slew, and I won.

How it should have ended

I just finished reading A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear, an entertaining story about the collapse of a small American town by a local journalist, Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling. It was a fun and engrossing tale with a lot of good points which I really enjoyed reading, but ultimately it failed to live up to its promise, and here I want to explain what was great about it, and why it ultimately failed. Unlike many of my reviews, I think this one is mostly spoiler-free.

The book is a recounting of real events in the town of Grafton, New Hampshire, USA, between about 2004 and about 2018. Grafton is a small rural town in backwater New Hampshire, with a history of opposition to taxes, low property values and rural individualism, and in about 2004 a bunch of libertarian activists decided to take it over in what they called the Free Town Project. This project – which apparently once had a website and a dedicated political program – recognized that the town was politically vulnerable and potentially ideologically sympathetic to their goals, and decided to buy up land, move in, and take over politically. This mean stacking the school board, the local town council, and any other institution that they could democratically invest. They would then implement libertarian policy: defund local government agencies, remove any planning laws and zoning rules, and open the entire town up to the liberating effect of small government politics at its most extreme.

In the book’s telling, as a result of these changes the town’s social services failed, and in the chaos that followed the New Hampshire bear population overran the town, stealing food and terrorizing the locals, killing cats and livestock, and ultimately severely injuring several humans. The bears’ invasion of the town happened slowly, encouraged by poor trash management, ineffective local infrastructure, lack of regulations on how humans and the environment interact, and a breakdown of basic social order which prevented people from living according to common rules. In the book’s telling this is primarily the fault of the libertarian takeover, but I don’t think the book makes the case very strongly, and its disordered framework, combined with a lack of political sense by the writer, means that the libertarians get blamed for the much bigger, much more insidious problems that really drove the confrontation between bears and humans in this small town.

A light-hearted series of anecdotes telling a powerful story

The book is basically a loose history of the town’s last 10-15 years, hung in a fairly loosely-structured way over some key anecdotes from the time when the libertarians invaded. These anecdotes hold up the stories of several key figures in the town’s recent history, either libertarian invaders (like John Connell in the church), libertarian sympathizers (the Barbiarzes), or town residents with various relationships with the bears (like “Doughnut Lady” and Jessica Soule. These people themselves have interesting and sometimes complex back-stories, in some cases having their own part to play in other important historical events (like Soule’s connection to the Moonies). They are often given sympathetic and rich depictions, and their stories, though sometimes sad, are presented relatively objectively. The writing style is light-hearted and chatty, with frequent asides and a careful awareness of the perspectives of everyone involved in the story, including the bears. In this sense I think it is good quality journalistic writing, easy to keep reading and engaging. In between the anecdotes and character histories there are interesting discursions on the politics of the town and the state of New Hampshire, with broader political and economic context presented clearly and simply so that the information is easy to absorb and doesn’t distract from the fundamentally personal nature of the story. Even with obvious arseholes like Redman (or in fact most of the libertarians in the story) it tries to hold off from being openly judgmental or scornful, to the extent for example that the constant threatening, heavily-armed atmosphere of the town is simplified to the concept of Friendly Advice (capitalized), rather than depicted as an openly menacing wild west trashpit (which is what the town seems like to this reader).

This is good work, because what Hongoltz-Hetling is ultimately doing here is telling a story about how a bunch of dickheads walked into town, co-opted its political institutions, destroyed them, physically destroyed the town environs themselves, refused to do anything to help the town or each other, then upped and left the ruins they had created when the going got tough (i.e. when the bears came). They left behind them an elderly, poor and vulnerable population whose social services had been gutted, and whose gardens and roads had become, where they were still passable, dangerous bear-infested wilderness. And make no mistake, a lot of the people described in this book are quite unpleasant: the aforementioned Redman, who can’t shut up and can’t keep his gun in his pants; Pendarvis the paedophile who gets booted out early not because anyone disagrees with his stance on children, but because it’s a bit too publicly embarrassing; John Connell, who took over a 300 year old church, destroyed the local religious congregation and then trashed the church itself; and pretty much everyone involved in the Campfire incident. Other characters, like Doughnut Lady, were at best clueless and at worst actively dangerous, and nobody involved in this story seems to have any sense about how stupid what they’re doing is. It’s really a rogues’ gallery of idiots and arseholes, living in their own filth. Despite this – and the fact that the bears are the most endearing characters in the book – the book manages to keep you involved, and it really is fun to watch, like watching a car crash if the car was full of clowns or something. It’s definitely worth reading, and enough of a page-turner that I tore through it very quickly.

But, it misses the point: through a combination of poor structure and politically naivete typical of journalistic writing, it obscures the real problems in the town, and fails to draw the obvious and deadly important lessons that are there to be learnt if one looks at the story with clear eyes.

The problem of unstructured narrative

There is a timeline and a story in this book, which works something like this: in 2004 a bunch of libertarians took over the town, over time they ground its social services into the dirt, and by 2016 the whole project fell apart and they drifted off to take on other tasks, or died. But within this basic framework there are a lot of stories and events that aren’t clearly placed, and the narrative jumps back and forward in time a lot, so that it is difficult to tell how all the events relate to each other. This isn’t a problem for holding together a fun story (which it definitely does) but it doesn’t help to support the book’s central thesis. For example, it’s not really clear exactly when people turned up and when they left or why, or when exactly key events happened that we are supposed to take as indicators of societal decline or ursine growth. It’s also unclear when exactly the author met these people and where he gets his anecdotes from – it isn’t until the very end of the story for example that we learn he only met the Doughnut Lady in 2016, and it’s not clear how often he met her. A related story takes place in 2017, but somehow through the rest of the book we’re suppose to believe things happened much earlier. The story of Mink the bear (in Hanover) takes place in 2017-2019, while the primary bear situation in Grafton is supposed to have happened in perhaps 2012, after the drought, though it’s not clear. At another point the author pinpoints 2016 as the point where the bears got out of control, and implies it is a state-wide phenomenon, but in other places we’re led to believe it happened much earlier.

This wouldn’t be a problem for a standard story, but it complicates the narrative here because the author is trying to construct a tale of decline linked to the 2004 invasion, but can’t seem to put it all into order so that we can see the degeneration. My suspicion is that this is because the order doesn’t work, and it’s not the libertarians’ fault that the bears got out of control, though they may not have helped. There are bigger problems at play here, but the author has either failed to notice them or did not want to damage his story by telling it properly, and drawing out a darker, much more threatening and much less patriotic story, with much more frightening implications.

The problem of political naivete

In the beginning of the book the author devotes some space to describing Grafton’s long-standing anti-tax atmosphere and its feuds with state and federal authorities over this issue. In other parts of the book he describes New Hampshire’s lax attitude towards regulation and taxation – they have no seatbelt laws, no mandatory car insurance laws, and no sales tax – and at the end he notes the success of libertarians in local and state politics, which did not happen overnight. The obvious sub-text here is that Grafton has never had good social services because it has always been anti-taxation. It has always been poor, and its land values are low, and it has always had poor social services because its residents have always refused to fund them. The libertarians kicked this along a little – probably the Grafton residents by themselves wouldn’t have voted to defund streetlights, for example – but it was always there. And this accelerated defunding of public services comes against the backdrop of a state that refuses taxes, and has the motto Live Free or Die. The problem here isn’t a few libertarians taking over a town, but an entire state that has a long history of libertarian ideology, and more broadly a nation that won’t support social services and won’t accept social responsibility or regulation. Bears are a problem throughout New Hampshire, because Americans refuse to take social responsibility or work together to solve problems, as is now abundantly clear from their absolutely appalling response to coronavirus. The defunding of public services in Grafton is a result of a much longer, slower and more ubiquitous pattern of anti-government, “individualistic” politics that is common throughout the country. It’s just more noticeable in Grafton because Grafton is a poor town in a rich state, and these problems always affect the poor first. That’s why Grafton was dealing with bear attacks on humans in 2012, while Hanover (the rich town that is home to Dartmouth College) only started to notice them after 2017. That’s also why the libertarians targeted Grafton in the first place – they would fail to overturn political structures in a richer and better-connected town, and they guessed that when they arrived.

This isn’t just about a small town either. The behavior of Grafton residents was a microcosm of America’s approach to global warming. They knew what they were doing would cause environmental problems but they kept doing it, and then when the problems began to become evident they refused to take the correct measures or work together to solve it, and then piece by piece the town fell apart. Essentially the people of Grafton became environmental refugees, leaving the town in large numbers since the first bear attack of 2012 and abandoning it to its poorest residents – who of course were then even poorer. This is exactly what is beginning to happen across America, as people who can afford to move abandon low-lying and vulnerable coastal areas or drought-stricken inland areas and move to more climatically viable areas. Yet even as people begin to suffer the consequences of a slow-growing crisis that they were warned about for years, and voted not to stop, they continue to argue against any action to either mitigate or adapt to the coming problems. This is Grafton in a nutshell.

But nowhere in the book does the author discuss this. He does not place Grafton’s libertarian politics within the broader context of Republican politics in America; he doesn’t relate it to climate change at all, or draw the obvious links between the small happenings in Grafton and the larger national and global issues we all face; he doesn’t discuss at all what in America’s culture drives people to this intensely sociopathic politics. He misses the opportunity to really interrogate what is happening at this crucial juncture in global politics. And in this sense he is perfect mirror of American journalism more generally, which consistently fails in its responsibilities, and boils huge global problems down to personality politics, cutesy anecdotes, and debates stripped of context, history or class struggle. Just as his book presents us with the failing of American politics in a microcosm, so his writing presents us with the failings of American journalism in its perfect, decontextualized essence.

This is an excellent book and a fun read, but ultimately it failed to rise to the opportunities the story offered, and is yet another example of the millions of ways that American journalism has failed its own people. Read it if you want to enjoy fun stories about idiots ruining their own lives, but don’t look to it for insight into the political challenges America faces, because that opportunity was missed.

We are now eight months into the coronavirus pandemic with little sign that most countries will be able to get it under control without a vaccine, which means that many countries are now attempting to return to normal while managing the virus. For most countries I predict this is going to be disastrous, and even countries that have not yet fully reopened – like France and the UK – are seeing resurgence in cases with the potential for a return of a major epidemic. But some of these countries are planning to reopen schools and universities in the Autumn, despite the risks, on the assumption that personal protective measures can contain those risks. I have expressed before my discomfort with personal protective measures, which will never be as effective at containing an infectious disease as good policy and robust treatment access, but this seems to be the dangerous path most countries have chosen to take. Given this, many universities are now trying to figure out how to return to in-person classes in Autumn, and many professors seem to want to do this. However, after a full semester of teaching entirely online I am unsure why there is so much pressure to return to in-person teaching and supervision. If we are going to move to a new normal I think we should consider the possibility that for some (many?) classes online is better than in-person, and here I would like to outline some of the benefits of online teaching and supervision.

Brief background

I teach classes in basic statistics, basic statistical programming, and some advanced statistics courses, to graduate students who are primarily mature age students working in health and studying part time. Here in Japan the first semester starts in April and in February I pushed for us to go entirely online, because I was working with Chinese colleagues on the coronavirus response in China and I knew how bad it was going to get. Our university already had a partially online component of teaching, to enable working people to take classes – basically students can choose to take an online or physical class for all of our required and many of our elective classes, and those who take the online component get to view recordings of the lectures, along with pre-recorded slides, and a slide set translated into Japanese. We have an online forum for asking questions and students can also join the physical class if they are taking the online component but able to get free time (this doesn’t happen much). Given our university already had this experience with online teaching it was very easy to switch entirely online and the faculty agreed, so we had about 6 weeks to prepare. This was a very good decision: many of our students are clinicians and some work directly in covid-19 treatment and care, so having them gather physically in a room is extremely high risk.

I originally planned to just switch the physical classes to the online component, upload last year’s recordings and use the lectures as a Q&A, but students don’t always have time for this, so I started teaching the classes in zoom (using slide sharing and so on), and I have found many aspects of lecturing in zoom to be superior to physical lecturing. I also reconfigured the statistical programming class to be done in zoom using breakout rooms. The statistical programming class was traditionally taught entirely physically, with me and two teaching assistants (TAs) running around the class answering questions and then reproducing errors on the teacher’s computer to explain specific problems that are relevant to everyone’s education. I could not physically do this anyway this year because I dislocated my kneecap in mid-February and had surgery in mid-April, but even if I had been able to, I found ways to make this work better in zoom. My students this year are learning more and better than last year, using zoom.

Benefits of online teaching

In my experience of first semester there are many aspects of holding classes online that are superior to holding them physically. In no particular order, here they are.

Reduced commuting: Some of my students join the lecture from their workplace, or from locations that vary weekly depending on their schedule. They don’t have to commute, so physically it’s much easier for them. Commuting in Japan is obviously high-risk for coronavirus, but it also reduces pressure on students if they don’t have to bounce from work to school to home. I think surveys in Japan have shown an overwhelming desire for normal workers to continue working from home and commuting is a part of the reason for this.

Better quality lecture materials: Nobody has to squint from the back of the room, or worry about audibility, or any of that stuff. They can see the slides clearly when I share them and can hear my voice clearly, plus can control the audio when they need to. The lecture recordings are also better quality, because instead of recording me standing there against a white screen in a dark room with dubious audio the students can clearly see the high quality of the slides and hear my voice directly in the microphone. This is especially useful for the programming class because it was very hard for students to read the Stata code on the lecture screen but in the zoom lectures it’s very clear

Disability friendly: We have one student who has mobility issues and would find getting into class very exhausting and time consuming, but none of this is a problem for them with zoom. Students also don’t have to suffer a one-size-fits-all computer arrangement for the programming class, and can use whatever ergonomic keyboard or weird screen setup they want. They can also learn in their native operating system and now I can teach in both – I have a mac and one of my TAs has a PC, so we can share screens to show differences (plus we can share students’ screens so we can learn how to work in their setup).

Full computer access: In the past I taught on a shared work laptop in a lecture theatre, or on the bodgy old PC in the computer room, with no access to my own full suite of materials. But now I have my entire setup available, so I can dig back through old files to show code I wrote years ago, or data examples that respond directly to a question rather than being prepared ahead. Obviously I could do this if I brought my laptop to the class but it’s so much more convenient to do this in my own office with all my stuff already set up (and it also means I can access external hard drives connected to my office desktop, etc). Students, too, can share the data they’re working with for their projects if they need to.

Shy and quiet students win: Asian students are generally shy and retiring and don’t like to ask questions but it is much easier for them if their face is not shown or they can do it in a chat window. Questions asked in chat can also be shelved and returned to later (since they’re written down where they can’t be forgotten) or answered by TAs in chat or by other students – in the programming class if someone asks a question we aren’t sure about one of the TAs can google the solution (or dig around in help files) and post the answer in chat while I continue managing the class. I think this makes Q&A better, and also encourages more class involvement by shy or quiet students. In my main stats class this isn’t a huge problem (since it’s just straight lectures) but even there being able to hide your face and/or voice helps shy, insecure, uncertain or scared students, all of whom can be found in a stats class. Also note that in a more interactive class a lecturer could strictly control students’ speaking time using the mute button, and I think in some systems can monitor how much students have spoken so that they can see directly if they’re allowing one student to dominate the class.

Convenience: Students can eat while they watch the lecture, can drink things other than water, can use their own bathroom when they want to, and can even sleep if they need to, knowing they won’t be caught out, won’t be embarrassing themselves in front of peers or lecturers, and won’t miss the class, since it’s recorded. Students are in general more comfortable in their own home or study or in the environment they chose for study, than in a lecture theatre with students they don’t know.

Recorded classes: My older students in particular find the recording of the programming classes very helpful. They have told me they review the same sections over and over while they try to figure out what to do for certain problems and tasks. Also for mathematics they can simply rewind and play again, which is a huge benefit for the slower or less confident students. I think the security of knowing they can’t miss anything makes it easier for students to take in the class, especially since it’s in their second language

Overseas and traveling students can participate: Three of our students were unable to enter Japan because the borders slammed shut the week before they were scheduled to arrive, and one more just slipped through. Given that most of our students are basically self-quarantining to avoid infection, two of our students are eager to return to their home country early so they can take these protective measures in a better environment. Online classes enables these students to continue studying even though they’re overseas. It enables us to maintain a diverse class even though we have pandemic border closures, and potentially in future to extend our classes to students who cannot get a scholarship and cannot afford to study in Japan. This is good!

Given these benefits, I’m not sure why people are eager to return to in-person teaching.

Online supervision and anti-harassment countermeasures

For me, supervising students usually involves working through statistical problems, often on a computer in my office. Last year I investigated ways to set up a shared, easily-accessible screen in my office so that we didn’t have to hunker around a laptop and more than two people could see a person’s work at a time, but the administrative details made me give up. This year of course that’s not a problem – it’s easy for me to supervise groups of students and share screens between them if I want. Nonetheless I still find in-person supervision preferable to online – visual and body-language cues are helpful for understanding whether someone understands what you’re saying, and somehow I feel something missing in online supervision that I don’t feel in online teaching. Also, in-person supervision can mean having a student down the hall who drops in and pesters you with the next stage of a problem on the regular, and this can be a very convenient way to get through difficult parts of a project quickly, but you can’t do this so well online. (You could, of course, just set your zoom on at 9am with your students logged in and working quietly and just use it when you need to, like a shared office – but we haven’t got there yet). So I still somehow prefer in-person supervision. However, there is one way in which I think online supervision is going to radically change the way professor/student and professor/staff relationships work, and that is its use in preventing harassment.

There are many forms of harassment in universities but one of the commonest is power harassment (pawahara in Japanese), in which a senior figure uses their power and authority to ruin the lives of students and junior staff. This is done through straightforward bullying – yelling, threats, insults and the like – as well as through things like taking authorship, demanding excessive work, refusing to share connections, giving unfair assessments, and so on. Things like sharing connections are the sorts of subtle power relations that can never be fought effectively, but the bullying aspects of power harassment take on a very different tone when all meetings need to be conducted online. I was myself bullied by a boss for years, and when I made a formal complaint against him a big problem I had was that much of his behavior – the threats to sack me, the unreasonable demands, the unfair statements about my work and personality, the threats towards my students – was verbal and not recorded, so in the formal complaint this became a case of my word against his. I won that complaint but it was a long slog and the outcome was not as good as I had hoped because the entire part of my complaint about his manners and inter-personal behavior could not be confirmed. This isn’t a problem when your relationships are done through zoom, and it will completely change the balance of power, for the following reasons.

The bully cannot get the same pleasure online: Bullies do what they do for personal pleasure and to bolster their own fragile personalities, so they need a reaction. Sure they do a lot of stuff that has no visible response – threatening emails, yelling over the phone, bitching about you to others – but none of this means anything to them if they can’t also hurt you visibly and viscerally enjoy the pleasure of watching you collapse. This pleasure is obviously going to be reduced if it’s done through a camera but worse still, on zoom you can turn off your own camera and mute yourself and they simply cannot get any pleasure from their words at all. They can try and force you to turn your camera and mic on but you are the one who controls your computer’s settings, and they cannot enjoy bullying as much. If it doesn’t make them feel better they’ll still do it – bullies are bullies after all – but they will have less personal incentive to do it and maybe, just maybe, as a result they won’t do it as much. Also, obviously, the bully cannot do the physical things bullies love – throwing small office objects, throwing paper at you, pushing you or touching you.

Bullies hate to be recorded: This is the real killer for a bully. Bullies always know how power works and are very aware of the risks of power being used against them. This is why the threats and insults are much more commonly and forcefully delivered in person, away from witnesses and not in writing. If you can record your meetings with your boss then he or she is going to have to be super careful about what he or she says, and even if the bully can stop you from recording the zoom session itself they cannot stop you putting your phone next to the speaker and hitting record. The threats to sack me always happened in unplanned ad hoc meetings where I did not have time to surreptitiously bring in my phone and hit record, and in any case it is hard to surreptitiously record people when they can see what you’re doing. But online they cannot guarantee they aren’t being recorded, and this means they will have to be careful. Furthermore, one of the responses a university might consider to bullying is to have a witness present at meetings, but the university cannot do this for ad hoc meetings, hallway interactions and the like. But zoom eliminates those meetings – all meetings need to be scheduled and can be recorded. So you can simply request during mediation to have all meetings recorded, and you already have your bully on a leash. It’s worth noting too that universities are going to be much, much more careful about dismissing bullying claims if they are aware that the recordings of the situation they determined was “not bullying” could end up going viral on twitter. I am aware for example of one famous economist who has a terrible reputation, but no one has ever recorded his rants. Good luck to him supervising online!

Witnesses: One of the great things about zoom is that you don’t know what’s going on on the other side of the computer. Even if the video is on and mute is off, a quiet witness can sit on the other side of the computer listening to the behavior of your bully, and stand as a witness in a complaint. Bullies often gaslight their victims, making sure they say derogatory things in private and then either denying them or saying that they didn’t mean it that way or that you misinterpreted their tone. They can’t get away with that if someone you trust is listening in and can tell what they really meant, and give you feedback later. This is a protection for strict or unreasonable senior staff who are not bullies, because that witness will potentially tell their subordinate that the behavior is unpleasant or unreasonable but not bullying. But for bullies this is a disaster. They can’t break your confidence in your own judgment if there are witnesses to dispute their gaslighting, and they can’t even know the witnesses are there. Also it’s much easier for a victim to strike back verbally if they have a person there offering emotional support, even silently – especially if the conversation is muted and the camera off so that the victim can consult with the witness about what to say. And of course you can have that witness occasionally drift by in the background, so that the bully suddenly discovers that the last 30 minutes of bad behavior may have been heard by an outsider.

Bullies love chaos and unstructured interactions: One thing my boss was fond of doing was barging into my office and yelling at me, or calling me into an impromptu meeting and demanding answers to things I hadn’t prepared for, or catching me after group meetings with unreasonable and unrealistic requests plus insults. Bullies love to have everyone on edge, never sure when they’re going to make demands or suddenly turn foul. Of course they can be erratic and chaotic in zoom meetings but they cannot just barge into your work and yell at you over zoom – they need to schedule appointments by email, and that means telling you what it’s about so you can prepare, or at least leaving a paper trail of failed information. Also when meetings are organized like this you can try to rustle in co-supervisors, colleagues and collaborators to diffuse the aggression – and of course you can schedule a witness to hover behind your computer.

Given these reasons I think online supervision actually takes a lot of power away from senior staff and puts it in the hands of their victims. With tele-working and home-based teaching and research becoming the new normal, I think there is a strong chance that even after the pandemic people will be able to manipulate the new normal to allow for greater amounts of online meetings and supervision, with the ability to get greater control over the environment in which bullying happens. If you are being bullied by your supervisor now, I recommend finding ways to turn the zoom meetings and lack of physical meetings into a tool to collect evidence on your mistreatment, and to gather support from partners and friends to help weather it. A couple of recorded zoom sessions with a powerful bully could transform a workplace harassment case, and especially the implied threat of viral attention will really serve to focus the minds of campus administrators on what to do about bullying senior staff. It is my hope that online supervision and telework in the new normal will revolutionize the way academics work and in particular will enable students and junior staff to better manage the misbehavior of unruly and unpleasant senior faculty.

Online conferences and virtual meetings

One thing I really hate about academia is the conference world. I think it’s a scam that was developed by a previous era of academics to enable international travel for free, and for a while it was great – people could go to exotic locations and take a break on the government’s money. But now that administrators have become aware of the scam and the grant money is getting more competitive conferences are a drag. Even very senior staff now are not allowed to fly business, are required to turn up the day of or the day before a conference and are not allowed to take time off before they fly home, and often have to present certificates of attendance or reports. I find conference attendance exhausting and distracting, and I don’t think it enhances my academic life at all. Shlepping halfway across the world to present a 5 minute presentation at a conference where 90% of the material isn’t relevant to my work, then going straight from the final day to the airport to shlepp all the way back, arriving the day after I left and having to go back to work the next day – it’s just an exhausting and tedious waste of time. The fact that it is relevant to our careers – that junior staff have to take time out from all the other stuff they’re doing to faff on the other side of the world without any pleasurable side benefits in order to pad their CV – is incredibly infuriating. And on so many occasions it is completely unproductive – if you’re not the keynote speaker at an international conference you’re likely to be presenting a 5 minute speech in a windowless room to 5 or 10 other people (3 of whom are from your work anyway) who won’t have any questions and may not even care about your work (5 of them are the other presenters!) It’s very rare that there is any significant interaction or anything productive arises from it. What a waste of time!

Online conferences, on the other hand, are great! You only have to attend the presentations that are interesting, you can do it as part of your day job, and because nobody needs to blow half their grant money on a plane ticket many more people will attend. My Chinese colleague recently attended one where she presented her work to 300 people, rather than the 10 people she would expect at a physical conference – and she did it from her bedroom! This means that way more people see your work, there is much more interaction as a result, time limits can be strictly adhered to, people without grant money or from poorer universities can attend, students can attend … it’s a huge win. I hope that in the new normal conferences will become a thing of the past, and will be recognized as the wasteful scam that they were. Let’s make all our conferences online and save physical work travel for actually meaningful trips to do real work!

Conclusion: Online teaching is great

I have been raised to think of online learning as a scam, a way for unscrupulous universities to fleece low-quality students for second rate degrees. But in the modern world of high connectivity and good quality shared work apps, I think we can move past this and begin to see a way to improve our teaching using the online tools available to us. We can make our classes more inclusive, more interactive and more engaging, and we can find new ways to teach hard topics, using the online tools available to us. We can also change the nature of workplace meetings and hopefully even begin to make real progress on eliminating bullying. And we can finally do away with the ludicrous scam of physical conferences, which will enable us to use our grant money more effectively and get our work out to a wider range of people than we have in the past. Let’s embrace this new normal and use it to make our teaching genuinely inclusive and higher quality!

Today’s looming disaster

Where I live in Japan mask-wearing is now pretty much universal – almost no one goes out in public and to see someone without a mask on in public is a kind of shock. The economy reopened after lockdown, in Tokyo, on 23rd May, on which date the number of cases had dropped to 5. Today the Tokyo Governor’s office released the daily update on COVID-19 (pictured above), and we have now returned to 107 cases, with the 7-day smoothed average hitting 65. Depending on how charitable you’re feeling that’s either a 21-fold or 13-fold increase in cases in 5-6 weeks. At its most charitable then we can say that cases have been doubling every 7 days. Today’s peak of 107 cases comes pretty much 5 days after the Tokyo government allowed bars and night clubs to reopen. All of the personal measures we have been asked to adopt – maintaining social distancing, wearing masks in public, and reducing our social interactions, have amounted to a hill of beans. In particular I think mask-wearing has been a completely useless strategy, and worse than that, I think the misguided possibility that widespread mask use will prevent transmission has led many countries to take unnecessary and stupid risks with reopening their economies. This is particularly tragic in the case of Tokyo, because Japan had a very good early response to the epidemic and Tokyo was down to just 5 cases when the government ended the lockdown early. One or two more weeks of actually effective strategies would have ended the epidemic in Japan but instead the government chose to begin reopening the economy early and rely on personal behavior change to prevent its spread.

This was a disaster, and anyone who understands public health should have seen how disastrous this idea is. Infectious diseases are never stopped by individual behavioral change or personal responsibility: they are only ever affected by social changes and policy. We know this from 40 years of responding to HIV, and in this blog post I want to explain how the terrible failures of the early response to HIV should have served as a warning about relying on barrier methods and personal responsibility for preventing the spread of the disease. What is happening in America was entirely predictable based on 70 years of public health knowledge, and it’s a depressing indictment of public health policy-makers that they did not do more to stop it.

The narrative of mask use and economic reopening

First let us examine the history of moves to reopen economies from lockdown and the heavy dependence on mask use to achieve this reopening. Some academics at Stanford University recommended mask use as a way to prevent further shutdowns after reopening in late April. In an April 22 news report the governor of Louisiana made clear that mask use was a key part of his reopening strategy:

It’s just like opening a door for them, or saying good morning or whatever it’s being kind and being courteous, and when others wear masks they protect you. So we’re all in this together. When we all wear masks we’ll effectively protect one another which is why I’m calling upon Louisiana to mask-up.

The governor of Georgia suggested mask use could help with reopening that state in mid-May. The governing.com website lists individual state’s reopening plans and makes clear that almost every state mandated, requested or advised face covering and mask use as a form of protection in sites that were considered high risk but were now slated for reopening. For example California has moved to Stage 2 of its resilience roadmap, and recommends

Crowded settings increase your risk of exposure to COVID-19. Wear a face covering or cloth mask, stay 6 feet away from others, avoid touching your face, and wash your hands when you get home.

Rather than limit access to crowded settings, the government simply advises people to cover themselves and take individual actions to protect themselves and others.

On 1st July Louisiana saw 2083 cases, a five-fold increase on the number it saw on April 22nd; Georgia saw 2,946, probably a 4-fold increase on mid-May; and California saw 6,497, a 3-fold increase over the number it saw when it moved to stage 2 of its “resilience roadmap”. All these states are now at the inflection point of a major upward surge in cases. All the personal responsibility and individual actions they advised to prevent the spread of the virus have done very little to protect their citizens from this epidemic.

The scientific evidence for masks and social distancing

On 1st June the Lancet published a systematic review of the evidence for face masks as a protection against coronaviruses. It found only 3 studies with quantifiable evidence of the effect of masks in non-health-care settings, and pooling the results of these studies found a 44% reduction in risk, which is shown in the figure above. While mask use in health care settings has a very large protective effect (70% reduction in infection, with a narrow range of effect from 57 – 78%), it is nowhere near as effective in non-healthcare settings, and there is little evidence to support it. This is why at the time of writing the CDC still does not suggest there is any evidence for the effectiveness of surgical masks, and why the WHO was unwilling to recommend their use during the early stages of the epidemic.

Why is there so little evidence and why would masks not work in public when they’re so effective in hospitals? The lack of evidence is because most countries don’t use masks in any disease-prevention way in public, and so it is very hard to conduct studies. The lack of effectiveness probably arises from the fact we aren’t trained to use them: we don’t know how to take them off properly or even which side to place on our face, we don’t treat them as single-use items, we often don’t carry spare ones so we need to lower them in public to eat and drink and then raise them again, they get damp and become ineffective because we wear them too long, we wear the wrong masks for settings with high infection risk, and we don’t combine their use with the regular, intensive and disciplined hand hygiene that medical personnel use. I have recently spent a week in hospital during lockdown for surgery, and the aggressive and disciplined pursuit of hand hygiene was noticeable and completely different to community life. If you don’t know how to use a mask and don’t practice proper hand hygiene it is not much use. Here are some examples of mask use I have seen in Japan, when commuting or wandering my suburb (in a mask):

  • A man pulling his mask down on the train so he can pick his nose and wipe it on the poles people hold
  • People wearing their mask pulled down so their nose is uncovered (so common)
  • People folding their mask up and putting it in their pocket or a bag
  • People putting their mask on a table or other unwashed surface and then putting it back on again
  • People putting their mask on backwards
  • People taking their mask off to use a shared microphone in a public meeting
  • People wearing masks to karaoke and taking them off to sing

It is of course also impossible to maintain social distance on commuter trains in Japan. I have also noticed that everyone complains that when they wear a mask their breath steams up their glasses, which means constantly fiddling with the mask and wearing it too loose. If your breath is getting out of your mask rather than through it, you are not protecting anyone and you aren’t protected.

Even if masks were 90-100% effective though, we still know that a strategy of mask wearing will not work. We know this because we tried the exact same strategy for HIV and failed.

The failure of barrier methods for HIV prevention

HIV first entered western consciousness in the early 1980s. It was initially identified in men who have sex with men (MSM) in America but the pandemic really took off in heterosexual people in sub-Saharan Africa, probably because it was already widespread by the 1980s. The first treatment was introduced in 1987 but the first really effective treatments, highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART), were only introduced in 1997. In the early 2000s HAART was discovered to reduce the transmissibility of HIV, meaning that people taking HAART were less likely to pass the infection to others even if they were having unprotected sex. This discovery came at about the same time as George W Bush introduced PEPFAR, a massive program of HIV testing and treatment in sub-Saharan Africa, and this widespread testing plus availability of a treatment that could render people non-infectious led to some gains in the battle against HIV.

Now that HAART is available the fight against HIV is almost exclusively based on testing and treatment, but until the mid 1990s the only effective strategy we had for prevention was condom use. Condoms are 90-100% effective in preventing the spread of HIV, and we ran aggressive condom promotion and distribution schemes in the 1980s and 1990s to encourage safer sex and prevention of HIV. Despite dumping huge amounts of money and resources into these programs in the 1980s and 1990s HIV continued to spread rapidly in both heterosexual communities in Africa and MSM and some other at-risk communities in the rest of the world. Condom promotion strategies did not work to prevent the spread of HIV even though we knew that they were highly effective tools for prevention. Barrier methods were all we had – our entire strategy was based on behavioral change and personal actions – and it failed miserably.

The same is also true of all the other STIs: gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis are all still widespread in heterosexual and MSM communities despite the sure knowledge that they are easily prevented by condoms. Indeed, these diseases are much more prevalent in communities that have easy access to condoms but poor access to testing and rapid treatment, such as indigenous populations in Australia or very poor communities in the USA. It is the structural factors of access to testing and treatment that determine the spread of these diseases, not the ability of individuals to take individual action to protect themselves or others.

Why is this possible? How did this program fail so monumentally when the individual preventive action it was based on is so well known to be highly effective? The reason is that sex is a social act, and social acts are mediated by complex social forces that it is difficult for us to navigate and control on our own. When people have sex they choose to flout social rules, they don’t always plan ahead, they are sometimes under the influence of drugs or alcohol or in a rush or not quite sure of exactly what is safe. Power relations are common in sex and can lead to people not being able or willing to negotiate condom use. Just as masks interfere with the ease and enjoyment of basic social interactions, so condoms interfere with the ease and enjoyment of sex, and people sometimes choose not to use them for this and other personal reasons. People also often make judgments about who and what is “safe”, and make these decisions with partial information in very emotionally fraught circumstances. And of course if you want children – a fundamental consequence of and reason for this social interaction – you can’t wear a condom. And so HIV spreads.

There are communities where condom distribution has worked but this is rare. It was probably partially successful among MSM in Australia, but probably because the campaign to use protection and beat HIV was explicitly tied in with the campaign for rights for MSM. It has been successful among sex workers, but this is because sex workers have no social incentive not to use condoms and have powerful tools at their disposal to enforce their own protection, and this is only true in some communities of sex workers who are strongly protected by cultural, social and legal norms that give them the social power to control their sexual interactions. There are many communities of sex workers in the world who cannot negotiate condom use precisely because these structural factors are aligned against their personal protective choices.

In contrast, we can identify a group of people who are at very high risk of HIV but have very low rates and among whom outbreaks of HIV are quickly identified and shut down: porn actors. Porn actors have large amounts of completely unprotected and often high-risk sex with multiple partners regularly, but have low risk of HIV. This is because they work in an industry with rigorous, regular testing policies that ensure that HIV cases are caught before they can become widespread. This is an example of how high-risk behavior can be safe if it is regularly tested and treated, but low risk behavior (for example among heterosexual people in Africa) can be dangerous if it is forced to rely on personal protective actions without the support of a health infrastructure.

Against infectious diseases, social and policy actions are always more powerful than individual actions, because infectious diseases are a consequence of our social interactions, not our personal decisions.

The difference between strategies and individual actions

Public health strategies obviously always rely on individual actions: we need people to report symptoms, to attend clinics for medical care, to comply with test and trace strategies, and to cooperate with the health system. Many of these actions can be guaranteed to happen under the right circumstances because they benefit the individual: if you can afford care, getting care is good for you, so you are likely to do it. But any policy which requires people to do the right thing in a burdensome way runs up against a huge problem: many people do not want to, or are not able to, do the right thing. This is why states have to mandate seatbelt wearing and introduce random breath testing to prevent drunk driving: the action they request of individuals is burdensome and unpleasant, so people won’t do it if they aren’t forced. The same is true of mask-wearing and social distancing, which is fundamentally against all of our social and cultural norms and obviously, objectively makes social interactions worse. Any policy based on requiring (or expecting) people to perform these actions is bound to fail, especially if no one is trained in how to do these actions safely and is not receiving the correct equipment. The policy is particularly likely to fail because the people who don’t conform will spread their virus in ways that people who are conforming cannot see and prevent (such as touching surfaces that mask-wearers touch).

A good public health strategy needs to take into account what people are willing and able to do, and not assume everyone will act correctly and in good faith. A policy which plans to increase risk in other ways – by reopening the economy – while relying on people doing these difficult and unpleasant individual actions to offset the risk is guaranteed to fail. And as we see in America, and now increasingly in Japan, that is exactly what has happened.

What does this say about the future of COVID-19 policy

There is only one safe and reliable way to control this epidemic: lockdown your cities until there are 0 cases, then reopen slowly and carefully with immediate and aggressive lockdowns as soon as outbreaks happen. Coupled with rigorous control of national (and sometimes sub-national) borders, this will ensure that states can get to 0 cases and stay there with minimal future risk. If every country proceeds on this basis we can slowly reconnect countries that have eliminated the virus, and reopen the global economy. But so long as governments think they can reopen the economy provided that individual citizens take reasonable actions to protect themselves in the presence of remnant cases, the epidemic will restart and countries will continually bounce between lockdown and tragic, fatal reopening. This does not mean that you should not wear a mask – as we saw above, they probably have some mild protective effect. But you should not – and your government should not expect you to – use it as the only defense against this virus just so that economies can reopen. In the face of a virus this transmissible and deadly, there is no way your individual actions will make any difference. We need to work together through collective action to destroy this thing. Until a vaccine comes along, our individual effort is meaningless: we rely on policy and social action to end this scourge. Whenever a government asks you to wear a mask to protect yourself and your friends, that government is asking you to take the blame for its failures. Don’t let it happen. Demand real collective action to end this epidemic and restart our lives.

 

Daniel Defoe is the author most famous for Robinson Crusoe, an awful story not worth reading, but he also wrote an account of the great plague of London, which I recently read. This plague was apparently the Black Death, which is spread by fleas of a rat, so it attacks more effectively in summer and requires different prevention methods to influenza. Daniel Defoe wasn’t present in London when the plague happened (just as he never was stranded on an island), but instead wrote his account based on journals and other notes he obtained from his uncle. I suspect his account is not especially reliable, though I think he may have gained more raw material for his book than just that of his uncle, but it remains one of the few surviving accounts of the time, so it is worth considering, and in many respects this book shows us that the UK is making the same mistakes in dealing with Coronavirus that it made 350 years ago dealing with plague. Responding to pandemics is actually theoretically quite easy, though politically the necessary measures can be unpalatable; Defoe’s report shows us that the UK government has learnt nothing from 350 years of experience.

Ignoring the coming wave

One of the more common pieces of misinformation about Coronavirus is that the Chinese government hid information about the disease. This is far from true: in fact by mid-January the Chinese government was yelling from the rooftops about how dangerous this virus was, and trying to warn the whole world to be ready. On 23rd January they did something almost unprecedented in human history, closing a city of 12 million people to stop the spread of the virus. Nobody in Europe or the Americas bothered to listen to these widely-broadcast warnings, and in mid-February the pandemic spread to Italy, where it exploded. By mid-March the rest of Europe and the US finally realized – when white people were dying – that Chinese warnings were serious, but by then it was too late and the virus was wreaking havoc in the UK and much of Europe. The same happened in Defoe’s account of London. The plague was wreaking havoc in the Netherlands in the 1660s but action to stop it entering London was late and weak, even though everyone in Europe knew how bad it could be, and so in 1664 the first cases reached London. By summer it was widespread and killing thousands a week. The British government had been given plenty of warning but they let it in, and after it got in they did nothing to stop it.

Failure of Case Isolation

Daniel Defoe spends most of the book complaining about the policy of shuttering houses, in which houses with even one plague victim were locked shut and guarded by hired guards until everyone inside either died or recovered. He recounts many stories about the horrors of shuttered houses, and also the efforts residents made to escape, including burrowing through walls and attempting to kill their guards. This is the 17th century version of self-isolation, and just as with coronavirus, it did not work. Self-isolation in crowded living quarters – such as were common in London in 1665, and are common in London now – simply ensures that each case infects everyone in their house. It guarantees that the reproduction number of the disease is not the natural number of the virus, but the household size of the affected community. Instead case isolation, in which infected people are separated from the community, is much more effective to prevent the spread. For coronavirus case isolation was the standard response in Asia, which is why China, South Korea, Japan, Vietnam and Thailand were so much better able to manage this virus than the Europeans. Defoe notes this failure, as we see here:

In 350 years the British have learnt nothing about how to handle a serious epidemic, to the extent that they have done worse than the government of Charles II. While the city of London in 1665 organized inadequate numbers of “pest-houses”, in 2020 they couldn’t organize any, and the epidemic raged in “shuttered houses”, which Defoe deplored (though for the wrong reasons).

The impact of austerity and poor choices

Defoe also comments on the city of London’s priorities about spending money. He notes that people need to stay inside, and in particular that many people who work on day labour (yes, zero-hour contracts are not new in the UK) cannot stop working without some independent source of money, and talks about the need for the government to support people’s housing costs. But he notes that the government was much less interested in supporting the basic needs of poor people during the epidemic, than they were in vanity projects after:

Clearly, priorities have not changed much in the 350 years since the plague. If only there were another political party with a coherent project to change the spending priorities of the British government, who could have been elected to government just before the epidemic hit…

The frenzy of reopening

We are now seeing Europe and the English speaking world reopen, with tragic consequences in the USA and, no doubt, similar disasters impending for the UK. In Victoria, Australia, there is a new wave of cases brewing after reopening, and here in otherwise-sensible Japan the government ended lockdown a week or two early and is seeing a resurgence of cases it cannot stop. Experience around the world shows that the only way to be safe from this disease is to strangle it until it is dead – as New Zealand and China did – and then to be hyper-vigilant about importing new cases. Any attempt to live with it will lead only to catastrophe. But in their eagerness to return to normal life the people of Europe and the USA have failed to understand this and are now beginning to pay the price. Defoe noted this strange zeal for life in the last stages of the plague in London:

We can only sustain so much isolation and restrictions and death before we go crazy, a fact that has not changed since the 17th century. It is incumbent on us, then, to make sure that those lockdowns and restrictions are worth it. Many countries have failed to do that, either by making the lockdowns ineffective (as appears to have been the case in the UK and many US states) or by opening just a little early (as happened in Australia and Japan). Defoe understood this; it appears that 350 years later the British government does not.

History repeating as tragedy

We all know the quote, and it appears that the UK government has failed to learn anything from 350 years of experience of epidemics. Defoe’s book isn’t very good and it has a lot of ascientific nonsense as Defoe tries to understand the plague in terms of divine vengeance or weird theories of miasma, but even with that poor fundamental science background the people of Britain in 1665 understood that infectious diseases spread and certain things need to be done. They made mistakes in dealing with the plague, mistakes that are to be expected given their limited scientific knowledge. But Defoe’s book also shows that the secrets of controlling infectious diseases aren’t rocket science and have been known to us for a very long time. To fail to apply those well-known and very basic principles in 2020, with all our wealth and resources, is just a ridiculous failure of civilization. There is no excuse for letting this virus overwhelm us, as it is now doing in the USA and Brazil and will soon do again in the UK and Europe. We know what needs to be done and have the capacity to do it; failure to do so is simply a tragedy, with no excuse or justification. And Defoe’s book shows that some countries are going to repeat the mistakes of hundreds of years ago, as if the governments of those countries have learnt nothing in all that time. It’s a disaster, that even the man who wrote a book as terrible as Robinson Crusoe could have predicted.

I was very excited to discover Max Brooks, author of World War Z, has a new book out, Devolution: A Firsthand Account of The Rainier Sasquatch Massacre, and bought it as soon as it was released. It turns out to be excellent airplane reading (I went to Okinawa for a few days’ relaxation) and not so great night time reading, because it is a very disturbing and well-crafted tale. This is a review of that book, hopefully basically spoiler free.

The novel purports to be “found footage”, based on the journal of a woman called Katie who was part of a small alternative off-grid community deep in the wilderness outside Seattle. This high-tech community consists of a few rich oddballs living around a central common house, intended to recreate some kind of image of native American traditional community living while also merging the high-tech lives of the modern urban rich with sustainable living blended deep into the nature in which the community is embedded. There are only a handful of people living in this off-grid place, which is served by drone deliveries from Seattle, has solar power, methane fuel from human waste, careful insulation and water recycling, fiber optic internet, etc. It is serviced by one road that may get cut off in winter, and is intended to be completely self-sufficient once you factor in the regular drone deliveries. Katie and her husband are borrowing their friend’s home for a winter to reconnect or somesuch American bullshit, and as part of this conscious recoupling or whatever it is Katie is keeping an extensive daily journal of her thoughts and feelings (for her therapist of course!). The journal is supplemented by interviews the putative author of the book mixes in with the park ranger who found the journal, the family member who sent Katie and her husband to the shack, and a few newspaper or science articles. This is a bit of a challenge for Brooks to pull off since he has only really ever been able to write in one voice, a criticism I had when I read World War Z, but brave of him to try. The events are set in approximately now, obviously under a Trump presidency, with America involved in an intervention in Venezuela and already experiencing significant internal dissent, as well of course as the kind of anti-science and anti-public service cuts that characterize this particular period in American history. There is major civil unrest happening around Seattle at the time the story is written, which really makes it perfect reading for the current climate.

The first few chapters of the book are spent introducing the other characters and then the shit hits the fan: Mt. Rainier erupts, cuts off their path back to the city with huge rivers of lava, and wipes out just enough other local communities to create major chaos in the emergency response (which is already underfunded and incompetent). To make matters worse the community’s internet and cell connections are destroyed, and there is a strong implication that their drone deliveries are cut off because their drone took out a rescue helicopter. But this is just the beginning; as the characters are settling into the knowledge they may be cut off all winter and are going to have to get very creative with food, they discover something much worse: a small colony of Sasquatch (Bigfoot in the popular parlance) has been driven from their secret home in the slopes of Mt. Rainier by the eruption, and having had no food for days they settle on the people living in the little isolated community as their main calorie source. This is when the novel turns from a slightly ham-fisted exploration of rich urbanites’ insecurities and vanities to a rapidly escalating tale of survival horror.

Because this is a Max Brooks book the horror is interspersed with snippets of science and wisdom from various sources, so that we get a full and rich disquisition on the history of Bigfoot scares in the US, the possible genetic and evolutionary tale of the Sasquatch, detailed description of how primates hunt and kill each other and why, critical assessment of modern rich urban Americans’ obsession with anthropomorphizing and misunderstanding “nature”, and Max Brooks’s personal view of the role of survival and experience in shaping refugees’ lives in the US. These interludes are probably essential, because over the course of the middle half of the book he ratchets up the tension with excruciating care, taking us from hints of Sasquatch presence (stolen berries, a bad smell) to pitched battles in the middle of the community space. Because it’s found footage we, the readers, know approximately what is going to happen: we know that the whole thing is caused by Bigfoot and we know everyone dies. This, too, is frankly a relief – if you were sitting through the increasingly desperate and disturbing middle parts of the book hoping anyone would survive you would be close to an apoplexy by the end of this novel. The fact that it’s essentially an After Action Report means that we don’t get to find out exactly what happened to the author (since they can’t journal their own death) and so it enables Brooks to close off the whole story with a sense of mystery and a slight lack of fulfillment for the reader, which to me is perfect, since the story itself is so improbable and the possibility of anyone surviving so remote that leaving the fate of the group’s last member unexplained is a fitting end.

The strength of the novel is in this careful ratcheting up of pressure over its middle period, the growing sense of dread and impending destruction, and the reader’s helplessness as various members of the community completely Fail to Get It and make accordingly increasingly stupid mistakes. This is helped by the way that various characters either get it together or come undone as the intensity grows, though three of the characters go through changes that are too rapid and sudden to make sense (see below). Brooks supports this by quotes at chapter headings and a few interludes with references to other times in history or other peoples’ speculation about how events might have unfolded, which helps to get the reader engaged in the characters’ struggle even though they’re actually quite unpleasant people who you mostly just want to die. Which, of course, they do. Horribly. It’s quite satisfying but also very nasty, and although I’m not easily scared this book gave me the shivers by the time the tension reached its peak. This is good survival horror!

It’s not without its flaws though, primarily three: the pretentiousness and narrowness of some of the theorizing in the interludes; the clumsy and personally quite awful characters; and Brooks’s inability to diversify his writing voice.

The interludes involve a lot of speculation about science and evolution and group psychology and the conflict between humanity and nature that struck me as overly pretentious and often quite simplistic or weak. I also wondered if some of the facts Brooks presents are actually facts or just things he has heard and just accepted as true (I didn’t bother to check). This is a hallmark of his work in World War Z too (I guess worse in that book because fact-checking was harder back then and he probably had less support). I always read this kind of stuff as bar-room waffle, but it’s presented in this book as serious inquiry, and it’s a bit cringey (not very though!) Also he has this big problem of stereotyping cultures, which he does in the interludes and also in some of the character archetypes: one of the characters in particular is a survivor of the Yugoslavian civil war, a refugee of a particularly vicious part of it, and is obviously just Brooks’s stereotype of what a refugee from a war zone would have learnt about survival and human nature that has made them wise and resourceful and insightful, in a way that is a bit like if you could noble-savage a refugee. (Brooks always does this with Israeli soldiers, who also feature in the interludes in what I thought was the clumsiest piece of writing in the book). To be clear though I enjoy this kind of speculation and waffle even as I’m cringing, and somehow Brooks manages to pull it all off, which is why I guess I loved World War Z. I think it was a bit weaker in this book but it still really helped to pull the whole story together. The brief quotes and discursions on how and why primates kill each other, and how in particular chimpanzees hunt other primates, really sets the tone for the Coming Bigfoot Apocalypse, and serves as a forewarning of just how nasty the humans’ end is going to be; and when the humans start going primal it also serves to orient them as just another kind of primate cast back into a bigger evolutionary game. So though occasionally cringey and quite possibly wrong or distorted, these interludes work really well to establish the framework for the horror. That is vintage Brooks.

The characters, when they’re not stereotypes, are just generically awful Americans. The lesbian parents of an adopted Bangladeshi child who’re so sensitive to her culture but haven’t figured out she’s Muslim (yeah right); the pretentious GRR Martin-esque anthropologist who’s a man-splainer and is wrong about everything; the mild-mannered vegans who can’t be convinced to harm an animal to survive; and Katie herself, the very perfect stereotype of a neurotic upper class white American girl. Ugh. They all need to die. You start the book knowing they’re going to die but you still can’t wait. It makes you wonder if Brooks designed them to make you want them to die, which may not have been a bad thing given how excruciating their ends are. But still, it would be nice if I could enjoy pop culture stories with actually nice characters in them! These characters go through rapid development over the story as the pressure of their collapsing civilization comes to bear on them but three – Katie’s husband and the couple who established the community – go through lightning-fast changes that don’t make sense to me. In particular the psychological changes in the owners hint at a much bigger back story to how and why they established the community, and in my reading of the book suggested some form of culpability or guilt for what happened, which Brooks fails to explore. This lets us down a bit, since some important characters just suddenly get slotted into new roles without any reason. I think this is meant to be linked implicitly to the concept of Devolution introduced in the title and the discussion of Sasquatch’s evolutionary niche, but that discussion is too tightly focused on the Sasquatch to work in the context of the humans’ changes until the very end of the book, by which time it is half-forgotten and buried under a frenzy of destruction and bloodlust. So some of these sudden transformations don’t quite work, but the new roles they get are great, so who cares, really?

Finally, Brooks’s inability to modify his writing voice lets him down again, so that everyone the curator of the story interviews sounds just a bit too close to Katie herself to be able to separate them from her. I guess Brooks isn’t aware of this problem, because if he was he might not write these kinds of curated multi-part interview/story novels, since it’s a recipe for having your own shortcomings found out. It doesn’t let the novel down in the end – I devoured this book like a Sasquatch on a psychiatrist – but it does stop it from being the pitch perfect masterpiece it could have been in the hands of a more capable prose-wrangler. Brooks is a great writer, capable of great plot and perfect timing, very good at establishing and changing mood and a very good judge of pace and tension, but this one thing he can’t quite get right.

Despite these flaws though this is an absolute barnstormer of a book. It is tense, gripping, vicious and callous, as all good survival horror should be, and it plays out perfectly. It’s a quick but incredibly absorbing read that will have you thinking back on it for days after, wondering “what would I have done” and “how would I have coped”, and marveling at the horrific monsters you would be expected to face. It’s an excellent addition to the horror genre for those with a strong stomach and iron will, and I strongly recommend it to horror fans and Brooks aficionados alike.

 

On Tuesday 26th May Japan’s COVID-19 state of emergency ended, five days earlier than expected and with deaths down to low double digits every day. The state of emergency was accompanied by a voluntary lockdown that started on 8th April for Tokyo and six other prefectures, extending to the rest of Japan a week later and ending in the rest of Japan a week before the lockdown ended in Tokyo. This means that the lockdown affected Tokyo for just 7.5 weeks, and the rest of Japan for about 6 weeks. At its peak the epidemic generated about 1200 cases in one day (on 17th April), dropping from 1200 to 30 in just 5 weeks.

In contrast, the UK essentially introduced its lockdown on 23rd March and is still slowly relaxing the lockdown. The UK lockdown was stricter than that in Japan, with enforceable restrictions on movement and activities[1], it involved the complete closure of many businesses, and it effectively lasted 3 weeks longer than Japan’s. At its peak the UK saw 8700 cases in one day (on 10th April, a week before Japan’s peak) and dropped much slower, only going below 2000 cases on 25th May – the same day Japan reached 30 cases. This is a quite remarkable difference in pace of decline: dropping by 97.5% in 5 weeks for Japan, compared to 75% in 6 weeks for the UK. These differences show very starkly when plotted, as I have done in Figure 1. This figure shows daily new cases in the two countries by day since the 10th confirmed case, using data obtained from the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health coronavirus tracker[2]. From this figure it is clear that Japan saw its 10th case much earlier than the UK (on 30th January compared to 24th February) yet experienced a much more gradual increase and a much more rapid decline than did the UK.

Figure 1: Daily new COVID-19 cases in the UK and Japan by day since the 10th confirmed case

Why was Japan’s response to the coronavirus so much more effective than that of so many other high-income countries? In this post I will explore a little the key factors that affected the Japanese response, what made the numbers grow so slowly and why the lockdown was more effective than in many other countries. In particular I will compare Japan with the UK, as a model of the differences between an effective and an ineffective response.

Figure 2: Health education materials are essential to good pandemic prevention

A timeline of interventions

Japan saw its first case on the 16th January, compared to 31st January in the UK. However, Japan took action sooner and more aggressively. Here are some key actions and when they were taken by each country.

The difference in public response to the issue of mass events is a key example of the quality of the response in the two countries. While the UK was faffing about with discussion about which responses to take, Japan was already canceling and closing events. My own work events began to be postponed in the last week of February, but so did major public events:

  • J league (soccer) halted all games on 25th February (170 cases)
  • Japan National Pro Baseball league held all preseason games without an audience from 26th February (189 cases)
  • Japan boxing commission and pro-boxing association canceled or postponed all bouts from 26th February
  • Rise kickboxing was canceled on 26th February
  • Sumo was held without an audience from 8th March (502 cases) (5 days after Boris Johnson bragged about “shaking hands with everybody” (51 cases))

In contrast in the UK:

  • An England-Wales Rugby match was held on 7th March with a live audience and the PM in attendance (206 cases)
  • Premier league events were held on 8th March with a live audience (283 cases)
  • Cheltenham races were held on 10th – 14th March (382 – 1140 cases)
  • League one games were held on 10th March (382 cases)
  • UEFA champions league games were held on 12th March (in Scotland) (456 cases)

The UEFA champions league match brought a large number of German fans to Scotland, and a week earlier I think Liverpool visited Spain and another team visited Italy, where the epidemic was already booming. These events had huge numbers of fans – 81,000 people attended the England-Wales rugby match, and many soccer games host tens of thousands of fans. In contrast, the only major event to be held in March in Japan that I know of, with an audience, was K1 on 22nd March, which attracted 6500 fans who were all given a mask at the door (and this event still attracted huge controversy and anger in Japan).

Because of the slow growth of the epidemic the lockdowns also happened at different stages of the epidemic. Japan’s lockdown came on 8th April, when there were 5120 cases; the UK’s, on the 23rd March, when the UK had reached 6600 cases and was already on a much more rapid upward trajectory. It took 4 days from the announcement of lockdown for the UK’s case load to double, whereas it took Japan 8 days. The next doubling took the UK another 4 days, and never happened for Japan.

Finally of course there is the attitude of the leadership: on 3rd March Sadiq Khan announced no risk of catching coronavirus on the London Underground, the same day that Boris Johnson was bragging about shaking everyone’s hand at a hospital (and thus caught coronavirus himself).

It should be clear from this that while in some cases the UK government acted with about the same speed as the Japanese government, in general the Japanese government acted when it had much lower numbers of cases than the UK, and implemented more far-reaching and aggressive strategies that were likely to have greater impact. But beyond basic actions on mass events and action plans, there was one additional major difference in the Japanese government’s response: case isolation.

Contact tracing and case isolation

From the very beginning of the epidemic, Japan introduced a system of “test, trace and isolate” that follows WHO guidelines for emerging infectious diseases. Under this system, once someone was identified as a likely COVID-19 case and tested positive, they were immediately moved to a nominated hospital into a special management ward designed for highly infectious diseases, to have their condition managed by specialist medical teams. This case isolation reduces the risk that they will infect their family, and prevents them from spreading the disease through basic daily functions like shopping if they live alone and cannot be helped by others. This strategy was also used in China and Vietnam, and it is a core part of the reason why the lockdowns in these countries were so much more effective than they were in the UK, USA or much of Europe. When a confirmed case of COVID-19 self-isolates at home they are highly likely to infect family or housemates, who will then continue to spread the virus amongst themselves and to others. This is particularly bad in cities with high levels of inequality like London, where essential workers live in cramped share houses and lack the resources to stop working even if infected. These people infect their housemates, who must continue working as bus drivers, cleaners, care workers or shop assistants, and cannot help but infect others. If the first case is quickly isolated, this reduces the risk that subsequent cases will be infected. As stressed by the WHO, case isolation is key to cracking this highly infectious virus. Case isolation early in the epidemic slows the growth of the epidemic and buys more time to scale up testing and other responses, while case isolation once the lockdown is in place helps to push down the number of infections more rapidly, reducing both the severity and length of the lockdown.

Case isolation was key to Japan’s successful management of this epidemic, but many people have suggested that the epidemic was controlled also because of cultural and social factors that make Japan more successful at managing infectious diseases. I do not think these played a major role in Japan’s response.

Japan’s “unique” social and cultural factors

Some have suggested that Japan’s culture of hygiene, its long-standing mask-wearing habits, and high quality public infrastructure might have played a role in slowing the growth of the epidemic. It is certainly true that Japanese people have a tradition of washing their hands when they get home (and gargling), wear masks when they are sick, and have remarkably clean and hygienic public spaces, with readily available public toilets throughout the country. The trains are super clean and stations are also very hygienic, and it is never difficult to find somewhere to wash your hands. Japanese people also don’t wear shoes in the house (and in some workplaces!) and often have a habit of changing out of “outside clothes” when they come home. But I think these cultural benefits need to be stacked against the many disadvantages of Japanese life: Japan’s trains are incredibly crowded, and everyone has to use them (unlike say California, which was much worse hit than Japan); Japanese shops and public accommodations in general are very cramped and crowded, so it is not possible to socially distance in e.g. supermarkets or public facilities; because Japan’s weather is generally awful and its insects are the worst things you have seen outside of anime specials, most of Japan’s restaurants and bars are highly enclosed and poorly ventilated; and Japanese homes are often very cramped and small. When viewed like this, Japan is a disease breeding facility, a veritable petri dish for a rapidly spreading and easily-transmissible disease. Japan’s population is also very much older than the UK’s, which should suggest further high rates of transmission, and from mid-February we have terrible hay fever which turns half the country into snot cannons. Not to mention the huge outdoor party that is held at the end of March, where everyone gets drunk and nobody socially distances. Japan’s work culture also does not support home working, in general, and everyone has to stamp documents by the hour and we still use fax machines, so I really don’t think that this is a strong environment to resist the disease. I think these social and cultural factors balance out to nothing in the end.

Differences in Personal Protective Equipment

I do not know what the general situation for PPE was in Japan, but certainly the hospital attached to my university, which is a major nominated infectious disease university, sent around a circular in mid-February describing our state of readiness, and at that time we had 230 days’ supply of COVID-rated gowns at the current infection rate, as well as ample stocks of all other PPE and plans in place to secure more. There was a shortage of masks for public use in March, which was over by April, but I do not get the impression that there was such a shortage in the designated hospitals. Japan also has a very large number of hospital beds per capita compared to other high-income countries, but this figure is misleading: most of these beds are for elderly care and not ICU, and in fact its ICU capacity is not particularly large. However, by keeping the new cases low and moving isolated patients to hotels once the hospitals became full, Japan managed to mostly avoid shortages of ICU beds (though it was touch and go for a week or two in Tokyo). I think in the Japanese hospital system the lack of ventilators and ICU beds would have become a major problem long before the country ran out of PPE.

Inequality and disease transmission

One way that Japan differs from a lot of other high-income countries is its relatively low levels of inequality. In particular it is possible for young people to live alone in Tokyo even if they do not have high incomes, which means share housing does not really exist here, and all the young people who move to the big cities for work mostly live by themselves where they cannot infect anyone. Although it is a very densely-populated country and houses are much smaller than in the UK, there is less overcrowding because housing is affordable and there is a lot of it. Most people can afford health care and have ready access to it (waiting times are not a thing here). This low inequality plays an important role in elderly care homes, where staff are better paid and treated than in the UK care sector, and less likely to move between facilities on zero-hour contracts as they do in the UK. There is a higher level of care paid to basic public facilities like hospitals, railway stations, public toilets and other facilities which ensures they are relatively hygienic, and cleaning staff here tend to be paid as part of a standard company structure rather than through zero-hours contracts, with good equipment and basic working rights. Also there is a much lower level of obesity here, and obesity is not as class-based, so there is less risk of transmission and serious illness through this risk factor. There is a very high level of smoking, which is a major risk factor for serious illness and death from COVID-19, but it is the only risk factor that is comparable to or higher than those in the UK. In general I think Japan’s low level of inequality helped in the battle against this disease, by preventing the country from developing communities where the disease would spread like wildfire, or having strata of the population (like young renters) at increased risk, or forcing increased risk onto the poor elderly as we saw in the UK.

A note on masks

I think masks are a distraction in the battle against this disease. I think most people don’t know how to wear them properly and use them in risky ways – touching them a lot, reusing them, wearing them too long, storing them unsafely, and generally treating them as part of their face rather than a protective barrier. I think that this can create a false sense of security which leads people to think that opening up the economy and dropping lockdown can be safely done because everyone is protected by masks. This is a dangerous mistake. That is not to say one shouldn’t wear them, but one should not see them as a solution to the more basic responsibility of social distancing and isolation, and one definitely should not drop one’s hand hygiene just because one is wearing a mask: hand hygiene is much more important for protecting against this disease. It’s worth remembering that on the days that Japan was seeing 300 or 500 or 1000 cases a day everyone was wearing masks, but somehow the disease was still spreading. They are not a panacaea, and if treated as an alternative to really effective social measures they may even be dangerously misleading.

Conclusion: Early, sensible action and strong case isolation are the key

Japan took an early, rapid response to the virus which saw it screening people at airports, educating the population, and implementing sensible measures early on in the epidemic to prevent the spread of the disease. The first measures at airports and in case isolation were taken early in February, major events were cancelled and gatherings suspended from mid- to late-February, and additional social distancing measures introduced in March. Throughout the growth of the epidemic the Japanese response focused on the WHO guideline of testing, tracing, and isolating, with case isolation a routine strategy when cases were confirmed. This case isolation slowed the growth of the epidemic and once lockdown was in place helped to crush it quickly. This in clear contrast to the countries experiencing a larger epidemic, which typically reacted slowly, introduced weak measures, and did not implement case isolation at all or until it was too late. Lockdowns with self-isolation will work, but as Figure 1 shows, they are much less effective, causing more economic damage and much slower epidemic decline, than lockdowns with case isolation.

Finally I should say I think Japan ended its lockdown a week early, when cases in Tokyo were still in the 10s, and we should have waited another week. I fear we will see a resurgence over the next month, and another lockdown required by summer if our contact tracing is not perfect. But it is much better to end your lockdown prematurely on 10 cases a day than on 2000 a day, which is where the UK is now!


fn1: With certain notably rare exceptions, of course…

fn2: I have had to do a little cleaning with the data, which contains some errors, and I think the JHSPH data doesn’t quite match that of national health bodies, but it is much more easily accessible, so that is the data I have used here. All case numbers are taken from that dataset, unless otherwise stated.

As I write this many countries are beginning to end their lockdowns and make plans to reopen. The UK has already begun to reopen, the US is opening state by state and much of Europe is beginning to return to work and play. Japan has ended its state of emergency in 40 prefectures, leaving the 7 hardest hit prefectures another two weeks of lockdown before they can resume normal activity. Different countries and states have different guidelines and rules about how to reopen, and are reopening at different stages of the epidemic. Let’s look at the circumstances in some of them.

  • United Kingdom: 2,400 new cases on 19th May, down from a peak of about 6,000 a day. A major epidemic still seems to be raging in elderly care homes, but people have begun returning to work. There is debate about whether to reopen schools, but some universities have decided to conduct the entire 2020/21 academic year online. Quarantine rules will be introduced for inbound overseas travelers from early June. Still recruiting staff to do contact tracing.
  • Germany: 513 daily cases on 19th May, down from a peak of 6,000 a day. Shops have reopened, Bundesliga has restarted without crowds and schools will soon reopen. The end of lockdown began on about May 10th, when there were about 670 cases a day
  • USA: 19,662 daily cases on 19th May, down from a peak of about 35,000 a day. States are reopening at their own pace with some being strict and some being very relaxed. Most states have ongoing daily cases in the hundreds, and there are signs that the decline in daily cases has stopped in states like New Jersey and Washington, or that case numbers are rising in states like Maryland, after seeming to plateau. In some states like Texas the number has been constantly increasing and the state is reopening after completely failing to stop the growth of the virus. Major problems with the testing infrastructure and large state-by-state differences in public health infrastructure.
  • Japan: 31 daily cases on 19th May, down from a peak of about 700 cases, with 5 in Tokyo. Only some prefectures are reopening, rules remain regarding mass events, schools have not yet reopened, and things aren’t going straight back to normal. Full reopening of the country is currently planned for 31st May but could be postponed if the trajectory changes

New Zealand, of course, began to reopen only when there were 0 cases. These countries seem to have starkly different ideas about when and how to reopen, with the USA and UK really nowhere near the bottom of their incidence curves, and still huge numbers of cases being discovered every day. Most of these countries claim to have pushed the reproduction number of the virus below 1, which means that they think the epidemic is under control. But what is the best metric for determining when to end a lockdown?

Metric 1: Daily number of cases

One way to judge whether to exit lockdown is the daily number of cases. You can calculate this as a percentage of your total active cases and from that estimate the amount of time it takes to double the number of cases, and if you think this is low enough you can reopen. Under this metric New York is ready to reopen, since it saw 1,474 new cases yesterday out of 353,000 total cases, which suggests a growth rate of 0.4%, which in theory should mean it will take another 100 days or more for case numbers to double.  By this metric Arkansas should be okay too – it had 110 new cases yesterday out of 4,923 existing cases, giving a 2% growth rate that suggests about a month or more to double. You need to show a little caution with this calculation though, because many states that have experienced slow growth in long epidemics have a large number of recovered cases. In fact in Arkansas there are only 1,184 active cases, so basically yesterday it saw a 10% increase in case numbers, which means the number of cases will double in a week. It should probably stay closed by that metric! But a lot of states don’t seem to be recording or reporting recovered cases. Also if we use the metric of not opening if your cases will take a week or less to double (say, a 10% increase per day), then New York now could open even if it had 30,000 daily cases, since that is less than 10% increase a day. But I think everyone would agree a single city opening when it still has 30,000 cases a day would be a bit silly.

Metric 2: Reproduction number

Everyone is becoming familiar with the effective reproduction number, Rt, now that the epidemic is all the news we can read about. Rt is the number of cases that will be generated by a single infected person. Rt measures this number over time, so it can change as policies change, and is slightly different to R0, the basic reproduction number. R0 measures Rt at the beginning of the outbreak, when there is only 1 new case and the population has no special measures in place. I estimated R0 for COVID19 to be 4.4, meaning that each case will generate 4.4 new cases. Because the disease has an incubation period when people are asymptomatic of about 4-5 days, we can expect those 4.4 new cases to occur between 4 days and two weeks after the initial infection, so we might expect that an approximate rule for this virus is that 100 cases today will generate 400 cases after a week, suggesting that unrestrained it doubles every 3-4 days. That’s nasty! But after policies are put in place we can drive Rt down to 1, and once it’s below 1 we should expect that the epidemic will begin to die out. This seems to be the primary metric the UK government is using – their politicians are always on TV talking about “the R number” and everyone is eager to get it below 1. The big problem with using Rt is that if you have enough daily cases, an Rt below 1 will still mean you generate a lot of new cases. For example, the US has 20,000 cases a day and most Rt values are near 1. If Rt is 0.8 then given the incubation time we should expect 16,000 daily cases after a week, 12,800 after two weeks, and so on. That suggests a half-life for the disease of perhaps 2-3 weeks, and it will take another two months to disappear. A lot of deaths will happen in that time.

Another problem with Rt is that once the economy opens we should expect it will go up. If Rt keeps fluctuating above and below 1, are we to keep closing and opening the economy? What if it’s 0.8 for a week, then goes up to 1.2? Do we close down? Or wait as the epidemic begins to spread again? If it is fluctating like this we may end up with an epidemic that is constantly varying around 20,000 cases a day: one week it’s 15,000 a day, then we loosen our measures and it’s 22,000 a day, and so on. Also there is a lot of uncertainty in estimates of Rt – if it’s 0.9 then in theory we are in epidemic elimination territory, but actually if the confidence interval is 0.7 to 1.1 there’s some chance we aren’t there at all.

Metric 3: Health system capacity

Unless we do as NZ has done and exterminate the virus completely before we reopen, we can be confident there will still be some cases when we reopen. In this case we will need to deal with them by testing, contact tracing, and if possible isolating the cases. Contact tracing one case when they’re in lockdown is easy – you just test the people they live with. But once they’re working and socializing one positive case will likely mean tracking down and testing 5 or 10 more people. This is hard work and it needs to be done quickly with a disease like this, especially if even a small number of people are asymptomatic but able to spread. Basically you need to find and test all 10 contacts and get their results back to them – and if necessary isolate them – within 4 days of the onset of symptoms in the index case, and even less time if the index case delayed presentation to hospital. This means if you have 500 cases a day you need to track 2500 to 5000 people daily, and potentially have to isolate 2000 of them. To do this requires a lot of boots on the ground and a lot of hotel rooms. Furthermore, the more cases you have the less room there is for error. If you have 5 cases a day and a 10% error rate in contact tracing you’ll miss 5 people, 1 of whom might be infected. With 500 cases a day you’ll miss potentially 500 people, of whom 100 might be infected. Those slip ups will help the virus continue to spread until it finds a super spreader like the Korean bar scenario (or in America, a meat packing plant).

To me this is the best guide for when to open: do you have the logistics to cope with cases as people begin to socialize and spread the disease again? If you have 50 cases a day and 500 contact tracers then you can probably handle it; if you have 500 cases a day and 500 contact tracers then it’s not going to work, and you’re going to lose control of the epidemic. Rather than judging by the rate at which the virus might double, or the reproduction number, you should look at whether you can rigorously and effectively stamp out every single case that could be generated after you reopen, and not ease your lockdown until you’re well within the logistic capacity to do so. That means looking at testing capacity, the number of people able to contact trace, your population’s willingness to share contacts and engage with health workers, your hotel capacity for case isolation, and your hospital bed capacity (and in-hospital infection risk!) for those you miss. If any aspect of that process could break, you need to wait.

Unfortunately, a lot of policy makers and politicians have been focused on the reproduction number, as if crossing the reproduction threshold will automatically end the epidemic. It’s an easy number to focus and gives an easy story to tell the press and the public, and it’s nice to have a target to aim for, but although a scientifically valid measure of the epidemic’s dynamics it is of little use in deciding how to deal with the epidemic. Much more important is the ability to control the cases you have, and a long term plan for getting rid of them, than a spot judgment about whether you “have the epidemic under control” based on a number that is both uncertain and ultimately not very practically informative.

The consequences of losing control a second time

The big problem with losing control of the epidemic a second time is that you have a lot more cases floating around than the first time it happened. It took the UK two weeks to rise from 152 cases a day to 4,500 cases[1], so if the UK opens up on 2,500 cases and loses control the consequences will be dire. If the week after opening up there are 2,000 cases, and the contact tracing misses 152 of them (<10%!), then in theory within two weeks the UK will be back to 4,500 cases a day. Furthermore, it will be much harder to go back into lockdown a second time, because the population will no longer see it as an effective strategy and it will be political suicide for any government contemplating it. Socially and politically, you can’t let this genie back out of its bottle. And although we like to hope that the population will observe social distancing rules and other niceties, in reality this will slide quickly, and if the cases aren’t under control by the time people return to their normal ways, another explosion will follow. This is without considering unknown and potentially catastrophic risks, such as school openings. The UK government is pushing to reopen schools because they say there is little risk of spread among children, but the ONS survey found much higher proportions of young people with antibodies in the community than are recorded in confirmed hospital cases. If the virus was quietly spreading in young people when it started at 1 case, how explosive will its growth in this cohort be if it starts from 2000 cases? These low-risk groups are highly likely to have many social contacts and to be an excellent infection vector for high-risk groups such as their parents and teachers.

Watching the data from the USA, I think this is already happening in some states in the USA now. Texas, Maryland, Minnesota, maybe New Jersey, North Carolina, maybe Tennessee are already beginning to see either growth or a distinct flattening of previous downward curves, and other states that are reopening like Florida and Wisconsin will likely see this in a week or two. I don’t think any of these states have the contact tracing capacity for the cases they are currently seeing, and they don’t have any plan to isolate cases, nor do they have well-functioning or affordable health systems. The same is true in the UK, which is nowhere near having its contact tracing infrastructure in place, and is playing with all kinds of deadly scenarios (like reopening schools and soccer games). I think this is partly because they’re fixated on Rt as the metric for reopening, partly because they’re incompetent, and partly because of political and economic pressure, but regardless, a disaster is in their near future if their health system capacity is not ready – and I think it’s not. In two weeks we are going to see the second wave hit these unready countries, and it’s going to make the first wave seem like a bad cold.


fn1: But it has taken 5 weeks to get from 4,500 back to below 4,000. This shows the incredible urgency of stopping this epidemic during its upward rise, not once it has really spread. The government’s faffing in the early days has made every subsequent decision harder, less effective and more deadly. The entire crew should resign immediately and hand government over to some adults to manage the place properly.

In early March, when COVID-19 was starting to spread in the UK, the government announced a strategy of “herd immunity” in which they would shield vulnerable people (such as older people and people with pre-existing conditions) from the disease, and aim to slowly allow the rest of the country to be infected up to some proportion of the population. This policy was based on the idea that once the disease had infected a certain proportion of the population then this would mean it had naturally been able to achieve herd immunity, and after that would die out. The basics of the strategy and its timeline are summarized here. This strategy was an incredibly dangerous, stupid and reckless strategy that was built on a fundamental failure to understand what herd immunity is, and some really bad misconceptions about the dynamics of this epidemic. Had they followed this policy the entire UK population would have been infected, and everyone in the UK would have lost at least one of their grandparents. Here I want to explain why this policy is incredibly stupid, and make a desperate plea for people to stop talking about achieving herd immunity by enabling a certain portion of the population to become infected. This idea is a terrible misunderstanding of the way infectious diseases work, and if it takes hold in the public discourse we are in big trouble next time an epidemic happens.

I will explain here what herd immunity is, and follow this with an explanation of what the UK’s “herd immunity” strategy is and why it is bad. I will call this “herd immunity” strategy “Johnson immunity”, because it is fundamentally not herd immunity. I will then present a simple model which shows how incredibly stupid this policy is. After this I will explain what other misconceptions the government had that would have made their Johnson Immunity strategy even more dangerous. Finally I will present a technical note explaining some details about reproduction numbers (the “R” being bandied about by know-nothing journalists at the moment). There is necessarily some technical detail in here but I’ll try to keep it as simple as possible.

What is herd immunity?

Herd immunity is a fundamental concept in infectious disease epidemiology that has always been applied to vaccination programs. Herd immunity occurs when so many people in the population are immune to a disease that were a case of the disease to arise in the population, it would not be able to infect anyone else and so would die out before it could become an epidemic. Herd immunity is linked to the concept of the Basic Reproduction Number, R0. R0 tells us the number of cases that will be generated from a single case of a disease, so for example if R0 is 2 then every person who has the disease will infect 2 other people. Common basic reproduction numbers range from 1.3 (influenza) to about 18 (measles). The basic reproduction number of COVID-19 is probably 4.5, and definitely above 3.

There is a simple relationship between the basic reproduction number and the proportion of the population that need to be vaccinated to ensure herd immunity. This proportion, p, is related to the basic reproduction number by the formula p=1/(1-1/R0). For smallpox (R0~5) we need 80% of the population to be vaccinated to stop it spreading; for measles (R0~18) it is safest to aim for 95%. The reason this works is because the fundamental driver of disease transmission is contact with vulnerable people. If the disease has a basic reproduction number of 5, each case would normally infect 5 people; but if 4 of every 5 people the infected person meets are immune, then the person will only likely infect 1 person before they recover or die (or get isolated). For more infectious diseases we need to massively increase the number of people who are immune in order to ensure that the infection doesn’t spread.

If we vaccinate the correct proportion of the population, then when the first case of a disease enters the population, it’s chances of meeting an infectable person will be so low that it won’t spread – effectively by vaccinating 1-1/R0 people we have reduced its effective reproduction number to 1, at which point each case will only produce 1 new case, and the virus will not spread fast enough to matter. This is the essence of herd immunity, but note that the theory applies when we vaccinate a population before a case enters the population.

What is Johnson Immunity?

There is a related concept to the basic reproduction number, the effective reproduction number Rt, which tells us how infectious the virus currently is. This is tells us how many people each case is infecting at the current state of the epidemic. Obviously as the proportion of the population who have been infected and recovered (and become immune) increases, Rt must drop, since the chance that they will have contact with an infectious person goes down. Eventually the proportion of the population infected will become so large that Rt will hit 1, meaning that now each case is only infecting another case. The idea of Johnson Immunity was that we would allow the virus to spread among only the low-risk population until it naturally reached the proportion of the population required to achieve an Rt value of 1. Then, the virus would be stifled and the epidemic would begin to die. If the required proportion to achieve Rt=1 is low enough, and we can shield vulnerable people, then we can allow the virus to spread until it burns out. This idea is related to the classic charts we see of influenza season, where the number of new infections grows to a certain point and then begins to go down again, even in the absence of a vaccine.

This idea is reckless, stupid and dangerous for several reasons. The first and most serious reason it is dangerous is that the number of daily new infections will rise as we head towards Rt=1, and by the time we reach the point where, say, 60% of the population is infected, the number of daily cases will be huge. At this point Rt=1, so each case is only infecting 1 other case. But if we have 100,000 daily new cases at this point, then the following generation of infections will spawn 100,000 new infections, and so on. If, for example, the virus has an R0 of 2, and takes 5 days to infect the next generation, then the number of new cases doubles every 5 days. After a month we have 64 cases, after two months we have 4100 cases, and so on. By the time we get to 30 million cases, we’ll likely be seeing 100,000 cases in one generation. So yes, now the virus is going to start to slow its spread, but the following generation will still generate 100,000 cases, and the generation after that 90,000, and so on. This is an incredible burden on the health system, and even if death rates are very low – say 0.01% – we are still going to be seeing a huge mortality rate.

The second reason this idea is reckless and stupid is that it is basically allowing the disease to follow its natural course, and for any disease with an R0 above about 1.5, this means it will infect the entire population even after it has achieved its Rt of 1. This happens because the number of daily cases at this point is so large that even if each case only infects 1 additional case, the disease will still spread at a horrific rate. There is an equation, called the final size equation, which links R0 to the proportion of the population that will be infected by the disease by the time it has run its course, and basically for any R0 above 2 the final size equation tells us it will infect the entire population (100% of people) if left unchecked. In practice this means that yes, after a certain period of time the number of new cases will reach a peak and begin to go down, but by the time it finishes its downward path it will have infected the entire population.

A simple model of Johnson Immunity

I built a very simple model in Excel to show how this works. I imagined a disease that lasts two days. People are infected from the previous generation on day 1, infect the next generation and then recover by the end of day 2. This means that if I introduce 1 case on day 1, it will infect R0 cases on day 2, R0*R0 cases on day 3, and so on. This is easy to model in Excel, which is why I did it. Most actual diseases have incubation periods and delayed infection, but modeling these requires more than 2 minutes work in a real stats program, and this is a blog post, so I didn’t bother with such nuance. Nonetheless, my simple disease shows the dynamics of infection. I reclaculated Rt each day for the disease, so that it was reduced by the proportion currently infected or immune, so that for example once 100,000 people are infected and recovered, in a population of 1 million people, the value of Rt becomes 90% of the value of R0. This means that when it reaches its Johnson Immunity threshold the value of Rt will go below 1 and the number of cases will begin to decline. This enables us to see how the disease will look when it reaches the Johnson Immunity threshold, so we can see what horrors we are facing. I assumed no deaths and no births, so I ran the model in a closed population of 1 million people. I ran it for a disease with an R0 of 1.3, 1.7, and 2.5, to show some common possible scenarios. Figure 1 shows the results. Here the x-axis is the number of days since the first case was introduced, and the y-axis is the number of daily new cases. The vertical lines show the day at which the proportion of the population infected, Pi, crosses the threshold 1-1/R0. I put this in on the assumption that the Johnson Immunity threshold will be close to the classical herd immunity threshold (it turns out it’s off by a day or two). The number above the line shows the final proportion of the population that will be infected for this particular value of R0.

Figure 1: Epidemic paths for three different reproduction numbers, with Johnson Immunity threshold

As you can see, when R0 is 1.3 (approximately seasonal influenza), we cross the approximate Johnson Immunity threshold at 44 days after the first case, and at this point we have a daily number of cases of about 40,000 people. This disease will ultimately infect 49% of the population. Note how slowly it goes down – for about a week after we hit the Johnson Immunity threshold we are seeing 40,000 or so cases a day.

For a virus with an R0 of 1.7 the situation is drastically worse. We hit the Johnson Immunity threshold after 23 days, and at this point about 140,000 cases a day are being infected. Three days later the peak is achieved, with nearly 200,000 cases a day being infected, before the disease begins a rapid crash. It dies out within a week of hitting the Johnson immunity threshold, but by the time it disappears it has infected 94.6% of the population. That means most of our grandparents!

For a disease with an R0 of 2.5 we hit the Johnson Immunity threshold at day 13, with about 140,000 cases a day, and the disease peaks two days later with 450,000 cases a day. It crashes after that, hitting 0 a day later because it has infected everyone in the population and has no one left to infect.

This shows that for any kind of R0 bigger than influenza, when you reach the Johnson Immunity threshold your disease is infecting a huge number of people every day and is completely out of control. We have shown this for a disease with an R0 of 2.5. The R0 of COVID-19 is probably bigger than 4. In a population of 60 million where we are aiming for a herd immunity threshold of 36 million we should expect to be seeing a million new cases a a week at the point where we hit the Johnson Immunity threshold.

This is an incredibly stupid policy!

Other misconceptions in the policy

The government stated that its Johnson Immunity threshold was about 60% of the population. From this we can infer that they thought the R0 of this disease was about 2.5. However, the actual R0 of this disease is probably bigger than 4. This means that the government was working from some very optimistic – and ultimately wrong – assumptions about the virus, which would have been catastrophic had they seen this policy through.

Another terrible mistake the government made was to assume that rates of hospitalization for this disease would be the same as for standard pneumonia, a mistake that was apparently made by the Imperial College modeling team whose work they seem to primarily rely upon. This mistake was tragic, because there was lots of evidence coming out of China that this disease did not behave like classic pneumonia, but for some reason the British ignored Chinese data. They only changed their modeling when they were presented with Italian data on the proportion of serious cases. This is an incredibly bad mistake, and I can only see one reason for it – they either didn’t know, or didn’t care about, the situation in China. Given how bad this disease is, this is an incredible dereliction of duty. I think this may have happened because the Imperial College team have no Chinese members or connections to China, which is really a very good example of how important diversity is when you’re doing policy.

Conclusion

The government’s “herd immunity” strategy was based on a terrible misunderstanding of how infectious disease dynamics work, and was compounded by significantly underestimating the virulence and deadliness of the disease. Had they pursued the “herd immunity” strategy they would have reached a point where millions of people were being infected daily, because the point in an epidemic’s growth where it reaches Rt=1 is usually the point where it is at its most rapidly spreading, and also its most dangerous. It was an incredibly reckless and stupid policy and it is amazing to me that anyone with any scientific background supported it, let alone the chief scientific adviser. Britain is facing its biggest crisis in generations, and is being led by people who are simply not competent to manage it in any way.

Sadly, this language of “herd immunity” has begun to spread through the pundit class and is now used routinely by people talking about the potential peak of the epidemic. It is not true herd immunity, and there is no sense in which getting to the peak of the epidemic to “immunize” the population is a good idea, because getting to the peak of the epidemic means getting to a situation where hundreds of thousands or millions of people are being infected every week.

The only solution we have for this virus is to lockdown communities, test widely, and isolate anyone who tests positive. This is being done successfully in China, Vietnam, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. Any strategy based on controlled spread will be a disaster, and anyone recommending it should be removed from any decision-making position immediately.

Appendix: Brief technical note

R0 (and Rt) are very important numerical qualities of an infectious disease but they are not easily calculated. They are numbers that emerge from the differential equations we use to describe the disease, and not something we know in advance. There are two ways to calculate them: Empirically from data on the course of disease in individuals, or through dynamic analysis of disease models.

To estimate R0 empirically we obtain data on individuals infected with the disease, so we know when they were infected and when they recovered down to the narrowest possible time point. We then use some statistical techniques related to survival analysis to assess the rate of transmission and obtain statistical estimates for R0.

To estimate R0 from the equations describing the disease, we first establish a set of ordinary differential equations that describe the rates of change of uninfected, infected, and recovered populations. From this system of equations we can obtain a matrix called the Next Generation Matrix, which describes all the flows in and out of the disease states, and from this we can obtain the value of R0 through a method called spectral analysis (basically it is the dominant eigenvalue of this matrix). In this case we will have an equation which describes R0 in terms of the primary parameters in the differential equations, and in particular in terms of the number of daily contacts, the specific infectiousness of the disease when a contact occurs, and the recovery time. We can use this equation to fiddle with some parameters to see how R0 will change. For example, if we reduce the recovery time through treatment, will R0 drop? If we reduce the infectiousness by mask wearing, how will R0 drop? Or if we reduce the number of contacts by lockdowns, how will R0 drop? This gives us tools to assess the impact of various policies.

In the early period of a new infectious disease people try to do rough and ready calculations of R0 based on the data series of infection numbers in the first few weeks of the disease. During this period the disease is still very vulnerable to random fluctuation, and is best described as a stochastic process. It is my opinion that in this early stage all diseases look like they have an R0 of 1.5 or 2, even if they are ultimately going to explode into something far bigger. In this outbreak, I think a lot of early estimates fell into this problem, and multiple papers were published showing that R0 was 2 or so, because the disease was still in its stochastic stage. But once it breaks out and begins infecting people with its full force, it becomes deterministic and only then can we truly understand its infectious potential. I think this means that early estimates of R0 are unreliable, and the UK government was relying on these early estimates. I think Asian governments were more sensible, possibly because they were in closer contact with China or possibly because they had experience with SARS, and were much more wary about under-estimating R0. I think this epidemic shows that it is wise to err on the side of over-estimation, because once the outbreak hits its stride any policies built on low R0 estimates will be either ineffective or, as we saw here, catastrophic.

But whatever the estimate of R0, any assumption that herd immunity can be achieved by allowing controlled infection of the population is an incredibly stupid, reckless, dangerous policy, and anyone advocating it should not be allowed near government!

Next Page »