Hokusai’s solution for Covid-19

Row together or drown.

I posted this famous image six years ago, and you all know it, but like all good icons it bears endless repetition:

Hokusai, Great Wave off Kanagawa, ca. 1830

Hokusai’s Great Wave has a moral. It’s to do with the almost invisible boats, and the faceless oarsmen in them. They are responding to a threat from nature in the only practical way: rowing together as hard as they can. Their survival is not guaranteed, but decisive cooperation raises the chances of each of them.

The lesson applies straightforwardly to epidemics such as the coronavirus one we are living through ( I hope). The public health experts may not always be right, but doing what they say is far and away your best chance. Most people in the street recognize this: the draconian quarantines in China and Italy have been well supported, in spite of initial screw-ups.

The odd man out is the United States. Clownish lack of leadership and media irresponsibility has left the field open to quarrelling individual opinions. Even the highly regarded CDC mismanaged the testing rollout. This was quite unnecessary. Chinese researchers released the sequenced genome on 11 February, and German ones at the great Charité in Berlin released a reliable test on January 13 (pdf) (using a partial sequence?).  The timing is confusing to me, and multiple teams are at work on both the genome and tests, but basically the enemy has been identified for a month now.  Countries like South Korea have been able to institute mass testing. The episode shows just how deep the Trumpian rot has gone in the public service.

Hokusai does not spell out the alternative, but it’s obvious. If the fishermen do not row together, the boats will be swamped and they are like to drown. A comparable  fate now looks inevitable for the United States.  Without effective and systematic federal leadership (targeted restrictions on movement, public education on social distancing, emergency paid leave and guaranteed care, food distribution, measures against hoarding …) the epidemic will spread out of control and swamp the available critical resources (isolation beds, respirators, nurses, antiviral drugs). Thousands will die, perhaps more than in China.

I hope I’m wrong. The silver lining, if it’s as bad I as I think, is that Trump cannot escape responsibility for the disaster, any more than Bush could for the botched aftermath of Katrina.  The virus could have been designed as a WMD against his supporters: older, poorly educated, individualistic, careless, and trusting in his dangerous lies. You can’t spin gravestones. Some of the mourners will wake up.


Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

4 thoughts on “Hokusai’s solution for Covid-19”

  1. 2017/18 flu — 45 million symptomatic cases, 800,000 hospitalizations, 61,000 deaths. Let’ s keep things in perspective.

    And, much as I loathe Mein Cheetoh, I don’t think it’s fair to lump the spread at his doorstep. We live in a biome. Would Jimmy Carter or Barack Obama have shut down society? And would it have been their job to?

    From where I sit, the best possible outcome would be to have a shit-ton of rightwingers be hospitalized, realize their insurance sucks, fork out $20,000, and then decide Medicare For All is a pretty good idea, and vote accordingly.

    1. Two thoughts: (1) from all evidence, covid-19 is much worse than the flu, in that a far higher percentage of cases require hospitalization and the case fatality rate is much ,much higher. 20x higher fatalities is ….. transformative.
      (2) re: Shitler, the most important thing he did wrong, was not get us started on massive testing for surveillance. Instead, he just let it lie there. As has been explained elsewhere in detail, with surveillance you can learn whether it’s spreading in your community, or *not*. That, and aggressive contact-tracing of all people who test positive, and you can actually do a much better job of containing the outbreak. Like … Taiwan is doing. Or South Korea (admittedly after they let it explode for a bit).

      That last bit — not having enough tests by …. a factor of a thousand or more …. that’s what’s going to get us all killed. And that IS his fault. Obama wouldn’t have let that happen on his watch, b/c he’d have had on-staff experts, and he would have listened to them.

      1. Presumably careful Swiss epidemiologists estimate the average death rate for all those infected as 1.6%. It goes up to 10% for the 70-79 age group. I am 73 with chronic mild asthma and a history of respiratory problems. Yes, my wife and I are worried and cutting social interactions. For context, Omaha Beach on D-Day: the 34,000 American troops landed suffered 2,400 casualties (killed and wounded, 7%), concentrated in the two initial assault waves where the casualty rate was much higher. The experiences are very different of course and these brave soldiers had much more agency in their fate. Still, please recognize the threat as a very serious one.

        The Swiss analysis seems based on countries with a functioning public health system. We have not yet seen widespread collapse in health care, though some hospitals in Lombardy are critically overloaded, with triage and avoidable deaths from lack of respirators and staff. The worst case is very much worse. We can all help to flatten the curve. The difference for me may lie between going into a hospital with beds, nurses, respirators drugs and a better-than-evens chance of my survival, and dying unattended fighting for air, parked in a corridor, having failed the triage.

    2. I am completely fine with blaming the prez, but not just him … also the cdc (a bit), and everyone else I can think of, such as the governor. It is *not* okay to run out of hand sanitizer, while simultaneously trying to scare the hooey out of everyone.

      It is *astonishing* how thin the veneer turned out to be. Of course, I should have known better, but I thought at least the easy, simple, *cheap* things (like hand san) we would be able to handle here in my beloved but chaotic US. But, no.

      We are running out of other things too. And I for one am not happy about it. I hope this thing turns out to be mild, and I hope we learn a lot from it. For now though I am pretty upset at the *total failure* of our system. It is just chunking big time. I am thisssss close to starting to use … capital letters!!!!

      And things aren’t even that bad yet.

      James … pull strings if you have to. We need you here.

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