Covid-19: My Current Model

The post will be a summary of my current key views on various aspects of what is going on, especially in places where I see many or most responsible-looking people getting it importantly wrong.

This post is not making strong evidence-based arguments for these views. This is not that post. This is me getting all this out there, on the record, in a place one can reference.

Risks Follow Power Laws

It is impossible to actually understand Covid-19 if you think of some things as ‘risky’ and other things as ‘safe’ and group together all the things in each category. And yet, that’s exactly how most of our thinking is directed.

Instead, think of risks as following power laws.

The riskiest activities are indoors, involve close physical proximity with others, while those for extended periods of time others cough, sing, puff or otherwise powerfully exhale, or talk directly at us, or we are in actual physical contact that then reaches one’s eyes, nose or mouth.

Activities missing any of those components are much, much safer than activities that share all those components.

Then other actions, such as masks and hand washing and not-face-touching, can reduce that risk by further large percentages.

Slight reductions in the frequency and severity of your very risky actions is much more important than reducing the frequency of nominally risky actions.

The few times you end up talking directly with someone in the course of business, the one social gathering you attend, the one overly crowded store you had to walk through, will dominate your risk profile. Be paranoid about that, and think how to make it less risky, or ideally avoid it. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

And think about the physical world and what’s actually happening around you!

Sacrifices To The Gods Are Demanded Everywhere

A sacrifice to the Gods (post of this topic to be linked in when finally written) is an action with physical costs but with no interest in any meaningful physical benefits, taken in the hope that it will make one less blameworthy. Things are bad because we have sinned. The Gods demand sacrifice. If we do not act appropriately repentant and concerned, things will surely get worse.

Once we act appropriately, we are virtuous and will doubtless be saved. We can stop. There is no need to proceed in a way that would actually work, once the Gods have been placated. Everything will work out.

If you don’t make the proper sacrifices, then anything that goes wrong means it’s your fault. Or at least, you’ll always worry it is your fault. As will others. If you do make the proper sacrifices, nothing is your fault. Much better.

If the action is efficient and actually were to solve the problem in a meaningful way, that would invalidate the whole operation. You can either show you are righteous and trust in the Gods, or you go about actually solving the problem. For obvious reasons, you can’t do both.

A steelman of this is that Complexity is Bad and nuance impossible. If we start doing things based on whether they make sense that sets a terrible example and most people will be hopelessly lost.

Thus, we sanitize packages. We stay exactly six feet apart. We wait exactly two weeks. We close all ‘non-essential’ businesses, but not ‘essential’ ones. We issue stay at home orders and give huge checks to the unemployed. Then we turn around and ‘reopen’ at which point that unemployment is voluntary, the state doesn’t have to pay, and so people are forced to go back to work. We lie to ban masks, then we try to mandate them, and wonder why people don’t trust the authorities. We hail our health care workers as heroes but don’t let them run experiments or gather much data. And of course, we enforce regulations enforce regulations enforce regulations, while shouting about how great and flexible we are that we waived a tiny number of them.

We must choose one individual intervention that solves our problems, rather than combining their effectiveness, because math is not a thing. And herd immunity is 75% infected, because math is exactly that much of a thing, but no more of a thing than that.

We also commit ritual suicide in the form of refusing to permit market forces, or to appropriately compensate those who would produce things for the things we need produced. But that’s more about general insane sacred values than it is about a true sacrifice to the Gods.

Yeah, I’m not thrilled with our completely dysfunctional civilization. Thanks for noticing.

A lot of what follows is spelling out exactly what these demands are, and why they fall into this category.

Governments Most Places Are Lying Liars With No Ability To Plan or Physically Reason. They Can’t Even Stop Interfering and Killing People

The police directly lying, attacking, restraining and killing innocent people rightly has gotten people very, very angry.

But the response to the pandemic hasn’t been that different, other than the lack of protests.

The WHO has lied repeatedly, to our face, about facts vital to our safeguarding our health and the health of those around us. They continue to do so. It’s not different from their normal procedures. WHO delenda est.

The FDA has interfered constantly with our ability to have medical equipment, to test for the virus, and to create a vaccine. All of this continues. It’s not different from their normal procedures. FDA delenda est.

Almost all government officials in America, and most other countries (I won’t get into which ones are the exceptions) have done the same. They’ve joined in lying about everything. They mostly act to demand sacrifices to the Gods, striking down actions until some of those restrictions will somehow have sufficiently appeased the Gods and they’ll look responsible and pious, and maybe everything will be all right.

Discussions don’t even consider telling citizens the truth about what’s happening, or giving them choices about how to react. It’s assumed that of course we should tell them whatever will cause the actions we think are right.

All such people are doing, is attempting to find the incantations that will move them away from being blameworthy in the next week or two. That’s it. Seriously. That’s it.

It’s all they still have the ability to do. Almost no one with the ability to model the physical world, or who would care about the implications of their model if they did have one, has any power or authority at this point. See the moral mazes sequence. Ironically some corporations (I won’t speculate on which ones here, but I try to hold their stocks) are the most powerful exceptions.

Hold them all in the contempt they deserve. Maybe even do something about it.

Silence is Golden

All the data I’ve seen, and my physical understanding of the virus, lead me to the conclusion that people who are not talking (and also not sneezing or coughing or singing or what not) are not going to give off much virus. They’re an order of magnitude or more less risky than someone who is talking.

Direction matters, too. Don’t talk facing someone else, don’t face them when they talk to you. Our ears can handle it. Same with volume, which should be kept to the minimum necessary under the circumstances. Singing or yelling is especially terrible.

This is a primary reason why when we finally look at the data, mass transit has not been anywhere near as dangerous as it looks, and many cities with extensive mass transit around the world have had reasonable outbreaks.

Surfaces Are Mostly Harmless

Early on, it made sense to be paranoid about surfaces. It was established that the virus could ‘survive’ for various periods of time. So if you want to be ‘safe’ you need to clean in some form, or wait that period of time. That reduces the risk to almost zero, if done properly.

Absent that, we are sent into a constant frenzy of ‘deep cleaning’ and viewing surfaces as deadly weapons that infect anyone they touch. Jobs are mentally ranked largely by the number of surfaces they require people to touch, and economic activity prevented if too many surfaces might be involved.

That level of paranoia might continue to make sense if this was ‘if one zombie slips past the line everyone dies.’ The precautionary principle is a thing. That’s not what we’re dealing with.

It’s been months. We don’t have concrete examples of infection via surfaces. At all. It increasingly seems like while such a route is possible, and must occasionally happen, getting enough virus to cause an infection, in a live state, via this route, is very hard. When you wash your hands and don’t touch your face, it’s even harder than that.

Meanwhile, those who refuse to touch surfaces like a pizza delivery box end up in more crowded locations like grocery stores, resulting in orders of magnitude more overall risk.

And yet, despite being this certain, it’s damn hard to stop sanitizing packages. And it’s even harder to be this forceful in writing. Because what will happen if I don’t make the sacrifices?

Screw it. Until I get very unexpected evidence, surfaces are mostly not a thing anymore. If lots of people touch stuff and then you touch it, sure, wash your hands after and be extra careful to not touch your face in the interim. Otherwise, stop worrying about it. Save that worry for where it counts.

Food Is Mostly Harmless

You do have to worry about eating meals, because it is something we do socially. It is an easy way to end up spending an hour indoors, in close proximity to others, while talking and otherwise interacting. That’s risky.

The food itself is at most minimally risky, even if it doesn’t get heated enough to reliably and fully kill the virus. You don’t have to ruin all your food. People are often avoiding foods that seem risky. Once again, it makes sense that it could be risky, but in practice it’s been months and it does not seem to work that way. The precautions people are taking will incidentally be more than good enough to guard against contamination of food at sufficient levels to be worth worrying about. I mean, sure, don’t eat at a buffet, but it’s not like any of them are going to be open, and even then the (also mostly safe) surfaces are likely scarier than the food.

As we covered in the section above, surfaces are also not very risky. Dishwashers treating restaurant plates like toxic waste is not based on a risk calculation, it’s based on our moral principles regarding purity.

Your risk is from the waiter, or from the other diners, being in that room with you for a while. Thus, takeout, delivery and/or eating outdoors.

Outdoor Activity Is Relatively Harmless

Note the downgrade from mostly to relatively. One cannot simply do whatever one likes as long as they are getting fresh air.

Outdoor activity does seem like a large drop in risk relative to doing the same thing indoors. My best guess is there is something like 5-10 times as much risk indoors versus the same activity outdoors. That’s with huge uncertainty, but it seems clear on multiple levels that this makes a huge difference. Whenever you can, if there are things that will happen outside your quarantine pocket, move those things outdoors.

The combination of quick and outdoors and not-in-your-face probably effectively adds up to safe, especially if you add in masks. During the peak epidemic in New York things were so intense that it would have been reasonable to worry about miasma. Now, I would do my best to keep my distance and avoid talking at each other, but mostly not worry about incidental interactions.

I do expect there to be a spike in cases as the result of protests and civil unrest.. To not see one would be surprising, and would update me in favor of outdoor activities being almost entirely harmless.

Also, we should be testing police officers every few days wherever there are protests and capacity allows it, and tracking which officers had how much close contact during those protests and which officers did things like wearing masks. No matter its other features, this is a natural experiment we should not waste, and also it will be important that the police not spread Covid-19 to the protesters or each other if such events continue. If we track carefully we can learn many things, like how much it matters for spread which protests were silent versus vocal.

Doing a block party, or otherwise socially interacting extensively, whether for fun, business or justice, is again vastly safer than doing it indoors, but still something to look out for. Nominally doing distancing during the event will help, but only partially. If it’s packed and you can’t distance, or people are talking at each other a lot without a lot of distance, or yelling or singing a lot, I’d worry.

Masks Are Effective, And Even Cloth Ones Are Almost Enough

Surgical are better and N95s are better than that, but even cloth masks on both ends of an interaction are almost certainly good for a 25% reduction in risk and probably 50%-75%. We need to reduce risk by about 75% on average to beat this thing, so such masks by themselves are close to being good enough.

This is one reason I’m optimistic about us getting a handle on things. Mask politics are a mess, because of the way it was botched, but I expect this to get sorted out gradually over time. Mask requirements are also a good way to tell which places are taking reasonable precautions in other ways.

Six Feet Is An Arbitrary Number, People Aren’t Treating It That Way, And That’s Terrible

A six foot rule is way, way better than nothing. It’s easy to remember and follow. If you had to choose a boolean ‘exactly this close’ rule, six feet apart seems about right. It balances ‘risk falls according to what is likely an inverse square law’ with ‘at some point people won’t obey the rule.’ And yeah, maybe people are not equipped to handle anything other than a boolean risk switch.

But then people go completely insane and think the six foot rule is real.

By people here, I mean almost everyone. Including when it counts.

Biden and Sanders debated with platforms exactly six feet apart. Waiting lines are six feet apart. Las Vegas marked out places to sleep in parking lots six feet apart. Restaurants will have to keep people six feet apart. Constantly, people do their best to stand six feet apart like they’re playing The Distance Is Right and trying to get as close as possible without going under. Sometimes with a tape measure.

If you think this is a straw man, and Everybody Knows the rule is only a rule of thumb, I assure you that you are wrong. It is creating a paradigm of magical safe-versus-unsafe binary thinking. Thus it is crippling our ability to think about the physical world.

Herd Immunity Comes Well Before 75% Infected and Partial Herd Immunity Is Super Valuable

See On R0 for details. Here’s the summary version.

People’s rate of exposure to others correlates super highly to their rate of exposing others to infection.

Different people take and create different orders of magnitude of infection risk.

Those taking more risk are proportionally more likely to get infected.

Therefore, it would be shocking if a 50% immunity rate via random infections didn’t by itself cut down on future risk by 75% or more, which is sufficient for herd immunity in most places. If anything it’s probably closer to 25% in most places.

Even if you don’t fully get there, such effects are additive with our efforts elsewhere. So if we’re close to the critical point in general, which seems right, even a little bit of immunity goes a long way – the first 5% infected has to cut down future risk by far more than 10%.

This is the most important reason why New York and the Northeast are doing so well. Our policies need that extra boost to get over the finish line.

That doesn’t mean we should use a ‘herd immunity strategy’ but it does mean that everyone trying to scare us with ‘we’d need 75% infected’ is either straight up wrong or a fear-mongering liar.

Yes, We Know People Who Have Been Infected Are Immune

Everyone saying we don’t know this is doing so to scare people, or doesn’t know how knowledge actually works. Usually both.

It’s true we don’t know how long this lasts, and it may expire relatively soon (e.g. a year from now). But anyone, such as the WHO, who claims to be an expert and says we don’t know this? Delenda est.

Our Lack of Experimentation Is Still Completely Insane

I don’t even see the need to bother explaining, at this point, why running experiments on willing subjects is a moral imperative and everyone standing in the way of it deserves a slow and painful death. That is all.

We Should Be Spending Vastly More on Vaccines, Testing and Other Medical Solutions

In addition to being the right thing to do to save lives, if you look at the stock market, it would obviously be the right thing to do purely to collect capital gains taxes and use that to pay off the additional costs. Again, we’re completely dysfunctional, and go around repeating rituals like ‘give away a few trillion dollars to help the economy’ without doing the things that would actually physically help, and worrying about ‘wasting money’ or ‘overpaying’ and other concepts that don’t matter even a tiny bit right now.

We can’t even, in a legal sense, get out out of the way of those actually doing the thing.

If we actually cared we’d have a vaccine within a few months. We don’t, so we won’t.

R0 Under American-Style Lockdown Conditions Defaults To Just Under One, Which New York Escaped Via Partial Herd Immunity

This Is Not A Coincidence Because Nothing Is Ever A Coincidence.

Whenever something lands almost exactly on the only inflection point, in this case R0 of one where the rate of cases neither increases nor decreases, the right reaction is suspicion.

In this case, the explanation is that a control system is in play. People are paying tons of attention to when things are ‘getting better’ or ‘getting worse’ and adjusting behavior, both legally required actions and voluntary actions.

When things are ‘getting worse’ we take ‘action’ by forbidding and forcibly stopping actions, and privately taking a mix of arbitrary and more sensible precautions, until we plausibly have things under control and cases shrinking. Anything beyond that, people won’t support.

When things seem to be ‘getting better’ there is escalating pressure to loosen up, to ‘reopen,’ regardless of current levels, until once again equilibrium is reached.

New York broke out of this, at least until Memorial Day, due to a combination of herd immunity and the memory of things being so bad. For a while its R0 has been around 0.73. We’ll see if that can be maintained.

The Default Infection Fatality Rate (IFR) Is 0.5%-1%, Depending on Conditions

A lot of things matter.

Age and comorbidities have huge effects.

Initial viral load probably matters. Small risks are even less risky than they appear, especially if you wouldn’t expose others who are high risk.

Vitamin D matters. Potentially quite a bit. But you probably have to take it before being infected, you can’t wait and then macro-dose, it won’t work the same way. Supplements are a good idea for basically everyone until this is over, especially if you might be deficient. You’re indoors all the time, it’s a problem, fix it with a pill.

Zinc probably matters once you’re infected.

Medical care matters. Total breakdown of medical care in practice leads to several times the fatality rate under regular circumstances. High quality treatment at current knowledge levels can probably drive death rates down further, so the ratio between full success and complete breakdown can be rather large – something like an order-of-magnitude difference between 0.2% and 2%.

I don’t have a strong opinion at this point about particular medical treatments beyond the above.

I’ve been using 1% death rates in my projections and calculations in order to be conservative, especially when dealing with New York. New York’s hospitals were at least somewhat overwhelmed at the peak. The death rate probably trends to be somewhat lower than 1% otherwise, but it’s not clear. America in general could be as high as 1.2% IFR without making the data stop making sense. Beyond that, a lot of things get confusing and other data needs to be increasingly off. New York’s data stops making sense below about 0.6% IFR, whereas in other places it could get much lower without anything breaking.

Typically in America, 33% of Deaths and 90% of Infections Are Missed

Those two numbers move in lockstep, of course, once you pick an IFR that you believe, and a model for how delayed are deaths and how delayed are infections.

Anyone who claims an over-count has an agenda to minimize things. Most who merely doesn’t believe a substantial under-count merely put stock in official numbers without thinking to adjust them, or think that without knowing the proper adjustment one should adjust zero, even if one knows direction and can guess at magnitude.

People Don’t Modify Behavior In Response To Re-Openings All That Much, When Given a Choice

Thus, Schools Are Going To Be a Huge Problem

Because that last bit of the first bold statement is important. When given a choice.

School is prison. Prisons do not simply release prisoners because they choose not to be there.

The good news is, while we did not have the compassion or good sense to release our (mostly completely unnecessary) prisoners, we did at least close the schools. But they are not happy about it and tried to fight back.

Even under lockdown, many students I know about are buried under mountains of ‘homework’ and forced to ‘attend’ ‘classes’ that take their entire day and lead to eye strain, so that this prison atmosphere can be approximated while we wait for the actual prisons to reopen. Even now, schools threaten students with life ruination, should they not spend the bulk of waking hours signaling their compliance to arbitrary authority.

When schools re-open, they won’t be optional. Kids will be forced, at the barrel of a gun, to return to their cells. So decisions about this matter a lot.

Also, the idea that ‘six feet equals safe’ is combining with reopening schools to create a future disaster, because if you’re in a confined space all day then six feet totally won’t save you. Splitting the class in two means the morning class infects the teacher who infects their afternoon class, and so on. Magical thinking has replaced thinking about the world, and we’re going to pay dearly it.

Poor people who are forced back to work for financial reasons already are a problem in many places, and with the end of extended unemployment and with reopening, it will get much worse. But businesses mostly will act mostly responsibly for other reasons, even then, so I believe it mostly won’t be that bad.

But, Saying “Reopening” Doesn’t Do Much

Where is the spike in places like Georgia and Texas?

There wasn’t one, because the activities people resumed as a result of the ‘reopening’ aren’t important. The places that reopened seem like crazy things to open, like tattoo parlors and gyms, but they aren’t getting much activity, aren’t packed and are taking precautions.

What’s dangerous? Again, social interactions, and super-spreader events. Super-spreader events are still not allowed. Social interactions mostly are private decisions that can’t be stopped under our current level of willingness to enforce law, even before loss of social order. Our ability to enforce law certainly isn’t going to increase any time soon.

The people decide how locked down they actually are going to be. The message ‘you are not safe’ is the key part of the lock down message. People heard it, and what they hear next isn’t going to change their perception of safety much. They’ll say ‘screw it’ and do stuff anyway mostly on the same schedule regardless of government decisions. This war is going to be fought elsewhere, unless and until there’s a major second wave, and likely even then.

Right now, the people are saying ‘not as much as before’ even before the effects of demonstrations and loss of civil order. We’ll see what happens, but control systems are definitely in place. I’ve already adjusted my path of behavior based on my expectation that things will follow a worse path in June than I previously expected. That won’t matter much because I’d be taking little risk either way, but it’s representative of others.

Again, the problem is when people must be open, for reasons of government mandate or economic need, or other obligations, that we have danger. The other obligations are real. Not looking at them won’t make them go away or stop them from having effects.

It’s Out of Our Hands

There was a window where people in authority could do things, and those things would matter a lot. That is, they could have done things if they had the ability to do things. Which they didn’t. So they didn’t do them, instead trying to avoid blame from week to week in the hopes it would all work out somehow. Which it almost did, in some important senses, and still almost might in general.

But what little political capital and will there was or might have been is long gone, now. Even before the protests, in the face of the economic pain, there was little ability to stand in the way of reopening. Either we do it smart, which we’re not capable of doing, or we do it dumb and hope individuals and private corporations find ways to make it smart, and/or that dumb is good enough. And they might make it smarter! And it might be good enough!

Maybe. We hope. But it’s clear that we’re not going to do any of the things that have worked elsewhere. Nor we can we keep our dumb closings going. It’s over.

Where do we go from here? I think that’s still up in the air. Largely it comes down to the physical situation. If it turns out the dumb strategy works, then it works. We can still slowly scale up our testing and other efforts, immunity can slowly increase, and we hope we can sustain enough modifications to bring it home. Or we might have a lot more infections and deaths left than that, until the herd immunity effects bring it home mostly on their own.

There are worse things. Staying locked down for another year, for example, because we won’t accept that bad outcome, would be far worse. Robin Hanson talks about this extensively, how we should be preparing a plan B to do pure mitigation. And of course he’s right, if it’s do that or do what we’re doing. It’s an odd choice, though. Because if we could do the things he suggests, then we could also do the first best solutions, and we wouldn’t need to follow his suggestions.

Predictions Updates

Pattern is that the percentages in the statements are Scott Alexander’s original predictions. When I say I bought, sold or held, that’s what I did in the linked-to post.

1. Bay Area lockdown (eg restaurants closed) will be extended beyond June 15: 60%

I sold to 40%. I almost certainly lose, unless there’s something I don’t know. I don’t know what they are thinking locally, but given recent events, I’m guessing there won’t be any lifting of any restrictions of anything, any time soon. Given how many other places are lifting similar restrictions, and how little Bay Area infection there ever was, I’d still say this could have gone either way based on what we knew at the time. But given how slowly everything is moving, I was too aggressive.

2. …until Election Day: 10%

I held. I still think hold this.

3. Fewer than 100,000 US coronavirus deaths: 10%

I sold a lot and it’s over. This is 0% now.

4. Fewer than 300,000 US coronavirus deaths: 50%

I sold this to 30%. For most of May I was losing marked the market, since the news was overall very good. There will be a period where the rolling average won’t get us to 300k. But recent news is turning around, we are seeing upticks, and no will to do much about it, and not much margin to stay under 300k even if control systems cause adjustments. I’d say this is back to about where it was before. I’m guessing our baseline scenario is now 500k or so, with of course huge error bars.

5. Fewer than 3 million US coronavirus deaths: 90%

I held. Again, we saw very good news early, so to get to 3 million now we’d need full system collapse to happen quickly. It’s definitely still possible, but I’m guessing we’re now more like 95% to avoid this than 90%.

6. US has highest official death toll of any country: 80%

I bought this to 90%. Logic seems to hold, the potential other candidates aren’t in trouble, so I’d now buy a little higher.

7. US has highest death toll as per expert guesses of real numbers: 70%

I bought this to 80%. Given China continues to keep things under control, and the 10% difference was coming from China, this has to be closer to the answer to #6 than a month ago. Probably buy it to 85% or so now.

8. NYC widely considered worst-hit US city: 90%

I bought to 95%. Is there a world where this becomes Minneapolis? I think no, although attempts to frame it that way might be possible. Things got really bad in New York, and the communities that might break down in Minneapolis aren’t that big a portion of the city by population. Los Angeles maybe? I don’t see it. I still like the 95% level, despite New York’s recovery, because time passed.

9. China’s (official) case number goes from its current 82,000 to 100,000 by the end of the year: 70%

I sold to 40%. I’d sell slightly lower now, again because time passed and there’s no movement, and the clock is ticking.

10. A coronavirus vaccine has been approved for general use and given to at least 10,000 people somewhere in the First World: 50%

I sold this to 40%. From what I’ve seen news has been good and I’d no longer be willing to sell below 50%. As much as we’re totally failing to do what a real civilization would do, we’re making progress.

11. Best scientific consensus ends up being that hydroxychloroquine was significantly effective: 20%

I sold to 15%, given studies are actively being halted let’s knock that down to 10% now.

12. I (Scott Alexander) personally will get coronavirus (as per my best guess if I had it; positive test not needed): 30%

I sold this to 20% ‘at least’ and that ‘at least’ was doing a lot of work. Still is. Not selling this to 10% or lower seems wrong at this point.

13. Someone I am close to (housemate or close family member) will get coronavirus: 60%

I sold this to 40%, time passes and I’d sell it further.

14. General consensus is that we (April 2020 US) were overreacting: 50%

15. General consensus is that we (April 2020 US) were underreacting: 20%

I sold the 50% to 30% and held the 20%. If anything it seems like consensus is even less likely now than the 50% that left for it before. There won’t be a consensus. There will be a “consensus” that media types like to claim but it won’t be real.

16. General consensus is that summer made coronavirus significantly less dangerous: 70%

I held because this is so vague, so that isn’t an endorsement of the number so much as a desire to stay away from ambiguous markets. In any case, we’re definitely about to find out!

17. …and there is a catastrophic (50K+ US deaths, or more major lockdowns, after at least a month without these things) second wave in autumn: 30%

I sold to 20% based on this being a parlay of many things. Will June count for this, if current trends continue? Chances are it will come in under 50k deaths, we had 40k in May and are still declining. By the time the spike from reopening matters enough for deaths it’s late June or we’re into July, so we likely beat 50k in June on official numbers. And if the resurgence starts in July or August does that count? Either way, chances here have clearly gone up under any reasonable definition. I wouldn’t still sell this.

18. I (Scott) personally am back to working not-at-home: 90%

I sold this to 80%. Still seems reasonable – again, events seem to have sort of cancelled out.

19. At least half of states send every voter a mail-in ballot in 2020 presidential election: 20%

I sold to 15% or so. I am not following the details, but I’m guessing chances have gone up a little but not a lot.

20. PredictIt is uncertain (less than 95% sure) who won the presidential election for more than 24 hours after Election Day. 20%

This is more politics than Covid-19, and I don’t think the answer changed much.

Support Longevity Research

I’ll end on a note I keep meaning to get to. Which is that if we care so goddamn much about Covid-19, there’s an elephant in the room.

The planetary death rate remains stable at 100%. There is a force that kills everyone. It mostly kills older people, with risk increasing steadily with age. Even before it kills you, it has various only partly known and devastating effects on your body, your mind and your quality of life.

That force, of course, is aging.

If we think Covid-19 deaths are bad, well, they look a lot like deaths from ‘natural causes.’ Yet those are considered good and right and proper, and not like the horror that they are. We’re all going to die. When someone suggests this might stop, or it is bad, we get thinkpieces about the ecological horrors of overpopulation or the psychological tortures of living too long.

Which is complete nonsense.

Can we substantially delay or even prevent aging through scientific research? We don’t know. We’re not making much of an effort. My guess is yes, we absolutely could improve our lifespans and slow down the negative effects of aging. Perhaps we could halt it mostly or entirely, given enough time. There’s lots of low-hanging fruit that isn’t being picked, because we don’t think that it’s all right to pick it. It’s fine to fix being worse than the baseline of ‘everyone dies at this rate’ but not to try and lower that rate.

We are no different than the crew of the Enterprise-D, who mourn individual deaths greatly and go to great lengths to find cures and safeguard innocents, but who constantly discover ways to radically delay or end human aging, just lying there, and no one even bothers to point them out. As in, oh look, this primitive society has found a cure for aging that they’re using to stay alive longer to seek revenge, and maybe the lead is that they cured aging and we should look into that?

Nah. That’s not the moral of this week’s story.

No wonder all good things must come to an end.

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21 Responses to Covid-19: My Current Model

  1. sandorzoo says:

    “I bought this to 90%. Logic seems to hold, the potential other candidates aren’t in trouble, so I’d now buy a little higher.”

    Right now, I’d say this is more like 60%. India has a much larger population, and while their absolute death rate is low right now, they have consistently had R > 1 even under lockdown (, and is quickly giving up on lockdown due to the huge costs ( Brazil has a smaller population, but isn’t far behind the US in death rate, and also has consistently had R > 1 (

  2. myst_05 says:

    What a fantastic post, Zvi! We desperately need to spend more time on critical thinking and less time on quasi-religious operating procedures.

  3. sabre says:

    Agree with the previous commenter, really enjoyed this one. Thank you for taking the time to work through corona, your posts have been one of the best sources of information on the subject.

  4. Jorge says:

    “Can we substantially delay or even prevent aging through scientific research? We don’t know. We’re not making much of an effort.”

    I work in the field. The last 10 years have been brutally disheartening, as funding for basic research into biogenrontogy basically evaporated. Instead billions of dollars from the NIA are sunk into grants for hypotheses that have yielded basically no therapeutic avenues for age related diseases (think Alzheimer’s – how many R01’s have been burned in the amyloid plaque hypothesis, and how many billions of pharma research dollars? It’s a dead end.).

    Nonetheless, there has been some progress- we just need stringent replication of the more astonishing results- senolytics and parabiosys in particular. There have also been some notable gains in cancer survival rates, although the therapies are still barbaric.

    We also need to figure out the best way to reverse atherosclerotic plaque formation- heart stuff kills more humans than anything else. We could add a ton of average lifespan and QoL to humanity by just figuring this one out.

  5. hnau says:

    Very helpful stuff– thanks for posting!

    What are the confidence levels on your core model (e.g. the “Risks Follow Power Laws” section)?

    My read is that government behavior, and individual “sacrifice” behavior, happen partly because these actors are genuinely bad at incorporating real epistemic uncertainty (which is what we seem to have, or at least had for a while, regarding how COVID-19 spreads) into their decisions.

    On the other hand there may be a sense in which this badness is adaptive– a kind of hedging. High Modernist models implemented as policies tend to have *very bad* failure modes. Confidence levels can help with this in principle but they’re hard to communicate and often aren’t good enough, because of tail risks / unknown unknowns. So it might make sense to diversify by endorsing a number of generically helpful actions that might make sense given different models of COVID-19.

    I bring this up partly because of the longevity section, which to some extent reductio-ad-absurdums a too-obsessive focus on COVID-19 mortality and tends to reduce my confidence in the rest of the post.

    • TheZvi says:

      A shame that the last part reduces your confidence – it is hard to know the right amount of rhetoric to use in such places. I do think the central point of that section is clear and right. I also don’t think the ‘natural cause deaths are not something to try and fix’ sure *should be* and *sounds like* a reducio ad absurdum, but is actually the position of the majority of humans. While being really, really nuts. So it’s not clear what to do in that situation.

      On the other stuff.

      My confidence level that risks follow power laws is very, very high. My confidence on the relative size of different risks is less high in some cases, but it’s clear that these risks are going to be different orders of magnitude. Alas, we don’t do the science to find out which ones, and to what degree, are bigger than others, so we have to do our best guess. But even with uncertainty it’s still a power law situation.

      And yes, people are really bad at epistemic uncertainty. I think that’s a lot of what’s going on, but the other things I talk about are also very much in play.

      I’m definitely not advocating for a High Modernist approach of dictating that everyone do the things we believe are best, that we make all actions legible, etc etc. That would be terrible. And early on, as I noted, it made sense to do precautionary principle until we knew more. But now, we’re not actually facing a situation where different people choose different precautions in a reasonable way that buys us insurance as a group, let alone choosing a smart basket of such things to buy. And there’s no need to buy such insurance when what matters is Ro and the IFR is <1%, so it's maladaptive in this spot anyway.

      Plus when authority (in broad sense) endorses lots of different actions, effectively people's 'care about it' budget gets split at random, rather than anything else, which doesn't accomplish anything. They just half-ass all of it.

  6. Doug S. says:

    I once read that a perfect cancer cure would increase life expectancy in the United States by about three years. I wonder what a perfect heart disease cure would do?

  7. Error says:

    I’m not sure where else to ask this: What do we know about the effectiveness of face masks vs. face shields?

    • TheZvi says:

      Very little, alas. Because again, we’re not doing good science, even in a spot like this where it should be easy. My assumption is a heavy duty actual shield is very, very effective.

      A full gas mask with filters should basically let you do whatever you want.

  8. Anonymous-backtick says:

    In the face of the extreme dysfunction you rightly point out, it’s important to explicitly realize how much less dysfunctional the much-maligned “trump supporter boomers” were, and how far their simple heuristics of “don’t trust the government” and general normalcy bias outperformed what we actually went with.

    And that we don’t have the option of True Competent Technocracy in the near-future, but we do have the very realistic option of joining that coalition to put them over the top of the Moloch-on-a-stick coalition.

  9. S says:

    What does ‘support longevity research’ look like in practice, just pour more money into SENS?

    • TheZvi says:

      Definitely do that. There are other things out there too – I was at a conference full of proposals one time to set up a MetaMed booth, seemed like a good place to find customers. I also know Sarah Constantin was doing good work checking obvious low hanging fruit possibilities for Longevity Research Institute.

      I do wish I knew how to expand the list beyond that, but a lot going on these days. Shall we say.

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