Many of us feel depressed about the COVID-19 situation, and it is without doubt a horrible tragedy.
But millions of people are rising to the occasion, and there’s a lot of good news mixed in with the bad.
The media has a tendency to give extra coverage to bad news, because readers find negative stories more eye-catching.
So in the interest of balance, here are some positive things we’ve learned in the last week while writing articles on how to tackle the coronavirus crisis through temporary work, donations, or policy, and compiling over 250 job opportunities and 60 funding sources.
Table of Contents
- 1 Some countries are turning COVID-19 away at the door, while others are turning the tide of the pandemic
- 2 It might kill fewer people than we thought
- 3 Testing is increasing rapidly in most countries
- 4 Supermarkets are refilling and hiring fast
- 5 We’re learning what we need to know to respond intelligently
- 6 We’re making rapid technological progress on every front
- 7 Learn more
Some countries are turning COVID-19 away at the door, while others are turning the tide of the pandemic
As you can see in this chart, COVID-19 remains mostly controlled in South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore. Taiwan is barely visible down there at the bottom, while Singapore actually hasn’t had enough deaths to make it onto the figure yet.
Once they emerge from their ‘lockdowns’, other places can potentially copy the methods which these three countries have shown can work.
COVID-19 may also be controlled in Hong Kong, Japan and China, which are reporting few new cases. (Unfortunately Hong Kong and Japan aren’t testing enough people to be sure, and China doesn’t say how many tests it’s running, so we’ll have to wait and see.)
As the figure below shows, even the two worst affected countries, Spain and Italy, are seeing the rates of increase for new cases and deaths decline.
Italy adopted a full national lockdown on March 9 and Spain did the same on March 14. The number of people dying each day has been stable in Italy for the last ten days, and has been growing much more slowly in Spain for the last eight.
In fact most countries that engage in this level of physical isolation are seeing the rate of new cases level off or decline 1-3 weeks later, as we hoped and expected.
Consistent with that, researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine just estimated that the reproductive rate of the coronavirus in the UK is now below 1, thanks to people mostly staying at home. If that’s correct the number of new cases will level off and then decrease over the next 6 weeks.
It might kill fewer people than we thought
We aren’t sure how many people who become infected with COVID-19 die, but on March 31 the Oxford Centre for Evidence Based Medicine (CEBM) reduced their best-guess estimate from 0.51% down to 0.1–0.26%.
Among other things, they think some people who have been classified as dying of COVID-19 didn’t actually die of the disease but rather of serious existing conditions, and they just happened to have COVID-19 when they died.
0.1–0.26% is lower than most other expert estimates. Frankly it’s also a lot lower than my best guess.
But I’m really hoping that the CEBM turns out to be right.
Update 27 May: Unfortunately later data suggests the true infection fatality rate is more likely to be 0.5%-1%.
Testing is increasing rapidly in most countries
The US has gone from testing 350 people on the 7th of March, to 30,000 people on the 19th of March, up to 101,000 on the 1st of April.
As the figure below shows, among countries that release testing data, big increases like that are common.
Tiny Iceland has already tested almost 6% of their population, and is releasing their data in a way that makes it very easy for others to analyse.
Supermarkets are refilling and hiring fast
Some people have worried about whether we might end up unable to buy enough food, because COVID-19 could interfere with trade and supermarket supply chains.
So far that doesn’t seem to be happening. UK supermarket Tesco expects to be back to normal stock levels within weeks.
In fact they’ve hired 35,000 people in just the last ten days, which has helped them expand delivery slots from 660,000 two weeks ago to 780,000 this week, with plans for more big increases.
That seems pretty typical of the solid job supermarket chains are doing handling this crisis, and means fewer people will have to leave their homes to get groceries.
We’re learning what we need to know to respond intelligently
We’ll soon know a lot more about what fraction of the population has or has had COVID-19, something we’ve been very unsure about so far. This information is essential when deciding our response, for example determining when it’s safe for people to start leaving their homes more often.
If you live in the UK you can actually sign up to be tested in one of its studies here.
We’re making rapid technological progress on every front
For instance, this week pharmaceutical firm Abbott Laboratories said it was launching a test for the SARS-COV-2 virus that could take as little as five minutes and “be run on a portable machine the size of a toaster”. German technology company Bosch says it has done the same.
On Monday Johnson & Johnson said it had identified a vaccine candidate and the US government was investing $1 billion in its development.
Another group is investigating ways to start human trials for vaccine candidates early, using brave and willing volunteers, who haven’t been at all hard to find.
In March the World Health Organisation launched a global ‘megatrial’ of four potential treatments.
Finally, Moderna Therapeutics started doing human trials for a new kind of vaccine back in mid-March. That’s the fastest the world has ever gone from identifying a new disease to conducting vaccine trials in people.
It has been inspiring to see the world come together to help fight this pandemic, whether they are biologists, statisticians, engineers, civil servants, medics, supermarket staff, logistics managers, manufacturers, or one of countless other roles.
A further piece of good news is that many of the innovations in policy, diagnostics and treatment being pursued above will not only help us defeat COVID-19, but will also leave us much better prepared for the next pandemic, whenever it arrives.
“The challenges ahead are severe. But if we learn the right lessons from this catastrophe, we can emerge not weaker, but stronger — better equipped to deal with the existential risks of the future.”
That hope, and remembering to see what is going right, can help keep us motivated in the difficult months ahead.
- Our landing page with all our advice and job opportunities for solving the coronavirus crisis
- How to best tackle COVID-19 through volunteering or temporary work
- How to best donate to fight COVID-19
- Read my personal thoughts on the best policies to address COVID-19
- Essential COVID-19 facts and figures
- Our new review of how to prevent the worst possible pandemics