One of the things which has kept me, relatively, sane through the whole COVID thing is Angus (pictured above). 40 pounds of surprisingly well trained, thoroughly mischievous, doggy delight. He is never more than six feet from me except when my boys take him up to get the mail.
We got him at three months late last November. Between the death of my mother, Christmas and snow, we did not get him into the vet for his second round of shots until COVID hit making it problematic to do non-emergency trips to the vet. But, finally, a couple of weeks ago he got his shots. Which meant he could, at last, romp with his fellow dogs.
There is a wonderful, fenced, five or so acre (with ocean beach) dog park about ten minutes from our house. Angus is a car professional so, dropping my youngest off at hockey practice, off we went.
Dog parks are interesting because they bring together lots of people all of whom have an interest in common – dogs. I was curious about how Angus would fare. Curious, not concerned, because Angus is entirely non-aggressive and often a bit shy. We got to the park and there they were, forty or so dogs ranging from miniature poodles to a couple beautiful golden retrievers and on to everything from beagles to bouviers. Angus stuck close to me but was happy to take a few runs and meet small and medium sized dogs. He was wary of the big guys.
Dog parks are very social in the sense that as the dogs meet so do their owners. Social distance was easy and we were outdoors. No one wore a mask. COVID came up in conversation a few times with most of the dog owners fed up with the whole thing.
It was the perfect thing to do to kill the hour and a half before it was time to pick Max up from his practice. Angus had a riot and was a usefully tired dog as he hopped into the backseat. He fell asleep on the five minute drive to the Rec Centre.
Interestingly, there were no “Social Distance” signs up at the dog park. In fact there was no official mention at all of COVID. This was the normal we all want to get back to. In fact, at the dog park, normal had never left.
In earlier posts I have mentioned that Vitamin D seemed to have some positive effects for COVID. But, to be honest, I had no serious idea as to how significant that benefit might be.
Well, now there is a large study which has put some numbers to the hunch:
“In a study of more than 190,000 people who had been screened for COVID-19, nearly 13% of those with lower-than-recommended levels of the nutrient tested positive for the coronavirus, the data showed.
Conversely, just over 8% of those with “adequate” vitamin D levels and 6% of those with high levels had COVID-19, according to the researchers.
Overall, the researchers found people with “deficient” levels of vitamin D were at 54% higher risk of having the coronavirus.
“Simply going to your local pharmacy, purchasing a vitamin D supplement and taking it as directed can significantly reduce your risk for getting this deadly disease,” study co-author Dr. Michael F. Holick told UPI.
“That’s as good, if not better, than what any potential vaccine will do in terms of protection,” said Holick, a professor of physiology, biophysics and molecular medicine at Boston University.” UPI
I have been taking 1000 units a day since early spring and, with the weather changing and spending more time indoors, I will bump that to 3000 a day.
However, the larger implications of this study need to be thought about. Vitamin D is about as benign a substance as we can imagine. It is very cheap and very available and you can start taking it today.
Now, it is not a cure nor a 100% effective prophylactic, however, a push to lower the number of people suffering from Vitamin D deficiency might be significantly more effective than masks and a great deal cheaper than lockdowns.
Remember, there has never been a vaccine for AIDS however there emerged drug protocols which have changed an AIDS diagnosis from a death sentence to a manageable, chronic illness. My own view is that COVID will be defeated with better testing, better treatment and a drive towards improving people’s immune systems. It looks like ensuring everyone has sufficient levels of Vitamin D as we go into Fall is a very easy step to take.
It is so cheap and so benign that it really could be given away. But, and here is where things get a bit nasty, it is not obvious that public health officials and politicians responsible for the COVID file are willing to suggest pro-active responses to the virus. Social distancing, masks, lockdowns are all, practically, parts of a shelter in place mindset.
If, after looking at the study cited above and the many other studies which suggest Vitamin D improves both resistance to infection and response to infection, public health officials and politicians endorsed it, we might make more rapid progress against COVID.
The fact that the hospitalization rates, rates of admission to ICUs and deaths are all down, suggests that even if you are unlucky enough to get COVID you have a very good chance of being asymptomatic or of suffering only mild illness. Adding Vitamin D to the mix would, I suspect, push those numbers even further down. (Cases will likely remain high or even go a bit higher but that will mainly reflect increased testing and a good deal of debate as to how sensitive the tests should be.)
Psychologically, I suspect a lot of people would benefit from a sense that they are doing something to protect themselves and their loved ones and their communities. The rise of “the mask”, despite considerable expert doubt as to masks’ efficacy suggest people want to “do something” about the virus. Taking a couple of thousand units of Vitamin D a day might well be that something.
[Note: A recent article in the Telegraph written by a group of eminent scientists suggests that by boosting your immune system you may be boosting a pre-existing partial immunity to COVID. Well worth a read.]
In the UK, France, Ontario and various other jurisdictions COVID case counts have risen at an alarming rate in the past few weeks. Unfortunately, mandatory masking and strict lockdowns seem to be the only tools governments feel they have in the face of case count surges.
It can be argued that the increasing case counts may be an artifact of more testing. Or a product of the sensitivity of the tests themselves; but the actual case numbers keep going up.
If you look at the top graph the sky is falling and masks, social distance, lockdowns, school closures and “stay at home” all make a lot of sense. If you look at the bottom graph, COVID is over.
In Montreal over this last weekend up to 100,000 people marched against mandatory masks. The mainstream media downplayed the turnout and suggested that there were all sorts of conspiracy theorists, Qanon believers, far right and Trump supporters marching. There probably were. But I suspect the vast majority of the marchers were responding to the disproportionate response of the Quebec government to graphs which look very much like Ontario’s.
People are more than willing to go along with governmental measures they can see the point of. “14 days to flatten the curve and prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed” made sense back in April. And the measures taken then may well have worked. But it is mid-September and the hospitals and their ICUs are not even slightly overtaxed.
So what is going on? Let’s simply dismiss the loonier conspiracy theories about Gates wanting to inject everyone with micro chips and Soros wanting to impose unlimited lefty control and the UN pushing Agenda-21 under the guise of the virus and a host of other wingnut positions. The more reasonable position is that the media reports “newsworthy” stories and low or no deaths does not make the grade and, politicians and public health people were completely overwhelmed at the start of COVID. With the best will in the world they relied on models which, it turns out, wildly over-estimated the spread and the severity of the virus. Now they are like cats up a tree. Easy to get up, not so easy to get down.
Here’s the problem: politically, opening up too soon and seeing a rise in actual deaths, is seen as fatal. All the more so when case numbers are rising. The precautionary principle has taken hold and politicians see a huge downside to anything but the most draconian measures. After all, what happens if the death count goes up?
Add to that political calculation the fact about half the population is heavily invested in the idea that COVID is very dangerous for everyone and that there is no precaution too stringent to protect us. That part of the population wears their masks, stays home and hopes there will be a vaccine before Christmas. In terms of the graphs above, these people remain in the last week of April. These are the people who look at case rates and demand everyone mask up.
The rest of us have moved on, taking sensible precautions for the locations in which we find ourselves, but trying to resume a normal life. We tend to look at “case fatality rates” and try to get statistics broken out by locality and demographics. Vigilant but optimistic.
For the moment, case counts and masks seem to be winning the day. Lockdowns are being re-imposed. Halloween looks to be cancelled and Thanksgiving may be limited to immediate family. Christmas, whatever happens, will be muted. “Out of an abundance of caution,” seems to be the prevalent sentiment. The fact that the hospitalization rate and death count curves have flattened and, in fact, fallen is not cutting through yet.
I suspect it will be the New Year before the tide turns. People have been scared witless and it will take a while for them to calm down. Even as the general population begins to gain perspective, the economic damage will only be starting. Everything from supply chains to commercial real estate to personal debt will have to re-calibrate to a world which has, effectively, lost a year economically.
Back in March I wrote a couple of posts about how it made sense for governments to shovel some money into the wallets of people displaced by the COVID pandemic. What I did not anticipate was that the free money train would run into October. Nor did I anticipate that the virus itself would continue along for this long.
Now, the good news is that while case numbers are still high – and getting higher in some locations – the hospitalization, ICU and death rates have dropped significantly. COVID is still a nasty disease that you do not want to catch, but it is not anything like a death sentence for the vast majority of people who catch it.
“Third, did Canadians blow this? Handing over $94 billion in direct deposits made real estate less affordable, goosed motorcycle sales and drove the price of two-by-fours through the roof at the same time 25% of all homeowners with mortgages decided to stop making payments and unknown numbers of tenants welched on rent. There’s a growing sense we might come out of this in way worse shape thanks to the unregulated flow of CERB cash. More spending did not reduce debt. In fact, household borrowing just hit a new high of $2.33 trillion.
Covid really messed things up. The political response was extreme. Maybe that was the right response. Perhaps not. Obviously a lot of people needed income support when their livelihoods were erased. Others found CERB cash replaced the need to look for a job. Others quit work to collect it. Small businesses complained of a lack of willing employees. And the gush of cash, along with crashed interest rates, has inflated prices and increased personal obligation. Now we have an unfathomable shortfall in public finances, and a government unbothered by it.”
Add to “free money” significant changes in how people actually live – working from home being the biggest – and the idea that the old normal is coming back is fading.
For lots of people, the old normal was not all that great. Minimum wage is pretty unattractive when you have had six months of no deductions $2000 a month. An hour’s commute each way to a cubicle in the sky is not enticing when your current commute time is 10 seconds. Going back to university classes seems a little pointless when it can be taught remotely – and yes, university is about more than just the classes. Same with high school. It is not obvious who misses shopping in malls or shopping in general. Some of this might return when the virus is finally contained; but it will not return unaltered.
Justin Trudeau is planning on rolling out a comprehensive strategy for the re-opening/re-structuring of Canada in the post COVID world. I expect a hodge-podge of dim green ideas and some sort of Universal Basic Income. Unfortunately, I do not expect any serious proposals as to who is to pay for it and how. Unless I miss my bet completely, Trudeau and his people will take the position that additional spending can simply become part of the Canadian National Debt financed at the current incredibly low interest rates. Which can work for a while provided that the money is cycled into economically productive activity (like building pipelines or very small nuclear reactors). Somehow, I doubt that is what the Liberals have in mind.
Instead, I suspect we will get a bunch of witless green energy schemes along the lines of the green disaster which hollowed out the Ontario economy.
Which will be a missed opportunity as an intelligently designed UBI combined with a serious infrastructure commitment might well serve Canada. By well designed, I mean a program which consolidated all of the payments government – federal and provincial – make to individuals into a single monthly payment. The would include welfare, disability, Child Tax Benefit, GST Credits, EI, CPP, OAP and a raft of other payments. In 2019, on just CPP, OAP, EI and the Child Tax Benefit, the federal government spent 100 billion dollars. In 2017 (the last year I could find numbers for) the provinces and territories spent 69 billion on “social protection” programs which include welfare and disability.
There are roughly 30 million Canadians over the age of 15. A $24,000 a year UBI would cost 720 billion, a little less than twice the federal goverment’s total program spending for 2019. However, a UBI program properly designed would likely make full monthly payments to no more than 10% of the adult population. The rest of the population would have the right to claim the benefit only if their income fell beneath a certain threshold. By basing the UBI on income some of the perverse incentives inherent in the scheme (such as work shyness and the penalization of effort) could be reduced.
The great advantage of a UBI lies in its elimination of the need for everything from EI to OAP to welfare. It is not administratively complex – just like the GST Credit or Child Tax benefit, you file a tax return and receive your payments if eligible.
Now, if you do the math on a 10% eligibility at $24,000 per year, the program would cost 72 billion a year, far less than the $169 billion the federal and provincial governments are now spending. In fact, if 20% of Canadians were eligible, this UBI would still be cheaper.
A critical feature of a well designed UBI is making sure that additional income from employment is encouraged rather than punished. Realistically, $24,000 is not much money (though still better than BC current welfare or disability rates). Being able to earn without forfeiting the UBI is very important. Were it up to me I would set maximum earnings at at least $12,000 a year and, ideally, $24,000 before the UBI was tapered off. And I would treat couples as individuals as is the case under the current tax system.
This sort of well designed UBI with the corresponding elimination of other forms of income support would take a while to implement effectively. Which is where having a bit of “free money” would be a very good thing. But the best part of this sort of UBI is that, net, it would actually reduce income support spending at both the federal and provincial levels. Reductions which will be vital because “free money” is not going to last forever.
COVID-19 is a nasty disease. All the nastier if you are over 60. While treatment options and techniques have improved since the beginning of the outbreak, avoiding the disease altogether is the optimal strategy. But how?
The graph above is both encouraging, very flat number of deaths, and alarming, significant rise in number of cases. It reflects increased testing. Number of hospitalizations and admissions to ICU remain pretty flat. However, the increased case count certainly made me reassess my situation and my family’s.
Everyone’s situation is different and, with the best will in the world, public health people have to deal with people in aggregate giving general guidelines. I have been saying since the beginning that each of us needs to deal with our own situations and take what measures we can. Here are a few ideas which may work for you. So far they have worked for me and my family.
Get your Vitamin D level up: Right from the beginning I have made a point of getting out in the sun (with no sunscreen) for at least 20 minutes a day. And I have been taking 1000 IU a day in supplement (2000 on rainy days). Can’t hurt, might help, was my reasoning. Turns out this was correct. “Vitamin D deficiency increases a person’s risk for catching COVID-19 by 77% compared to those with sufficient levels of the nutrient, a study published Thursday by JAMA Network Open found.” (source) Vitamin D supplements are cheap and, well, having sufficient Vitamin D levels is good for you on all sorts of levels.
Zinc: I recently started supplementing with 50mg of zinc daily. The science is all over the place on Zinc and COVID but there are virtually no downsides. In general, Zinc is an immune system booster and I have taken it for years during cold and flu season. It’s cheap and, after initial shortages in the early spring, readily available.
Vitamin C: Every year about Labour Day I begin to take 1000 IU of Vitamin C and I keep taking it until May or June. Again, this is about supporting my immune system rather than about COVID specifically. Again, cheap, available and beneficial. Why not?
What this means to me and my family is that our risk of contracting the virus is substantially lower than if we lived in a community with higher numbers of cases. That, in turn, means we can be less concerned about day to day interactions with others.
Limit exposure to higher risk situations: This is really about risk assessment and balance. Susan and I are well past the age where going to a rave is a live option; but the fact is that any large gathering presents a significant risk. Such gatherings are effectively banned in BC and will remain so for some time.
But what about the rest of life? Here having some sense of the overall infection rate in your area is important. I would not take the subway in Toronto or New York, I would be fine taking the bus in Sidney.
It is not obvious to me that social distancing – whether 1 meter or 2 – is particularly effective but I am perfectly willing to keep my distance in the grocery store. What I wish public health officials would recommend along with social distancing is social “speed”. I suspect there is a greater chance for viral transmission in the lineup to use the hand sanitizer than there would be if that lineup was eliminated. Simply being a bit organized when you shop reduces the time you are actually in the store.
You can also socially “schedule”. Most of the stores in my community are open until 9:00PM and are pretty empty from 7:00PM onward. Taking advantage of that emptiness costs nothing and cuts risk.
Staying at home: Our family is lucky. I work from home, the kids are home schooled and Susan prefers to be at home. There is no lock down in BC but people have re-ordered their lives to stay at home far more than they did before COVID.
People who used to work in offices are now working from home and that means they are not exposed to everything from public transit to dirty elevator buttons to their co-workers. Again, how useful this is depends on how much virus is in your community; but staying at home more often than not will improve your chances of avoiding COVID.
Masks: As a general rule I do not wear a mask because I live in a low virus area and make a point of limiting my social interactions. I am able to control my life to the point where I am virtually never in a situation where it is impossible to socially distance.
(As a matter of science I am pretty convinced that masks outside a high contact, long duration setting – think Emergency Waiting Room – are unlikely to be very useful. But the science is very ambiguous.)
Hand Sanitizer: I suspect hand sanitizer will become a permanent fixture in stores. We have very nice spray sanitizer in both our cars and it is now simply routine to spritz when we get back to the car. Low cost, might help, why not.
Hand Washing: Public Health Authorities have been all over the place on many COVID issues but they are united on proper hand washing. This is not surprising, proper hand washing is key to any number of public health concerns. Flu and cold season could be reduced in severity with proper hand washing. (It will be interesting to see what happens to flu and cold season this year.) The thing about hand washing is that it is a very simple thing to do and it takes all of 20 seconds after you use the washroom or come in from any activity.
Vaccination: We do not have a vaccine as yet though we are promised that something maybe ready this year. Thanks but no thanks.
I am a huge fan of vaccines for things like polio, mumps, diphtheria and a variety of other diseases. If I were travelling to a place which had a specific endemic disease for which there was a vaccine, I would almost certainly take it. However, I don’t take the flu shot and I would be very reluctant to take the first rounds of the COVID vaccine.
No, I don’t think Bill Gates is trying to microchip me. My reluctance is based entirely on the standard risk reward analysis I use in the rest of my response to COVID. Yes it is a nasty virus. But if you are under 70 and have no pre-existing conditions, it is very unlikely to kill you. And if you take the basic measures outlined above, there is every chance that you will not catch the damned thing at all.
The risk profile of any new vaccine is initially unknown. It has to be tested and, most importantly, its effects have to be observed over a decent length of time and over a substantial population of test subjects before a risk profile can really be developed. Until that is done it is pretty much impossible to assess what risk a vaccine poses. (But don’t take my word for it, here is an excellent thread from a pharmacology PhD.)
Reducing my already slim chances of contracting the virus at an unknown cost is not a chance I am ready to take.
Self Monitoring: All the accounts I have read about COVID suggest that its onset is characterized by all manner of symptoms. From coughing to loss of the sense of taste or smell and on down the line. What has also emerged is that people can have COVID and barely notice it.
Without being obsessive about it, I take a minute when I wake up to simply see if there are any notable changes in how I feel. Not very scientific. I don’t take my pulse or blood pressure or temperature; I just sit on the side of our bed, breathe normally and take a mental inventory. Does it do any good? I have no idea. But taking a moment to be aware of how you actually feel seems sensible to me.
Hydroxychloroquine: What a mess. If you are unlucky enough to contract COVID and are hospitalized, don’t think for a second that HCQ is going to help much, if at all. That science is pretty well established.
Unfortunately, HCQ has become a political football rather than a discussion between doctor and patient. Given its long history as a safe drug in the treatment of other diseases, I think HCQ should be an option. Get the politics out of it.
That said, whether or not you need to take a drug prophylactically is, once again, a matter of risk assessment. Were I a front line health care worker dealing with COVID cases day in and day out, I would want HCQ as a condition of showing up for work. I’m not. And, as mentioned above, I live in a low virus intensity area, can control my social interactions and keep my immune system in decent shape.
Now, if one of those conditions changed. If Vancouver Island suddenly had huge case numbers as the much discussed “Second Wave” hit or an unrelated illness compromised my immune system, then I would want HCQ to be an option.
Like many things on this blog, this was written to order my own thoughts on COVID. To first time readers, nope, not a doctor or epidemiologist or virologist. Like the rest of the laity, I am trying to figure out what best to do for my family and myself in our particular situation.
My eldest son and I have a lively online conversation which has gone on for years. We disagree about a lot but recently we have agreed that the stock market is heading towards a crash. Not an if, a when. Oddly, we both see the end of September as the likely date. Simon cites market history, I am inclined to go with people understanding “events” and responding to that understanding. Here are a few.
The American Election Whether you are a Trump fan or a Biden supporter does not matter because the Election itself is the market event. Markets could live with either a Trump or a Biden victory; what they cannot live with is the growing possibility that the Election will not be decided on Election Day. In critical states such as Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, mail in ballots cannot begin to be counted until the polls are actually closed on Election Day. (You can get all the details in this excellent article, Why We Are Facing The Biggest Election Nightmare In Modern American History No Matter Who Ends Up Winning by Michael Snyder.)
Leaving aside the issues of fraud which arise with mail in ballots, the biggest problem is just how unlikely it is that we will know who has won the Presidency for days, perhaps weeks, after the polls have formally closed. The very definition of uncertainty.
Markets hate uncertainty and as the likelihood of a protracted vote count becomes more obvious the overall market is likely to become, in a word, skittish. Given that the general markets in the US, and to a degree in Canada, are already at all time highs, that will certainly tend towards defensive selling and profit taking. Which, in normal times, would actually be healthy. But these are not normal times.
COVID I think a plausible argument can be made that COVID, the disease, is abating. Case counts may pop here and there but that is almost always an artifact of more testing. Hospitalizations and death counts are low and going lower. The return to school will probably pop case counts in some places, but it is unlikely to have much impact on how many people get really, really sick. As one writer said about Sweden, “All the kindling is gone.” Which is pretty harsh but also, likely, accurate. COVID kills the elderly and the compromised; it is no fun for the rest of us but it is survivable.
However, the economic consequences of COVID, consequences which are entirely political rather than medical, are ripping through Western economies. Lockdowns, business closures, mandatory masking, broad layoffs, work from home, mortgage deferrals, evictions and eviction moratoriums are all in full swing. The idea of flattening the curve has given way to the goal of either avoiding or mitigating “the second wave”. The “vaccine” is variously “a month or two away”, “ready in 2021” or “very unlikely to be effective whenever it’s ready”.
Of course, the entire COVID “crisis” has become politicized with those on the left convinced that without masks and shutdowns we will all die, and those on the right certain that unless the economy restarts we’ll all die poor. Maskers see non-maskers as selfish, non-maskers see masks as a symbol of conformity. Democratic states wear their masks and their crashing economies as proud symbols of anti-Trump resistance. And so on.
From the market’s perspective the main effect of COVID is the creation of fear and uncertainty. While there are plenty of Robinhood traders happy to make good money day trading, there are also plenty of people eyeing the exits and wondering if “the top” has, in fact, arrived. The Robinhooders represent a tiny fraction of the very deep American stock market. If, as will almost certainly happen, they are hit with significant losses on their most recent FANG trades or if Tesla sinks like a stone, the overall markets won’t miss them. However, if the broader market becomes worried, the dash for the exits could be very ugly indeed. A so-called “second wave” of COVID, even if it is largely fictional could trigger a rush to cash out.
Antifa, BLM, protests, riots and arson In themselves, the various demonstrations and riots inspired by BLM and made nasty by Antifa, are largely irrelevant to all but a few hundred square blocks of a few American cities. (Yes, the craven pandering of big business and major league sports is obnoxious, but it is also very much a passing moment.) Applying a bit of crowd control and arresting leaders and organizers can, and has, shut the riots down where it has been allowed by politicians to happen. So far, BLM and Antifa have been denied the martyrs they need to grow.
In terms of economics, Antifa/BLM have caused several billion dollars worth of damage and made retailers more reluctant to locate in certain areas of certain American cities. However, America is a big place with a big economy, so the costs are relatively tiny. (Not so tiny for small businesses which have been torched.)
Psychologically and politically, the idea that there are nightly riots and that downtowns of relatively small cities like Kenosha could be razed is just one more shock to the system. The fact that police forces have been told to stand down in the face of the rioters and that state level prosecutors have declined to charge the rioters, erodes the faith people have in the overall system.
The fact that there are disturbances virtually every night drives home the message that there is no safety in the US. This is not actually true, the bulk of the United States will never see a BLM/Antifa protest much less riot; but that doesn’t actually matter. The riots and the seemingly impossible to appease demonstrators create a mood, a sense of unease.
Markets reflect the confidence of investors. Where that confidence is eroded the conditions are created for a crunch.
March and the Second Wave In late March we had what people called a mini-crash. The Dow, S&P 500, NASDAQ dropped hard as did the markets in other G-20 countries. At one point virtually every market in the world was off 25%. At the time commentators suggested this was a one time reaction to the economic effects of COVID.
The March crash very quickly reversed itself. The Fed turned on the money pipe and markets all over the world staged V shaped recoveries to the point where, last week the DOW, S&P 500 and NASDAQ were all at or near their all time highs.
But is it real? The March mini-crash suggested that the markets could be spooked easily. That they could recognize the immense economic implications of COVID. However, the speed of the recovery to new highs, suggests that the mini-crash did nothing to re-align the market’s value with the underlying realities of a collapsed GDP, very high unemployment and an accelerating “real” inflation rate.
Market crashes are sometimes triggered by a single event, the collapse of a bank, a commodity crash, or even a small war; but, more often, they happen when investors “lose confidence”. The end of the dot com bubble was not about the internet suddenly being useless, it was about millions of people saying, at more or less the same time, none of these dot com companies make any sense at these prices. It also happened when the overall economy was strong, American politics were in balance and there was no political pandemic battering the real economy.
The V shaped recovery from the March mini-crash suggests strongly that the real “correction” has not occurred yet. Remember, that in the dot com bubble and crash the NASDAQ went from a high of 4798 in March 2000 to a low of just of 1000 in two years.