Calmly preparing for the coronavirus outbreak is the rational thing to do

No photo description available.I wrote this on Facebook, but thought it might be useful to share it more widely. This is not a neuroscience post. 

Last weekend is when I started to take the coronavirus issue seriously. ‘Seriousness’ doesn’t imply panic, but it does imply taking the time to read about what is happening and to find out how each of us can act to mitigate the crisis.

The death rate is hard to assess, but it seems likely to hover between 1 and 3 percent of *reported cases* for now. That’s a lot more than seasonal flu, which has a mortality rate of around 0.1%. With early testing and good medical care, this rate can come down. But sadly in the US there are institutional pressures that prevent optimal responses, despite plenty of money and human capital.

Increased vigilance when it comes to hygiene is the first step. Wash your hands. Use sanitizer (if you can get some). Avoid touching your face (this one is very hard for me). If possible, work from home. Masks are not necessary for the general public, as far as I can tell, and buying them is already creating shortages for the medical community. We really don’t want large numbers of doctors and nurses to get sick.

Preparing for a voluntary quarantine period also makes sense. Have stocks of food and prescription medications (if any) to last you around two weeks or so. If this becomes expensive for you, try to stock up gradually.


On Sunday I was asking friends on our chat group how seriously to take all this. One Boston-area friend said “don’t do a Fukushima” (referring to that time I became obsessed with the dangers of nuclear power). But when I asked about food, he assumed I’d be prepared anyway, as an Indian. He assumed I was already doing what people like our parents in India usually do: have rations that could last for a few weeks. I explained to him that many urbanites, including yours truly, do not stock large quantities of food, because of the weights of the sacks and the lack of apartment space. And a non-negligible number of people never cook at all. Anyway, I bought some canned food, a huge sack of rice, and a bag of dal (lentils).

When this sort of situation arises it is important to think calmly in terms of costs and benefits. The benefits of being prepared for the worst are, hopefully, obvious. The costs are minimal if you are smart about what you buy. Buy food you already like and which lasts for a very long time. If you don’t know how to cook, take this as an opportunity to learn. It’s fun and relaxing. (Also: Instant Pot for the win! :P)

More generally, this kind of crisis should encourage us to learn to think in terms of probabilities rather than certainties. We cannot be sure of anything, but that doesn’t mean we throw up our hands in despair or apathy. Better hygiene and tweaks to our social patterns are not virus-proof methods, but they can reduce the probability of infection, and therefore spare a larger proportion of the most vulnerable segments of the population.

That last bit is important. If you happen to be in the less-vulnerable under-40 group, please take seriously the possibility that you might infect people for whom COVID-19 can become a serious ailment. Already we are seeing news reports of people all around the world who are not taking quarantine measures seriously, and are infecting people.

At this point the virus is not going to magically vanish. Nor is it going to bring about the end of civilization. So be civilized, and cultivate a sense of proportion.


[The graph, which you’ll note is not yet flattening out, is from here: ]

Useful links:

Information about COVID-19 – World Health Organization

Myths about COVID-19 – The Guardian 

You’re Likely to Get the Coronavirus – The Atlantic


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