In the last week there were separate declarations of emergency at the local government level, the state level, and at the national level. While the wording is alarming (and for good reason), the actual motivation for the declaration had to do with money. The national emergency freed up money for states to access when they experience an emergency at the state level. I would imagine that this was meant for future events when things get really bad in a state, they would have ready access to this money.
Magically, lots of states discovered they had already have an emergency so the money will flow. Timing wise, I think my state, Virginia, had declared an emergency before the National emergency was declared. I think it was in anticipation of the National emergency that could not be declared until the new funding bill was fully passed into law. The national emergency was declared immediately. The local state of emergency followed immediately after that.
I am not arguing that there is no need for emergency response. Instead, I worry about the fast claim for funds will drain the funds for this early and as of yet tiny number of cases. This emergency will last a long time, and the funds will probably be exhausted long before the emergency ends. I suspect the funds will be exhausted long before the emergency peaks.
No constituent won’t be able to complain that their government didn’t grab the funds when they had a chance. Like the panic buying that emptied store shelves of bottled water when water shortages is a remote and distant possibility, the governments are emptying the emergency funds before the worst conditions come. At least bottled water will keep a while. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that the emergency funds are already spent and it isn’t even the end of the first weekend yet.
From The Atlantic:
With the coronavirus, state and federal authorities can talk a big game about unity of effort—we are all in this together—but the nation’s governance structure will make this more like musical chairs. No state wants to be the last one to secure necessary equipment.
[end insert 3/17/2020]
I don’t know all the data that went into these declarations. I have been paying attention to the spread of the disease and the problems this is causing. I have not been paying close enough attention to be able to judge the wisdom of the actions of the various levels of government. Part of the reason is that I can’t find the detailed data that I want to find out: that data is protected for medical privacy reasons. Knowing that there are around a dozen cases in my county does not tell me if they are all in the same block or if they are scattered all over the county, or if they are in the same age group or scattered over many, or if the afflicted are at risk of complications or not. Given that there are only a few, having even a little bit of this information will come close to identifying the patients.
I accept the current limitations. Meanwhile, I have been imagining a different form of government based on data and urgency. In this government, algorithm outputs would have final say on policy. Such a government could ingest the same data available to our human-driven government and come with the same conclusions. It may even go further as is happening in Europe now with strict lock down conditions enforced by police state. The government by machine would be even more authoritative and there would be no human who can overrule the decisions.
The only way to overrule the algorithm is to give the algorithm new data that convinces it of a different plan, or to change the algorithm.
In my imagined government by data and urgency, there is no democratic (or even human) role in rule making. Instead, there is a democratic role in collecting, verifying, validating, and rating the data fed to the algorithm. The choice of algorithm is also determined through some democratic process, but I assume the choice is constrained by scientific reasonableness.
The biggest impact to influencing my imagined government will be by providing the data that backs up some preferred ruling. Everyone will be able to get involved in the pipeline of data. This implies that everyone will be able to see all the data provided to the algorithm. Using the current crisis as an example, everyone would be able to look at all the data for each case, to get all the details of the person’s health, relationships, recent or even distant history. Such crowd sourcing of the data is needed to explore new areas where data can be collected, data that can help refine the algorithm’s decisions. In such a government, privacy is not possible, or if privacy is required, we could not have this kind of government.
Other than idle writings such as this one, there is no serious demand for an adoption of an algorithm-driven policy-making government. I use this concept as a way to think about current events and current actions of my governments. I think such a concept is useful to evaluate the government’s action. Starting with the conclusions such as the concurrent declarations of emergencies at all levels of government, I would ask how would this happen in a dedomenocracy? Also, assuming that all the data available to policy makers is accurate, what additional data would sway the decision in another direction?
I don’t think the rapid declaration of emergencies and the cascading declarations at every state and local government was a prudent decision. I would like to imagine a dedomenocracy would have come up with a wiser plan of action. A wiser plan of action would be to be much more selective about declaration of emergency and focused in such a way to minimize the impact.
Evidence of the poorness of the decision is the nation-wide panic buying in a last minute attempt to stock up for this emergency. Some of this stocking up, such as stocking up with fresh foods, will end up being wasted when the foods spoil before being consumed.
Also, stores being emptied means that people with more immediate needs will not be able to get them from their usual stores. They may need to do without, or may have to spend a lot of time traveling across town to find what they need. Here’s the problem: some of the people in this position are working in the medical fields where they are working long hours. This panic buying has compounded their lives. In addition to worrying about their patients and being exhausted in the process, they now have to worry about not being able to get to the store before something they need disappears.
It was noted that one thing that improves immune response for people who are likely to be exposed by a virus (this would be especially true for health workers) is having good sound sleep. Such is impossible if most of their free time is spent searching across town for something they normally got from their local store, and if they go to bed worried about whether they will get what they need later in the week.
The abrupt and global declaration of emergencies likely will have a major detrimental impact on medical professionals we are relying to keep up with the growing case loads.
In the coming week, we will see another consequence. Based on the trends up to now, I would expect that the total number of cases in the USA would double in the coming week. That changes abruptly with the totally predictable panic buying/hoarding that occurred after this declaration. Everyone from every part of society crowded into stores that normally were not so crowded. Most ended up in long lines spending long times immediately next to strangers they never seen before and would never see again.
I’m convinced that the actual infection rate of this virus is much higher than the numbers confirmed. Most people probably get the virus without having symptoms but are capable of spreading the virus. Those people were in those lines. They were spreading to the people standing next to them in line. They were spreading to people trying to squeeze by to get to the end of the line.
As a result of this unnecessary panic buying event, the number of confirmed cases after a week may be 10 times more than the prior week. If this panic could have been averted, the increase would have been 2 times. This action alone may have pulled forward the time when our hospitals are overwhelmed to be 2 weeks away instead of 2 months away.
[Inserted 3/22/2020: a week later the confirmed cases in USA is around 32,000 and when I first wrote this post the number was about 3,700. Coincidentally this is a ten-fold increase I predicted.]
[Inserted 3/28/2020: Total confirmed cases in USA is now over 100,000 well before end of month. Did the declaration of emergency hasten this milestone through the panic buying for preparation?]
My vision of a dedomenocracy would have it consider a wide variety of data. In part, this would be the result of the democratic process of collecting and pursuing data to add to the available data for the optimization algorithm to consider. A more complete analysis of all data would have recognized that a sudden widespread sounding of alarm would not be the best policy at this time. Now that we have raised the ultimate alarm, what will be left when the situation gets really bad?
More importantly, it should have been obvious that people would panic, and in that panic will come in close proximity to each other in slow moving lines. Currently, the disease is just in very isolate hot spots. Initiating this panic response made the spread of the disease outside of those hot spots much more likely, especially as people ventured out of their usual neighborhoods in search of a store with supplies still on the shelves.
Another problem with the recent policies is the aggressive deployment of quarantines for people suspected of being in contact with an infectious person. In addition, globally every nation is closing down its borders, making it impossible for people to cross into other countries.
These actions are certainly consistent with the medical goal of containment, or at least of slowing the spread of the disease. However, a government by data would balance the medical needs with the other needs. In particular, there is a need to keep supply lines running, and that requires keeping the economy running, and that requires permitting business to operate as usual. Businesses rely on cross-border commerce and that relies on travel to negotiate deals. In particular, many of these deals need to be renegotiated to adjust to the current priorities. Shutting down this aspect of business inevitably will damage future trade, making fewer supplies available.
When including the broader economic data, the mid-March response to current conditions perhaps would be more optimal to be more gradual and more limited in raising emergency alarms. As I said before, I am not familiar with most of the data available, but my impression is that the situation will get much worse before it starts to get better.
Our number one priority at this time ought to be to build up capacity, doing what ever it takes to accelerate delivery of essential resources to support the patient load that is coming. This would mean a balanced approach that would permit businesses to continue to do business, though with new priorities. Instead we shut that process down, guaranteeing that our medical care capacity will not grow in the coming weeks. As the situation is now, it is almost guaranteed that our medical capacity will rapidly shrink at the same time the demand will increase.
The coming disaster is not entirely the virus’s fault, a large part of the blame belongs to poor policy making. That policy making was poor because it chose to emphasize just the medical dimension of the available data. Good government requires consideration of all the dimensions of what makes the country run, and what makes the global economy run. Using just one dimension, in this case the medical one, to make wide impacting decisions is going to fail.
I’m reminded of stories of airplane crashed described as controlled flight into terrain. Often, the pilots were distracted with some alarm to the extent they stopped paying attention to the altitude. The airplane crashed because that is what it was commanded to do, the pilots were busy fixing something else. In many cases, one suggestion keeps coming up, and that is automate the pilot. The automation would not make the same mistake.
One of the 737-max crashes involved the pilot’s attention being legitimately focused on the trim, but they were not paying attention to accelerating air speed that was making the trim even more difficult than it already was.
Our response to the Covid19 epidemic is very similar. The analogy to trimming the aircraft is our attempts to stabilize the spread of the disease to fit within existing medical capacity. Meanwhile, we are not paying attention to the conditions that will rapidly decrease the medical capacity due to exhausting the available resources needed to do their job.
The analogy ends when it comes to the crash. This crash will play out in excruciatingly slow motion over several months instead of less than one second.
Addendum 3/15/2020 (same day):
In my last post, I expressed doubt that China is reporting their Covid19 cases accurately, with a suspicion that the actual cases are much larger. In the context of this post, if it is true that their actual number of cases is much larger, their current policies may actually be competent. If this is the case, then there may no longer be any benefit to announce the counts of new cases. In order to increase the number of resources to help with treating the ill, they need to mobilize their population to be productive even with the knowledge that this will further spread the disease. At some point, the spread is so rapid the only difference between quarantine and getting people to work will be the distribution of new case, not the count.
Soon the Western countries will need to make the same course change.
A possible improvement over the China model (if what I suspect is true) would be to be transparent about the current situation. Quarantines are no longer beneficial, all existing quarantines should be lifted, and people should get back to work. In this scenario, lives can be saved by securing the vulnerable, keep them out of the reach of risk of infection from the rest of the population doing their jobs.