"One day on the television news you hear about some new strain of flu called H3N7. You don't pay any real attention, because the news report mentions only a small number of deaths. But then over the next few weeks you hear more and more news reporters talking about this H3N7 strain. The reporters say that this new flu has spread to major cities in the United States.
Not very worried, you go on with your business without hardly thinking about the issue. Then one day you notice that the news reporters seem to be talking about almost nothing other than H3N7. Hundreds of people are dropping dead because of this new strain. Scientists have started to work on a vaccine, but they have just got started, and it will be a long time before they are finished.
The reporters tell you to always sneeze onto your shoulder, and to wash your hands frequently. You start doing that. You take the subway to work in New York City, and whenever you see someone sneezing or coughing you move to a different part of the subway.
Before long you hear that hundreds of people have died from the new flu strain in New York City alone. You notice that many people on the subway are starting to wear surgical masks. You wonder whether you should do so also. But you figure that it's a rather timid thing to do, and you notice that still most people are not wearing the masks. So you decide not to wear one.
Soon the death toll in New York City rises to the thousands. At about the time when most of the people start wearing surgical masks on the subway, you start wearing one too. Then you start seeing people collapse on the street, and collapse in the subways. Now you decide you will take no more subways until the H3N7 pandemic ends. You start walking three miles to work every day.
The death toll in New York City rises higher and higher...You decide to take no more chances. You quit your job, and buy all the food you can. It's hard to find much, because the stores have been stripped clean. Then you go to your apartment, and vow to wait it out there until the horrible pandemic is over.
The next day you wake up in your apartment with chills and a horrible headache. You use a thermometer to find out that your temperature is 103 degrees F. You look in the mirror, and notice your face is pale. You are in the grip of the deadly flu. You slump against the wall, and wonder what to do next."
This fictional depiction that I published on this blog in 2013 was somewhat prescient. The virus is not called H3N7 but coronavirus or COVID-19. The virus can give people a fever. A great pandemic now threatens the place where I live, New York City. More than 8000 residents of New York City have the virus, and that number is growing by about 25% to 33% per day.
A significant fraction of the people in the city are now wearing face masks outdoors. The news reporters are talking about almost nothing but the virus. Non-essential workers have all been ordered by the governor to stay home. Given the current trajectory in which the number of people infected in the city is rising so dramatically, the death toll in New York City will probably rise to the thousands within another 60 days. People in the city have rushed to stock up their shelves with food. It's not true that the "the stores have been stripped clean," but when I went to buy pasta recently at my local Target store, there was almost no pasta or pasta sauce left on the shelves. A vaccine is a long way off, as in my story. The coronavirus that originated in China has spread to many other places around the world, and has had particularly devastating effects in Italy.
Coronavirus active cases, 3/23/20, from this site
What advice can I give to anyone threatened by coronavirus? I will now simply quote the exact words I wrote in 2013 about how to get through a pandemic (whenever you read "flu" simply substitute "coronavirus"):
- "Wash your hands frequently, particularly after returning to your home from outside. A flu virus can spread rapidly through a means such as this: a sick person touches his nose or lips, and gets germs on his hands; that person then touches a surface such as a door knob or subway rail; you then touch the same surface and get the same germs on your hands; you then touch your nose or lips and bring the germs into your body. You can help minimize the chance of this transmission by washing your hands frequently, particularly after returning from outside. You can conveniently wash your hands in a subway, mall, or office by carrying a small bottle of hand sanitizer. Just put a few drops on your hands, rub your hands thoroughly, and wait until they are dry."
- "Avoid touching your nose or mouth with your hands while you are outside, unless you wash your hands first If your nose itches, don't use your fingers to scratch it. Use the middle of your arm. The middle of your arm will not have touched any surfaces during the time you were outside, so it will be relatively free of germs."
- "Try not to let your hands touch commonly touched surfaces. You can assume that there are many germs on commonly touched surfaces, so you wish to avoid them. Let's take the example of a public bathroom. If there is a door knob, it will probably have many germs. You can avoid touching the knob when you enter the bathroom by waiting for someone else to go in first, and quickly follow them in; or you can simply use the knob and wash your hands immediately after. When you leave the bathroom, you can either wait for someone else to open the door and quickly follow them out, or you can grab a paper towel and wrap that for a second around the door knob."
- "Cough or sneeze into your shoulder, rather than using your hands to block your coughing or sneezing. While walking around outside you may have got other people's germs on your hands, and by sneezing or coughing into your hands, you may be helping such germs into your body."
- "If a flu pandemic is spreading, avoid crowds. One way to do this is to avoid going to work during rush hour. Other ways to do this include avoiding shopping when there are large crowds, avoiding theater events and sporting events, and avoiding large-crowd public events such as parades and New Years Day celebrations."
- "If a flu pandemic is spreading, wear a surgical mask or dust mask while you are in crowds. No matter how carefully you follow the advice above, you won't be protected if you are in a crowded train, and the person next to you starts sneezing. A sneeze is a remarkably effective way to transmit germs. So if a very serious flu pandemic is spreading, wear a surgical mask or dust mask in places such as trains and train stations."
- "If you are in a crowd near someone who is sneezing or coughing, immediately cover your nose and mouth with your shoulder, and hurry to ten feet away. This is a case such as when you are sitting in a subway and someone a few away sneezes or coughs. Immediately lower your head to the left, placing your nose and mouth next to your shoulder, and walk ten feet away."
- "In a train, theater, or sports arena, try to sit 10 feet away from strangers. No matter how carefully you try to move away from a sneezing passenger in a train, you may breathe in some of his germs. It is best to sit ten feet away from any stranger, when this is practical."
- "Avoid promiscuous sexual activity. Because some pandemics are transmitted through sexual contact, it is a good idea to limit your sexual partners, ideally to a very small number."
- "Use disinfectant wipes on your door knobs, cell phones, and shopping carts. Germs tend to accumulate on cell phones, door knobs, and the push handles of shopping carts. You can reduce this risk by wiping them down with germ-killing disinfectant wipes."
- "Avoid shaking hands with strangers. When meeting someone at an office, a salute and a smile is an alternative gesture of friendliness and respect."
- "Press elevator buttons with your elbow or a pen. Going into an office building and pressing the elevator buttons with your fingers is like shaking hands with 30 strangers."
- "Use stairs rather than elevators. If you are going up several floors in an elevator, you are basically trapped if someone starts sneezing or coughing. Better to use the stairs and avoid the risk entirely. Stair climbing is also great aerobic exercise."
- "Consume foods and supplements which boost your immune system. Eating lots of fresh vegetables and fruit can boost your immune system, which make it less likely that you catch any disease spreading in a pandemic. Among vegetables, garlic is supposedly the most effective at boosting the immune system. To boost your immune system, you can also take a daily multivitamin tablet that includes vitamin C and zinc, or swallow a garlic tablet."
Such was the exact advice I gave in 2013 on how to survive a pandemic. To this I will now add: for the next two months or so, try to stay two meters from anyone you don't know, and try to take advantage of all opportunities to communicate electronically rather than face-to-face (including telecommuting, Skype, FaceTime, Facebook and email).
The coronavirus has caused a sharp stock market downturn. Without recommending any financial advice, I can state a very important fact regarding 401k plans and IRA accounts that some people overlook. This fact is that it is never necessary to withdraw money from a 401K plan or IRA account merely because you want to reduce your stock holdings. Doing such a thing (called "requesting a distribution") is unnecessary if you merely want to reduce your stock holdings, because there's a simpler way to do that, a way that has no tax consequences and no 10% early withdrawal penalty. That simpler way is to move money from a stock fund of your 401K plan or IRA account to some other fund within your 401K plan or IRA, such as a money market fund. Every 401K plan and IRA account allows you to do this online, by some online interface. Some 401k plans or IRA accounts have 10 or 20 funds you can choose from, allowing you to switch money between such funds. At the very least, any 401K plan or IRA account will always have a money market fund (like a no-risk bank account) that can be used as a "safe harbor" during turbulent times, and it is easy to move money online back and forth to such a "safe harbor," after logging in online to your 401K plan or IRA account. When you make such a movement from one fund of your 401K plan or IRA to another fund in the same 401K plan or IRA account, that is not considered taking money out of your 401K plan or IRA account; it is not considered "requesting a distribution"; and there are no tax consequences or penalties. What I state here is simply a very important fact that some people are unaware of, not any type of investment recommendation. I am as baffled as anyone else about how money should be invested in these confusing days.
A local government visual about social distancing
Post-postscript: As of April 4, 2020, the coronavirus has infected 60,850. Sadly, the line in my 2013 story saying "the death toll in New York City rises to the thousands" has come true, and there are now 2254 coronavirus deaths in New York City. On April 3, 2020 the CDC finally got around to advising the general public to wear face masks outdoors.