Who Do You Learn From?

When a city or country decides how to go about solving some problem, it will usually learn from somewhere else – either consciously as a set of best practices, or unconsciously as a sanity check. The “who do you learn from?” question is then what that somewhere else is. This is true of the ongoing corona pandemic, but also of infrastructure, which is why I want to draw this analogy.


In the Covid-19 outbreak, it has become obvious that Western countries do not learn from non-Western ones. I’ve heard people say that high-income Asia has responded better to the crisis before it was used to from the SARS outbreak of 2003. But SARS affected primarily China and Hong Kong, and secondarily Taiwan, Canada, and Singapore. Korea and Japan barely had any cases. And yet, Korea’s response to the crisis has drawn praise for reducing the daily infection rate through aggressive monitoring and testing. Daily growth in Korea is maybe 1%, slower than the rate of recoveries.

There is a clean cleave between rich Asian countries’ response to the virus and Western countries’. It’s not SARS, and it’s not whatever racist mythology Westerners tell themselves about Asian collectivism (in what way is the Hong Kong democracy protest movement collectivist?). What it is, is that Asians are happy to learn from other Asians. SARS normalized mask wearing in high-income Asia as a solution to poor air quality or to a contagious disease, and Koreans and Japanese picked it up from nearby countries.

Europeans and Americans, in contrast, wouldn’t stoop to learn from a civilization they look down. My American Twitter feed talked about the virus somewhat when it was raging mostly in China and then in Korea, but as soon as it hit Italy, most of it transitioned to talking about Italy. The rest of Europe didn’t think it would affect it, and even the strategies for how to deal with it are entirely European. Masks are nowhere to be found, tricks like Korea’s use of disposable chopsticks at elevators to avoid finger-pressing are nowhere to be found, testing capacity is low even in countries with strong civil service and good health care, metro stations and public buildings have no hand sanitizer. If it wasn’t invented here, it isn’t worth implementing, never mind how many thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of Europeans will die for their civilization’s pride.

Public transportation

I went over a few national or supranational traditions of metro construction around a year to a year and a half ago, covering the United States, the Soviet bloc, and Britain. There are a few more traditions I could go over by popular request – Japanese (with influence across Asia, especially Korea), French, German, Chinese, increasingly Indian. These traditions do not neatly divide the world into spheres of influence – rather, there are places with multiple influences, like a combination of British and Japanese influence in Singapore and Hong Kong, and the Chinese system synthesizing some Soviet principles in addition to engaging in extensive domestic innovation.

I bring this complication up because when it comes to high costs, the Anglosphere seems mainly to learn from the rest of the Anglosphere, and the US almost exclusively from the US (very rarely from Canada and Britain, never from other English-speaking countries).

The Anglosphere shares certain institutions like common law, but Israel uses common law as well, and yet the Israeli rail electrification project’s communications and media coverage constantly emphasized “like Europe,” not like the English-speaking world; when it comes to how to build trains, Israel’s notion of the ideal functioning country is a pan-European medley.

Rather, the shared characteristics in the Anglosphere seem to be that these countries mostly learn from each other. The idea of road pricing was introduced to the world by the Smeed Report in 1962-4, then actually implemented in Singapore in 1975, then failed to make it to Hong Kong, then got back to London in 2003, and only then became a well-known idea in the American discourse. Moreover, in the Bloomberg-era discourse, London figured heavily, and few people mentioned Singapore and Stockholm; subsequently Milan adopted congestion pricing as well, and the American discourse has ignored it just as it has Stockholm.

Certain governance features that seem relevant to construction costs, like the privatization of state planning, are endemic to the Anglosphere. The use of public-private partnerships is widespread, more so than in other developed countries. Planning is routinely outsourced to consultants. What’s more, my vague understanding of Singapore is that for all its supposed state capacity, it’s headed in that direction too, no doubt thinking that if the US and UK are doing something then it must be good.

Obviously the importation of British and American ideas to Singapore has its limits, as we’re seeing now with the outbreak, but this importation remains widespread. In contrast, importation of Continental ideas is limited. One possible explanation is that Singaporeans view the entire West as a single culture, much as Westerners can’t tell Chinese people apart and often group the entirety of Asia together; if you don’t think there’s much of a difference between different European countries, then you will import ideas from the one that speaks English.

Why are they like this?

The West is a solipsistic civilization, and a lot of Europeans and Americans are going to die in the next few months as a result. But within the West, the United States is especially solipsistic. This does not mean it will necessarily fare worse in the outbreak than Europe – the virus reached it later, so it does have more time, measured in perhaps two weeks, to implement social distancing, ramp up testing capacity, and build emergency hospitals to reduce the death rate from infection. More fundamentally, when it comes to learning from Korea and Taiwan, the US isn’t any worse than Europe.

However, the virus is just my motivating example; my actual work is about public transportation, and there, the US is worse, because Europe has good test cases to learn from that other European countries look at and the US does not. I have seen multiple examples of this even among reformers, like the RPA report on construction costs or the GAO one, let alone among state governments (Massachusetts will simply not learn from anything outside North America).

The explanation, I think, has to do with who the process is empowering. Senior management in big American cities does not understand anything about how things work in other countries, nor do the managers have any social relationships with their peers abroad. Domestically, and sometimes even across the northern border, it’s different – a senior manager in New York has gone to national conferences and met peers from Los Angeles and Chicago and Boston and Seattle and probably also Toronto. A best practices effort that’s restricted to North America empowers such managers.

In contrast, a best practices effort that goes global disempowers the most powerful people in politics and the bureaucracy. They are monolingual, so they can’t easily contradict what people say in a report that talks about how things work in Paris or Tokyo or Madrid or Stockholm. They are unlikely to have lived abroad, or if they did, it was so long ago their knowledge is no longer relevant. They have no established relationships with their peers. They are useless in such a process, and they know it.

I was on a diversity panel at Intercon called Gaming as the Other, I believe in 2015. There were me as the immigrant (just about the only 1st-and-not-1.5th-generation immigrant in a community numbering in the low hundreds), a second-generation Chinese-American, and two black Americans. We discussed different issues relevant to this 95% white community, and at some point, someone from the audience asked me a very good question: “Alon, do you feel excluded when we talk about American pop culture references?” I thought about it a little and said no, I can usually fill in the gaps – I don’t feel excluded when the Americans know something I don’t but when I know something they don’t, because I know they will not respect my knowledge. The two black Americans did not connect to this; the Chinese-American did, bringing up a school in Chinatown in Manhattan that split over traditional vs. simplified characters, a distinction few non-Chinese people would understand.

It’s likely that the single biggest institutional barrier to improving public transportation in the United States is not exactly bureaucratic inertia, but rather than the improvements do not tap onto the agreed-upon skillset of the most powerful people. The political appointees are of no use. Some managers are, but not many, especially not at the top levels. At planning agencies it’s often the junior people who are most useful. Why should a manager listen to an underling?


  1. Korakys

    Anywhere you find straight line borders on a map, “unnatural borders” as I think of them, you will find major institutional underperformance. North America, the Middle East, and Africa are the three hotspots of straight line borders and all are performing below where you would expect them to.

    • Herbert

      There’s nothing “natural” about most borders in Europe just because they’re squiggly…

    • Eric

      South America has squiggle borders and horrible institutions.

      Africa has horrible institutions because it has horrible everything. Maybe Jared Diamond could answer why this is.

      Squiggly borders in the Middle East are mainly within uninhabited desert. Some of these weren’t even demarcated until 1995. That’s different from the reason for squiggly borders elsewhere.

      • Nilo

        Africa in particular has (had?) poor options for domestication in both farm animals and crops, delays the beginning of agriculture which delays everything else. Ian Morris, a historian of the Ancient World, blames the entire historical developmental delay in Africa basically on this.

      • Korakys

        South America does better than a lot of similar latitude areas. How do you think it would fair if the straight line Spanish-Portuguese border still existed?

        Africa has horrible institutions because it has low social trust, which is has because state borders don’t align to national boundaries.

        At yet the Middle East still has terrible wars because many of it’s borders are in the wrong places. In some cases it’s symptomatic, in other cases it’s causal.

          • Korakys

            Belgium is an interesting case. I think extensive devolution explains a lot of it, as well as growing naturally out of a historical era where things operated differently (pre-WW1 empires), and being surrounded by larger countries with similar languages and cultures that have good institutions. And even so I’m doubtful Belgium will still exist in 50 years.

  2. Nilo

    National tradition posts are great. Would be interested in Japanese, especially given your constant references to Tokyo, then France (whose Parisian influence you see prominently in even the equipment choices in places like Montreal or Lausanne), then Germany, since you know S-Bahn’s are cool.

    • Herbert

      The biggest factor in the “German tradition to build subways” is that they largely didn’t. With the exception of two Bavarian exceptionalism examples all cities that didn’t have a subway by the end of World War I buried part of their trams instead of building a full flesh subway. Even de facto million city Cologne…

        • Nilo

          Yeah Munich has a million riders on the U-Bahn a day, tough to imagine a subway surface system dealing with that quantity of people.

        • Herbert

          Plenty of German cities were thinking out loud about “Unterpflasterbahn” in the twenties. The sixties and seventies are what birthed the only post WW I subways…

          • Herbert

            Nuremberg by the way also planned to build a Unterpflasterbahn in the 1920s…

        • sirkulat

          Alon, this Portland transit planner’s perspective would retire most 40′ buses. Tri-Met has fleet of 600 of these disgusting rattletraps, jostling jolting, steamy in wet weather, too hot or too cold, always uncomfortable. Rather than 60′ articulated buses, I say the need is for shorter wheelbase buses specifically built for electric (and hybrid-electric) chassis and suspension.

          The transit vehicle most in need of replacement are GM/Ford paratransit vans which should be ‘entirely’ low-floor, low-emission, comfortably stable handling that seniors, disabled and all transit patrons need. Current Gillig and New Flyer buses do not convert very well to electric. They’re a waste of time and effort pretending they’re fine. They’re only suitable on faster routes with the least stop-n-go and in many cases only during rush hours. New model buses need an interior layout easier for wheelchair patrons to board. Their ride should be as comfortable as light rail, brightly lit and in some fashion as antiseptically clean (with bacteria-killing overhead lights?) and as cleanable as possible. On private routes during rush hours they could complement public transit. In addition to this new bus type, bus routes, schedules and transit center designs are similarly questionable.

          Tri-Met’s current director Doug Kelsey should be replaced immediately. His Barbur Blvd MAX plan is abominably destructive engineering. His proposed MAX subway via SW 6th Ave will NEVER leave the drawing board. His plan to convert crappy old buses to electric is like putting lipstick on a pig. The new bus color DARK BLUE is a safety hazard for patrons, pedestrians and motorists with impaired visibility. I believe he is conspiring with fellow politicians to commit Grand Larceny. $40million has been wasted in planning the Barbur MAX debacle and there’s only one reason the 6th Ave route is considered: the federal post office redevelopment proposal suddenly raised its maximum allowable height from 20 and 30-stories to 40-stories (north of Johnson St) and from 10 and 15-stories to all 25-stories (south of Johnson) immediately following the subway study announcement with station nearby. Kelsey knows this subway route is a non-starter. It is a handout to corrupt construction companies from the incompetent ZGF Architectural professional phonies have cooked up to please ignorant sycophants that form the project’s base of uninformed and misinformed supporters. Mayor Ted Wheeler too has proven himself incompetent in transit planning, though he publicly reminds everyone Chloe Eudaly runs that Bureau, not him.

  3. Thomas Graves

    You hit the nail on the head.

    It is impossible to exaggerate the parochialism and ignorance of the bulk of the US population when it comes to life outside the anglosphere (hell, they don’t even know how life is lived in Canada). Unless they have direct family connections to a non-English-speaking country, it is almost inconceivable that an American will speak another language well enough to participate in high-level debate and exchange in that language. Foreign language fluency is treated as a joke in the US (including at US multi-national corporations), not as a practical skill all should try to master. The foreigners who matter all speak English, so why bother?

    Extremely few Americans ever live or study outside of English-speaking countries (beyond some ‘junior year abroad’ university programs), and in fact those that do and localize linguistically are regarded with suspicion and bewilderment by many of their fellow Americans. An American friend who graduated from the excellent university of Tuebingen was regularly told when looking for a job in the US that no one had ever heard of such a university or city, and a degree from a place like that “didn’t count” or was “fake”.

    This is particularly true for the people who advance to high positions in local, state or even federal bureaucracies such as transit. They are the narrowest of the narrow. To them, the UK is unspeakably exotic. The idea of interacting with Italy, Germany or Japan on anything other than a holiday travel basis is inconceivable. Although it sounds like an exaggeration, to these people, Japanese, Koreans, Finns might as well be from another planet. As extra-territorial life, or as freaks, they may be interesting, but not as social or professional peers. People have to understand that most Americans – assuming they are even conscious of their staggering global ignorance and lack of cosmopolitanism – are intensely proud of it. The US is their entire world, and they like it that way.

    • Henry Miller

      Woah, slow down there. I know it is in to pick on Americans and we do have our problems. However you are reading too much in this.

      Everybody speaks English because learning a language is hard so you pick just one. That we happen to speak the language everyone else is learning is an advantage. I was in Germany a few years ago, if I couldn’t speak English to someone I gave up – I looked like a monolingual American but in fact I know enough Spanish to get by (Spain was not far away from where I was). My wife is fluent in Swedish (passed the fluency exam to get into college there) and nobody considered that we might be able to use that language. While I think was there one guy in the office told me he was glad the office was English so he didn’t have to learn that awful language. (he drives in from France or Luxembourg every day, I’m not clear)

      If you look at each US state as a separate country we start to look a lot like Europe. I notice that in Europe few people look beyond the EU. That each country happens legally separate and speak a different language doesn’t change the fact that the results are the same as the US despite them having to learn more languages to communicate.

        • jcranmer

          Including non-native speakers, English is the most widely-spoken language by some distance.

          • Herbert

            How does one measure “non native speakers”? Who is tracking them? How do they get the data? And what counts as being “an English speaker”?

          • Alon Levy

            You really can’t measure this to 4 significant figures. Even 1.5 significant figures is a challenge given how many marginal speakers there are (I should know, I live in Berlin).

          • michaelrjames

            The argument of “native” versus “non-native” English speakers is purely pedantic. Operationally it is clear that English speakers far outnumber Mandarin speakers (many of whom prefer not to speak Mandarin most of the time, eg. Cantonese or Shanghaiese etc.). That ethnologue article even underestimates the number of native English speakers IMO, at about 380m. I reach 450+m just from the Anglosphere without including South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Malaysia or The Philippines (heck even Indonesia; Bali with 4.4m has English as obligatory school language). Maybe even a fair number of Mandarin speakers … Let alone India, Pakistan, Bangladesh & Nepal–I don’t know the number of “native” speakers but English is the co-equal official language (because no native language ever spanned the continent) but an awful lot of Indians speak it, if not perfectly. These days you could probably include 50m Europeans, ie. approx. 10% of continentals, maybe more? (And let me say that about 50% of the time I can better understand a Nordic, German, Dutch or even French person speaking English than I can a Limey, Scot or Irish …).
            That’s why the world’s common language is “broken English”.

        • Henry Miller

          Only in China, and even in China if you want to talk to randomly foreigners English is your goto language

      • Richard Mlynarik

        Everybody speaks English because learning a language is hard so you pick just one …


        The facts are that American Transportation “Professsionals” are, to a man (and admit it, they’re pretty much all men), grossly ignorant, xenophobic, hostile to change, incompetent, corrupt, and pine for a past that never existed. MAGA!

        That English is at present the global lingua franca and that they can and constantly do use similar British or Australian corruption and incompetence to deflect passing criticism and continue business as usual while deriding, dismissing and ignoring the entire non-Anglosphere is just a historical linguist-imperial coincidence.

        Everything Thomas Graves wrote is true, even if “butwhatabout” my own personal schoolboy-level way-sub-polyglottism.

        • RossB

          So you are saying that the people in the big cities (L. A., San Fransisco, Boston Seattle, New York) are all ignorant and parochial, afraid to learn anything from folks outside their little world. Please. That is where the immigrants go to. That is where people travel from. This is where the major transit projects take place.

          I really don’t care whether Omaha (or the suburbs of Omaha) are parochial. They aren’t building major transit systems there. In the big cities the people aren’t parochial *in most things*. Transit stands out as an exception, and it is because it is political (as I wrote below).

          • Richard Mlynarik

            So you are saying that the people in the big cities (L. A., San Fransisco, Boston Seattle, New York) are all ignorant and parochial, afraid to learn anything from folks outside their little world.

            Yes, I am. Have you visited the US any time in he last hundred years?

            And FYI I’m an immigrant to the US and FYI I’ve lived in several of those cities and FYI I have good first-hand experience of transit in all of them save only tourism to Seattle. I do freely admit to being ignorant of and parochial about about “flyover” USA, for sure. Perhaps that’s where the cosmopolitans hang out and where the non-shitty non-contractor-welfare non-fuck-you-customers non-fuck-you-taxpayers transit exists in the USA?

          • Alon Levy

            When the virus was already reaching the United States, de Blasio, the city’s duly-elected mayor who won landslide elections, refused to act on the grounds that New Yorkers are tough and no virus can crush the city’s spirit. When libraries talked about closing, he threatened to pull their funding if they did, until he finally relented and closed them this Monday. Before implementing the closures he went to a public gym to work out and told New Yorkers to enjoy one last night out on the town. Result: close to 1,000 infected citywide and rising fast, and a supercluster among Haredis in Borough Park.

          • Herbert

            To be fair, Haredim seem to be the hardest hit in Israel as well, where quarantine measures were implemented fast and aggressively…

          • RossB

            @Richard — Sorry, but that’s ridiculous. You are basically saying that as soon as folks immigrate to the U. S., they immediately ignore everyone and everything that happened in the old country. Even though there are literally millions of immigrants in New York City (28%) and it is the home to the U. N., the city itself is provincial. Washington D. C., with its embassies and international think tanks is no better. Oh, and forget L. A.. Sure, lots of people speak Spanish, but that is all for show. Nope, nothing but Leave It To Beaver America, from sea to shining sea.

            Give me a break. The problem is not due to some fundamental cultural American weakness that permeates every field. If so, how do you explain the fact that some of the best universities are in the U. S.?! It makes no sense. These professors (from all over the world) do a bang-up job teaching and researching subjects (from all over the world) using information gathered (from all over the world) inside a country that is incapable of looking beyond its navel. Again, that’s absurd.

            As I wrote below, the problem is political. It is clear to even a passive outside observer that the political system in the U. S. is broken. It has been broken for a while now (y’all just noticed). The center right party became reactionary, then extreme. Now it denies well respected scientific theories, and is lead by a pathological liar who also happens to be a narcissist. Despite calling the pandemic a Democratic “hoax”, he has support within his own party above 90%.

            This has ramifications throughout the political landscape. There is no national consensus. Issues that should be handled nationally (like the pandemic) are handled within the city, or at best statewide.

            Pockets of liberalism exist within a sea of right wing extremism. But the liberalism is unchecked, as it all flies under the same banner (of the Democratic Party). Center left, center right, far left — they are all Democrats. This means that the argument is not “what transit should we build” or “how should we build it”, but “should we even have transit?”. That is why, as I wrote below, we build crap. There is no check and balance. Prior to a recent (major) transit funding bill in greater Seattle, Yonah Freemark asked a very worthwhile question: “https://www.thetransportpolitic.com/2016/04/06/youve-got-50-billion-for-transit-now-how-should-you-spend-it/”. Yet the people in Seattle never bothered to ask that question. They were simply asked in effect, whether they liked transit or not. Are they stupid, like the Republicans, that don’t like transit, or smart, like the Democrats, who do? It is but one side effect of the political tribalism that has permeated politics since the Republican Party embraced it (roughly in the 1960s, as they transitioned from a conservative party focused on good governance, to the white nationalist anti-tax party). It has not only destroyed the Grand Old Party, but weakened the Democratic one as well.

            In this political environment, it is no wonder that agencies don’t look overseas. There is no incentive to do so. Focus on the politics. Politically, it is much safer to just building it the way other people are doing it here, while making broad allusions to the value of similar structures overseas (“See, it is a streetcar, just like Europe”).

          • RossB

            @Alon — If your point is that de Blasio is not very smart, then I have no argument there. But if you are telling me that his poor performance on this, or any other issue, is due to his provincialism, I take issue. I just don’t buy the idea that someone who went through the trouble of renaming himself for his (second generation) Italian mother would be so ignorant of Italy. I’m sure that he — and his many relatives, as well as the very sizable Italian community in New York — were well aware that things had become a mess in the old country. Even a casual reading of the New York Times would have lead him to conclude that some countries were dealing with the crisis better than others.

            Consider, in contrast, the actions on the other side of the continent. Governor Jay Inslee (who I’ve met) has rapidly ramped up the efforts to contain the virus, which first landed on the continent in his state. Despite obvious lack of support from the federal government (including the President of the United States calling him a snake) he has managed to do the right thing (more or less). All the major steps have been taken, minus the widespread testing (which again, is due to incompetence at the national level). Schools, restaurants, bars, libraries, etc. are all closed. Transit ridership has plummeted, as non-essential workers are working from home, or simply not working. All of this has occurred when almost all of the deaths have been contained to one nursing home, and the pandemic is not widespread. Other than the lack of testing, it is not a lot different than how South Korea handled it.

            So, are we to conclude that Inslee is simply more worldly? Of course not. Inslee is a white American mutt. His ancestry is so muddled that it doesn’t warrant a Wikipedia sentence, probably because he has trouble remembering it (“I think I have some German, a little Welsh …”.). He simply responded to this crisis by doing what every sensible person would do: ask the experts.

            The experts — who are not politicians — showed him that things could get out of hand very quickly, or not, if you took quick action. That no doubt included examples from various countries from around the world, and I have no doubt that he nodded his head when briefed in an “Oh yeah, I heard that” manner. Are the American epidemiological experts (at places like the University of Washington) backcountry rubes? Of course not.

          • Richard Mlynarik

            You are basically saying that as soon as folks immigrate to the U. S., they immediately ignore everyone and everything that happened in the old country.


            It’s quite likely that there are Japanese and Swiss and Dutch and and Korean and German and Russian immigrants in the USA. Perhaps even living on the same street as I do!


            I live in a moderately cosmopolitan US city. (Nothing like LA or NYC, but swell enough.) Until a week ago, I could, should I have chosen to, eaten at any number of FUCKING AWESOME world-class places (fine dining, “dive”, whatever, so much out there!)

            But I didn’t have any transit choices that weren’t third-world or mafia-first-world.

            (Well, I did and do have non-public-tranporation choices — beautiful bicycle frames hand-brazed by local Californian artisans. No that that itself matters, they could be made by robots in Kampuchea. Anyway, bicycles, yay!)

          • Alon Levy


            1. “Other than the lack of testing” is not a little trifle. Massive testing is the key piece of the Korean response, enabling life to go on without a lockdown because any potential exposure is tested immediately. This is important – Berlin isn’t even under lockdown and yet U-Bahn ridership is down 40-50%, way more than the decline in Seoul, Tokyo, Osaka, Taipei, and Singapore. (Germany has been doing really poorly in the crisis in the last few days.)

            2. Americans with Italian ancestry aren’t Italian in any meaningful way. Italians who study or work in the US remark upon the differences, unprompted. The Italian-American narrative is one of upward mobility through immigration, making it very unlikely that group will try to learn from Italy. For example, for all of the ethnic Italians in New York, I can’t recall a single article during the most recent congestion pricing conversation that mentioned how it works in Milan. Part-Italian Joe Lhota said something about through-running when he headed the MTA the first time but did not mention the Passante Railway. The RPA study on costs has examples from London and Paris, cities the New York elite views as peers, but not from Milan, a lower-cost city than both.

            3. American public health experts sometimes do and sometimes don’t pay attention to Asian trends, just like British, German, etc. public health experts. The “we can’t do anything to prevent 60-70% of the population from being infected, must get herd immunity” Imperial report just assumed no Korea-like response could ever happen in Britain, even back when the spread in Britain was limited, and based on that report the British government dithered on testing or social distancing.

          • RossB


            1) I didn’t mean to imply that “lack of testing” is a minor problem. It is a huge problem. But my point is the governor of Washington can’t order more tests because there aren’t any. There is a nationwide shortage. It is just like masks. Sure, maybe Americans aren’t into wearing masks. But there is a national as well as statewide shortage. They are literally asking people to help sew them! (https://www.providence.org/lp/100m-masks). The shortage came very fast, to the point where they almost immediately asked ordinary citizens to stop mimicking the Asians (so to speak) and leave the masks for those who really need it (e. g. surgeons).

            It is a *national* problem caused by incompetence at the national level. Various states are each handling it differently, given the very limited resources they have. I don’t think Inslee is less provincial than De Blasio (or Cuomo), I think he is simply a better leader or has a better organization able to handle this crisis.

            2) Fair enough. But de Blasio is not your average Italian American. During World War II, his mother worked for the U. S. Office of War Information, helping aid the Italian resistance. She then wrote a book about it. I really doubt that her son is completely ignorant of or has no interest in what is going in Italy, or the rest of the world for that matter. As mayor of New York, you have to keep an eye on international events. If anything, my guess de Blasio has a better understanding of what is going in other parts of the world than he does other parts of the country. I really don’t think the issue is a man focused only on the U. S. — I think it is simply a case of a mayor being tasked with something he can’t handle (made much worse by federal incompetence).

            3) The NIH and CDC take a world view. They have to. Saying they are provincial is like saying the U. S. military is provincial. These are very large organizations that have been involved in preventing outbreaks in other parts of the world. Let me just quote part of this excellent article (that came out a few years ago) https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/07/when-the-next-plague-hits/561734/

            America’s prior investments in global health preparedness—the largest of any nation’s—have already made a tangible difference. In 2010, the CDC helped Uganda set up a new surveillance system for viral hemorrhagic fevers like Ebola and Marburg.

            And in July 2014, in the midst of the West African Ebola outbreak, those investments very likely prevented a horrific catastrophe that might otherwise still be unfolding today. … “If it had gone out of control in Lagos, it would have gone all over Africa for years,” Tom Frieden, the former CDC director, says. “We were right on the edge of the abyss.”

            But Nigeria responded quickly. For years, it had used investments from the U.S. and other countries to build infrastructure for eradicating polio. It had a command center and a crack team of CDC-trained epidemiologists. When Ebola hit Lagos, the team dropped its polio work. It found every person who’d contracted Ebola, and every person with whom those infected had had contact. In only three months, after just 19 cases and eight deaths, it brought Ebola to heel and stopped it from spreading to any other country.

            With patience and money—not even very much money compared with the vastness of rich-country spending—this kind of victory could be commonplace. An international partnership called the Global Health Security Agenda has already laid out a road map for nations to plug their vulnerabilities against infectious threats. Back in 2014, the U.S. committed $1 billion to the effort over five years. With it came a clear, if implicit, statement: Pandemic threats should be a global priority. Nous sommes ensemble.

            Given that sense of commitment, and with the related funding in hand, the CDC made a large bet: It began helping 49 countries improve their epidemic preparedness, on the assumption that demonstrating success would assure a continued flow of money. But that bet now looks uncertain. Trump’s budget for 2019 would cut 67 percent from current annual spending.

            If investments start receding, the CDC will have to wind down its activity in several countries, and its field officers will look for other jobs. Their local knowledge will disappear, and the relationships they have built will crumble. Trust is essential for controlling outbreaks; it is hard won, and not easily replaced. “In an outbreak, there’s so little time to learn things, make connections, learn how to not offend people,” Rimoin tells me. “We’re here in the Congo all the time. People know us.”

            You get the idea. There is no question that many Americans take a very provincial view. But in most professions (such as epidemiology) they don’t. They can’t. Again, that’s not the problem. The problem is that the U. S. elected an idiot (with a minority of the votes).

            As to why transit planning is not one of those professions where average take a world view, I stick with my other point (it is dominated by self-centered political interests).

          • michaelrjames

            Yes, but we will never know if anything much would be different under Obama (or I suppose HRC), however Trump deliberately set about weakening the US’s institutional strengths to deal with such matters. I don’t know if it had anything to do with the grotesque failure in testing kits but the CDC is understaffed by 700 compared to what he inherited from Obama. And:

            The directorate of Global Health Security and Biodefense was established by Obama within the National Security Council, partly in response to the Ebola breakout in 2014-15. It was led by the widely respected Rear Admiral Timothy Ziemer who continued in the office for the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency. On the day that John Bolton took over as national security adviser in 2018, he dismantled the unit and ousted Ziemer.

            I suppose Bolton was unimpressed by Ziemer’s 550 missions over Vietnam as a Navy helicopter pilot since Bolton “had no desire to die in a Southeast Asian rice paddy” and chose to evade meaningful duty. Just like his boss Trump, and come to think of it, his earlier bosses Bush & Cheney. However Bolton was a supporter of the war just as long as it is other Americans dying in it.

          • Herbert

            Wouldn’t a company that learns how to build a tunnel more cheaply get more contracts and thus earn more money long term?

          • adirondacker12800

            Contact tracing costs money and Republicans value money more than people. Stay home, wash your hands because the Republican health care plan has always been “don’t get sick”. And their disaster planning and recovery plan is to not have disasters. Because that would cost money. … what’s a few more dead people?

        • Reedman Bassoon

          When Alameda County Transit (ACTransit) went out to buy new buses, they bought from VanHool in Belgium, Even though the second largest transit bus manufacturer in the US, Gillig, is located in Alameda County. Even though there are “Buy American” provisions when you use federal money. They knew what they wanted and were going to buy it no matter the cost, and not going to be swayed by local “provincialism”.

          • Herbert

            Then why don’t they operate those buses according to global best practices?

          • Richard Mlynarik

            Herbert, a book could be written about that.

            But it’s down to the same old thing, always, with US transit.

            The Empire struck back. The foreign virus buses (there was a coterie of local geriatric retired lunatics who called them “Van Hell” buses, because, ah, hellish, somehow, and tirelessly showed up at government meetings to complain and protest) somehow made it past the defences, but the US Transportation “Professional” immunity response was so strong.

            This was the first significant low-floor fleet of remotely modern buses anywhere in the country, a decade after low-floor was de rigeur everywhere else, and there was no way this was going to be allowed to work.

            All-door boarding was never implemented, and still has not been, and probably never will be. (Likewise bus lanes and bus priority at signals.) Proof of Payment fare verification is a foreign delusion. Because USA Special Needs.

            The maintenance workers sandbagged. Reliability was better than anything USA USA USA, but systematically run down.

            The AC Transit board of directors that authorized the purchase and had some vision of post-1950s bus operation were systematically denigrated and hounded out of office.

            Subsequently, the AC Transit board passed numerous resolutions mandating Buy USA Buy California Buy the-retarded-uncompetitive-corporation-that-just-happens-to-get-all-the-contracts now.

            Likewise other agencies. BART’s Bombardier (won in a perfectly “open” procurement process of course) “fleet of the future” (two decades out of date, featuring separable “cars” and ridiculously quantities of wasted interior space) is being assembled at a Potemkin factory in the SF Bay Area. (Of course, years behind schedule, tens or hundreds of millions over-budget, and at a cost a billion or so dollars over what competitive global procurement would have delivered.)

            The buses themselves were Best Global Practice equipment, delivered almost under the radar to a mobster organization (US “public” transit) that has absolutely no intention of ever doing anything according to Best Global Anything. The mob fought back, and won. AC Transit remains a basket-case of inefficiency and subsidy and shit service.

            Same story with the attempted S-Bahn-ification of Philadelphia in the 1980s. They mob fought, the mob won, the system today is a perfect example of worst everything. You just can’t get worse than SEPTA — and these are exactly the people the rest of the USA “learns” from. (Hello, Denver!)

            The same AC Transit story is repeating a few miles away at Caltrain, where Caltrain’s buying Stadler EMUs (assembled, again, at a Potemkin factory in the USA, at something like a 75% price premium for all the mobster middlemen) but has absolutely no intention of ever operating an S-Bahn. The trains are built for level boarding (which should be be at ~600mm, not 1000+mm, sorry Alon, you’re just wrong wrong wrong about non-NEC US passenger rail) but will never, for their entire service life, allow step-free, unaided-wheelchair access. Caltrain has no plan whatever to ever rebuild platforms for level boarding. None. The trains are built for one person operation, but Caltrain plans to continue to operate forever with a train driver and up to three “conductors” per train. The trains are designed for rapid acceleration and deceleration and low dwell times, enabiing high-frequency takt-y schedules, but will instead be operated in “commuter railroading” style, with hour headways off-peak, forever.

            You can shove modern transit equipment at America, but America will shit all over it and erect the defences to ensure that this sort of unacceptable foreign thing doesn’t happen again.

          • OaktownPRE

            AC Transit bought those terrible Van Hool busses for one reason only and that was because the top brass got to take a ton of boondoggle trips to Belgium. Their selection actually confirms everything about public transportation grifters here in the US as people who never ride, would never ride and would never even dream of riding the systems that they ostensibly manage. The busses were absolutely horrible and AC Transit has thankfully gone back to buying from Gilig as they should have in the first place.

          • OaktownPRE

            And whatever they were, they weren’t “low floor” as much as being ziggurat floored. On the smaller busses once the tiny “low floor” portion was used up the rest of the riders were forced to perch themselves on bizarrely dangerous ledges. This was after squeezing by the ridiculous wheel wells to get to a bunch of rear facing seats on busses with no air conditioning – some of the early versions the windows wouldn’t even open, and it gets hot in the service area. And as for all door boarding, I know I’m in the minority around here but having to actually pay when you get on AC Transit has kept it being a tolerable experience as distinct from the MUNI shit show on the other side of the bay.

          • Nilo

            Richard, I generally think you make a lot of good points, but why do you think AC Transit will not end up adopting all door boarding? It’s not like all door boarding has to be imported from exotic Europe, it is done next door in SF.

            As to Caltrain the delays on level boarding have been a travesty, but six trains per hour off peak is being considered as part of the service vision, and level boarding was included in that too. Obviously Caltrain has made a bunch of dumb mistakes (CBOSS, the extant passing tracks, the continued bizarre fact a third of all trains are currently planned to not go downtown, everything about the transbay terminal), and you’ve done a great job of highlighting that. But also it does seems like we are painfully moving towards something that might meet basic standards of acceptability.

            No disagreement on me on SEPTA and BART, though I’d point out with SEPTA the unions were as integral as the managers in killing the S-Bahn there.

            Anyways please don’t roast me alive.

          • Richard Mlynarik

            The busses were absolutely horrible and AC Transit has thankfully gone back to buying from Gilig as they should have in the first place.

            You see what we’re dealing with?

          • Richard Mlynarik

            but why do you think AC Transit will not end up adopting all door boarding?

            The buses started showing up in 2002 (2003?) with low floors and wired with buttons for all-door boarding.

            It’s now 2020. AC Transit doesn’t have Proof of Payment or all-door boarding.
            Or much of anything, other than hideously bad operating costs and maintenance costs and cratering ridership.
            It’s been a couple decades, so, I dunno, what are the odds?

            Buy American, operate American, burn the planet American.

          • Nilo

            Oh yeah local transit advocates often have counterproductive positions, no questioning that. The defense of conductors at every level from riders to employees to managers is straight up bizarre and stupid. Same can be said a multitude of other issues. I’m under no delusion how bad it is. The three best regional rail systems in the Western Hemisphere are in Latin America not the United States, bus service is almost uniformly awful, and we’ve barely built any decent metro since WWII. We spend billions of dollars overpaying home grown idiots who believe things haven’t changed since the height of the Pennsylvania railroad to build bad infrastructure. They say things like “SEPTA’s frequency and pricing system within Philadelphia is fine, because the poor want to ride a bus not a train into center city,” while our board members are convinced of that how systems like Metra operate is “the future”

            It’s terrible, I just think we can fix it, maybe it’s because I’m younger than you, but I’d like to hope I don’t have to flee this country permanently to ride a decent train before I die.

          • Richard Mlynarik

            Now we know what it takes to change the minds of America’s Finest Transportation Planning Professionals or to make even the most trivial improvements: the end of the world!


            Service Update: Rear Door Boarding and No Fare Period Effective Monday, March 23, 2020

            AC Transit is implementing rear-door boarding on buses with multiple doors.
            Fare payment is not required until further notice.

          • Nilo

            I confess Richard, I saw this and thought of you. Though I didn’t post it, because I suspect there’s a decent chance the agencies reverse themselves after the crisis like idiots.

          • Alon Levy

            Yeah, they probably do, there’s no thought given to POP, it’s just free buses right now (disintegrating the bus vs. rail fare in the process in places where it is integrated or close to it).

          • adirondacker12800

            Are you saying that keeping your preferred fare structure is more important that fewer dead people? That they shouldn’t have instituted free buses?

          • Tonami Playman

            Looks like our friends at Septa have joined the all door boarding and free fares jamboree here

            I’m getting used to this all door boarding thing here in Oakland. I hope they don’t revert back to front door only. So much faster picking up passengers, although there are a ton less riders.

        • Mike

          Millions of Americans do speak multiple languages and have family in other countries or have visited and learned from those countries. It just doesn’t show up in the political culture for a variety of reasons. The US created a national myth in the 1800s to unite the disparate ethnic groups, and part of that was forgetting the old country to some extent. Only since the 1970s has interest in the rest of the world started to return.

          The winner-take-all voting system favors two political parties. One party is centrist and is similar to leaders in other industrialized countries, exemplified by Obama. The other party was gradually hijacked by right-wing extremists with an us-vs-them attitude that goes back to the distortions of slavery on American culture. But it’s more than that. Right-wing media hosts and politicians are deliberately stirring up the flames on this cultural division and making people more polarized, usually for personal gain or to divert attention from their own shenanigans. That’s why the US does such crazy things, especially the last four years. But that doesn’t erase the other part of US culture that is more European-like.

          The trajectory is like this. 1800s: chattel slavery and manifest destiny. 1950s: Richard Nixon begins a kind of movement conservatism based on anti-elite grievance. 1960s: Goldwater libertarianism added to movement conservatism. 1980: Reagan has such a big victory that the Democrats get scared and start acting like conservatives-lite. That lasted throughout the 1990s and 2000s and early 2010s. Progressivism reasserted itself in the Trump era. The Democratic party is still mostly centrist (what foreigners would call center-right) and is debating how much more progressive to be.

          • adirondacker12800

            There are people who love the fables the Republican Party tells and people who recognize that reality exists. Who disagree on a lot of thing but do agree that reality exists. It’s polarized into two camps if the camps are true believers and people living in reality.

      • RossB

        I’m with Henry on this. Take a stereotypical American parochial attitude in most fields, and you end up hitting a wall very fast. Manufacturing? You better know what the Japanese and Germans are doing. Software? Yeah, most of it is created in the U. S., but if you become a big company, you are bound to deal with people from all over the world. Electronics requires a worldwide approach, with design in one country, parts from another, and the whole thing assembled somewhere else.

        In areas where you might excuse someone for focusing on just the U. S. (in medicine or nursing, for example) it is not because they think Americans are great, it is because they think great people from around the world go to American universities, which just so happen to be great. Even then a respected professional will learn from other countries. You don’t ignore that new paper in your field just because it came from overseas.

        That’s not the problem. The problem is that in things political — which includes transit — we focus only on ourselves. To a certain extent, this makes sense. Political problems — more than anything — require an understanding of the populous. The problem is the inability to realize that many of our problems are not unique to us, or our little burg. They are common, and found throughout the world.

        I really don’t think the problem is in engineering. I’m sure that there are civil engineers, for example, who can tell you about some wonderful new Japanese invention, ready to put a poster of the inventor of it on their wall, the way that budding basketball players do LeBron James.

        The problem is that transit projects are largely political, and American politicians simply assume that no one else has the same sort of problem. This has been clear in the “debates” about health care reform. Very few (if any) candidates have actually said what country their approach is modeled after. Nor have the reporters bothered to ask.

        Civil engineering is often two parts politics, one part engineering. I’m from Seattle, which has had its share of engineering failures (Google Galloping Gertie for kicks). But I’m not the least bit scared that a new subway bridge will collapse, or that a train will derail. I am terrified that they will spend way to much to build it, and will, when it is all done, build crap. Because, when it comes to most major transit projects in the U. S., we build crap. We build the way that we build freeways — out in the middle of nowhere, where land is fairly cheap, and no one will complain — that is where the new mass transit system goes. It works fine for freeways. I think you can make a case that that is the *only* place where freeways should be built (which is, more or less, Canada’s attitude). But a major investment — literally billions and billions of dollars so that you can run a subway train to places that struggle to generate enough ridership to run express buses to downtown every half hour (running in their own lane)? That’s nuts. It is no surprise that those in charge struggle with cost. If you can’t actually figure out what it is that needs to be built first, then it is quite likely that you spend too much for it. Any shady used car salesman knows this. If you walk into the lot saying “well, I don’t know too much about cars, and I’m not sure what I want”, you are going to be taken.

        Just to be clear, the folks in charge of major American transit projects are not acting like used car salesmen (unlike the president). It is the opposite. They are acting like the ignorant consumer, and somewhere along the line, someone will play them. People from around the world will respond in two ways, “Why did you let them play you?”, and “Why do you not have the system in place to prevent idiots like you from being played?”. We basically throw up our hands, when it is all done, and say “I thought we could build it cheaper (and more people would ride it)”. Which is another way of saying “I guess I got played”. Oops.

        Parochialism is a sure sign of incompetence. If you are willfully and dismissively ignorant of the world when it comes to what you produce, you suck. Right now, in many ways, America sucks. But if you dig a little bit, in most cases you will find that the source of the problem is political, not cultural. It is not that the politicians are parochial — hell, many of them came from another country — it is that they are ignorant, and not very curious about the subject.

        • Herbert

          You can build subways out to the middle of nowhere… If you’re willing to then build a bunch of stuff next to the stops in high density…

          • Henry Miller

            You can build it but they won’t come. Cities grew where they did for reasons related to geography and existing population. All existing good geography is taken (except for a few placed where oil was just discovered), that leaves existing population which by definition doesn’t exist in the Middle of nowhere

          • Herbert

            Why do pictures of subway extensions into lush green hills exist from decades past where you can see dense settlement at the same spot today?

          • RossB

            Not if you build them next to freeways, 40 kilometers from the city, with only minimal amount of transit infrastructure in the main (relatively small) city.

            But please, let me know about the examples of which you speak, and I’ll be happy to point out the differences.

          • Nilo

            Flushing Line, Stockholm T-Bana, the entire city of Tokyo. US hasn’t ever done transit oriented development well, and has only one case (Arlington, Va) that could plausibly called ok.

          • Henry Miller

            Building freeways in North Dakota does not cause sprawl oriented development except near Fargo. Subways and transit oriented development was never in the middle of nowhere, it was always where an existing city will logically grow next. Even sprawl oriented development needs to be near an existing city.

          • RossB

            Flushing Line, Stockholm T-Bana, the entire city of Tokyo.

            Those are all examples of the difference I’m talking about! All three serve a very good central transit system. None (to the best of my knowledge) run right next to freeways, or otherwise limit the potential of most of the stations. The far end of the Flushing Line is only about 12 km from the center of Manhattan. Likewise, the T-Bana does not stretch that far into the countryside. Other than lines that repurpose old rail lines (what I consider “commuter rail” in the rest of this comment), even the Tokyo system doesn’t go that far, even though it is one of the biggest cities in the world.

            In contrast, check out this map: https://tinyurl.com/uyjvnmw. This is not commuter rail. This is a new project, and none of it lies on old track, which is why it is so expensive (roughly $45B). The southern terminus lies about 45 kilometers away from the central city — farther than most subway systems serving much larger cities (Paris, London, New York, Tokyo, etc.). The northern terminus is similar. Many of the new stations are right by the freeway. But the main problem is that the central core lacks a decent subway system. You’ve added frosting, but forgot to make the cake! That means that except for the occasional commuter, people from those distance suburbs are still going to drive in. After all, the freeway is right there, and while the train will get them downtown (when it eventually comes) it is hard to actually get to their destination, a few miles from the nearest stop (and most of the city is a few miles from the nearest stop).

            Yet Seattle is not unique. This is common nationwide. It is, in some sense, the American way of building. Dallas, Denver San Fransisco — there is a huge preference of quantity over quality. This is definitely a provincial approach, and a quick glance at the rest of the world shows it is not just unusual, but radical. It has failed, miserably, as most provincial approaches do. My guess is it was taken because it sounds good, and drivers can relate to it. In the U. S. there is a tendency to treat mass transit like you would a freeway, while ignoring the obvious differences.

          • Herbert

            Isn’t it ironic that hyper-capitalist America is falling victim to “tonne ideology” something we used to accuse the Soviet bloc of?

  4. Herbert

    I don’t think Europe never learns from east Asia. If you look at “Bahn bashing” articles or commentaries in German media, they frequently cite France, Switzerland – and Japan. Of course such criticism comes from non-experts and some of the counter criticism is indeed valid: French zero altitude airline operation not being viable in Germany, Japan having even less rail cargo than Germany, Japan’s linear geography and lastly Swiss notions of a Takt taking a lot of time to be implemented and already being implemented. But when it comes to CoViD19 such “learning from elsewhere” is notably absent. Sadly the EU seems to be AWOL on the whole thing – they seem to be ill equipped to deal with a sudden unpredictable crisis…

  5. Matthew Hutton

    “Why should a manager listen to an underling?”

    Any good manager will listen to their staff as well as their superiors.

    • Herbert

      Don’t be ridiculous. Why would an underling know more than a superior? There’s a reason they’re underlings…

  6. michaelrjames

    In contrast, a best practices effort that goes global disempowers the most powerful people in politics and the bureaucracy. They are monolingual, so they can’t easily contradict what people say in a report that talks about how things work in Paris or Tokyo or Madrid or Stockholm. They are unlikely to have lived abroad, or if they did, it was so long ago their knowledge is no longer relevant. They have no established relationships with their peers. They are useless in such a process, and they know it.

    That is a good precis of the reality.

    However, my own theory about why face masks are so widely used in Asian societies is a bit different. When I first travelled thru South-East and East Asia a lifetime ago, facemasks weren’t a thing, but it was unavoidably noticeable in every single country with perhaps the sole exception of Singapore, that Asians had pretty unsanitary personal habits in public including on crowded public transit. They would hawk, spit and cough and sneeze openly without shielding. Singapore had already had a decade of high-profile campaigns, involving PR and fines, against such behaviour (along with other things like littering, gun chewing) which were taking hold by the time I passed through. I suppose western societies may have had similar cultural changes and possibly at the equivalent phase of modernisation–it’s just that it is well beyond our living memory (though I suppose the disgusting habit of tobacco chewing lasted into the modern era). Another example could be cigarette smoking which remains high throughout most of Asia (and still highest in the PRC which is probably another cultural clash when they visit HK).

    I think the facemasks became a defense against such behaviour of which some of their fellow citizens were very resistant to changing. Since then the richer parts have caught up with Singapore, and it tracks with prosperity and education (and perhaps spreads via televisual memes). It is possible that the mask thing has increased in parallel with increasing travel of Chinese mainlanders. One only has to look at Hong Kong where the 98% Chinese population have loudly complained about the intrusion of Chinese tourists from across the border, who bring these habits with them. That’s a special case but is fairly conclusive. This may only partly be this cultural aspect but was reinforced by the SARS experience which was acutely felt by Hong Kong. However that experience is why these same countries, especially HK and Singapore, have reacted the fastest to COVID-19 and thus halted its progress most effectively.

    But note that the real effect of masks is that it became a cultural, behavioural thing for everyone to wear a mask in public. As I wrote on your earlier post on COVID-19: (ordinary) masks have almost no statistically meaningful protection for the wearer but they do have proven effect if worn by the infected. A societal ‘solution’ is that everyone wears one and those not wearing them in public are ostracised, and this ensures the small percentage of infection spreaders, or those in early phase of infection, or recovery-but-still-infectious phase, are masked.

    The west wasn’t affected by SARS (and even Japan not much) so we haven’t gone thru this powerful learning exercise. I’m not sure if the current pandemic will have the same effect as SARS did in Asia.

    • Alon Levy

      In Bangkok, as of 3 months ago, such behavior is unheard of. In Singapore, too, spitting was pretty common but not in very crowded places. Taxi drivers would spit on the pavement at red lights, but spitting on the MRT, at public plazas, and at malls was unheard of even 20 years ago.

      Japan was not affected by SARS and neither was Korea, and yet, they have not had very high infection rates this time, and people wear masks (at least in Japan, I’m not 100% sure about Korea).

      • michaelrjames

        FYI, an interesting theory put forward (behind paywall of AFR, I’m reading hard-copy in my Saturday morning cafe) by Dr Margaret Harris a WHO emergency risk expert. It is a hybrid of my “Australia is turning Eurasian” theory (actually demographic fact), memory of SARS and …. bushfires.

        To the surprise of those listening she says Australia is more a part of Asia than the rest of the world understand, and this goes beyond its geography.
        Australia was wide awake to the threat of SARS in 2003, which began in China and spread to 30 other countries, as close as Singapore and as far afield as Canada. “Public health officials in Australia found it very threatening and I don’t think that memory has been lost to the country. While Australia dodged a bullet with SARS, I believe it retained a kind of immune memory, as did other Asian countries–with the exception of South Korea, which was not particularly worried about SARS, but got its immune memory from MERS in 2015.”
        Like many Asian countries, Australia appreciated the seriousness of the novel coronavirus from the outset and also began putting controls in place, very early.”
        When Harris heard Prime Minister Scott Morrison moving the country into pandemic mode on February 27 last year, she knew he was deadly serious. It was two weeks ahead of WHO’s characterisation of the outbreak as a pandemic and, from abroad, Australia is still being viewed as one of the fortunate countries, atop the league tables, she says.

    • Herbert

      Old timey trams (like 100 years old) often have admonishments about spitting on the floor or jumping on or off while the vehicle moves…

      • Eric

        I think that was about tuberculosis, from the days before antibiotics. Once recently I was visiting NYC and my older host pointed out such a sign in a subway station (attached to one of the pillars between tracks, it must have been overlooked when they removed all the other signs from more visible places).

        • Herbert

          TBC is present in a pretty large share of human bodies, but the disease doesn’t erupt in most well nourished otherwise healthy individuals…

  7. adirondacker12800

    My American Twitter feed talked about the virus somewhat when it was raging mostly in China and then in Korea, but as soon as it hit Italy, most of it transitioned to talking about Italy.

    That’s the way the news cycle works. It has the attention span of gnat

    Masks are nowhere to be found,

    I’m sure the epidemiologists have done what they do and have been doing it since it became popular in Asia. They don’t work. I can see where they could help reminding you to not touch your face but a piece of cloth over your nose and mouth doesn’t work. And even though they don’t, nobody can keep them in stock and people who need the the more sophisticated ones for stuff they work with, like sawdust, can’t get them.

    tricks like Korea’s use of disposable chopsticks at elevators to avoid finger-pressing are nowhere to be found,

    And the chopstick fairy is going to suddenly start producing hundreds of millions of them a day and distributing them. Like face masks in the home improvement centers. That don’t work. President Trump apparently thinks the states can go to Respirators R Us or Ventilator World and just buy them. And suddenly find people who know how to operate them. In a room that doesn’t exist with all the other equipment a room like that needs.

    …. Stay home and when you do go out wash your hands.

    …hand sanitizer….

    Almost nobody uses them correctly and it has the same problem as the chopstick fairy. We oxygenate gasoline with ethanol and we could divert some of that to hand sanitizer but then you need the bottle fairy to produce bottles to put it in. And a bottling plant to do it in.

    • Herbert

      You are obviously joking, but in Italy they’re indeed 3d printing a critical valve of the breathing apparatuses used in hospitals.

      • adirondacker12800

        How many dozens of them? If you want to 3D print 1,000 of them how long does it take to resupply the printers?
        3D print a few million hand sanitizer bottles by the end of the week. We would survive without a few million half liter bottles of Pepsi or Coke but then you still need the pump.

          • adirondacker12800

            Yes, people in private industry who aren’t qualified to plan for a once a century event are supposed to have the foresight and charity to plan for it. If your plan is that some wunder solution is going to drop down out of the sky to save your ass, make sure your extended family knows where you keep your advance directives.
            It’s because nobody wanted to spend the munnnnney to plan for what needs to be stockpiled and a plan to rotate it through inventory. To be very very frank, we’ve let the free market, low tax, zealots, trade money for dead people. Again.

    • Nicolas Centa

      It seems that’s the spirit: nothing works, nothing we can do…

      Still masks work to stop droplets, it is not so complicated to wash one’s hands… Simple things can be done.

      You seem to consider that those things Asians are doing are pointless, but I think taken together they aren’t.

      • adirondacker12800

        Every picture I saw from Wuhan almost everybody had a mask on. A rag over your mouth and nose reminds you to not touch your face. You will anyway. Which is why I said “Stay home and when you do go out wash your hands.”

      • michaelrjames

        Masks work to reduce transmission if the already-infected wear them. For the majority of uninfected people their wearing of masks has statistically almost no effect (which is scientific speak for “no effect”).
        In some Asian countries where the majority of the population are advised to wear them then they actually do, especially on crowded public transit. The effect is reduction of transmission but via the already-infected. You could save a lot of face masks if you could ensure just the already-infected (ie. the infectious) to wear them but human psychology/behaviour being what it is … Also if everyone wears them it removes the problem of the different stages of infectiousness which varies with each disease and also environment (hence seasonal effects).

        • Nicolas Centa

          In turn I would like to say it is not practical to have only infected people wear them because it is not possible to screen everyone, meaning many people are infected without knowing it, and also there would be much stigma imposed on people wearing masks.

          So having the social norm be to wear masks seems a better option to me; the only reason the OMS and other organizations say otherwise is because there is by far not enough supply.

          • michaelrjames

            So having the social norm be to wear masks seems a better option to me;

            I agree. It works in the absence of better information on the particular disease and regardless of diagnosis, and to a degree overcomes individual hesitation/reluctance. I still believe that the Asians experience of SARs preconditioned them to rapidly and pre-emptively react to this pandemic (even in Japan which went thru the learning exercise without incurring much infection).

            Incidentally, one way to reduce the shortage is to recycle masks. There are relatively easy means to sterilize them and get several uses out of them. Even more true for the more expensive, more effective ones used in hospitals, but of course the OHS obsessives wouldn’t hear of it. The medical system is hugely addicted to single-use stuff and it is horribly wasteful and polluting, and expensive.

            The frustrating thing with COVID-19 remains that we still don’t know its actual mortality rate (the only one that matters is the mortality rate of those infected ie. IFR, not the useless CFR; South Korea has the best estimate as they have done the most testing and the widest testing, it is 0.65%). I also remain unconvinced that anyone really knows whether asymptomatic infected people are infectious; lots of speculation that they are but it is not the least convincing. (I detect a lot of public health officials and politicians assuming the “worst case scenario” but that is not the best approach IMO.) The absurdity is that the US has been so useless with the normally respected CDC fumbling (in ways that are still not clear).

          • michaelrjames

            I wrote:

            I also remain unconvinced that anyone really knows whether asymptomatic infected people are infectious; lots of speculation that they are but it is not the least convincing.

            At last, there appears a solid report on this:

            A scientific study, rolled out by the University of Padua, with the help of the Veneto Region and the Red Cross, consisted of testing all 3,300 inhabitants of the town, including asymptomatic people. The goal was to study the natural history of the virus, the transmission dynamics and the categories at risk.
            The researchers explained they had tested the inhabitants twice and that the study led to the discovery of the decisive role in the spread of the coronavirus epidemic of asymptomatic people. When the study began, on 6 March, there were at least 90 infected in Vò. For days now, there have been no new cases.
            “We were able to contain the outbreak here, because we identified and eliminated the ‘submerged’ infections and isolated them,” Andrea Crisanti, an infections expert at Imperial College London, who took part in the Vò project, told the Financial Times. “That is what makes the difference.”
            The research allowed for the identification of at least six asymptomatic people who tested positive for Covid-19. ‘‘If these people had not been discovered,” said the researchers, they would probably have unknowingly infected other inhabitants.
            “The percentage of infected people, even if asymptomatic, in the population is very high,” wrote Sergio Romagnani, professor of clinical immunology at the University of Florence, in a letter to the authorities. “The isolation of asymptomatics is essential to be able to control the spread of the virus and the severity of the disease.”

            This exactly the sort of study that thousands of scientists and public health researchers would have been urging since the outbreak began (last December!), and which would have been done by the CDC or other authorities in the US if testing had been available.

            This points to another big issue with dealing with this and similar outbreaks. The development of such tests is highly regulated which is partly why it turned into such a debacle in the US with initially the CDC (some say at the instruction of Trump but that seems highly unlikely) declining to adapt the first test developed and adopted almost everywhere else in the world, and deciding to develop their own test … which failed. The CDC also apparently turned down at least on American company that had developed its own test. In fact many, many labs both commercial and research, could and have developed tests for COMID-19, as this is fairly routine especially since the DNA sequence (actually RNA) and plentiful source of in-vitro virus were made available in January.

            However such tests are highly regulated and the labs who offer such tests are tightly licensed, all of which is entirely appropriate under normal circumstances. Research labs often develop and widely deploy such tests before any commercial labs but they are not certified for official public testing–it isn’t their job. They are regulated to control for false negatives and false positives. But I think the situation is way beyond that now and this Italian study shows why.

            Australia, where the virus was first grown in-vitro (and distributed to the world, essential to develop and certify tests etc), has done a lot of testing but like everywhere it has been restricted to suspect cases which does little to really stop viral spread. It has imported the international kits but has also now developed its own tests. However certification takes time and then, manufacture of the certified test kits, and the number of certified labs restricts testing and adds cost. I think the next thing we might and should see, is widespread testing (and retesting) by research labs each of which could manage thousands per day if freed of the paperwork etc associated with certification (I’ve run such a lab.) The US with thousands of labs competent to do this stuff could do it tomorrow.

          • michaelrjames

            Here’s a discussion of the topic in yesterday’s Science magazine (which has made its covid coverage open access). Below is my small selected extract but read the whole article as there remain differences of opinion on this.

            Would everyone wearing face masks help us slow the pandemic?
            By Kelly Servick, 28 Mar 2020

            But the greatest benefit of masking the masses, Cowling [an epidemiologist at the University of Hong Kong] and others argue, likely comes not from shielding the mouths of the healthy but from covering the mouths of people already infected. People who feel ill aren’t supposed to go out at all, but initial evidence suggests people without symptoms may also transmit the coronavirus without knowing they’re infected. Data from contact-tracing efforts—in which researchers monitor the health of people who recently interacted with someone confirmed to have an infection—suggest nearly half of SARS-CoV-2 transmissions occur before the infected person shows symptoms. And some seem to contract and clear the virus without ever feeling sick. “If I knew who was asymptomatic and presymptomatic [for COVID-19], I’d … triage the face masks to those individuals,” Monto says. Unfortunately, he adds, “We don’t know who these are.”

            Also, on a related topic, earlier I talked about the huge wastage in hospitals and labs of this disposable once-use safety gear.
            This system (link below) uses vapor phase hydrogen peroxide. I was thinking of a broom-cupboard sized device but a shipping-containing is I suppose the right thing for a whole hospital! This thing can sterilise up to 80,000 masks, goggles etc in about 4 hours.

            Technology To Clean And Reuse PPE Is Being Deployed To Hotspot Hospitals
            Paige Pfleger, March 30, 2020

          • adirondacker12800

            The shipping container thing looks kewl. When are they going to move heaven and earth and ramp up production to one a day?
            I’m going to assume they paid attention in biology class and have someone on staff who understands germ theory. Why didn’t they suggest something a bit more low tech?
            There are other alternatives. Autoclaves-R-Us has 100,000 of them in stock? I can listen to my 70 year old pressure cooker and know it’s holding 15 pounds of pressure. Can you? I don’t use it for canning and boiling the meat is adequate for biological hazards I can reasonably expect in my meat but I don’t engage in home canning. At what temperature does the sophisticated spunbonded fabric masks are made of start to unstick from itself? But untrained laundry workers are going to be able to read the manual and do it right all the time. And hauling it to the laundry doesn’t present risks? Do we have enough haz-mat suits for the laundry workers to wear? I suppose you could do it with chemicals. Does the glue holding the fabric-y stuff to the rubber-y stuff remain glue when you soak it whatever chemical you have in mind? What does that kind of temperature or chemical do to the properties of the stretchy parts that hold it on someone’s face. I’ll assume the manufacturers thought about temperature or chemical and designed it to tolerate one of them. They are keeping it to to themselves for what reason? If it’s bleach does Clorox have enough capacity? Probably, we could live without household bleach for a while. There is that problem that hospitals don’t have laundries or laundry workers anymore. Or the staff to haul stuff to a shipping container out in the parking lot and haul stuff back. When production ramps up to two a day in August.

            If we knew who the asymptomatic carriers were there are already laws on the books about quarantine and if you violate your official quarantine you are subject to fines or they haul you ass to jail if you keep doing it. That would be much more effective. You and your household have to stay inside. We’ll bring you food and prescriptions. And the premium plan on you TV provider. How many people do you have to test and how frequently does it have to be done for it to be effective? Either plan, rationing the masks or being strict about quarantine?

            It seems, from epidemiological studies and a few well designed studies that had approximately 10,000 people in them, in total, that having adequate amounts of Vitamin D in your blood can lessen the severity of upper respiratory infections. Any upper respiratory infection and it would be an extrapolation that it is effective with what happens with COVID-19. But it would reduce the number of ones that happen for other reasons. While you are staying home and washing you hands when you do go out to do something essential, exposing your face and arms to 15 minutes of sunlight when you can, during the week may help. And it’s something you can do. Without a sophisticated system in a shipping container or even bleach.

          • michaelrjames

            You didn’t read the article did you?
            IIRC, they have already shipped 5 containers (to the usual suspects, NYC, SF, Chicago, Boston … DC?).
            They are actually pretty low tech (fans mostly) and so it seems like they could ramp up production quickly, but just those cities is already significant. And production of one a day would be more than adequate, I’d guess. Battelle is a big company in this field and my guess is that they have had versions of this in their skunkworks for years or decades. More than they can ramp up production of things like N95 masks and goggles, both of which are expensive. They reckon they can be recycled at least 20 times using this sterilisation process.

            Yeah, every hospital and lab already has autoclaves and quite big ones where you load up a platform on a slide rail and move it into the chamber and close vault-like door. Used for sterilising surgical instruments etc, and for inactivating bio-waste. But autoclaving is quite destructive (120+°C and high pressure steam, though IIRC the fancier ones can do a “dry” cycle; also 134°C is used for medical sterilisation IIRC) and most PPE wouldn’t survive.

            So that’s why the vapor-phase hydrogen peroxide. Other than UV (which only works for non-absorbant surfaces or air) this is probably the most economical use of material, and the least destructive. Ozone is another but more expensive. (But one of my thoughts was that just hanging the PPE on a clothesline on the roof and allowing a few hours of sunlight and air to do the job.) It was probably perfected to cope with prions that cause transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease etc and are incredibly resistant, even surviving regular autoclaving so that “sterilised” surgical (or dental) instruments have been implicated in transmission.

            I’ll assume the manufacturers thought about temperature or chemical and designed it to tolerate one of them. They are keeping it to to themselves for what reason?

            No. All this stuff is made for single-use disposability. As I said earlier, the amount of such waste in hospitals and labs is horrendous. I suspect it took a crisis like this to overcome the resistance to recycling–already the FDA was reluctant but they were over-ruled, or had their arm twisted. I can imagine the manufacturers will try to kill this either after the crisis passes, or maybe even now (they are all ramping up production of the usual stuff so they’ll claim it is unnecessary and of course invoke the bogeyman of “risk”.). With any luck, the secret is out of the bag and will survive, at least outside the US where Big Money has a bit less influence on such things as healthcare.

            Spain and Italy could have done with such a system. Some 10% of hospital staff have contracted the disease, mostly due to shortage of PPE. That has severely impacted on staffing of the specialist ICUs to deal with the most critical covid-19 patients. And possibly helped spread the disease further. There is also the obvious application in the developing world where the PPE is a significant expense and even more limited.

            As for your comments on testing, we (at least I) have covered all that. Massive but targeted testing for contact tracing is critical to continue suppressing this thing once the main crisis has been brought under control, and continued until a vaccine or drug is developed.

          • adirondacker12800

            I read the article. you didn’t answer the question when they are going to ramp up production to one a day. You engaged yet another complicated circle jerk with yourself. I’m not sure we are trying to answer the same question. Again. I’ll make it very very siimple:

            Do you want fewer dead people?

            That has a single syllable answer. As commonly defined in the Earth language called English.

        • adirondacker12800

          If it’s something that is spread in the air. This probably is but not too well, probably. If all viruses spread through the air we would all be dead.
          If uninfected people are coughing and sneezing through a mask they aren’t spreading SARs, I want cites of the peer reviewed articles.

          • michaelrjames

            It comes from the CDC recommendations for seasonal influenza, and that is good enough for me.
            Extract, and emphases are mine.

            A combination of infection prevention control strategies is recommended to decrease transmission of influenza viruses in healthcare settings. These include source control (immediately putting a surgical mask on patients being evaluated for respiratory symptoms), promptly placing suspected influenza patients in private rooms, and having healthcare personnel wear personal protective equipment (PPE) when caring for patients with suspected influenza. Additional information about PPE and other prevention strategies for personnel caring for patients with seasonal influenza is available. A mask should be worn by infectious patients any time they leave the isolation room.

            The following recommendations focus on the appropriate use of masks as part of a group of influenza control strategies in healthcare settings. Masks are not usually recommended in non-healthcare settings; however, this guidance provides other strategies for limiting the spread of influenza viruses in the community.

            Healthcare Settings
            Symptomatic or Infected Patients
            During periods of increased acute respiratory infections in the community, coughing patients and anyone suspected of having influenza should wear a mask at all times until they are isolated in a private room. (see Respiratory Hygiene/Cough Etiquette in Healthcare Settings). Masks should be worn by these patients until it is determined that the cause of symptoms is not an infection that requires isolation precautions or
            the patient has been appropriately isolated, either by placement in a private room or in some circumstances by placement in a room with other patients with the same infection (cohorting). The patient does not need to wear a mask while isolated, except when being transported outside the isolation room.

          • Nicolas Centa

            This should be good enough, because if you wait for peer reviewed articles before acting in time of crisis, you are going to die early.

          • michaelrjames

            Oh, I assume if the CDC are advising that, there is a tonne of published data behind it. True, it is also exactly the kind of thing the CDC has to master in their role of understanding communicable disease.

          • adirondacker12800

            A bus is not a healthcare setting. To quote from you citation it says “Masks are not usually recommended in non-healthcare settings”. And I can’t get one. And neither can the rest of the people on the bus. Try again, read your citation before you cite it.

          • michaelrjames

            I think you have taken that out of context, in that I reckon it was a general observation about the general public, not specifically the infected. But, IMO, the rest of the advice clearly indicates that the infected should be masked in the presence of other people (ie. except where they are in an isolation ward/room etc). Do you really think this wouldn’t apply to an infected, or potentially infected person, on public transit?

            anyone suspected of having influenza should wear a mask at all times until they are isolated in a private room.

          • michaelrjames

            Well, here is another take on masks, a slightly surprising one in that it doesn’t take into account if asymptomatic infected people spread the disease (it now seems fairly conclusive that they do).

            One of the panels in the cartoon here, has the other (masked) people in the elevator (in Singapore) asking the un-masked Dr Dale Fisher why he isn’t wearing one; his response: “Well, I feel fine so there really no need. But if I had a fever, a cough, or flu symptoms I would definitely wear one to protect others.”

            However Singapore detects 1% of those screened as carrying the virus. This is amongst the lowest in the world (it gives an Case Fatality Rate of only 0.46%, well below Korea’s Infected Fatality Rate of 0.65%; however based on only 2 deaths so weak statistics so far, if nice …) To be clear, Singapore CFR is probably also their IFR. At any rate it indicates their testing is very deep, especially compared to most others so it may well be detecting asymptomatic carriers. It also isolates all positives (so they aren’t in the elevator at all).

            Why Singapore’s coronavirus response worked – and what we can all learn
            March 18, 2020 4.43pm AEDT
            Dale Fisher, Chair, Infection Control, National University Hospital, National University of Singapore


      • Richard Mlynarik

        You know we’re all just here to read adirondacker12800 and michaelrjames incorrecting each other about [bullshit topic]! Nobody’s ever disappointed.

        • adirondacker12800

          No I haven’t taken it out of context. I asked for a cite of your claim that masks helped stop the spread of SARS. You gave me one about influenza in a healthcare setting. That specifically does NOT support your … cargo cult voodooism. If masks helped stop the spread SARS it would have been a problem in Toronto where people don’t wear masks. Unless they did start wearing masks and someone somewhere would have published something in the popular press or perhaps even in peer reviewed journals. Nah, you gave me one about you gave me one about influenza in a healthcare setting. That specifically does NOT support your … cargo cult voodooism.
          You are flailing about being contrarian like you usually do and most of the time is doesn’t really matter. But like Mr. Centa said it does now. Because if you take the advice of some cargo cultist you might be dead. Or make some one else dead. What part of that don’t you understand?
          What part of masks not being available don’t you understand? People can’t get them and even if you aren’t being superstitious the best advice right this minute to help make sure you don’t end up dead or passing something on to some one who could be dead from this, is to stay home and wash your hands when you do go out. Obsessively and after watching a video or two or three about how to wash your hands because except for people who have been trained, no one does it correctly. And a few more videos on how to use hand sanitizer. Because nobody uses those correctly either.
          Japan has competent epidemiologists who read and publish in the world wide specialized press. And so does Singapore, where masks are apparently popular and so does China and if this helped, by having the general population use them, they would have noticed and published. Nah take the advice of some anonymous contrarian on the internet who likes to cite irrelevancies. Find one, there has got to be one, someplace, somewhere, to cite. And you have plenty of time to find one because you are staying home as much as possible and washing your hands obsessively when you do go out.
          And I’m not going to go any farther. We can’t get masks. That is the immediate hurdle. Whether or not they work is something the survivors can discuss in a year or two. We don’t have any evidence that they do, right now, or it would have been published.

          • michaelrjames

            I stumbled across the reference (extracts below) which says pretty much as I said. I also just saw Anthony Fauci on tv news saying that uninfected and untested people should not be wearing masks–for the reason you gave, ie. there is a shortage and they are needed by certain groups where they will have the biggest effect.
            Incidentally, the evidence that asymptomatic people can be positive for the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and thus presumed to be vectors in transmitting the virus, means wide-spread testing is even more important to bring this thing under control.
            This paper is a meta-study and they cite at least 4 published papers for this summary. I’m not going to wade thru those papers.

            BMC Public Health. 2007; 7: 208.
            Published online 2007 Aug 15. doi: 10.1186/1471-2458-7-208
            PMCID: PMC2040158
            PMID: 17697389
            Non-pharmaceutical public health interventions for pandemic influenza: an evaluation of the evidence base
            Julia E Aledort, corresponding author1 Nicole Lurie,1 Jeffrey Wasserman,1 and Samuel A Bozzette1,2

            Provider and patient use of masks and other personal protective equipment
            Uncertainty about the mode of influenza transmission has influenced debate about when and whether to use masks or N95 respirators for pandemic influenza. Droplet transmission is thought to be the primary mode of transmission, and provides the basis for CDC guidelines that health-care personnel wear masks for close patient contact (i.e., within 3 feet) to control influenza transmission during the influenza season [41]. But experience from seasonal influenza also provides evidence of contact, droplet and aerosol transmission of influenza that lend support for N95 respirators, which are designed to stop up to 95% of small airborne particles [42]. A recent Institute of Medicine (IOM) study found that empirical evidence about the efficacy or effectiveness of inexpensive, disposable masks and respirators against influenza is limited [43-46]. Our experts recognized this as an area of significant controversy and complexity, but they generally recommended reserving surgical masks, N95 respirators and other personal protective equipment for hospital and ambulatory patients and providers when a community outbreak begins or when the pandemic was widespread. Moreover, surgical masks and N95 respirators were recognized as a non-invasive technology that would induce no antiviral drug resistance. The experts qualified their recommendation, noting that poor training, improper use and, for N95 respirators, the need for fit-testing may compromise the overall effectiveness of these measures.

            Interventions whose use is not recommended
            Masks and other personal protective equipment for the general public
            With the exception of some evidence from SARS, we did not find any published data that directly support the use of masks, respirators, or other personal protective equipment by the public, or other steps such as disinfecting surfaces beyond usual practices. The expert’s views were mixed. There was uncertainty regarding requirements for masks or respirators because of uncertainty about the relative roles of droplet versus aerosol transmission. Concerns about supply, competency in mask and especially respirator fitting and use, adherence by the public, and social impact of mask-wearing all served to undermine the panel’s confidence in the feasibility and acceptability of widespread use. On the survey, experts recommended against the use of masks or respirators by the public prior to the arrival of pandemic influenza and in the early localized phase. For similar reasons, experts recommended against the public use of other protective equipment such as gowns, gloves and protective eye wear.

          • Alon Levy

            “We have a mask shortage and first responders should have priority and you shouldn’t hoard” is a very different advice from “don’t wear masks, it’s not helpful.” The latter is a common myth in the Western world, enforced with street violence against Asians who wear masks; with no demand there’s no attempt at mass supply, unlike the 13 million masks a day produced in Taiwan.

          • michaelrjames

            very different advice from “don’t wear masks, it’s not helpful.”

            Except it is fairly clearly implying that for the general public the masks don’t do much. As the scientific article says, and also Dr Dale Fisher from Singapore, an Asian nation.
            Are those attacks happening in Europe? Or maybe the USA? I’m pretty sure they’re not happening in Australia (and we have more Asians than either of those places, maybe this helps).
            FWIW, I’m not sure Dr Fisher’s advice is applicable outside of Singapore (and S. Korea, Japan, HK) because of poor testing and thus poor identification of all infected. Australia is catching up fast on testing frequencies and why we have an CFR of 1% similar to Singapore (in NSW 40,000 tested for 380 positives) though the Australian rate continues to grow. It’s clearly the way to bring this thing under control. As Fisher said in his article, the SARs scare caused Singapore and HK (and S.K. & Japan?) to establish mechanisms, both medical and legal, to do complete tracking of contacts of those infected. The rest of the world is only starting, and the US is woefully behind everyone else.

          • Alon Levy

            First of all, the West is catching up re testing. Germany is up to 260,000 tests per week, the US is up to 40-something thousand per day. It’s happening way later than it did in Korea with predictably worse results, but it’s happening.

            Second, as I just said on Twitter when Jonathan English showed this to me, I am not making any claim in either direction regarding Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. They have the largest numbers of ethnically Chinese immigrants in the Western world, Australians and New Zealanders visit Singapore and Hong Kong often, Chinese-Canadians are disproportionately 1997 Hong Kong refugees who are used to disbelieving the CCP and vote Conservative on anti-communist and pro-American grounds.

            My analogy for this is Thai construction costs: there is a big difference in third-world construction costs between ex-colonies, which all have very high costs (India, Vietnam, Indonesia, Egypt, Bangladesh), and non-ex-colonies, which are pretty much in line with the non-Anglo first-world average (Iran, China, most of Latin America, Turkey if you believe its low numbers). But even before looking at Thai costs I refused to make a prediction about where Thailand would fall, because it’s not an ex-colony but has had so much cultural imperialism by the West and cultural cringe that it could plausibly be outsourcing metro planning to first-world megacorps the way India is. (It turned out Thai costs are intermediate between the ex-colonies and the never-colonized middle-income countries).

            Third, South Korea and Japan had barely any SARS. South Korea did have MERS, to which the right-wing government botched the response; Japan had neither SARS nor MERS, and its government response under Abe has plausibly been the worst in democratic Asia. But given that Japan is still doing far better than the best Western European country (which might be France at this point?), it’s worthwhile looking at the commonalities of all rich Asian countries: treating events in China seriously, probably disbelieving the CCP (this may be strained about Singapore, but I can believe the Lee clan knows the CCP is lying and just isn’t telling the population that while still prepping), normalizing mask wearing, having high levels of social isolation among elderly people. Moreover, within the West, federalism has been a failure in both the US and Germany, and all rich Asian countries are highly unitary (though Italy is fairly unitary as well, this is not a clean Asia vs. West or success vs. failure cleave).

          • michaelrjames

            You seem determined to make arguments out of nothing, or where I am not sure there is any material difference (hmm, pot-kettle-black I suppose I can hear you retorting …).

            Of course the world is catching up on testing but the extremely critical factor is timing. Singapore, especially, tested widely early and in targetted fashion, ie. in the strategy of infection tracing to identify everyone who could be infectious and then isolate them. Lots of things remain poorly understood with this virus but this early testing and intervention has to be a big factor in Singapore’s success. FWIW, I suspect the population-wide (≈100%) mask wearing, especially in crowded situations (transit etc) may have prevented spread in the very early days before the testing could do its job, even though Dr Fisher doesn’t seem to think so.
            The current higher testing in the rest of the world is running to stand still, and it is going to take them a much bigger effort to implement effective infection tracing, which is the only thing that will bring it under control.

            I’ve said multiple times that Japan (and Korea) wasn’t affected much by SARs but what I do believe is that that scare, of being on the frontline, allowed all those nations and their healthcare institutional arrangements to be better prepared than the rest of us who weren’t touched by it, including not feeling sufficiently threatened, to have done the same. Though points to Obama for setting up the Global Health Security and Biodefense office, that feasibly might have made a difference if Bolton/Trump hadn’t abolished it.

            Regarding adirondacker’s points, I agree about the difficulty of the common consumer-level masks to be fitted correctly. However that is mostly with respect to the protection of the wearer. Even a poorly fitted mask provides some protection of others when worn by the infectious. FWIW, in tv news I have seen what looks like a better quality mask that appears to be made of some black stretchy material, perhaps lycra, and seems to form a much more form-fitting seal. The cheap disposable paper masks are awful–and I’ve been wearing them for 40 years in the lab; the reality is one wears them as more protection of your work than yourself (eg. doing bacterial plating or sensitive PCR work to avoid DNA contamination etc); if you’re doing anything remotely dangerous you do it in a laminar-flow biohood. Of course containment labs doing actual serious work have space suits etc.

          • Herbert

            Iceland has already tested 10% of its entire population and much of our data on the capability of asymptomatic cases to be contagious comes from Iceland and smaller communities that had high testing rates. So there IS a western country with reasons for hope…

          • Alon Levy

            Unfortunately, this Western country with reasons for hope also happens to have the highest per capita confirmed infection rate in the world, around 45% higher than Italy.

          • adirondacker12800

            Alon, I understand how using “latter/former” works. I never use it. Even people who understand how it works will have a brain fart and misunderstand. There are other ways to express the same thought, whatever that thought is. Which don’t sound as sophisticated but I never use it. I’m not sure if you understand the gravity of the problems because you used it. And rest assured someone, it’s not a single person, misunderstood what ever point you are attempting to make because even people who understand how it works have brain farts. Why did you choose to use a complicated form when the situations are dire and the theme of any of this is less dead people? You don’t have to answer that.

            The topic is preventing dead people isn’t it? I want to make sure THAT is the topic. I want to make sure we are all considering the same specific question. I hope I carefully considered the question I have in mind. And rephrased it adequately to make it clear. Is the question we are considering, this.

            Is the population wearing a mask effective?

            Getting beat up for wearing one because does NOT tell me if the mask was effective against the risk it was being used for. Whatever that risk was. Batman wears a mask. So does the Lone Ranger. I suspect that is not what any of us has in mind. And it is ineffective against inhalation risks. Stereotypical bank robbers tie a handkerchief over the bottom half of their face and it’s quite effective for the task of robbing banks. There is a reason the hardware store has a gazillion different… personal protection devices. Many of which would be described colloquially as “masks”. Use a nuisance mask for inhalation risks, you didn’t read the instructions did you? What kind of masks are we talking about? Because if we are talking about the kind you see in videos taken in Asian cities were effective, competent epidemiologists would have published clear recommendations. There is none, They don’t work. And almost always I can spot someone in the video who doesn’t know how to use them. Multiple times in different ways.
            Using PPE incorrectly or using the incorrect PPE just creates a false sense of security. Generally but not always creating a false sense of security is worse than doing nothing all. I want to see a clear recommendation

  8. Andrew in Ezo

    One example that Japan learned from Korea was a result of the 2003 Daegu Subway fire- in order to stop the spread of smoke throughout the length of a train subway cars in Japan have been retrofitted (or fitted as standard on new stock) with sliding doors on the gangways between cars. Also, subway stations have had the stairwell/escalator entrances on platform level fitted with fire shutters/doors. This is in addition to tightening of regulations for fireproof materials in subway car interiors- such as the removal of plastic light covers or replacement with fire resistant glass.

  9. Michael

    I don’t think the sphere of intellectual influence here in Milwaukee extends beyond Chicago or Madison, let alone Italy, Israel, or South Korea. And absolutely not to mainland China. Most of our cultural learning is home grown, hyper parochial, and grounded in our own historical experience.

  10. Matthew Hutton

    And tens of thousands are going to die and the economic hit will be massive because of it.

    • Eric

      Hopefully when this is over, every conversation about transit can start with “Just like the East Asians had some good ideas about the virus, they have some good idea about other things…”

      • Alon Levy

        I doubt it. The Western discourse moved from “what is Korea, again?” to “it’s too late for us to imitate Korea” without an intervening “oh yeah, let’s be like Korea” stage. To the provincial, everything is evidence that there is no need to learn from the outside world.

        The extent of anti-Americanism I’ve seen Americans stoop to just to be able to argue against importing some European or East Asian idea is staggering. “POP can’t work here, American culture is far more criminal than German culture” (no it isn’t, and POP works fine on new-build American light rail, the US just resists implementing it on subways and buses).

        • Herbert

          There’s one thing Germany could learn from the U.S. when it comes to transit: smartcards. However, given that they’ll almost certainly be Verkehrsverbund based and most regular riders (as in “regular enough to own a smartcard if they exist”) have an Abo which doesn’t really have a tangible benefit being on a smartcard as opposed to paper… I don’t see the urgent need for them… Managua, Nicaragua apparently abandoned smartcards again (they seem to have been introduced mostly as an anti theft device)

          • Richard Mlynarik

            Smart cards (fare barriers! fortress stations! slow ingress and egress! ubiquitous and unaccountable tracking of individuals’ movement! vendor capture!) are the last thing Germany should learn from anybody.

            Paper tickets with proof of payment inspection work just fine. Cheap. Fast. Efficient. User-friendly. Coupled with fare structures that actively provide incentives for tickets with longer-term validity (daily, multi-day, 30-day, 365-day) — lowering transaction costs for all parties — and you have just about the perfect system.

            Moreover, if anybody wants to learn anything about “smart” cards, Japan is the place to do the study.

            There literally is not one single thing about public transportation in the USA that anybody anywhere can profit from emulating. (Aside from Cubic Systems, Inc, the US defense contractor that rigs bids buys votes and incites “OMG fare evasion!” panic to build up its “smart” card and fare gate vendor-captured monopoly.)

            Maybe there will be enough standardization soon enough that NFC “wallets” on phones — with anonymous “I am valid here and now” transactions — can, as a user convenience, for users who chose so, supplant some paper tickets, and do so in a way that doesn’t degrade transaction efficiency, but we’re not there now.

            Tear down those fare gates

          • adirondacker12800

            I’m sure contact-less ones seem like are reallllly good idea these days.

          • adirondacker12800

            You need a device that can download an app. Looks way kewl to me but I live so far out in the woods there is no cell service and ya know what I lived for decades without one. One less thing to worry about applying security updates to. Which is why I don’t have a smart television or want a web cam in my refrigerator. ….. really, if you forget to buy milk is your life going to come to end because you had toast for breakfast instead of Cheerios?.. … And you will probably find that when you check your webcam to see if there is salsa in the refrigerator it will be behind the milk you don’t need right now… Many times a lot of the gee whiz stuff is a solution in search of a problem. I should take picture of my Western Electric model 500 which has been in service since June of 1964. And still works. Except when I have to press 1 for something, no matter how hard I press on 1 nothing happens. …

          • adirondacker12800

            I know having two thing in your pocket is a trial but that solution works for the owners of devices that can download apps then need security updates.

        • RossB

          The Western discourse moved from “what is Korea, again?” to “it’s too late for us to imitate Korea” without an intervening “oh yeah, let’s be like Korea” stage. To the provincial, everything is evidence that there is no need to learn from the outside world.

          You are ignoring the fact that under the last president (Obama) the response to similar crises was much better. America is not Trump, and Trump is not America. Just because we elected an idiot — with a minority of the votes I might add — does not mean we are all idiots (or even a majority of us are).

          Your prescriptions are presumptuous.

          “America is provincial, and thus doesn’t wear masks.” No, America started wearing masks until we ran out of them.

          “America should have tested more.” Right, except the U. S. ran out of tests almost immediately.

          The problems in the U. S. lie not with some cultural weakness — other than electing Trump president — but with Trump, who has acted irresponsibly. He did not advance on the work of his predecessors, he ignored the recommendations, and the U. S. response capability actually regressed (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/19/us/politics/trump-coronavirus-outbreak.html).

          Put it another way — the situation would be completely different if Obama was allowed to run for a third term and was currently serving.

          • Herbert

            A Pariamentary system is superior in many ways as power transitions are hardly ever as abrupt as Carter-Reagan, Obama-Trump, Hoover-FDR or LBJ-Nixon…. Plus having a parliament which rotates slowly (but does rotate) call most of the shots ensures a certain “institutional memory”. All those things have downsides, but those are (some of) the upsides. There is also some correlation between Presidential systems and turning authoritarian which is weaker in parliamentary systems, but that does not have to be a causal relationship…

          • Eric

            It’s not just about Trump. Italy, France, the UK etc didn’t have Trump and also failed to respond appropriately. So did the state and local government throughout most of the US, most notably in NYC.

          • adirondacker12800

            The NYC Health Department doesn’t have superpowers and can track the spread of disease in Washington State. That needs a competent Federal government that cooperates internationally, even with people we have poor relations with, for some things. But planning and coordinating and cooperating costs money and Republicans decided saving money is more important than dead people. Again. And anyway cooperating with those icky furreigners is icky and why should we spend money on furreigners. And they all assumed that being rich would insulate them from consequences of saving money. It won’t this time around. I hope their heirs survive to enjoy their wealth.

          • adirondacker12800

            I could be very dark and attribute that to rich people who don’t want Wall Street to close down, Just like they said “tell the peons that the air is okay” on Sept. 14th or so in 2001. I listened to the traffic report yesterday, right in the teeth of rush when the reportisusuallyspokenreallyreallyfastsoeverthingcanbesqueezedin. There was a collision on the west bound Belt Parkway that was being cleared and the Gowanus and the BQE were a little heavy. They shut down … places where people gather…. days ago, people are staying home. Because there is no place to go. Maybe it was in the traffic report two days ago. I’m distracted discussing that the canned food won’t get freezer burned and we can eat something that is in the freezer.
            Go ahead complain about Democrats. How about the governor Florida? I sent this to my favorite news reporter two days ago.

            Democrats and Republicans do it but it seems the Republicans are especially skilled at. Sending someone who is deeply deeply concerned about whatever is being discussed to express how seriously everyone is taking it. Who can’t actually do anything about it except express deep concern and has the hope and perhaps even prayers that other people do something.. . I’m sure that Floridians are especially grateful Senator Scott was on the TeeVee pleading with spring break go-ers to stay off the beach. I’m going to charitable and take that to mean “don’t go on spring break”. I could be uncharitable and take it to mean “stay off the beach. Where nobody makes any money, instead crowd into bars, restaurants and sleep four to motel room, so we make more money”. The Deeply Deeply Concerned question, that reflects how dire you think the situation is to say “I urge the people going on spring break to stay home and call on the governor to close the beaches, statewide, down”. Loads and loads of deep concern but by someone who can’t do anything and didn’t call for anyone with the power to do something, to do something. ”
            I think we should talk about that. Why don’t we talk about how for the second time in two days Donald Trump has claimed there is a drug that is going to come out lickety split. And he is immediately contradicted, to their credit. Why are they covering this live when they know ahead of time Donald Trump is going to say things that will mean more dead people? They can delay it long enough to edit it out or add a scroll on the bottom that says “He doesn’t know what he is talking about, he will be contradicted in the next moment” Why don’t we talk about it? I was too stunned to remember where I saw it or not parapharse what happened. A reporter asked him something along the lines of “What symptoms should people look for?” and he searched desperately for symptoms, any symptoms, one of which I remember “sniffles” and ended with. “You know better than I do” Which I do remember because it was so stunning. Why don’t we talk about that?

            Or is it that we just haven’t recognized that you are a concern troll? Stay home, wash your hands and keep in mind that the Republican health care plan has always been “don’t get sick”. Because doing anything else would cost money and what’s a few dead people?

          • Eric

            BTW I was curious and had a look at Italy’s current PM – Giuseppe Conte. It turns out he’s remarkably similar to Trump in some ways. A populist with no political experience, anti-immigration, for low taxes, pro-Russian. Though he seems not to have Trump’s pathological cruelty and crudeness.

          • Alon Levy

            As opposed to the United States, where multiple police and intelligence agencies demand hardware backdoors from manufacturers, and individual NSA workers routinely spy on their exes?

          • adirondacker12800

            I didn’t see anything close to that hypothesis anywhere in that article or anything that public health authorities in the U.S. can’t do. It’s old fashioned public health work that involves shoe leather.
            The Los Angeles Time included quite a lot of personal information. Which probably is widely known in Korea. You want 61 year old from Deagu who sells mobile gift certificates. Give me access to payroll records that have job function documented I could come up with names and addresses quickly. From the article “Based on interviews, credit card statements and CCTV footage, officials are retracing the steps of each infected patient” It’s just awful the way public health authorities asked a suspected patient QUESTIONS!!!!! And while the article doesn’t say they immediately got out the cattle prods I suspect they gently explained why she should co-operate. And she did. It’s just awful. Apparently she was so reluctant she gave interviews to several new outlets. Maybe it wasn’t cattle prods right away. When you hear hoof beats don’t think zebras and you two are apparently hearing giraffes or perhaps elephants.

          • Joseph

            As a recent dictatorship Taiwanese are extremely sensitive to creeping authoritarianism and the country still has been able to conduct contact tracing.

  11. Reedman Bassoon

    FYI –
    BART just announced that due to a 90% drop in ridership, effective Monday, March 23, they will have train service 5am to 9pm (instead of the usual midnight shutdown).

  12. Pingback: New York is Shrinking | Pedestrian Observations
    • Alon Levy

      Too late, but yeah, it’s plausible. The US is massively expanding testing capacity too, it’s just around a month behind Korea.

    • michaelrjames

      The whole world is learning from the Asians. Well, the politicians, finally. Lockdown can bring it under control but destroy the economy. Other than extremely long lockdowns that probably aren’t viable in the west, the only way to get back to quasi-normal–and minimise economic and other damage–is to do contact tracing by massive screening. Though the additional proposal of Boris to massively test for antibodies to identify those who have recovered, and thus can return to their usual jobs, is not bad. Of course it is not BJ’s idea but Brit scientists. It’s not a solution by itself but everyone will probably do this too as the serum tests are ready to go, and doesn’t need long clinical trials etc before implementation.
      The Chinese claim they will have clinical trial results on the most promising drug, remdesivir, sometime in April. But these drugs will have to be used in conjunction with wide testing because they only ameliorate the course of the disease and only if administered very early in an infection. Same as the anti-flu drugs which only work, partly, if taken before the disease really takes hold.
      Vaccines are probably too far away but passive antibody protective therapy could feasibly be closer (if clinical testing is fast tracked).

      • adirondacker12800

        They aren’t going to be returning to their usual job. They might be returning to organized work in large groups but they aren’t going to be returning to their regular work. For instance it will be safe for them to go do obsessive sanitizing to support the logistics supporting people still staying home to avoid catching it.

  13. Pingback: Europe and Asia are not Liberal or Conservative America | Pedestrian Observations
  14. michaelrjames

    I’m not even going to use the A word w.r.t. spheres.

    Fall guy Shapps takes turn to promote UK as ‘world beater’ in stupidity
    Even our transport secretary is now running on fumes, unveiling face mask measures others made law a month ago
    John Crace, 5 Jun 2020
    Having rattled through a few slides – astonishingly the one that showed that on the previous day the UK death total had been higher than the rest of the EU27 combined had gone missing – Shapps moved on to his “breaking news” announcement. It had just come to his attention that there was a nasty disease called coronavirus going round, so from 15 June – might as well let a few more people die rather than doing it immediately – everyone on public transport was going to have to wear face coverings.
    Well, hello. Not only had many people, including London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, been calling for such measures for weeks now, most other countries had made it law a month ago. But Grant was adamant. The UK had a reputation to maintain as the country that took measures long after they had become blindingly obvious to everyone else. It was this kind of inaction that made the UK a “world beater” in international stupidity.

  15. Pingback: 2020 Decade-Ender, or, the Isidore Option | Book and Sword
  16. michaelrjames


    COVID-19 rarely spreads through surfaces. So why are we still deep cleaning?
    The coronavirus behind the pandemic can linger on doorknobs and other surfaces, but these aren’t a major source of infection. Dyani Lewis, 29 Jan 2021.

    It is ridiculous that articles like this still need to be published exactly a year after this disease was recognised.
    Kudos to Joe Biden for his mask mandates but it is too late to stop covid deaths from passing half a million. Especially because the anti-mask nutters are entrenched.

    • Alon Levy

      Excess deaths in the US are over 600,000 at this point. This is from Our World in Data plus Worldometer:

      • michaelrjames

        Some of those excess deaths are not covid but collateral due to cancelled surgeries or deferred treatments of other conditions–in the US & UK this is probably very significant. And covid-related deaths may be even higher. I don’t know if those figures are normalised to account for the lower deaths due to seasonal influenza which have actually dropped a lot due to covid conditions (not sure if true in the US). And influenza deaths are very under-reported (for which epidemiologists try to correct). In Australia with our successful suppression of covid, a side benefit was a very light influenza season–partly lockdowns, less transmission opportunities, fewer international arrivals. By itself this is a good enough public health reason to mandate masks in crowded situations into the future. There’s no need to wear them in the open (or while playing the Australian Open) but it’s hardly onerous to wear one while in the supermarket or on public transit. Ain’t going to happen.

        • michaelrjames

          Sorry to bang on about it, but this just dropped into my email inbox, from Politico 01 Feb.

          Countries like South Korea bought KN94s and sent them at a subsidized cost to pharmacies all over the country. Or Hong Kong and Singapore, which actually had sort of mask deployment programs using masks that they verified and worked on with the private sector. And then they delivered them via post offices and vending machines.
          And now in Europe, we’re seeing this move towards requiring people to use medical grade masks. We’re seeing that in Germany. In Bavaria, they’re going as far as to say you have to use FFP2, which is equivalent to N95, in public transit and grocery stores. They’re sending them to seniors at a subsidized cost or even free. Austria is doing the same thing. And then France has just banned the use of homemade cloth masks.
          So as usual, we’re following way behind in the U.S.

          FWIW, this stuff is ok within limits (I don’t agree with banning homemade masks) but it is also inappropriately, perhaps inadvertently, emphasising protection of the uninfected whereas it really should focus on preventing the asymptomatic spreaders from transmitting it to others. For this, any mask works pretty well–as long as it is worn over the nose.

        • michaelrjames

          I wrote: “lower deaths due to seasonal influenza which have actually dropped a lot due to covid conditions (not sure if true in the US).”
          Yes, it is true for the US: (The Atlantic 06 Feb): (there is a full story on this but I had used up my free quota):

          One question, answered: Where is the flu this year? That virus has all but disappeared, Katherine J. Wu reports.
          This winter has, so far, been the quietest flu season in recent memory, and the perks are clear. Fewer flu cases mean fewer deaths, fewer occupied hospital beds, and fewer overtaxed health-care workers, caregivers, and laboratory employees—a welcome respite for a country still in the coronavirus’s grip. But the flu’s absence is also unsettling. Without flu cases to study, researchers have been starved of data crucial for developing vaccines and forecasting the next outbreak. Flu viruses haven’t gone extinct. They’re temporarily in hiding. And no one’s quite sure when, or how, they will return.

          Other than the medical & healthcare effects, I presume the main article would talk about the considerable economic benefits from fewer working hours lost etc (for the econocrats among us).

  17. Pingback: 2020 Decade-Ender, or, the Isidore Option – Book and Sword

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.