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The corona virus: What will it do to us? - Part I

Yesterday, late afternoon, we visited our neighbors some 600 m from our house.  My wife and I made our first contact with other humans in 8 days. We kept social distance, sitting outside and listening to the birds twirling around in spring love and to the crescendos of insects, and watching two wild turkeys silently pecking their way through the lush green grass right behind us.  Other than our four voices, the silence was deafening, no cars, no planes, and no human voices afar.  When we returned home, walking up our wooded hill in complete darkness, the bright stars were not dimmed by the usual halo of Austin lights a few miles away.  The Silent Earth was trying to tell us something. Again. This time around, the nature's silence is caused by the little virus that is undoing the global civilization so many take for granted.  Why did a tiny creature less that one-thousandth the width of a human hair bring the mighty, seemingly invincible human steam roller to a halt?

Here is the little virus that could: Our new unwelcome guest, COVID-19.

Before I reflect on what is happening, here are the naked unpleasant  facts. The only somewhat well-defined indicator of the COVID-19 (CV in abbreviation) spread around the world is the reported cumulative sum of  deaths. This indicator is quite imperfect, with only a handful of countries reporting reasonable (a factor of 2-4 too low?) numbers. These are mostly developed countries that are also democracies, most  - but not all - of the EU and Schengen Area, USA, Canada, Australia, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, New Zealand, Israel, and perhaps a few other countries, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and so on.  Let's be generous and say that out of 195 countries around the world, 25 report the CV-related deaths more less accurately. But even among these 25 countries, the real death toll from CV is significantly undercounted. A better indicator would be the incremental number of all deaths (death certificates issued by municipalities) relative to the same period last year.

As the Financial Times reported on 04/02/2020: "Each death is a personal story and a human tragedy. It is also almost as difficult to interpret as any economic statistic. One legitimate question, for example, is whether people are dying “from” or “with” coronavirus. [...]  The emerging evidence on deaths suggests this [dying from CV in a hospital, TWP] is not what is happening in the UK or elsewhere. This week the Office for National Statistics started to count the deaths in England and Wales where coronavirus was mentioned on the death certificate. On a like-for-like comparison up to March 20, it showed 23.5 per cent more deaths where a doctor suspected coronavirus than deaths in hospital after a patient tested positive. With details still being collected for that period, the statistical agency expected the gap to rise “noticeably”.

This is not a conspiracy by the government[s] trying to hide the cost of the crisis in lives lost, but simply a measurement issue which is replicated across Europe [and the rest of the world population with 5.5 billion people invisible to FT, TWP]. People die in their own homes or in care homes without ever going to overcrowded hospitals or being tested for the virus. Italian journalists have found four times as many people died in some small Lombardy towns, such as Nembro, as the equivalent official hospital count showed. "

And then there are countries that hide their CV statistics and/or lie outright.  China and Russia come to mind. Much worse, most countries have vastly insufficient testing and rudimentary medical care systems, and their governments simply do not know. For example, India with 1340 million people has almost 8 times fewer reported CV cases and 16 times fewer CV deaths than Switzerland with 8.4 million people.   The ratio of the two populations is 160! India's prime minister, Modi, is a horrible despot and liar - just like his dear friend, president Trump -, but the vast undercounting by India is simply a manifestation of their government's impotence when confronted with this terrible pandemic.  The US federal government has also been rather impotent and horrifyingly partisan in their reactions to the CV pandemic, but the US hospital system and reporting by states are much better. Still, the US is delayed by at least two months in reacting to the pandemic, unprepared, and unwilling to shut down human traffic in several states.  No population lockdown in 10-12 Republican states is equivalent to having a pissing section in a public swimming pool; everyone is contaminated.

In summary, thus far we have established that the numbers of reported CV cases are an illusion in most countries, and the reported CV-related deaths are either an illusion or are significantly undercounted.  However, the CV death numbers, as unreliable as they are, do tell a compelling story I will share with you now.

The CV is spreading through clusters of infected people.  Each cluster has its own probability distribution of death rates (# of CV deaths/day) that depends on the cluster's age distribution, the number of healthy people in the cluster, wealth of the people, availability of hospital care, and many other factors.  The cluster's probability distribution has a finite variance and a well-defined mean or expected value.  The many tens of millions of such clusters around the world are either uncorrelated or sparsely/weakly correlated.  Therefore, by the Central Limit Theorem of statistics, we expect the mean death rate probabilities of these clusters to be normally distributed, i.e., to fall along a bell curve of CV deaths/day for the world.  And, voilà, here it is.

Figure 1. The global CV death rate in thousands per day, since January 1, 2020.  The global reporting started on January 23, 2020.  As you can see, a single Gaussian explains the global CV-related death rate.  On the horizontal scale, 30 means approximate end of January, 60 end of February, etc.  The peak deaths are predicted in the third week of April 2020.  A note added on 4/24/2020: The original Figure 1, uploaded with the blog, disappeared somehow.  I replaced it with a newer version, updated automatically each day. The data started deviating from the Gaussian at 90 days, right when the original Figure 1 was generated.  This discrepancy is explained here.

Figure 2. Here are cumulative deaths obtained from summing up the results of Figure 1.  We are now at 60,000 confirmed deaths dues to CV.  There is still a long, grim way to go before this cycle of CV is over, AND the available death records are vastly undercounted. Out of the 400,000 people killed by CV in this cycle, half might perish in the under-prepared USA. 

Here is my wild guess about the real number of deaths worldwide.  I simply scaled the reported deaths that might represent 2 billion people, by the unaccounted for 5.7 billion people that are not in this statistic.  The proportionality factor thus was 5.7/2.  I also moved the global peak by a month into the future and halved the rate of spread.  The result is shown if Figure 3 and 4.
Figure 3. My estimate of the real number of CV death rate worldwide. If emergency food supplies to Africa and elsewhere fail, we may have an additional 150,000 people dying of starvation each day, dwarfing this estimate.

Figure 4. My estimate of the real cumulative CV deaths worldwide.  I predict that 2.6 million people will die directly from CV.  If other side-effects of the CV pandemic are included, the real death toll may be 10-20 million higher.  

My friend, Rex Weyler, just sent me a quote that explains the root cause of the corona virus pandemic: The frenzied, hopelessly intermingled and fragile human economy, a giant wound on the living Earth that feeds us with her body and blood.

"Think of traffic. There are too many cars on the roads and too many restless people; and too much pollution of the atmosphere by the cars. Altogether that makes up what the doctors call a ‘syndrome’, a nest of symptoms. Of course this syndrome has its roots in overpopulation and unwisely applied engineering skills, and in medical victories over epidemics. Public health, just like individual medicine, is symptom-activated. We all share in the pathology which we would blame on the doctors. At the social level, what happens is simple: Somebody gets paid to make the pathological trend more comfortable. We treat the symptoms - we make more roads for the more cars, and we make more and faster cars for the restless people; and when people [very properly] die of overeating or pollution, we try to strengthen their stomachs or their lungs. For overpopulation, we build more houses. And so on. That is the paradigm: Treat the symptom to make the world safe for the pathology. But, it’s a little worse than that: We even look into the future and try to see the symptoms and discomforts coming. We predict the jamming of traffic on the highways and invite bids for government contracts to enlarge the roads for cars that do not yet exist. In this way, millions of dollars get committed to the hypothesis of future increase in pathology. So, the doctor who concentrates upon the symptoms runs the risk of fostering the pathology of which the symptoms are parts."
Gregory Bateson - A Sacred Unity (1991, p. 296).

Thus, Mother Earth issued a mild warning to the swarms of humans, who mix with and eat wildlife - wild birds in particular -  and then lie about the inevitable results of this mixing until it is much too late. By the time we recognized the lurking new danger,  this time around the COVID-19 virus, the infected humans carried it to every corner of the world. The sickened Earth kicked back and made us sicker, see Figure 5, than the norm against which we normalize our perceptions.

Figure 5. In São Paulo, Brazil, isolation through the lens of single building. Source the New York Times, accessed 03/28/2020 

In summary, the COVID-19 epidemic is acting as a catalyst that speeds up the inevitable future. What was supposed to happen in 5-10 years from today, is unfolding now with a frightening speed. Whatever I wrote about in this blog over the last three years has come to pass, including the disastrous Brexit (remember that irrelevant tiny event?)  and collapse of the oil industry. We are falling into an age of neo-medieval, trumpian darkness and unreason, with most perks of enlightenment disappearing. I do hope that I am wrong, but usually I am not. I wish all of you a peaceful, graceful future to the extent possible. And please do not stand in long lines to buy those guns of your dreams. Bullets are useless against an invisible virus and gunshot wounds will overwhelm our hospitals even more. Peace, everyone!

My wife sowing native grass seeds on our 5 acre meadow. 4/2/2020.


  1. The 1918 flu came in three waves, of which the second wave (in late 1918) was the deadliest. What if history repeats itself? Remember that Shiva, the Destroyer, always carries a trident that has three prongs.

  2. A novel virus infects the humans and pursues the thermodynamically mandated Maximum Power Principle just as a novel hominid infected the ecosystem and pursued its own mandate of heaven. As long as humans can feed on generous energy gradients they will generate more information and adaptations to deal with the microscopic predator. In so doing the novel hominid will magnify the pathological impact upon its own disease-riddled host - the ecosystem. Maybe the novel hominid, as it struggles to recover, can gain some perspective from this event, but probably not.

  3. I wonder if your estimates account for the change in death rate from deficiencies in medical care as cases rise? Projecting a curve from death rates while optimum medical care is still available in many places may greatly underestimate the eventual total.

    As to your larger point regarding human folly: Of all the "black swans" that could come along to mitigate the ecocide humans are so intent on perpetuating, a pandemic is one of the most benign. Nuclear war, severe tipping points in climate change or a sudden collapse of electrical grids from a coronal mass ejection would all initiate collapse of industrial civilization with much more human suffering. This pandemic may trigger collapse, but leave enough of civilization functioning to make the coming social simplification a more gracefully planned one than with other catastrophes. And it may have come just soon enough to save a habitable world for future generations. One can hope.

  4. South Korea reports recovered coronavirus patients testing positive again. The virus may have been “reactivated” rather than the patients being re-infected. It is not clear what the implications are. More waves and bell curves?

  5. Hi Prof. Tad,

    I saw this image

    stay asfe

  6. I hope Prof. Tad keeps on updating this most interesting blog. He's one of my intellectual heroes. I hold a puny MSc in chemical engineering. Actually it's very boring stuff and most of the people you meet in that profession are either competent psychopaths and/or incompetent morons. At least that's my limited experience. Prof. Tad, please elaborate and sum up your occult Nostradamic vision while being absolutely scientific. What do you see in your crystal ball right now? I know it's still hazy, but since we are nothing but robots that consist of elementary particles that obey the four laws of physics, surely you can describe 2021 and 2022 in ever increasing detail.


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