COVID Early Warning

Published: 08-03-2020

I was 3 months early to COVID and spent that quiet period preparing my loved ones: enough (useful) PPE to last 10 people for 60 days, food to last 60 days, contingency plans in the event of infection, and the habits we might need to avoid what initially looked like a deadly virus.

That done I sent the email below to friends with actionable information and my working on why COVID was worth taking seriously:

(NB: This was written in February 2020.)

Oh hello.

I’m something of a coronahipster, having started to calmly panic at the very beginning of January. Since then I’ve been closely following the informational travesty and trying to tease actionable contingency plans from the string of bullshit.

I consider it wise to prepare for an unknown by locking down all the knowns, giving myself options to react if shizzle gets rizzle. I’ve thought about how I might do so for my needs and my family. You’re in my third circle, you blessed sausage.

I’ve shit-all medical knowledge but I can escape a paper bag with only my mind. Since you either know me or have worked with me you’re aware of my careful—sexy?—contempt for hyperbole and assumption. I reckon this essay is worth your time.

Your appetite for risk will inevitably be different from mine, as will your faith in your surroundings. Here are my thoughts, interpret as you will.

Two scaries, both of which are known unknowns: health and social.


I don’t know anyone without a vulnerable family member or loved one. My fears of any infection aren’t for me—I’m known to be dead ’ard—and I’ll grant the same for you.

Mortality rates, infection rates, mutation rumours are currently chocolate kettles. I’ve watched official death rates go from 0.1% to 3.5% and narrative jump from “don’t worry about it” to “WHERE WILL WE PUT ALL THE BODIES!?

When I hear data I ask a few questions, and I encourage you to do the same:

  • Who is collecting it?
  • How is this being collected? Is it hard to collect pro-actively?
  • What isn’t being measured?
  • How are the results being used?

Software folk, in between games of D&D, use the phrase ‘garbage-in garbage-out.’ I personally consider all of the figures I’ve seen to be dumpster fires.

When needs must though, eh? Can’t contingency plan without some stab at a scenario to plan against.

My ‘what would Sam do?’ decision-tree has been based on data from a cruise-ship infestation (the ‘Diamond Princess’) since the motives and context behind the data collection and publication were pretty good: up until March fucking it up had immense lose-your-job external pressure for all involved.

Of 3,700 people 20% were infected over a month or so.

Of those ~700, 15% have recovered and 1% have died thus far. Over half showed and suffered no symptoms.

Question the first // Might this go away?

The (superficially) closest thing to this in my lifetime was SARS, which affected me not at all. The WHO published their after-report in 2006: ‘SARS: how a global epidemic was stopped.

SARS was contained. When someone got it, they tracked down their contacts and locked down their recent locations and everyone in them. There were ~5 major outbreaks, all of which were caught in time and treated with gusto. Their conclusive summary:

Certain characteristics of the SARS virus made containment possible. Infected individuals usually did not transmit the virus until several days after symptoms began and were most infectious only by the tenth day or so of illness, when they develop severe symptoms. Therefore, effective isolation of patients was enough to control spread. If cases were infectious before symptoms appeared, or if asymptomatic cases transmitted the virus, the disease would have been much more difficult, perhaps even impossible, to control.

I conclude the COVID-19 containment ship has sailed; if it even could have been contained, it wasn’t.

Question the second // Is there risk of infection?

20% of people were infected on a cruise ship within a month, many of them after paranoia had taken hold.

I’ve never cruised but I’d guess it was less of an infection risk—shared surfaces and face-to-face contact—than the average office environment or tram journey.

From other WHO SARS reports: “There are currently no reports of the transmission of SARS from asymptomatic individuals.

Half of infected COVID-19 cruisoids were asymptomatic. I don’t know if that means they can spread it. If they can, bugger.

Will people self-isolate? If I’ve got a rent payment due in a week, I’ve sworn I’ll go to that goddamn thing with my girlfriend, and my boss is a bitch… then I’ll deal with it tomorrow; it’s probably nothing anyway.

There have been 12… 15… 18 known cases—where people walked in to a hospital and screamed that they exist—within 10 miles of my home.

I consider there to be a viable risk of infection.

Question the third // Is being infected a bad thing?

Lazy maths from a small ongoing sample gives 70:1 odds of death (with so very many caveats).

I wouldn’t take those odds on a condom, let alone the lives of my family.

Seems safe to assume those who haven’t yet recovered are the more seriously infected, so bump that up.

And the blindingly obvious: these odds are for the lucky people at the beginning of an outbreak with full—probably extraordinary considering the eyes of the world upon them—healthcare support.

The publicly-available Chinese definition of ‘Severe’ (7:1 from a shoddy sample) is lung and oxygen misery and for ‘Critical’ (20:1) you get “respiratory failure, septic shock, and / or multiple organ dysfunction or failure.”

Them’s scary if I’m in a hospital. Will the definition or option of ‘hospital care’ be the same if things get bad?

I’ve just spent 3 months, 3-8 hours a day, in Wythenshawe hospital. [Sample size of one, irrelevant ward, add lots of salt.] Corona-free, I saw front-line workers at the very end of their rope, with basic process and care fragmenting, and unfortunate oversights happening semi-regularly.

If demand for hospital services explodes and—assumption—the numbers of capable workers shrivel then I’m doubtful.

I don’t know what to do to support someone with lung problems, let alone septic shock.

I consider infection something to be avoided at a large-but-as-yet-undecided cost.

Question the fourth // how do I avoid getting infected?

Touch nothing, see no-one.

I don’t believe I have that option right now, so instead: touch fewer things, and see fewer people.

How much inconvenience / broken routines does my current fear justify?” is the question I mutter to myself when I want a free seat in a café.

While out and about I’m assuming transmission routes are mouth+nose (i.e. touch a thing -> touch your face -> bugger), possibly through eyes and wounds. I can do something about those things.

I’ve learnt the difference between hand-soap (removes) and disinfectant (murders) and have learnt how to wash my hands usefully.

At some point the wisdom of using disposable / washable barriers to entry points follows from my assumptions: masks, goggles etc. Ideal garb will be Hong-Kong protester circa. 2019. Am I (socially) allowed to wear that?

Romantic dinners are about to get interesting.

I am currently changing some of my daily routines and habits to minimize contact.

I should—but haven’t—decided upon triggers for escalating those efforts and define what those future routines will look like. The extreme is some form of complete social isolation and distrust of all foreign surfaces.

In the meantime I have found a safe place necessary for my sanity. Hyper-awareness while playing Everything Is Lava is exhausting. Supporting my nail-biting hobby is a tragicomedy: agonising wait to get home, washing thoroughly, and then treating myself to a damn good nibble and a cosy book.


If any of the above is true it seems likely that society-as-usual will disappear in some form.

Question the fifth // Does the ‘public interest’ match my interest?

I can recognise an all-hands marketing campaign when I see one.

Hand-washing is all that’s needed. The NHS is the most prepared. We’re world-leaders in [something medical]. 26,204.7 people have been tested; Oh, now it’s 27,316 and a dog. Everything’s in hand. A vaccine is on its way. “Have you been to Wuhan? No worries then, eh.

Hoarders’ are currently brawling over toilet paper, the selfish pricks.

Studies show masks don’t do shit” next to “[Pick a country] confiscated [/steals] N95 masks from hoarders [/worried-but-prepared citizens]” next to images of a be-masked frontline health worker.

Nine reasons to be reassured” from a major publication.

Avoiding panic is a policy tool I encourage generally (for Them) and despise specifically (for Me and Mine).

I currently consider all advice and narrative suspect.

Question the sixth // What should I prepare for?

Guesstimating at public reaction, using a less-paranoid version of myself:

√ The first time I see someone with a trolley full of tins… I think “Huh, should I do that?”;

√ The first time I see someone wearing a mask or gloves… I think “Wait, what? I thought this wasn’t serious? What do they know that I don’t?

x The first time I see a visibly sick person sneeze on public transport… I think “oh shit oh shit oh shit. What do I do?

x The first time someone tells me So-and-so from down the road is in hospital… I think “Fuck work.

When considering how everyday… everything might be affected I’m using a not-too-severe hypothetical scenario for the average company and supplier of products:

  • All operations are conducted by email and Skype, not face-to-face;
  • Some key management staff are absent;
  • Some key delivery and logistics staff are absent;
  • Key tools and software required to do the job are not working because the techies never did contingency planning;
  • Key suppliers are facing the same dysfunction;
  • Key products have not arrived.

I’ve seen—or, alas, caused—all of these things to happen, sometimes together, in my professional life. One of them is often enough to cripple a company. Some of these cracks are already visible.

I suspect everything will be fine and normal until it’s not.

The paranoid and canny have already bought all the useful masks and useful sanitizer near me: you simply cannot buy them for money or blowjobs. My local Aldi went from full shelves of canned goods and bog rolls everyday to half shelves and semi-chaos yesterday.

Stocks of anything to do with self-sufficiency / isolation might disappear (food, medicine, PPE).

Work might get strange. Or break: what do you do as a business owner if 20% of your customers stop coming in to your entirely optional establishment? 50%? Or your raw goods stop arriving because of absentee delivery drivers?

Most people I know have never lived through a situation where you cannot source a thing you believe you or your loved ones need; I don’t know how I would react to that reality. I frittered 4-years and £29k on understanding the fall of the Soviet Union. I’m not optimistic.

A weirdo landowner once uttered: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” A good quote for chaos too.

I can rattle off a list of horribly fragile dependencies in day-to-day life. Nostradamus was a numpty to write his predictions down but I will tentatively throw this out there: if one thing fails, many things fail.

Question the seventh // What should I do yesterday?

  1. Ensuring 60 day+ of self-sufficiency for me and mine.

There might come a time when I wish to sit all this out, or go part-time. In some (‘Western’) places the threat of state violence is now being used to force people to do so regardless.

My self-rule is “If I have to go out, I have failed to prepare.”

For food:

  • Canned meats, fish, veg, and fruit. Cans—if undamaged—do not go off; they ‘mature’;
  • Energetic spreads and condiments: peanut butter, honey, jam;
  • Farty goods and carb bulkers: beans, lentils, (white) rice, oatmeal;
  • Bulk sugar and life-giving salt;
  • Addiction and boredom killers: teas, coffees, hot choccies. UHT milk;
  • Cooking oil.

[The Unicorn in Chorlton has all the pulses etc. I had to grow a moustache to be allowed in though.]

All of this stuff should keep until at least 2021 so can be used later if it all blows over. Be sure to store it all away from sunlight and off the floor.

For miscellany:

  • Toilet roll and hygiene products;
  • Necessary medications;
  • Optional medications (e.g. paracetamol);
  • Bleach. Othere disinfectants if you can get ’em.
  • Computer games and books;

Came to around £150. Happy to pay for that for optionality.

I’m glad I did it last week. This week my local shops have been a little manic. The next few weeks will probably be more so.

Civilised dependencies I think I’ve some time to plan for are the absence of water, gas, or electricity.

Last week my entire postcode had an unexpected black-out for 2 hours; I’ve rarely felt so powerless.

  1. Ensure I’ve liquidity

I have increased my credit limit. Money is not something I want to worry about.

I will also be taking out a sum of cash. Financial systems are, from conversations with other techies and my own non-professional experiences, some of the most fragile in society.

Maybe I’m being a numpty: maybe my first principles are flawed or my follow-on assumptions wobbly. If you can see where and how then go ahead and sarcasm me.

I hope this unasked for essay was at-worst entertaining, at-best enough to give you some structure and means for making the best of a bad situation.

Be well.


P.s. If you know of or have seen something I will not have—some interesting internal policy your employer is adopting or a TOPSECRET document—please give deets to this nosy bugger.