The search for meaning in a public health crisis. "The Plague," the French writer Albert Camus’ famed 1947 novel about a fictional epidemic in Oran, a port city on the coast of Algeria, is on backorder at Amazon, with a forecast delivery date of April 17.
Our Department of Philosophical Reckoning and Existential Epidemiology secured a future copy, having not re-read it since undergraduate days during the Quatenary Ice Age. Further investigation revealed the book currently leading “a surge of pestilence fiction”, which also includes strong sales for “The Stand” by Stephen King and “The Eyes of Darkness” by Dean Koontz, a prescient work about a virus which he, in 1981, called “Wuhan-400.” You could look it up.
“Perhaps with the lockdown we will have some time to reflect about what is real, what is important, and become more human,” the late French writer's 74-year old daughter and literary executor, Catherine (whose father playfully nicknamed her “Plague” and her twin brother Jean, “Cholera”) told The Guardian.
For those so far blessed to have been spared by illness, self-distancing may offer time to reflect on universal themes of "The Plague," Camus’ best-known novel, which resonate amid today’s pandemic.
Attitudes and behavior that he explores as metaphor through his characters – from the fatalistic heroism of a healer and the cruel death of an innocent, to caviling denial by a government leader and the deadly pieties of a religious zealot – echo in now-unfolding events.
“Pestilence is in fact very common, but we find it hard to believe in a pestilence when it descends upon us,” Camus wrote. "There have been as many plagues in the world as there have been wars, yet plagues and wars always find people equally unprepared.”
In an NPR piece focused on the book, Melissa Block this week interviewed Alice Kaplan, a Yale professor now teaching an online course in French literature to students around the globe.
"I never imagined I would be teaching this novel in the midst of an epidemic," Kaplan said.
"I never imagined I'd need to give a trigger warning for teaching Camus' 'The Plague.'"
Here is a fast-paced 10-minute video lesson on the book from The School of Life.
Surf’s down. While most Santa Barbara city and county beaches remain open (this weekend’s Floatopia preemption in IV is an exception), at least one prominent scientist is warning that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, can enter ocean waters and, worse, coastal winds.
Rosanna Xia (whose tenacious reporting in the LA Times spurred the recent successful push for public access at Hollister Ranch), interviewed Kim Prather, a Scripps Institution of Oceanography atmospheric chemist, who believes ocean swimming, surfing and even jogging on the beach pose risk of infection.
“I wouldn’t go in the water if you paid me $1 million right now,” Prather told Xia.
"Prather, who directs the Center for Aerosol Impacts on Chemistry of the Environment, a large research hub at Scripps backed by $40 million from the National Science Foundation, sent her researchers and students home long before California officials issued stay-at-home orders. She suspected this virus was contagious by air, and knew from past studies that coronaviruses can be excreted in fecal matter. She worries SARS-CoV-2 could enter the ocean from sewage spills and outfalls, and then reenter the atmosphere."
(snip) "In her research, Prather has found that the ocean churns up all kinds of particulate and microscopic pathogens, and every time the ocean sneezes with a big wave or two, it sprays these particles into the air. She believes that this new coronavirus is light enough to float through the air much farther than we think. The six-feet rule, she said, doesn’t apply at the beach, where coastal winds can get quite strong and send viral particles soaring.
“It’s not going to kill you if you miss a few surfing sessions, but it could if you go out there and get in the wrong air,” she said.
“You can’t see the virus, you can’t smell it ... It’s a real silent killer right now.”
Mortality modeling jumps. Newsmakers reported on Wednesday about the new epidemiological model devised by the University of Washington’s Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluations (IHME), which is being used by the White House coronavirus task force.
As noted, UW scientists update the model daily, by integrating real-time statistics on deaths across the nation and other data. Since Monday, when task force coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx cited its projections of the pandemic peaking on April 15 -- with 2,214 deaths that day in the U.S.-- things have gotten worse.
From today's Washington Post:
"Late Wednesday night, the IHME released revised estimates, based on new data. During the first wave of the epidemic, its model projects, the death toll will be 93,765 — an increase of 14 percent from its model the previous day. That’s just the first wave, looking at the number of deaths through July. In the fall and winter, the virus is expected to reemerge and pose a significant threat once again.
That shift is a function in part of things looking more bleak over the short term. The new model suggests that the number of deaths each day is now most likely to peak on April 16, a day later than suggested Monday, with 400 more deaths that day.
In other words, the data from Monday have been shifted upward significantly — particularly the worst-case scenario represented by the upper-bound of the uncertainty area displayed on the graph. The graph presented from the White House on Monday stopped at about 3,500 deaths a day.
The new estimate projects a possible worst-case peak of 4,400 deaths on April 21."
Wade into the weeds. A newly published, fascinating explainer in the Atlantic provides a deep dive into how epidemiological models, including IHME's, actually work, making clear the extraordinary complexity of their high stakes mission.
"Modeling an exponential process necessarily produces a wide range of outcomes. In the case of COVID-19, that’s because the spread of the disease depends on exactly when you stop cases from doubling.
Even a few days can make an enormous difference. In Italy, two similar regions, Lombardy and Veneto, took different approaches to the community spread of the epidemic. Both mandated social distancing, but only Veneto undertook massive contact tracing and testing early on. Despite starting from very similar points, Lombardy is now tragically overrun with the disease, having experienced roughly 7,000 deaths and counting, while Veneto has managed to mostly contain the epidemic to a few hundred fatalities.
Similarly, South Korea and the United States had their first case diagnosed on the same day, but South Korea undertook massive tracing and testing, and the United States did not. Now South Korea has only 162 deaths, and an outbreak that seems to have leveled off, while the U.S. is approaching 4,000 deaths as the virus’s spread accelerates."
The Atlantic piece, by computer scientist Zeynep Tufekci, is here.
Further resources. From chloroquine and cordon sanitaire to RO and zoonotic disease, Vox has published, and updates, a useful glossary of key words and phrases about the pandemic here.
VisualCapitalist.com, a site that publishes data-driven visual reporting aimed at investors and business professionals, has a colorful and lucid graphic history of pandemics, from the Antonine Plague, which killed an estimated five million people in the second century CE, to Covid-19, that places our current predicament into scale and epochal context.
Finally, Den of Geeks has a guide to the 21 “Best Pandemic and Virus Outbreak Movies to Stream While You’re Quarantined,” from "12 Monkeys," a 1995 time travel, viral civilizational wipeout Bruce Willis vehicle, to "Virus," a 1980 epic from Japanese director Kinji Fukasaku.
Stay home and stay safe.
Images: Albert Camus (https://conversacionesenlabiblioteca.wordpress.com); Camus with his twins, daughter, Catherine, and son Jean in 1957 (The Guardian); The School of Life YouTube channel; Update; IHME data; VisualCapitalist.com.