Covid and the Demise of Distance

My brother and I, 1967

I lost my brother the other day. Less than a month after losing my aunt, it is starting to feel like carelessness. And to be clear, neither of these deaths were down to Covid-19, at least not directly, and this column isn’t about Covid-19, at least not directly. But as I spent some virtual time alone with my brother’s closed casket, I couldn’t help feeling that this was a future that might seem dystopian, but was instead rather comforting.

My brother was my only sibling, so there’s only me now from that family unit. And he lived on the polar opposite side of the world, in DC, and so hard to reach at the best of times from my perch in Singapore. But Covid-19 had somehow rendered that distance meaningless; he could have just as easily been across the causeway in Malaysia, and quarantines would have made it almost impossible to be grave-side.

For me it was deja-vu backing up down the freeway.

When my aunt died in a British nursing home a few weeks ago, I could do nothing but send a few photos of her to a small mailing list of people unconnected to each other except through my aunt. (She wasn’t a real aunt, but as a childhood friend of my mother I had known her better and longer than most of my other relatives, and she had outlived most of those.) Most on the mailing list were not geeks, it’s safe to say, so those photos that did come back were usually upside down or sideways, which could have appeared disrespectful, but which would have amused my aunt. Her funeral was of course a small one, remote and ring-fenced by Covid-19, and I never got to hear what she had meant to others, or even see a photo of where she was buried. I had to sit alone with my grief, and read a few scraps from others on the adhoc mailing list about how the day went.

My brother’s death was quite different. My tech-savvy nephew had arranged for me to to spend some time alone near my brother’s casket via Facetime, which was oddly peaceful. And then, with the help of his friends, he hosted a memorial on Zoom. As the introductory music played over a tasteful drawing, I watched as a list of people signing on flashed up on the screen — by the time it started more than 200 people were aboard. I made it through my own eulogy and then watched dozens of others talk about my brother. Most of the people were those I had never met, but it was moving to hear them talk about him, revealing angles of my brother that were new to me, and refreshing, like uncovering hidden doors in a familiar house.

My brother and I, 2008

The tools aren’t perfect of course. I forgot to turn my video off after I had talked, and so I dread to think what I was doing for the rest of the gathering. And there were the inevitable glitches. But most important for me was that people were there, wherever they were from. Distance was no obstacle, and neither was familiarity. You never know who will turn up at a funeral: that’s what makes them so fascinating. The former lovers, the unacknowledged offspring, estranged spouses and feuding relatives, all may turn up. The wake is a more selective affair. But here in a virtual room were dozens of people who had heard about my brother’s death, and who could join in to share the memory of someone without fear of somehow not being close enough. It was egalitarian in the way that wakes usually aren’t; no one has to fuss over who to invite, and whether there are enough chairs or canapés to go around. Instead it becomes a festival, where anyone can pay tribute. No one was left out because of distance, either physical or familial, and that seemed to me to be something rather beautiful.

I don’t know what will happen when Covid-19 is tamed. I’m sure a lot more things will go back to normal than people predict. But if we take one lesson from the pandemic I feel it should be this: whether it’s a funeral, wedding, wake, birthday party, bluechip annual general meeting or parish council conclave, offer a virtual version too. Don’t let physical distance decide who has a seat and a voice. And don’t just put a camera in a corner of the room and live stream it. Give it some thought, as my nephew did for my brother. It made a world of a difference.

The Dogs That Haven’t Barked (Or We Just Haven’t Heard Them Yet)

I’ve been wondering about the countries we haven’t heard from yet on Covid numbers, or which have just flown under the radar. What I call the dogs that haven’t barked. In short, who’s on the other side of the curve, and who isn’t?

The most interesting data I could find was at EndCoronavirus.org, a website put together by Yaneer Bar-Yam from the New England Complex Systems Institute. They have collected together data from 72 countries and plotted graphs of their curve flattening efforts. They’ve categorised the countries into three. Those which

  • have already beaten COVID-19 (where the curve is back to where it started)
  • are nearly there (where it’s half way down the slope)
  • need to take action (where it’s still near the peak
https://www.endcoronavirus.org/countries

That’s interesting enough, but I wanted to get a sense of what that means. First off, I wanted to get a sense of how many people that is — how many people are in countries that have beaten COVID (I actually it’s a little early to say they have, I’m using Bar-Yam’s terminology), and how many people are living in countries which still need to take action?

So I did a bit of downloading and spreadsheeting. This is what we have:

where populations sit on the curve

So according to that data, more than half of the populations of the countries measured haven’t really started to tackle Covid-19. Gulp. There are some big countries in there:

Eight of the 10 most populous countries don’t score well

Now, you could quibble about which countries are at which stage, and some countries have clearly done more than others, but the curve doesn’t really lie. At least, it’s as good a yardstick as any.

So my next question was: how many people are we leaving out? Turns out quite a lot. The countries covered had a population of 5.9 billion, which leaves about 1.9 billion people unaccounted for. The website says that the “set of countries is certainly not an exhaustive list, but we do highlight the countries which we find to be interesting or important in some way.” It doesn’t say why it found them important and interesting. Possibly the data was clearer for those included. Hopefully they’ll add more countries once the data is clearer.

So what does the pie chart of people look like if we account for the missing two billion? We get this:

The missing quarter

The population in countries that haven’t started yet goes down to 42%, which is still a big chunk of humanity, while the ‘good guys’ account for about 23%. A quarter of the world’s population doesn’t appear at all.

So what happens if we put all this onto a map? Where are all these people?

The gray of Africa and Central Asia

It makes for grim viewing. Several things jump out:

  • The countries doing well are flattered by the presence of China. And Vietnam, Thailand and South Korea. In population terms the largest country outside APAC to get a star is Greece, with 10.4 million people. It does not look good.
  • The gray areas are a big concern. Very little data from Africa and Central Asia was ‘interesting or important’ enough to include in the study thus far. As we’ve read in the media, Africa is unprepared for Covid-19, where two countries account for nearly half of all tests carried out in Africa so far, according to data collected by Reuters.
  • The other gray area is Central Asia. A piece in the Atlantic Council’s New Atlanticist this week said that the countries of the region were each ploughing their own furrow, with varied, sometimes suspicious, results: “Tajikistan and Turkmenistan had been clinging to a fantastical claim of zero cases for weeks, despite the recent spike in mysterious deaths attributed to pneumonia. Tajikistan finally reported its first fifteen confirmed cases on April 30, after weeks of speculations and warning from international experts.”

I don’t know what all this says, exactly, but it sheds a little light on the dogs that haven’t barked. Covid-19 is a pandemic, which means it infects people, not countries. Yes, we can seal borders, and keep people from traveling, but at the end of the day the disease will only be conquered when every country has flattened every curve — or, unlikely, never let it rise up in the first place. None of us is going to be able to travel as freely as we once did, or see supply chains and shops creak back into life again, until all the people in these countries are through the same tunnel we’re currently in. That could mean a lot more pain, heartbreak, and death.

So thinking of this by population size, and looking more deeply at the countries that either haven’t seen the curve appear, or aren’t reporting it for one reason or another, is one way of knowing how long we’re all going to be fighting this war.