Hotel Stays During Covid Time

I recently drove through ten states to check in on family and also attend a spontaneous funeral from a death occurring while I was visiting.

During my trip, I was observing how states differed in their responses to operating in the waning tail of our Covid experience in America. Counter to what you may hear on the media, who have a vested interest in fomenting rage & fear to make revenue, America looks to be on the same page regarding dealing with a virus.

From California, through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas, Colorado, Utah, and Nevada I saw traffic billboards along the interstates asking for people to be vigilant in wearing masks and be cognizant of distance.

However, life can’t operate in a vacuum. It must go on. People have responsibilities, they have children to provide for, they have crops to harvest, and groceries to buy for feeding their family.

So, I saw that most people were proactively wearing masks in public, they were utilizing hand sanitizer offerings, and trying to be conscious of keeping approximately six feet apart from one another in lines.

One larger change that I saw pertained to the Hilton chain of hotels. I first saw it in Texas, the state that the self-righteous West/East Coasters & media deride for not shutting down its economy to surrender to groupthink that would result in depression.

Hilton has enacted a policy change called “Hilton Clean Stay” where the hotel chain will prepare your room, seal the door with a type of chain-of-custody sticker that you must break upon entering, and inside you will see additional signage informing you that the room was cleaned with Lysol to eliminate viruses. In addition to the literature, a few of the hotels had lain out little packages of clean wipes near commonly used items such as telephones and TV remotes.

I think this is a good innovative change for a large hotel chain that may even have a good use during non-virus times for the sake of eliminating concern of guests questioning whether their room is really cleaned in all of the areas that are important or if it was just wiped down with a wet rag. This is a large reason as to why I will not stay in AirBNB accommodations where people are just renting out an extra room in their homes. I want to make sure that my environment is clean and that I can just go in and relax during my travels without questioning my surroundings.

Props to Hilton for taking it upon themselves to go the extra mile to both help protect patrons and staff members. The marketer in me knows that it’s also a co-branding marketing opportunity with Lysol most likely helping to split the costs to build brand loyalty and trust with travelling customers. That’s OK. It’s a smart business move on both sides.

So, in the wake of a tragic event such as Covid, we are still seeing businesses trying to adapt to operate in this environment with some performing better than others.

I’d also like to leave you with a gentle reminder to remain very skeptical of our media and their agendas. What we see published from their establishments has told a very different story than what I and others have witnessed in person across this country. Don’t let them divide you with politics. This isn’t a political issue. It’s a health crisis issue that doesn’t care about politics and is not the fault of an administration, but rather the fault of a foreign regime that tried covering up the outbreak and did nothing for the sake of others.

Nothing Will Change…And That’s A Bad Thing

People are desperate for a feeling of normalcy, whatever that may be for them. Not just now while we’re all on lockdown with nothing but bad news 24/7 but constantly.  When this is all over, and we switch to other news in the late Fall, I think most people will be desperate to forget this ever happened.  If we do talk about it, it will be only to discuss the lingering economic effects.

In 2009, I contracted the H1N1(swine flu). It put me flat on my back for over a week and I didn’t feel completely healthy again for over two weeks. Looking back, not only did I not alter my behavior, but less than a year later I quit a job with 50% work-from-home in favor of a job that involved 60% travel. While considering my career switch, I didn’t even consider how much more exposure that travel would cause me. It was a pretty bad risk assessment on my part.   Most people believe they are much better at assessing risk than they actually are.

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

The H2N2 pandemic, in 1957, killed over 100,000 Americans. The US population at the time, according to the 1955 census, was 171 million.  That means the death rate in the US was approximately .05%.  With a projected death rate of over >100k for COVID-19 as of this writing and the current US population of 328 million the death rate is .02%.  While I’m not a professional researcher by any stretch, what I could find in the papers from 1957 were many articles about the flu outbreak while it was in full effect.  However, it seemed like it was being reported on like the weather. The weather was terrible for a while, but once it passed, not many mentions at all. I couldn’t find anything encouraging people to change their behavior.  After 1957 almost no mentions of this major pandemic in media of any kind.

Today’s world is much more interconnected and media-saturated than in 1957. However, I think the same thing is about to occur this fall that occurred after the 1957 H2N2 pandemic. We here in America, for example, will happily change our focus to the upcoming presidential election and do our best to forget all about COVID-19.  

I believe this so strongly I made a fairly significant(for me) investment in Carnival cruise lines. If it goes back to half of it’s pre-CORONA-19 price then I’ll be taking all of my friends and family on a cruise with the profits.   

Photo by jonathan leonardo on Unsplash

The major cruise lines have reopened their reservation systems and are taking reservations for as early as the fall of 2020. While most reservations are for discounted cruises in 2021. Let that sink in a bit. People who by in large are at home sheltering in place due to COVID-19 are booking cruises for as early as this fall!

Many people I respect are claiming that things will change forever but what they point to are trends like the death of movie theaters, malls, and more working from home.  These trends were already in full effect before the pandemic.  When was the last time you had a good experience in a movie theater not named “Alamo Draft House?”   Office space is often one of the largest expenses a business will have so, of course, companies are extending their work from home policies in an attempt to bring these expenses under control.

People are desperate to get back to “normal,” whatever that is for them. I fear this will lead to us being completely unprepared for the next pandemic which is sure to follow.

Caveat: If COVID-19 reinfection turns out to be possible and we are on lockdown for 3 years and not 3 months, throw this article in the nearest waste bin.

May Day – Mayday

Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.

Winston Churchill

It’s been two weeks since May 1, known as May Day, an ancient festival of Spring and which was also chosen by worker’s movements to commemorate the Haymarket Affair in Chicago of 1886. It began as a peaceful rally for an eight hour workday, until someone threw a stick of dynamite at the police who were attempting to disperse the rally. Chaos ensued, resulting in death and injury on both sides.

In the year 2020, May Day has marked a day of partial reopening in many states. In Texas, restaurants, movie theaters, churches, and retail were allowed to open at 25% capacity, followed a few days after by hair, nail, and tanning salons. On May 18, limits will increase to 50% capacity and also adds in gyms and offices.

I think the Texas reopening could have been safe, and could have happened weeks earlier. The one caveat that has yet to be satisfied – people here need to take this infection seriously – and most don’t. They dismiss the seriousness of the illness, they dismiss the possibility for infection and spread, and they don’t even grasp the consequences of exponential growth and what an overwhelmed hospital system would mean.

People have been holed up in lock-down for a long time, and they are anxious to get out. Coupled with that, is a sense that the danger has passed and it’s time to move on. This view has been espoused directly from the Oval Office, albeit without the caveat to take the remaining risk very seriously.

“In May we have already forgotten the lessons of March.”

The virus has fired the first shots in a war, and we have staged a wise and hasty retreat. We gained a pause and respite at great cost. We have squandered the time, with precious little to show for it, and apparently none the wiser. Meanwhile the virus is regrouping and consolidating, waiting for an opening to break out. We have declared victory and moved on. In May we have already forgotten the lessons of March – that an infection somewhere is an infection everywhere.

Image
25 doctors flying back from NYC on a packed United flight May 9, 2020.

In Harris County, TX (Houston) with a population of five million, we have 622 Covid patients in the hospitals as of 5/15/2020, up 10% from the day before, with this bump coming two weeks after we started to reopen. It is the beginning, not the end.

I’ve been watching New York Gov. Cuomo’s briefings every day, and I really like how he steps through the current numbers each day showing the simple facts, and requesting (vs mandating) that people wear masks when distancing isn’t possible. He has coordinated daily reporting from all hospitals to drive this data, and has led a massive effort to sample 15,000 random citizens for antibodies to determine baseline infection rates (20% in NYC). They are ramping up an aggressive contact tracing system. He has divided the state up into ten regions and defined clear benchmarks for them to reopen and delegating responsibility and accountability to those regions. Five of the ten regions are cleared to open for a phase 1 opening. He’s making it very clear what they need to do to reopen safely – and stay open. He’s communicating in a clear, consistent, and unambiguous way to earn trust and buy-in from his people.

An infection somewhere is an infection everywhere.

NY Governor Cuomo

In Texas, we have no such efforts. We were so very lucky in shutting down right before the infection curves took off. People here generally think this is not a big deal, that the lock down is a waste. Our governor and the President downplayed the seriousness, and the average person doesn’t care to look for data or appreciate the effects of exponential growth left unchecked. Local officials have tried to enact more stringent protocols, but were rebuffed by many citizens and then officially by the governor overriding the new rules.

risk it
Billboard in Texas

So, we find ourselves at the precipice of chaos, with impending entanglements of economic and pandemic consequences, oscillating at historical scale. Only one mantle in the U.S. has the antecedent respect and stature to lead and unite the public in a time of crisis. That is a factual, earnest, and empathetic address from the Oval Office – serious in tone, but striking a confidant and hopeful chord. It carries a weight that no other office or figure in America can match, it would get us all on the same page. This is a singular moment when the President could lead by informing the public that:

a) This disease is very bad, you don’t want it – at any age
b) We learn more new bad stuff about it every day – including for kids
c) It spreads like wildfire, and everybody can carry and transmit it
d) The lock-down has brought it under control
e) As we reopen EVERYBODY needs to be hyper vigilant, on guard, and OCD with masks, distancing, and hygiene – wear a mask to slow the spread, to win – it’s the patriotic thing to do
f) The better we do controlling spread, the more things we can open and faster we can open them
g) We will figure out schools, sports, and travel soon
h) Treatments and vaccines are progressing

That’s it, that’s all it would take to get the entire country on the same page. Get people to want to do the right thing. Don’t force people – let peer pressure work its magic.

“What we have here is a failure to communicate”
–Movie “Cool Hand Luke”

But this is not what we have. We have a hodgepodge along ideological and partisan divides. I understand the electoral math, of not wanting to tell people that they need to do something inconvenient. But that equivocation will cost us all very dearly, very soon.

Texas restaurants are allowed to open to 25%, and I’ve been watching two popular Mexican places nearby. Judging from the parking lots, both are running at about 85% on weekend nights.

I was at a Kroger grocery store last week, and I watched as the produce manager was wearing a mask covering only his mouth (and not his nose) sneezed in the direction of the uncovered strawberries on display. He was talking to his assistant who was dutifully wearing a mask – covering only her chin. The other major grocery chain, HEB, was very aggressive in their initial response, but has slowly rolled back many of their changes. The percentage of customers wearing masks everywhere I go has started to decrease.

The local ice rink is opening up Monday and limiting ice to 12 people total, so I bought an hour of private ice for a 3 on 3 hockey game with friends. Locker rooms and showers are closed. Rules say that everyone has to wear a mask both on and off the ice. This is not an easy ask when you are skating hard, sweaty, with a wet mask, and gasping for air. A good friend of mine, who owns a very successful industrial service company texts me and asks if he can just sign a waiver or something to avoid wearing a mask. I text back, in vain mostly, that the mask protects others. It sounds so impotent, so unconvincing. I have a feeling the rink may be ordered to shut down again soon as infections spike, so I’m going to play at least once while I still can.

Stevie Ray Vaughan statue has a bandana mask | FOX 7 Austin
Stevie Ray Vaughn statue in Austin

The aim of the wise is not to secure pleasure, but to avoid pain.

Aristotle

I ask myself, why should I wear a mask to protect others if nobody else is wearing a mask to protect me? Scott Kupor mentions in his recent book that you should “Sell aspirin, not vitamins” – he has a clear understanding of human motivations. Maybe I need a more serious mask or filter system that works for me instead of others.

As a nation united we could prevent a catastrophe, but as a nation divided the best we can hope for is to survive the infectious and economic catastrophe. This year’s May Day re-opening, without proper protocols and vigilance, may lead to yet another very explosive and chaotic situation.

The string quartet may be playing an upbeat melody on the upper deck, but we may also soon be sending out a mayday call. Let us all hope these charts don’t start to look like hockey sticks. When vanity and strident political maneuvering comes to play in a global pandemic and a historic economic crisis, it has certainly become a very Strange New Normal.

Violinists Play to Empty Toilet Paper Aisle Like it's The Titanic ...
String quartet from the movie “Titanic”

Office Or No Office, That Is The Question

Okay, so it is not quite the question asked in Hamlet, but it is really a question that a lot of businesses and workers are asking themselves right now during international lockdowns. If you find yourself asking, “Where will I work?” or “Do we need to pay for an office?” then you are probably thinking about the short term and that makes a lot of financial sense. However, I think this is a much larger question. The question that really needs answering is “What makes us Human?” The answer to that is “people.”

My background study, before I became a mountain man living off in the mountains as a hermit, was around cultural and forensic Anthropology. It was a wonderful area of study for me because it helped answer many of the questions that I had about what makes us Human and why people behave in the ways that they do. What sets us apart from the wild is our organization into societal structures that we have created to ensure our collective survival from the elements and threats.

Being around people is not just an elective thing we do on the weekend with friends in a restaurant, it is a deeply instinctual psychological need from a million years of evolution and myriads of millennia of organizing larger societies. It is such a powerful psychological need that when you are away from other people for long enough periods of time you develop what is commonly referred to as “Cabin Fever.” I experienced this myself as I lived in the mountains for over a year alone with only a stray dog to keep me company. I would drive across mountains, more than an hour away, just to buy a loaf of bread in Walmart to experience the comfort of being around people after months alone.

Photo by Piotr Usewicz on Unsplash

Being isolated and alone can actually contribute to your death as well. Historically, one of the worst punishments that could be handed down upon a bad actor in a village or tribe was to be banished and ostracized from society. That is because you’d not have the safety of a larger group or a stable supplies of sustenance to keep you alive. As we have developed scientific observation and medical study, it has become apparent that isolation away from others causes early death through increased morbidity and mortality rates attributed to loneliness and isolation. Our psychological stresses increase inflammation, stress, cholesterol, and mental illness that lead to early death. Simply put, we have to be around others for our health.

In our modern society, this has carried over into our workplace. We are organized in miniature hierarchical tribes where people join either for pay or for achievement. Our motivating factors are different from person to person, but they largely revolve around being part of a group where we can work towards a common goal and achieve success. It is a need to be part of something larger than ourselves.

We have seen a trend of co-working spaces popping up across the globe from both small and large companies allowing so-called digital nomads, remote workers, and independently-minded entrepreneurs to have an office workplace around others with many amenities they have grown accustomed to that allow them flexibility away from a rigid structure. Why don’t they simply work 100% remotely from home? To answer that, we have to look at motivations that people have for work.

During this crisis, there’s a lot of talk about huge waves of remote-only work or that businesses will simply eliminate physical offices all together. That may work for some workers who prefer to just punch in for their assignments and clock out for personal endeavors, like a lone wolf, but I don’t feel that will be something that the majority of people will feel comfortable with after the novelty of working from home wears off. That is where Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory of Motivation comes into play along with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The two work in concert, but I will briefly address Herzberg.

Photo: Herzberg Two-Factor Theory – 7Pace

For the workforce, jobs are broken down into Hygiene Factors — encompassing things such as income levels and job security — and also Motivation Factors –- encompassing the psychological aspects of the job such as a sense of belonging, doing something meaningful, and being part of a cohesive team –- which coalesce into the overall experience of working for a company or group. Each person has different motivations, like some just wanting prestige of job positioning, but you can’t have one aspect of the Two-Factor requirements without the other. One side will outweigh the other side if it is lacking and the employee will be unhappy. So, you could increase someone’s pay a great amount but if they feel isolated and unhappy then they will end up leaving to find another more enjoyable work experience. These are components of management that are taught to managers and in business school as necessary to the health of a company.

When you remove people from the workplace, where they are not feeling like an active and valuable member of the organization, they will end up leaving. This is often overlooked in the short-term discussion about working from home and decentralizing. This is one of the most important factors into why I feel that work-from-home will not be sustainable across the board for companies. There may be some sections of the workforce, based on personality type, who will opt-in to work remotely fulltime, but I do not see it being rolled out across entire industries or even large companies.

Photo by Levi Guzman on Unsplash

After these rolling lockdowns begin to end, I think that people will be starved to be around their coworkers and friends that they won’t be thinking about staying at home anymore. That will be their last desire. Who knows, WeWork may even pick back up and be host to many new and returning “nomads” to gain some semblance of normalcy back where they can have a visceral sense of security and comfort around others happy to be back in the office.

We spend a large portion of our lives at work. We are driven to be there for a purpose and people around us believing-in and striving for the same goals is an empowering feeling. We need it. We also make a lot of our friends through work and some even find their spouses in the workplace. The office is more personal than it may seem on the surface. It’s the people that make it worth it. And it’s the people that we will go back to.

Why? Because we are Human. We need each other.

Photo by Duy Pham on Unsplash

Covid Coup De Grâce

In my formative years my great uncle Dr. Walter Cale was a horseback doctor in Atkins, Arkansas, known for Atkin’s Pickles. He sold cucumbers for a living to the pickle plant and bartered medical services taking in chickens and eggs. His two-room home office took walk-ins with routine care in the front room and the back room housed his examination table, which he dropped ether solo doing surgeries. He was my physician and gave me the inspiration to shoot for the stars from our poultry farm. He did well financially and had community respect from all.

Library of Congress

Post-World War, third party insurance introduced pencil pushers between the doctor and patient. Big government socialists noticed and the American Medical Assoc. was offered the copyright to ICD publications and the American Psychiatric Assoc. was offered DSM copyrights if both organizations would back socialized medicine via medicare/then medicaid. The rank and file were sold down the river, so to speak, with golden retirement parachutes for leaderships.

The ensuing price controls and bureaucracy degraded medicine with physicians chasing the rabbit around the financial track. To reduce the added expense of the middle men, managed care was devised. Doctors found that patients would change MD care for a pittance cheaper charge. The physicians saw patients as a revenue source and not a friend and neighbor. Patients saw doctors as a commodity to sue as an insurance policy if health did not remain perfect. The government was glad to force doctors to take the mark of the beast as hospital privileges required the MD to accept medicaid patients and medicaid which forced MD’s to charge even the poor or uninsured the same price without discount or else be sanctioned.

Photo by Online Marketing on Unsplash

The low reimbursements required quick throughput, as with cattle, to cover expenses. The huge volume at low profit and degraded quality pleased the government as the MD’s were the highest revenue source for the Treasury as a group. Anecdotally, the expanding knowledge base and time pressures degraded quality. The government introduced electronic health records to slowly force treatment cookbook cascade methods like paramedics use in the military. Additionally, it takes so much longer to see the patient and electronically prescribe with typed notes that significantly fewer patients can be seen through office hours. This results in fewer claims to Centers for Medicare, etc. As in all socialist schemes rationing becomes necessary.

Now fast forward to present day and Covid is making older MD’s consider retirement rather than pay staff and expenses whilst being slowed further by Covid precautions/protocols. The risk of a subpoena by a trial lawyer, on behalf of employees or patients catching Covid, makes retirement look better. Telemedicine is slower, less accurate, depersonalizes, and devoids the last of the physician patient relationship. Older MD’s are a large proportion of practicing physicians. Covid may be the final coup de grâce if they are financially stable. It is now gotten to the point of being hard for a physician to find a practiced physician, good luck to the lay person.

BBC

Socialized medicine will be forthcoming rapidly. Already two thirds of physicians are hospital-employed minions controlled by number-driven men in Italian suits and manicured grooming. In one lifetime, this MD has seen the complete replacement of traditional care to a government-hospital industrial complex with a different “provider” yearly, if not semi-annually. It is impersonal and less beneficial than having a trusted doctor lobbying for you sincerely. Covid is the final nail in the coffin. We will be akin to Canadian and British NHS unless you are wealthy and can afford concierge care from a MD who has bailed from centers for medicare which makes it illegal for the MD or patient to bill for services. By the way, one can not bail from medicare Part-A without risking your social security check.

A strange new medical normal with fewer doctors, greater expense, scarce expensive medicines, and degraded services is on the horizon. Maybe we will still be able to leave our homes without Fauci’s/ E.U./U.N. Covid ID of alleged immunity.

COVID, Fossil Fuels, & Health

Few subjects – individually – are more vexed and vital than the Coronavirus pandemic, the fate of the fossil fuel industry (bound up in climate change and the future of the entire planet) and the economics of the vast healthcare industry (or, outside the USA, the health care services sector). And yet, in our pandemic world, they are tied together, and their convoluted ties provide intriguing lessons that can be digested without anger:

  • We need a vibrant economy.
  • We are spending trillions to keep the economy alive as the pandemic’s damage expands.
  • We are already spending vast sums – worldwide these are also trillions of dollars – to prop up the fossil fuel industries.
  • We are spending trillions of dollars on health care – amounts that are expanding due to COVID.

Too many trillions. Too much pain. Too expensive.

One particular thread to pull on is this: the world spends trillions of dollars per year to deal with the health damage caused by fossil fuel use. The health consequences of fossil fuel use are adding to the scope of human suffering, and to the cost of dealing with it – and the mandated shutdowns have resulted in similarly vast potential long-term savings.

We are at a place where rebalancing the economy becomes imperative. Here’s one way to not waste trillions of dollars AND have a healthier populace AND have a more vibrant economy.

The other costs of fossil fuels

Marine Photobank

Our relationship with fossil fuels is one in which we give vast subsidies – hundreds of billions of dollars each year – and it gives us back cheap oil – and a grim toll of death and disease. We get to pick up the tab for the hospitals and funerals as well, another few hundred billion dollars. It’s time to rethink the balance.

Explicitly, this must include adding in the costs of death and diseases to the balance sheets of fossil fuels. It must include thinking of the great monies being spent here and looking to use them to build a cleaner, post-COVID future.

The IMF (and, separately, this author and others) have estimated the total health costs of use of fossil fuels. The IMF estimates that the worldwide, annual health-associated costs of air pollution from fossil fuel use exceed $2.3 Trillion dollars. (My estimates, and some others, are higher – as much as $2.9 Trillion per year.) These costs are external to the fossil fuel industry – they are borne instead by you and me and the rest of the world in pulmonary diseases and syndromes, and in loss of life and diminished vitality.

The data are already in: we can save money and lives

One sad consequence of the COVID pandemic is that it is already so vast, and covers such numbers of people, countries, industries, lands, that – alas – some statistical analyses are already instructive. The health consequences go far beyond sitting at home and losing jobs and reducing the contagion of COVID. Here are two important ideas:

  • The worst instances of COVID infection occur in areas with lowest air quality – with fossil fuel use atop the list of culprits.
  • The close-down of industry in Wuhan to deal with COVID resulted in air quality improvements so vast that the lives saved by improved air quality likely greatly exceed the death toll from COVID.

We’ve found ourselves in an unholy, nay, terrible, cycle in which our addiction to heavily subsidized fossil fuels both worsens our health problems and limits our ability to pay to solve those health problems. The inevitable outcome must be cutting this knot, by driving to a place where we rebalance our economy. So, while this piece is not about how or when we get to a post-COVID economy, it is about what that economy must look like.

Note: the rest of this note deals with the death toll and costs of COVID and other problems without empathic consideration of the human misery it has brought, sickness, job losses, bankruptcies and more. Each death and severe sickness and job loss and company failure is a tale of suffering. I mourn for those, and yearn for a world in which we can solve problems, and that is what this note is about.

COVID and health quality

Urban pollution ,Photo by Holger Link on Unsplash

Wuhan has achieved notoriety as the point of origin of COVID. I’ve been there, a decade or more ago. It already had the worst air I’d ever experienced; I’m sure it’s become worse since. My meetings ended in mid-afternoon and we emerged from the building we’d been in and … you could stare, safely, at the sun – a blood-red disk in a yellow-brown haze.

At a primitive level (I’m not a medical doctor), it makes sense the air pollution or heavy smoking (also prevalent in Wuhan) would make for worse COVID outcomes – they both cause persistent and grave challenges to lung function: the inhabitants of Wuhan already had lungs that daily suffered significant injury. But it’s not just in China. We now have the first statistically-significant analyses of COVID and air pollution in the USA – a Harvard-led analysis of the correlations between air pollution and COVID outcomes, looking at the known air quality in over 3,000 US counties. Key takeaways (the following are direct quotes):

  • The majority of the pre-existing conditions that increase the risk of death for COVID-19 are the same diseases that are affected by long-term exposure to air pollution
  • … an increase of only 1 μg/m3 in PM2.5 is associated with a 15% increase in the COVID-19 death rate, 95% confidence interval
  • A small increase in long-term exposure to PM2.5 leads to a large increase in COVID-19 death rate, with the magnitude of increase 20 times that observed for PM2.5 and all-cause mortality.

Now, correlation is not causation. We all know that the poorest people live in the dirtiest places and have the worst diets and the weakest access to healthcare. EPA researchers have previously linked PM2.5 counts to a variety of health concerns including: premature death in people with heart or lung disease, non-fatal heart attacks, irregular heartbeats, aggravated asthma, decreased lung function, and increased respiratory symptoms such as inflammation, airway irritations, coughing, or difficulty breathing

But, the authors claim, they were able to correct for the background – it’s a large data set and so, in principle, you can do that. From the paper: “We adjust by population size, hospital beds, number of individuals tested, weather, and socioeconomic and behavioral variables including, but not limited to obesity and smoking.” Insofar as these adjustments are accurate, in important conclusion of immediate value: COVID illness and death rates are significantly exacerbated by pre-existing bad air quality.

COVID shutdowns and improved longevity

Back to Wuhan. This is a vast city in central China, home to over 11 million people. According to government statistics, 81,000 people were sickened and over 3,300 died. (Note: the only data from China are “official”, and their accuracy cannot be verified. One noted source, worldometers.info, is maintained by a tiny company based in Shanghai.)

Only through aggressive tactics did the Chinese government succeed in preventing the death toll from soaring to hundreds of thousands. Factories closed, roads were empty. Satellite images from NASA show a fast and truly stunning decrease in air particulates across China. The best current estimate is that the improved air quality saved far more lives than were lost to COVID. Literally – Chinese official statistics initially asserted that COVID claimed over 3,000 lives; improved air quality may have saved as many as 73,000 lives.

From the paper: “2 months of 10µg/m3 reductions in PM2.5 likely has saved the lives of 4,000 kids under 5 and 73,000 adults over 70 in China.”

Much of this is due specifically to lowered fossil fuel use. The specific gas tracked in the NASA images shown here is nitrous oxide – also a major contributor to climate change – and not specifically PM2.5. But nitrous oxide has the same sources, so it allows the deduction of improved longevity due to the shutdown caused by COVID. 

NASA images of pollution. (Beijing and some other cities continued to have bad air during the COVID shut downs, likely because of use of coal-fired power plants for electricity generation.) Images from NASA observatory; their site also has specific images of air quality improvements in the Wuhan area.

What is PM2.5?

PM2.5 is a term used to describe particulates in the atmosphere that are smaller than 2.5 microns. (For a reference, the COVID virus itself is less than 100 nanometers in size – one 30th of the size of the particles at the upper range of  PM2.5; there’s a wide range of sizes of aerosol droplets from someone coughing or sneezing – from less than 1 micron to 100 microns). There’s a good, lay discussion at THIS SITE.

There are lots of particles in the air. Anything smaller than about 10microns (one hundredths of a millimeter) can be easily brought into our lungs. Those between 2.5 micron and 10 microns tend to deposit in the larger passages. These include ash from fires or the ground-up grit from roads; these are in the PM10 category. Much smaller ones can travel further into the many fine channels in the lung. Diesel particulates particularly, and many other fine soots from cars fit into these categories. These are particularly damaging – and their damage to the fine structures of the lung are especially nefarious in the context of COVID.

What is absolutely true:

  • COVID death rates are significantly increased by PM2.5 (as is true for many diseases)
  • The leading cause of PM2.5 particulates is the fossil fuels we burn

Now what?

COVID pandemic illustrates many societal ills. High on that list is that the costs of fossil fuels include extraordinarily high health costs. Countries – like the USA – that don’t have a national health system, see these costs as extraneous to those businesses. That conception was breaking under strain due to fossil fuels’ health consequences before COVID. It’s clearly a bankrupt idea now.

It’s high time to rebalance our economy, and it’s over time to bring the external costs to the table as we do that and as we build a cleaner economy for our future.

Photo by Zbynek Burival on Unsplash

Nonprofits are Struggling to Adapt to our Strange New Normal — (Part 1)

(This part 1 of a series on how COVID-19 is affecting Nonprofits)

COVID-19 has been a perfect storm for traditionally-run nonprofits. The way this pandemic has necessitated altering our society as a whole is directly and profoundly impacting the way nonprofits must consider strategy and operations. To understand how this impact is playing out, it’s important to gain an understanding of how most nonprofits operate. It’s a topic that, until I joined Astra Labs, I didn’t have much insight into.

Having spent time in the biotech startup world, the stark contrast in the assumptions made by nonprofits, and how those assumptions play out in the management of resources, have been jarring to me.

Six Assumptions Made By Traditional Nonprofits, and how COVID-19 has dismantled each of them. 

The First Assumption nonprofits operate on is that whenever tragedy strikes, or there is a significant issue which causes harm, they will be able to quickly quickly leverage donations as an integral factor of their response. Naturally, this relies on areas not hit by a tragedy or natural event to have money or resources they can spare in order to be able to raise funds that can be used to deliver aid to areas that are strongly affected.

However, when something truly goes global, like this pandemic has, raising money or acquiring resources and donations from unaffected areas becomes almost impossible. Since each area is affected, many turn inward trying to do whatever they can to support their own communities first in an effort to facilitate reaching out and help others from a position of strength later. Unfortunately, due to the pace of spread, most people are currently working to strengthen their local communities and areas right now, and therefore outside aid in the form of donations and resources become disproportionately more difficult to acquire in impoverished communities. Many lack the tests and resources to contain and control these problems, leading to more suffering down the line.

The Second Assumption is that many resources do not need to be stockpiled and the small supply of critical stockpile resources that exist are usually reserved for immediate use. For example, initial food and shelter that could be provided to a hurricane-stuck area will fill the gap until further supplies can be sent into the region. Or a small cache of first aid supplies could be used quickly in the event of a disaster until medical supplies can be flown in.

This depends on there being an available capability in the market for people to manufacture critical supplies in short notice and a workforce to spin up these types of manufacturing quickly enough that a meaningful response to the demand can be created. However, this is difficult when manufacturing is centralized in one or two regions of the world, when those regions are hit hard, are impacted early that result in disrupting the middle of the supply chain, and affecting everyone else’s ability to adequately prepare for the coming storm. This is then compounded by further supply chain interruptions as the virus hits different regions — causing intermittent shutdowns on raw material extraction, manufacturing of special parts, or even disruptions in shipping lanes — preventing the flow of critical supplies that global distributed stockpiles might have alleviated.

Naturally then, a Third Assumption unfolds. We have all come to collectively rely upon the dependability of global manufacturing capabilities and the infallibility of Just-In-Time (JIT) manufacturing and logistics to get things where they need to go. Nonprofits have bought into that assumption, too. Naturally, these systems far outstrip most organization’s capabilities to stockpile resources in the first place. The thought here is that in whatever situation arises that those stockpiles will be insufficient, it’s a simple idea to quickly order whatever else is needed with funds on-hand.

A supply chain with zero surplus or stockpiles anywhere along the way is inherently an efficient one. However, it’s also the least capable of weathering interruptions. When random interruptions are thrown into the mix, delays happen quickly, and cascade through a system without any buffer zones. As these cascades create shortages, everyone is trying to acquire supplies they need and near-term tension causes exhaustion and price spikes, leading to further waste and ineffective use of funds. Therefore, when dealing with disaster situations, and other unpredictable events, one shouldn’t discount the incredible strategic advantage of stockpiling critical supplies and resources, around the globe, and using them as an additional pool to weather the storm.

The Fourth Assumption made by traditional nonprofits is that their responses will only be needed for a short amount of time — granting that most disasters are short-lived — and humanity has a handle on how to deal with the most commonly occurring ones; floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, famine, hunger, and disease outbreaks. That is what is needed for a nonprofit to fill in the gaps before our lumbering systems kick in and provide aid and support.

Covid-19 and its isolation procedures have dragged on for quite some time already. While there is now talk of re-opening in a few months, some experts are saying we are not in the clear just yet. People fear that we might experience another wave, or there may be continually recurring resurgences unless and until we get a handle on this thing. There is also talk about how vaccine development may take another 12 months from where we are today and afterwards we will need to manufacture and distribute those vaccines. A vaccine seems to also be one of the few permanent solutions to this pandemic. It will take a gargantuan effort to distribute them globally. In the meantime, People will be apprehensive and it will take time for the economy to regain the lost momentum. Nonprofits still have much work ahead of them as we repair the damage to all our systems, and people struggle to make up for missed payments, shrinking savings, and more.

The Fifth Assumption made by traditional nonprofits is that they do not need large cash reserves or a significant runway built into the budget. The general sentiment is money should be spent quickly to provide immediate aid / relief. And, if there is a need, donors will rise to the occasion in providing more cash flow. This has *generally* been true, but isn’t always true. However, more than 80% of nonprofits operate with only 6-12 months of cash reserves on hand, much of which is already allocated according to their budget.

Due to the isolation and shutdown measures taken by governments, Global  GDP’s have taken a massive hit. This has rippled through all parts of the economy and many people who would ordinarily happily donate to relief efforts are now cash-strapped and unable to help out. As a result nonprofits who’s strategies depended on this influx of cash are now met with a difficult choice: do they scale back efforts in order to maintain funding through an uncertain timeline, continue to operate until they run out of cash and be paralyzed, or increase their fundraising efforts in an attempt to get ahead of the problem? None of the choices are particularly appealing, and all of them are risky.

The Sixth Asssumption made by nonprofits is the that conducting operations on the basis of the inherent availability of volunteer time and volunteer manpower is an easy way to cut cost and add flexibility. Relying on volunteers allows them to scale their activities to the occasion at hand or keep volunteers in reserve. As a result, many of their capabilities are tied to the the availability of volunteer time and those volunteers’ ability to do ground-work where and when it is needed. This is a decidedly low-tech approach that has allowed nonprofits to scale some things that do not scale well, but their workforce is also vulnerable to economic conditions.

This approach collapses when the entire world switches to working from home, staying in physical isolation, and sometimes even being mandated from not being outdoors. Furthermore, many nonprofits are weak in their implementation of digital strategies, or don’t appropriately adapt to the digital world well, and therefore are cut off from their most successful efforts to give aid to others. This can be frustrating because funds cannot be used in the most effective ways, and new funds cannot be raised in traditional ways that previously worked well. Once again, it leads to an inability to be maximally effective at a time when the world needs it most.

So Where Do We Go From Here?  

One of the tragic things about this pandemic is how quickly many medium sized nonprofits went from providing aid to absolutely struggling to stay alive and operational. As this pandemic drags on, we keep seeing wonderful and historically effective organizations fold under the pressures, or remain alive only in name, rendered immobile due to their diminished ability to raise funds. This is truly a tragedy because many of the medium size nonprofits are an excellent blend of being quick to respond to problems and run in an efficient manner. I truly think the world is worse off with their loss and I fear that many others will be heavily affected before this is over.

Covid-19 is truly the most perfect storm for many of these organization. It has systematically eroded away the assumptions built into the models of most nonprofits because of the measures we have needed to take in order to flatten the curve and slow down the spread of this virus. 

At Astra, we saw these problems coming from a distance. We have always operated digitally and remotely. One of the reasons I joined the organization is to help craft our strategy for the coming decade and ensure that disasters on a global scale would not prevent us from carrying out our mission. In subsequent parts of this series, I will elaborate on the advantages of nonprofits moving to the digital world, outline some of the strategies required, and what assumptions may not apply anymore.

(In Part 2, I will talk about why traditional nonprofits are struggling to go digital, even though doing so will allows them circumvent some of these problems…)

Corona, Liberty, & Little Tyrants

“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

Benjamin Franklin

I’m writing this article from one of the first U.S. cities to order public lockdowns, San Francisco. This local government isn’t really known for doing anything right, but even fools get things right on occasion. Luckily, we have bright people running local tech businesses who thought it best to play it safe and ordered their workers to work from home. The city of San Francisco then followed suit.

Now, we find ourselves in a city whose makeup will be changed after this event winds down. The major concern that I have relates to the unintended consequences of shutting down economies out of an abundance of safety all while I have internal conflicts with these mandates for the sake of liberty.

Personally, I don’t think the government has the constitutional authority to force businesses to shut down over something like this unknown and novel event. There are governments across this nation depriving business owners and private citizens the right of pursuit of happiness(free enterprise), the First Amendment by punishing citizens for worshiping their religion, violating the Second Amendment by discriminating against gun shops from operating during a time of crisis when protection is vital, violating the Fifth Amendment by depriving those of liberty with house arrest and property without due process without market rate compensation, the Eighth Amendment by issuing excessive fines for not wearing masks or sitting in a parking lot outside of a church, and scores of other violations of liberty. And for what? Safety? Is it safe to release criminals from jails but then threaten to arrest people going to parks or beaches and take them to jail for getting fresh air?

None of this makes rational sense.

The reality is that people are justifiably scared. There is an unseeable threat lingering among the population and making people ill, but that doesn’t justify creating other threats by overreacting with heavy-handed government mandates or regulations.

Elon Musk, Twitter

Entire industries have been shut down arbitrarily through edicts. Even Elon Musk isn’t immune from this. The local county officials have resisted efforts to allow him to reöpen the only U.S.-based Tesla assembly plant in Fremont, California. There are around 10,000 people who work at that factory who are not able to go to work and it’s putting an entire manufacturing company at risk.

People need to work and the notion that we can have on-going lockdowns is simply untenable. The lockdowns may have been well-intended, but they ultimately will cause more harm than good in the long term. We have gone along with them in the early days because it was reasonable to try and avoid overrunning our healthcare system and causing a breakdown in services. Through this preventative measure, we have slowed the rate of infections to a controllable rate where we aren’t facing hospitals going over their capacity.

However, we have continued to see the voices of little tyrants calling for more government restrictions and asking for the bankrupting of Americans on a whim. Take for example, California Governor Gavin Newsom. The rates of infection have been lower here than what were expected, yet he’s upset with the fact that people are going out to parks and beaches after two months of lockdowns. Who is he to put citizens on house arrest without committing a crime? No one. He still insisted on singling-out Orange County and Newport Beach for individuals going out and behaving responsibly, for the most part, by keeping their distance from others even though they were at the beach, away from their hamster cage at home.

Sheriff Don Barnes, Twitter

Fortunately, patriots in Orange County resisted the shutdown and staged a protest in Orange County along the beach and Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes publicly stated that he wouldn’t use his deputies to enforce Governor Newsom’s threat because he hasn’t seen those patrons as presenting a threat and that he takes his sworn responsibility of ensuring the liberties of his fellow citizens seriously. This public statement was heartening to see in a time where we are seeing many being forced to stay at home under defacto house arrest.

It’s time that we hold our mayors and governors accountable. These local entities have a much greater impact on our daily lives than larger government entities, but they are all still required to follow the U.S. Constitution. If they are insisting on lockdowns then what’s needed are metrics to base the decisions on. With metrics, a baseline is established for what has been documented and goals can be set for future rollback.

Government can’t force citizens into bankruptcy by depriving them the liberty to earn income or operate their businesses, especially upon purely arbitrary reasoning or gut feelings. That’s now how liberty works. We need to start releasing workers back to their jobs while wearing masks. Business owners and employees can make these choices for themselves and don’t need government to dictate to them how to behave. The majority of this social distancing is voluntary behavior. So, stop forcing closures which threaten people with increased financial and health risks.

I suppose a silver lining in all of this is that maybe our citizenry will reëxamine the civil liberties that they’re entitled to and defend them more actively. We aren’t serfs to tyrants. We are pervicacious Americans and this aggression won’t stand.

Food Disruption – The Strange New Normal

It’s May 2020 and most people have been pretty shocked by recent supply disruptions. For reasons still unknown, it started with toilet paper and bottled water. Then soap, bleach, detergent, and even vinegar disappeared off of shelves. And when restaurants were ordered closed, entire sections of grocery stores were emptied.

For those that live in areas where blizzards or hurricanes are frequent, they are more familiar with this behavior. For many though, this is a new and strange reality.

Photo by Orlando Leon on Unsplash

Pre-Corona society in the U.S. was a remarkable study in efficiency, reliability, and profitability – largely thanks to “Just in Time Inventory”. We all took for granted that the stores would always be stocked, that the Starbucks would have coffee, and that Waffle House would always have a seat for you.

This hasn’t always been the case. In the 1970’s OPEC launched an oil embargo against the US. Gasoline was rationed to a few gallons, cars lined up for miles at stations, and traffic ground to a halt.

During WW2, strict rationing was implemented – everything was needed for the war effort. Households received a coupon book entitling the user the right to purchase certain items. Most families could buy one tire per year. Sugar was the first thing to be rationed. Steel aluminum, rubber were almost impossible to come by. Howard Hughes had to build his largest airplane out of wood because metal was unavailable, hence the name “Spruce Goose”.

Many more supply chain disruptions have been reported this week, massive disruptions, with food supply. Pasta and frozen potato products have been in short supply this week, and just today a major grocery chain, HEB, announced limits on meat purchases. Dozens of huge meat packing plants for chicken, beef, and pork have closed due to Corona infected workers in the last two weeks.

Photo by Stijn te Strake on Unsplash

We saw on the news this week milk producers pouring milk down the drains, farmers tilling under entire crops of potatoes, lettuce and tomatoes. It saddened me to read that 2 million chickens would be “humanely euthanized” and destroyed. At the same time the WHO is forecasting multiple major famines, and Americans out of work and hungry, are lining up 5,000 at a time at overwhelmed food banks.

These perverse outcomes harken back to the great depression of the 1930’s when farmers couldn’t sell food because the people who were starving had no jobs or money. Sometimes capitalism results in a deadlock, and it took major government intervention to right the ship. We aren’t quite there yet, but we do have some perverse outcomes from contract farming and “Just in Time Inventory”.

The idea behind Just in Time Inventory means companies try to avoid as much cost as possible with storing, maintaining, and paying taxes on idle inventory. The idea is to have inventory arrive only at the precise time it is needed. The flip side is that it results in very little elasticity in supply chains – options are severely constrained.

As of April 24th, the National Potato Council estimated there was about a billion dollars worth of potato products backed up because of closed distribution channels, like restaurants. The farmers grow specialized varieties for a limited number of buyers and can’t readily pivot when the buyers stop buying. They have to make the difficult choice of continuing to invest additional labor and costs into a crop or cutting their losses. In essence, it comes down to their individual short term financial decisions, which can sometimes be at odds with the national or global need.

Photo by Jyrki Nieminen on Unsplash

With chickens it’s a bit different. Major brands like Tyson hire growers to raise batches of chickens on a contract basis and provides the chicks and the feed. The growers compete with each other for bonuses, and can only supply those chickens to their contracted partner. The meat processing plants began to have their labor affected by Corona virus and had to shut down, leaving the contract growers in a bind. It costs a lot of money to maintain grown chickens, or ‘idle inventory’.  They also can’t sell to anybody else, so they (or the meat company) make the only financial decision they can – destroy the chickens. The chickens were eventually going to be killed for food anyway, but something just seems very wrong about creating life just to destroy it without benefit.

The end result is that grocery stores are now starting to ration out meat and other items as supply chains start to seize up. Indeed the President has invoked Defense Production Act this week to compel the plants to stay open. I’m guessing this will sort itself out in a month or two as workers recover and get back on the job and wait the 8-10 weeks for new chickens to be raised.

These outcomes were not completely unforeseen, and there are many lessons to learn from all of this. A plastics plant in Pennsylvania was able to get volunteer workers to live isolated at the plant for 28 days in order to insulate from outside infection and produce critical raw material for masks and other PPE. Maybe this is something that can done on a larger scale a meat processing plant for a short time. Issuing workers N95 masks and instituting strict controls and daily testing to help slow infection between them would be another alternative.

The reliable hamburger isn’t as reliable anymore, but we won’t starve, and we will have to roll with the Strange New Normal that is 2020 and beyond.

A fitting quote:

“I do. ‘Cause we’re not talking about sushi, it’s hamburgers.

I’m not kidding around,

it’s… these things. The everyday things.

The everyday American things.

The 99 cent things

that, when you suddenly have to be afraid of them, strike at the center of our equilibrium.”

-Aaron Sorkin, aka Toby Ziegler, West Wing

Post-COVID Innovation

Never let a good crisis go to waste

– Anonymous

There are plenty of studies and books examining how rates of innovation and small-to-medium sized business (SMB) creation have plummeted in the US over the past several decades. Regardless of whether you take them at face value, and what the causes of the declines may be, the US and other countries are going to have a cavernous hole where SMBs used to be.

The coronavirus seems to have infected and warped our sense of time, leaving us in a liminal place. It’s difficult to delineate where “here” is and when “there” will arrive. Regardless of when the chronological murk clears, it may be useful to ask: how can we prepare for “there” in a way that will help the SMB ecosystem so that it comes out more robust than it was before?

I have many friends working at startups in the Bay Area, and I myself work at one that’s pivoted to help SMBs access the Paycheck Protection Program. So the question hits close to WFH.

The Opportunities 

The pandemic will desiccate SMBs, but it also creates opportunities. For example:

  • Swaths of the world just got a taste in entrepreneurship; ranging from re-tooling machines into ventilators to boosting robotics and drones innovations. They just experienced, firsthand, the very real “why” behind why any society needs to build robustly.
  • Many jobs have been lost and are not coming back. This means a portion of the workforce will (1) be forced to re-skill and (2) switch industries and potentially cross-pollinate ideas.
  • Many people are (1) experiencing self-directed, virtual education at home, and/or (2) watching their kids learn virtually. The result is a world that is much more amenable to virtual education and skill development. 
  • Regulation had been slow to change. Now Congress and state politicians have been forced to acknowledge the necessity of removing regulatory drag. Like how telemedicine regulation has advanced more in the prior weeks than in the previous years. 

How can we best feed these opportunities so that our SMB ecosystem doesn’t just survive but gains from this downturn?

Photo by Louis Velazquez on Unsplash

New Policy Norms = Part of Our New Normal

Our policy norms have been puréed in a food processor. As a simple example, consider how discussions of UBI, for most Americans, were far outside the Overton Window prior to February. 

Below are some of the most interesting tools I’ve come across for stimulating the SMB ecosystem, which could form the basis of our new view of “normal” policy: 

  • WPA – Many paths out of our current circumstances seem like they may need a new New Deal. Much of the country’s digital infrastructure is woefully out-of-date. E.g., the SBA’s digital infrastructure was nowhere near capable of doling out PPP loans. Let’s subsidize coding and similar boot camps that feed into jobs updating national, state and municipal digital infrastructure that’s woefully out-of-date. On the other side of this, we’d have a much more technologically literate workforce, poised to fill the tech skills gap.
  • Matching Investments – One of the contributors to Israel’s thriving SMB environment is Yozma, a program through which the government matches VC investments and offers tax incentives for foreign VC money. And Singapore has similar government matching. These programs seem to work well by supercharging private market incentives. 
  • Social Safety Net – We’ll need to correct for the risk-aversion that younger generations will have after experiencing the Great Recession and/or COVID-19. One way is through stronger social safety nets. This could take the form of universal basic income or nationalized healthcare. Sweden’s nationalized healthcare system, for example, is a likely contributor to the country’s high entrepreneurship rates.
    • A tragically large number of people have found themselves relying on social safety nets like unemployment and $1,200 living expense checks. This means a large number of voters are experiencing the white swan reasons that it’s wise to have safety nets. And such measures can be seen as investments. For a perfect example of why, just look at the J.K. Rowling Effect: give a single mother a safety net, and she won’t shift her citizenship for tax purposes when she later experiences outlying success.
  • Student Debt – The unprecedented student debt situation in the US is an obvious source of risk-aversion, and expanding debt forgiveness is an increasingly acceptable political topic. One option to promote entrepreneurship is to expand loan forgiveness programs to include SMB founders that, say, employ 5+ people for more than two years.
  • Immigration – Immigration could easily fill its own post or book. TL;DR: immigrants create SMBs at higher rates than native populations. We should be opening our borders much more to skilled immigrants.

What are your thoughts on how we can mend our SMB ecosystem to be stronger than before COVID-19?