Friday, March 13, 2020

COVID-19: Update for March 13, 2020

Welcome to Friday the 13th, dear readers!  Here are a few useful links and tips concerning the coronavirus pandemic that I've gleaned over the past day or so.

First, as most readers know, I was involved with law enforcement as a prison chaplain for a number of years.  I wrote a book about it a while back.

In that capacity, I developed contacts with members of the FBI, US Marshals Service, and other agencies that I've maintained to this day.  I'm hearing interesting things from them about the supply of illegal drugs in our major metropolitan areas.  Basically, that supply is being cut off at the knees by the slowdown in world trade.  I hadn't realized how much the drug trade was dependent upon Chinese chemicals and precursor materials to process coca leaves into cocaine, or to make methamphetamine or heroin.  Also, apparently most of the synthetic marijuana (a.k.a. "spice") on the market comes from China, or is made with ingredients supplied from there.

This is apparently resulting in a severe shortage of illegal narcotics on the street in many cities.  I'm told that drug addicts (particularly among the homeless) in cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles and Portland are finding it very difficult to locate their next "fix", and to afford it if and when they do, because the shortage has led to increased prices.  There doesn't appear to be any relief in sight in the short term, and not much in the medium term.  One of my contacts is expecting unrest among the homeless community, including a significant increase in violence, as desperate addicts try to get drugs any way they can.  He says he won't be surprised if it leads to more general criminal violence - highly aggressive panhandling (with attacks if the victim won't offer assistance), robberies, assaults, etc.  He also reports growing disputes between gangs who have drugs to sell, and those who don't, leading to increased conflicts among criminals.  Drugs have allegedly been hijacked in transit or stolen from rival dealers on the street, and "turf wars" are said to be increasing.  The term "public service homicides" may have been bandied about . . .

Those of you living in metropolitan areas with a serious homelessness and/or gang and/or crime problem might wish to check this information with your local law enforcement agencies.  Be careful where you go, and how you conduct yourself in areas of increased risk.

My contacts also warn that the drug shortage is already leading to increased visits to emergency medical facilities by addicts desperate to "score" painkillers for a substitute "high".  Basically, they lie about their condition in an attempt to get Dilaudid or similar medications - mostly without success, because the staff are wise to their tricks.  Needless to say, at a time when ER's are looking at a vastly increased workload to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, this increase in drug-seeking will be very unwelcome.  It may also put other patients at risk if desperate addicts become violent in their demands.  Some ER's are hiring additional security personnel.  I understand some have requested a heavier police presence, but law enforcement agencies are facing their own staffing problems (not to mention the risk of having their already inadequate personnel numbers reduced even further due to quarantines and illness).  I foresee ongoing difficulties for ER's and hospitals.

Next, let's look at Italy.  I hadn't been able to figure out why so many cases erupted so quickly in that country.  However, I hadn't been aware of the greatly increased presence of Chinese in northern Italy, working particularly in the clothing and textile industry.  This article from 2018 gives a great deal of background.

The first significant wave of Chinese immigrants arrived in the industrial zone around Prato, a city fifteen miles northwest of Florence, in the nineteen-nineties. Nearly all of them came from Wenzhou, a port city south of Shanghai. For the Chinese, the culture shock was more modest than one might have expected. “The Italians were friendly,” one early arrival remembered. “Like the Chinese, they called one another Uncle. They liked family.” ... If you were willing to be paid off the books, and by the piece, Prato offered plenty of opportunities. Many Wenzhouans found jobs there. “The Italians, being canny, would subcontract out their work to the Chinese,” Don Giovanni Momigli, a priest whose parish, near Prato, included an early influx of Chinese, told me. “Then they were surprised when the Chinese began to do the work on their own.”

By the mid-nineties, Wenzhouans were setting up textile businesses in small garages, where they often also lived. Soon, they began renting empty workshops, paying with cash. The authorities didn’t ask too many questions. Prato’s business model was falling apart under the pressures of globalization. As it became harder for Italians to make a living in manufacturing, some of them welcomed the money that the Chinese workers brought into the local economy. If you could no longer be an artisan, you could still be a landlord.

Throughout the aughts, Chinese continued to show up in Tuscany. A non-stop flight was established between Wenzhou and Rome. Some migrants came with tourist visas and stayed on. Others paid smugglers huge fees, which they then had to work off, a form of indentured servitude that was enforced by the threat of violence.

There's more at the link.

It seems that today there are tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, of Chinese workers and entrepreneurs in northern Italy.  Many of them fly back and forth to China on a regular basis.  That would explain how the coronavirus spread to Italy so quickly, and within that country, too.

The economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to widen, like ripples across the surface of a pond - and the ripples are getting a lot bigger.  Major sporting events - even entire sporting seasons - have been postponed or cancelled;  major tourist attractions like Universal and Disney theme parks have been closed;  and several cruise lines have announced a temporary termination of their voyages.  (I hope they use the opportunity to deep-clean all their vessels.  It's not just coronavirus that's a major threat aboard cruise liners;  norovirus has also reared its ugly head on too many occasions.)

The thing about all these closures is that they've thrown tens of thousands of people out of work.  Theme park workers, ship crews, stadium staff . . . they've all lost their income, and there aren't any other jobs available.  Many Americans live paycheck-to-paycheck, so what are they going to do when there isn't a paycheck any more?  Food banks, public and private assistance programs (including those run by churches and charities), and similar organizations can expect a massive increase in applications for assistance - at a time when they can expect less support, because their regular donors can't afford it.  I foresee real problems with this.  If you work for, or with, such an organization, or are in any way involved with one, you might want to raise this question with them and see whether their plans address the new reality.

Other companies are going to be directly affected by this mass layoff of workers.  What about utilities, for example?  They make provision for bad debts as a normal cost of doing business, but what happens when a quarter, or a third, or half of their customers can no longer afford to pay their electricity or water bills?  Summer's almost here.  Most US houses built to modern standards are almost uninhabitable without air-conditioning (particularly in the South).  What if families can't afford to pay for it any longer?  That'll create even more health issues.

Something I've found in talking to people, and in correspondence with readers and friends, is that very few people are accurately assessing their personal risk factors.  I think it's vital to know where you stand in terms of the threat from coronavirus.  The Wall Street Journal provides a detailed look, including this graphic illustration of the risk of death among diagnosed patients:

That's pretty sobering for people like me to look at.  I fall into several of the higher-risk categories, so I'm being very careful to take extra precautions.  If you're over 60, and a smoker or former smoker, and have high blood pressure or heart issues, your effective risk is already over 10%.  That's not a comforting thought!

Another issue, brought up by a doctor friend of mine, is that the main factor in mortality from this disease isn't coronavirus itself, but pneumonia, to which it leads.  Pneumonia is treatable with antibiotics, if you can get them - but their supply is already limited, and is about to get even worse, because they're all made in China or with Chinese-sourced materials.  He advises those at higher risk to lay in a supply of suitable antibiotics if at all possible.  They may not be enough on their own - we may also need ventilator treatment or the like, which will also be in short supply - but they may be sufficient to prevent pneumonia becoming bad enough to require those additional measures.  I'm following his advice.  (Also, expect hospitals and the entire medical system to be overwhelmed almost to the point of collapse.  See reader comments below this earlier article for some eye-opening - and very worrying - descriptions.)

Finally, it's very, very important to realize that there are things we can do, and things we really should do, to protect ourselves, our loved ones, and our communities.  These are no longer optional - they're essential.  Tomas Pueyo, writing for "politicians, community leaders and business leaders", provides an excellent overview of the situation.  He begins:

Here’s what I’m going to cover in this article, with lots of charts, data and models with plenty of sources:
  • How many cases of coronavirus will there be in your area?
  • What will happen when these cases materialize?
  • What should you do?
  • When?
When you’re done reading the article, this is what you’ll take away:
  • The coronavirus is coming to you.
  • It’s coming at an exponential speed: gradually, and then suddenly.
  • It’s a matter of days. Maybe a week or two.
  • When it does, your healthcare system will be overwhelmed.
  • Your fellow citizens will be treated in the hallways.
  • Exhausted healthcare workers will break down. Some will die.
  • They will have to decide which patient gets the oxygen and which one dies.
  • The only way to prevent this is social distancing today. Not tomorrow. Today.
  • That means keeping as many people home as possible, starting now.

Again, more at the link.

We should be planning to implement as many defensive measures as we can, right now, including "social distancing".  That means not going out unless necessary, observing basic hygiene precautions, and trying to avoid putting ourselves into situations where we're more at risk.  Obviously, how we do this will vary from place to place.  In our northern Texas area, there are at this time no diagnosed cases of coronavirus at all, according to officials;  so most people are still moving around freely without obvious precautions.  However, that'll change in due course, and has already changed in larger urban areas with more exposure to the disease.  We'll all be caught up in it soon enough.

Be careful, friends.  This is going to get worse before it gets better, and that won't be soon.



A Reader said...

I hope our churches will think well outside the box about how they can meet the spiritual needs of their congregants and parishioners. My folks' church has already decided not to observe the Lord's Supper the next time it comes around. I am just waiting to hear what our UMC District or the Texas Annual Conference will announce similar measures.

Eric Wilner said...

A quibble:
"Pneumonia is treatable with antibiotics, if you can get them" - well, bacterial pneumonia is treatable with antibiotics. Viral pneumonia, not so much.
SARS-CoV-2 can cause viral pneumonia, as well as inviting secondary bacterial infections.
So, the usefulness of antibiotics depends on what kind of pneumonia you come down with. (And, even if it's the viral sort, I guess a suitable antibiotic could prevent those secondary infections.)

Ray - SoCal said...

There was another article a week or so ago that noted the lack of certain drugs on the street, I can't remember where I saw it.

My guess is a HUGE amount of precursors get shipped to Mexico legally by China, and then used in the drug manufacturing. China has been very happy to do Opium War Version 2, where they flood the US with drugs, while making money. It's a win win for the Chinese, hurt their enemy, make money, and gain leverage.

Ray - SoCal said...

On why Italy is in such bad shape, vs. South Korea. They both started with the same amount of infections, but South Korea has gotten it under control.

This may be relevant:

My Guesses:

1. Temperature Zone
2. Choices made by Italian Government to not do wide spread testing, as South Korea did.
3. Cultural attitude of laws are for reference only. The Pakistani immigrant that kept on delivering for a Chinese restaurant did not help.
4. Not cutting off flights from China.
5. Huge Chinese immigrant community, as you noted, working in the fashion industry doing sweatshop labor
6. State of Italian Hospitals

HT Meaninginhistory - The map is amazing, Temperature vs. Coronavirus hot spots.

And in Wuhan, temperature has been going up, and # of cases down.

CarlS said...

Thinking out loud . . .

Any else notice the correlation between age groups and deaths?? Anyone else recall the numerous discussions of social and economic issues caused by an increase in the aged population? Anyone else ponder the way the virus seemingly targets those age groups (which are claimed to be) hampering social change?

[aside: in America, that population which was educated the old-fashioned way, with classes on the Constitution, States and Individual Rights, and real Math to allow better understanding of cost-and-benefit analysis of government spending. In there and in other countries, the generations which are most resistant to increases in government power?]

Anyone else recall the various rationales for population control espoused by those who have been and are currently in control of health organizations and agencies world-wide?

Anyone else remember the down-played discussions of bio-weaponry?

Just saying . . .

Eric Wilner said...

CarlS: I put on my tinfoil hat for that one a couple of days ago.
This virus doesn't make much sense as a military weapon, but as a Green weapon for remaking society it makes a twisted kind of sense.

California Midwesterner said...

Speaking to the theme parks thing, I live a little under an hour's drive from Disneyland, in Southern California.
I was greatly relieved when I saw their press release announcing the theme park closure include that their employees will still be paid while the park is closed. It's one less source of friction, discontent, and possible desperation in a tough time.