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Three differences between hurricanes and viruses

Worth noting, this is only based on one hurricane season (2019) and one viral pandemic (CoVid19). 

There has been a huge contrast in preparation for CoVid19 and for hurricane Dorian. Though both had the potential to do serious economic, physical, and life-threatening damage, people reacted in different ways. Why? I think there are three aspects. 

Data

Hurricanes generate a lot of data that’s not too difficult to collect and we’ve been collecting it since the 1870’s by Catholic missionaries in Cuba. With time and tech we’ve become more precise and practiced. Hurricane forecasts include when the winds will arrive. It’s also easier to share hurricane information with the people who need it most. 

Rarely do economists and virologists have these conditions. On the Bloomberg Odd Lots podcast, Claudia Sahm bemoaned that in this case they had good data, “This started overseas and it’s different because we don’t need the unemployment rate to tell us that something bad is working its way through the global economy.” 

With ample tests, this is a different kind of problem. But no tests, no data and no data, no action. 

Culture 

Floridians have a clear understanding of what hurricanes can do. The twenty-one million people who live in the state know someone or have themselves, lived through a storm. If culture is “what people do when you don’t tell them what to do,” then Florida has a pretty good preparation appreciation.

Part-of-the-reason for this culture is the cause-and-effect relationship. Storm comes through, storm destroys lives, storm leaves. Post hoc ergo propter hoc. This is harder to see with someone’s health. People look fine until they aren’t.

Actions

It’s clear what needs to be done for hurricanes. Bring things inside. Have food and water for some number of days for some number of people. Close shutters. Collect medicines. Pump gas. Pack a bug-out-bag. There’s even a tax-free weekend of shopping, where the state government encourages people to prepare. Planning for a hurricane is socially, economically, and timely easily done.

It’s hard to do anything for the virus besides take zinc. Sometimes the best action is to do nothing but that never really feels like enough, does it? Investors often say to ‘don’t just do something, sit there’ and that might be the best idea yet. 

So what? 

More tests solves the data problem. Experience affects the culture. Here we’ll focus on the actions and use the EAST framework to make choices easy, attractive, social, and timely. How would you get people to self-quarantine and practice social distancing? 

In my local area, Retirementville, Central Florida, residents should have been told how deadly this disease is to their age cohort (fifteen-percent for those seventy and older). Newspapers and radio could have emphasized the even elevated rates for people with conditions health conditions. In China it was men who smoked, but in the states it will be anyone with high blood pressure and cardiovascular conditions. 

Along with this public service announcement, we should have appealed to the patriotism of this particular part of Florida. We’d come together to defeat this microbial adversary. We could pass out stickers. It’s not Rosie the Riveter poster material, but it’s still a common foe.

Further, there’s enough technology to have virtual meetups. Let card games be on computers. Let people Facetime friends. With the right framing this would have been fun. People already have hurricane parties.

Had this been shared at the right time, things would be different.

Postscript, there’s probably something here too about distributions of outcomes. For the worst storms of the past thirty years, the median normalized damage is $26B and the average damage is $33B. How that data fits all hurricanes and compares to viruses is TBD.