Robert Plamondon has written three books, received over 30 U.S. patents, founded several businesses, is an expert on free-range chickens, and is a semi-struggling novelist. His publishing company, Norton Creek Press, is a treasure trove of the best poultry books of the last 100 years. In addition, he holds down a day job doing technical writing at Workspot.
Well, folks, I can’t say I’ve heard anything very heartening about the coronavirus. “Mild” cases often involve pneumonia. (That’s mild? Really?) Recovered patients, even from “mild” cases, sometimes show lung damage that’s likely permanent. It’s too early to know about COVID-19 yet, but many of the other coronaviruses don’t give lifetime immunity. More like a year, maybe less.
On the whole, my best advice is, “don’t catch this one.”
So, assuming we don’t have the option of holing up like Scrooge McDuck with our swimming pool filled with gold coins and waiting for it all to blow over, what’s the plan?
I have some tips:
Remember, this disease is sneaky. It has a long asymptomatic period, so you could be symptom-free and happily infecting other people before the person who infected you has any symptoms.
Skeptical about COVID-19? Look at the pictures of the mass graves in New York City and Brazil. Read about the corpses stacked up in nursing homes and refrigerator trucks as well as morgues and funeral homes. The virus hit some places sooner than others; here in Oregon we’ve been largely spared so far. Part of it is luck and part of it is skill. You can’t control luck, so be skillful. (If Boris Johnson hadn’t gone out and mingled, refusing to wear a mask and insisting on shaking hands, he wouldn’t have gotten sick or infected his fiancee. Don’t be a Boris.)
Wear your mask, if only a bandanna. That’s what I wear. Wash your hands. Maintain distance.
Only shop in places where every employee wears a mask. The other stores don’t care about their employees. Even if you still believe that masks don’t do anything, the employees don’t. But in many places they’re threatened with being fired if they wear one. So now they’re scared of the disease and their employer. That’s disgusting. Never go back.
Only shop at stores where customers must also wear masks. Why should you let your fellow customers infect you? You deserve better treatment than that. Some areas don’t have any stores this sensible yet. Shop during quiet hours and complain to the management.
Temperature checks. If some places use an infrared thermometer to check the forehead temperature of customers before letting them in, so much the better. It’ll screen out at least half of the infectious customers. Half isn’t perfect, but it’s enough to make a huge difference and might save your life, not to mention your nearest and dearest.
Masks and temperature checks make the day-to-day situation much like South Korea’s, where their new cases went down by 90% within two weeks of the peak.
Here in the US, we’re being far too half-assed for that kind of results. I’m not sure we can afford to wait for our alleged government to get its act together, but by preferring places that are ahead of the game, we can deal ourselves and our loved ones a level of safety that the community as a whole isn’t achieving.
I’m going to tell you how the coronavirus is going to disrupt your grocery-shopping and food-eating experience.
“So, Robert,” you ask, “exactly how is this going to disrupt those things?”Actually, I don’t know. Neither does anybody. Sorta my point, really.
And this advice holds true for any disaster, not just the current one.
Sure, Plant a Garden
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that when people say, “Plant a garden,” it’s the best advice ever. Karen just built two raised garden beds and is planting away like she has three green thumbs. I’ve also reprinted the world’s more charming gardening book, Gardening Without Work by Ruth Stout. It’s available in Kindle form as well as paperback, so if there are shipping delays from your favorite online bookstore, you can still get it right away.
A Garden Isn’t Enough
So here’s the thing about a garden: Garden vegetables are wholesome and taste great. They’re loaded with vitamins and minerals. They even have some protein. They get you out into the fresh air and doing something productive and relaxing. All this is wonderful.
But do you know what garden produce doesn’t have? Calories. No, really! Garden produce is low in calories. Which is great if you have plenty of calories from some other source. But what if quarantines make the supply of groceries to your neck of the woods iffy?
Give Us Thirty Days of Daily Bread
Well, if the garden isn’t going to be calorie-rich, then you might want to stock up on something that is. Something with a long shelf life. Maybe a month’s worth. Mostly this comes down to grain-based products, though fats and oils are also part of the package.
1800 Calories per Pound
Somebody pointed this out to me ages ago: if you look at packages of cereal, the ones that 100% grain are 110 calories per ounce. The ones that are mostly sugar are 110 calories per ounce. Even pure sugar is about 110 calories per ounce.
Why? Well, it turns out that most carbohydrates weigh in at 110 calories per ounce, or 1800 calories per pound. So if you’re buying calories, bread, crackers, oatmeal, cereal, pasta, flour, rice, sugar, candy, etc., they all have about the same number of calories per unit weight. This makes it easy to mix and match.
Not potatoes, though. They’re mostly water. Potatoes are only about 330 calories per pound. We’ll deal with that in a minute.
So let’s do some very simple math. Suppose your household consists of two adults and you want calorie reserves for thirty days. The average American eats 3,600 calories per day, equivalent to exactly two pounds of carbohydrates.
But I’m going to assume that man doesn’t live by bread alone, so let’s just create a one-month reserve of half that much, or one pound per person per day. Thirty pounds per person per month, or sixty pounds total for our family of two.
What should you get? Things with a long shelf life that (a) you’ll actually cook and eat and (b) you’ll enjoy cooking and eating. For a while, anyway.
White rice, brown rice, barley.
Bread flour (if you know how to make bread. If you’re going to start now, fine, buy some, but place most of your bets on less ambitious things).
Biscuit/pancake/waffle mixes. Maybe buy a waffle iron if you’ve been eating frozen waffles.
Cake mixes. Hey, why not? And ingredients for every other kind of dessert that strikes you.
Mix and match according to taste so it adds up to thirty pounds per person. Most of this stuff has a ridiculously long shelf life, so if you buy things you know you’re willing to eat, you ought to be able to consume it all eventually, without waste, even if the epidemic magically vanishes tomorrow.
Try not to be too aspirational. Sure, this is your big chance to learn to cook everything from scratch and do everything the hard way. But don’t bet on your own perfect follow-through. Buy enough that you can make a good stab at learning these new skills, but mostly buy things that you know you can make, like Kraft Mac and Cheese.
Oh, and remember to get the other ingredients, too. If you buy an armful of Mac and Cheese boxes, you’ll need milk and butter, too. Maybe canned or powdered milk for its shelf life.
If you like potatoes (as I do), count a five-pound bag of potatoes as the equivalent of one pound of anything else on the list.
Isn’t This Hoarding?
No. A thirty-day reserve of life’s essentials is just ordinary prudence. It’s enough to keep you from becoming a burden to the community when they’re least prepared to help you, because everyone is in the same boat.
Anyway, I’m sure you’ll share your abundance when the time comes, just like many people did when they donated their N95 masks to hospitals instead of keeping them for themselves.
As I learned with my work with baby chicks, the thing that makes creatures (including humans) suffer are, first, a lack of calories (they get hungry). Later, a lack of protein makes itself felt. Much later, a lack of vitamins and minerals starts causing trouble.
Your garden will work wonders in the vitamin-and-mineral department once harvest begins. In the meantime, a supplement is a good idea. Produce is labor-intensive and has a short shelf life, so the stores might have trouble keeping those vitamin-filled greens in stock.
We’re used to eating far more protein than we need. A few eggs, a little cheese, some meat … you get the idea. I have a freezer full of meat, so I confess I haven’t given this a ton of thought.
Calories From Fat
One reason why I’m happy to recommend that you only stock up on carbohydrates for only half your calorie intake is because we’re used to eating tons of fat. Cooking oil, shortening, butter, margarine, fatty meats, peanut butter: you name it. A lot of these things have a long shelf life, so lay in a little extra. Fat has more than twice the calories per ounce of grains, so it packs a big punch.
What We Did
Karen scored a fifty-pound bag of bread flour that a local supermarket was practically giving away. It was destined for their bulk bins, but they decommissioned their bulk bins for sanitary reasons during the epidemic. But we have a bread machine and a Kitchenaid mixer with a bread hook, giving us two ways of making bread that don’t involve kneading bread dough until your arms fall off.
Ten pounds of white rice, a big box of Minute Rice, a big bag of barley, some beans, oatmeal, and a couple of bags of potatoes rounded things out. And a fifty-pound bag of sugar for jam and preserves.
Most of the bread flour will go into the freezer, since fifty pounds is a lot, but we’ll use it up eventually. The rest is a no-brainer.
What About the Chickens?
If you have chickens and the supply of chicken feed becomes intermittent, they can stay healthy on grains and greens, though they won’t lay well or grow very fast. Dry dog food or cat food plus grains of some kind are also possibilities. Buy a bag of oyster shell so they can get the calcium they need, otherwise they’ll stop laying if they aren’t getting enough.
Always give them as much as they’ll eat of whatever you have. You’d look like a big silly if you half-starved them because you expected a shortage to last and then it didn’t.
Should you brood some baby chicks during the COVID-19 outbreak? Of course you should! But … how?
Answer: Pretty much the same as always, but you might need to be a little more flexible, especially if you usually use feed-store chicks and your local store doesn’t have any (for whatever reason). Here are some tips:
You haven’t missed the window. Our local feed stores push baby chicks really hard in March, but April, May, and June are even better for starting baby chicks.
Consider mail-order chicks. I’ve actually had better luck with mail-order chicks than feed-store chicks, which is pretty weird, because we hand-pick feed-store chicks for vim and vigor. So don’t be afraid of mail order. The minimum order in usually 25 chicks. If that’s too many, you can probably off-load the surplus to neighbors or on Craigslist without the slightest difficulty.
Order soon. A baby chick in the hand is worth two on order. Who knows what the next few months will bring? Not me! And the whole world is having an unexpected surge in back-to-the-land interest that the hatcheries didn’t plan for. Will that cause a shortage? Maybe? I have no idea.
Order pullet (female) chicks only. If you haven’t butchered your own chickens before and think you’re going to enjoy the experience, you’re fooling yourself. (There’s a workmanlike satisfaction once you get good at it, but that takes a while.) So forget about meat and focus on eggs. Roosters don’t lay any eggs, so avoid them by ordering only pullet chicks. (The hatcheries will probably slip a couple of rooster chicks in anyway, even if you order pullets. They’re mischievous little scamps that way.)
Pick a commercial laying breed. If you want eggs, order breeds that lay lots of eggs. This means commercial hybrid layers. People will tell you that some of the standard breeds lay lots of eggs. What they don’t tell you is that they mean “lots of eggs by the standards of 1900.” A period of global weirdness is no time to buy chickens who eat their heads off and hardly lay any eggs.
Insist on sweet-tempered, non-cannibalistic breeds. This is a good reason to call up the hatchery. Some breeds have a tendency to peck each other to death. Don’t buy those. Some breeds are panicky or nasty around humans. Don’t buy those, either. Ask the hatchery which of their commercial-quality egg chickens are the most docile and least cannibalistic and buy those.
I wouldn’t wait until this whole thing blows over, but you can, you know. Brooding baby chicks in September, October, and November works great.
Many hatcheries aren’t very Internet-savvy. If they look like they haven’t updated their Web pages in years, that’s normal for a hatchery. They might show a little more life on their Facebook pages. Then again, maybe not. When in doubt, call or email before ordering.
When in doubt, buy from a nearby-ish hatchery. Typically, chicks shipped a couple of hundred miles go by surface mail, while ones shipped across the country go by air freight. While air freight seems to be moving pretty well right now (it’s the passenger flights that are suffering), surface mail might be a bit more reliable. I bought chicks after September 11 from a hatchery a few hundred miles from me because all flights were shut down and I didn’t want the stranded chicks to die. They arrived promptly and did every well.
Buy my book. Success With Baby Chicks is full of practical chick-rearing tips, especially if you’re not doing the same old same-old this year. It’s available in paperback and as a Kindle book. You can also find a lot of answers to your questions on this very blog.
Lots of people can’t interpret a graph to save their lives, which is a shame, because that’s what it’s coming down to. But I can teach you how in just a few minutes. I’ll throw in figuring out which alleged experts to trust as a free bonus.
They’d Rather Lose a Kidney Than Say, “I Don’t Know”
The first thing to understand is that most people would rather lose a kidney than say, “I don’t know.” (Why? I don’t know.) This goes double for so-called leaders and experts. When something unexpected happens and they don’t know what’s going on, they blow smoke. They instantly believe the smoke they blew. It takes a long time for the truth to seep into their brains, and even longer for them to admit it publicly. It’s a human thing.
So when an emergency happens, people might report the facts about the events that have already happened fairly well, but when they say why it happened or what will happen next? They’re guessing. They don’t know, but that won’t stop them. They’ll just hallucinate something and then believe it.
Events that leave undeniable evidence—fires, bodies, craters where your lab used to be—make it hard to misinterpret what happened. Why it happened is usually still a fairy tale, at least at first. Ignore the fairy tales, even if they last for months.
Blame is Irrelevant
Fix the emergency now; hang the miscreants later. Anyone who has enough time to go into the blame game is a slacker. Don’t listen to slackers in an emergency. Unless they’re really funny.
Remember, most so-called managers and leaders are nothing of the sort. They’re just figureheads. It’s actually convenient that figureheads descend to the blame game. It reminds us that their function is decorative and we can stop listening to them.
Which Numbers to Watch
An epidemic, like compound interest or a nuclear explosion, starts with exponential growth. That means it has a doubling time that stays more or less steady … for a while. The way you can tell which countries are doing okay is by how long it takes for their COVID-19 cases (or deaths) to double.
In the US on April 3, 2020, I calculated the current doubling time for COVID-19 cases at 5.6 days. If this holds steady for a while, it means we’ll have twice as many cases in 5.6 days, four times as many in 11 days, eight times as many in 22 days, etc. Or to put it another way, 2.2 million cases on April 27.
Is this accurate? For the next few days, it’ll be pretty close. After that, it’ll be increasingly off. It’s an “if nothing changes” estimate, and we’re all doing things to make it change.
Still, it lets you compare different country’s efforts. In South Korea, the doubling time for cases is 34 days, compared to our own 5.5 days, so South Korea has rocked their containment effort.
“Why didn’t we adopt the same measures they did months ago?” you ask. I don’t know. Doesn’t matter. We didn’t, and now we’re playing catch-up. We can hang the miscreants later. Can’t have a good torch-and-pitchfork mob and maintain social distancing at the same time.
You’ve probably noticed that our effort is superior when you compare us to our fellow enlightened, forward-thinking, rich, smug, complacent Western countries. Germany has a case-doubling time of eight days, the UK has one of seven days, Italy has one of twelve days … oh. Okay, so maybe we do suck. So far, anyway. We’d better fix that, pronto, don’t you think?
By the way, you can estimate the doubling time without too much trouble on the Worldometer site. Hover the mouse down the cases (or deaths) curve for a given country to find the day that’s closest to half the current number.
If you use a logarithmic scale on the vertical axis, which is often an option, a function that shows a straight line has exponential growth. That’s how you tell. If the line is horizontal, there’s no growth (it’s still exponential, but with an exponent of zero, if you were wondering). If it has a steep slope, you have tons of growth and you’re in big trouble. As you can see from the graph below, real-world cases over time can show a straight line for a long time (steady exponential growth), which is the same as saying “a constant-ish doubling time.”
“Why is India Doing So Well?”
I keep hearing people wondering why India is doing so well. They have only 3059 cases as of April 3. What’s their secret? Is it the climate? (Yes, some people imagine that all of India has the same climate.) Spices in their food? Divine intervention?
But India isn’t doing well. They’re not doing well at all, which you’d know the instant you noticed that the number of cases is doubling every three days. If things continue at this rate, they’ll have over three million cases on May 2. Sure, they got off to a late start, but they’re making up for lost time. That ain’t victory.
So the doubling time is how you compare the current trajectories of different countries (or states, cities, etc.).
Comparing the level of overload is probably best done by looking at whether the dead bodies are stacking up (or whether they’re being disposed of in mass graves). Even earlier, hospital fullness and doctor illness/deaths are the things to look for.
But Can We Trust These Numbers?
Not only would people rather lose a kidney than say, “I don’t know,” they’d rather lose their other kidney than release numbers that make them look bad. So it’s always fair to wonder if the numbers have been jiggered. What isn’t fair is obsessing over the numbers.
In an emergency, all your numbers are lousy, anyway. People are overworked, the situation is new and confusing, and lots of mistakes get made. So we have the whole “fog of war” thing going on, plus other kinds of generalized confusion. Maybe people are telling whoppers, too. Who knows? So we need to triangulate.
Like all good detectives, we start by asking, “Where are the bodies?” Bodies are hard to hide. People might get the cause of death wrong, but the actual body count is usually accurate. (Well, not if you’re China or one of the hermit states.)
For example, in the nursing home in Kirkland, Washington that had many of the early COVID-19 cases, 3-5 residents die in a typical month, but 26 died in the first three weeks of the coronavirus outbreak (if I remember the numbers correctly). If all-cause mortality shoots way up during an epidemic, the epidemic is real. Obviously.
Similarly, when you hear about hospitals being overwhelmed, you look for funeral homes and crematoriums being overwhelmed, too. Which has certainly happened in New York City. And as I mentioned before, mass burials are kind of a hint. Haven’t heard of anyplace doing that with COVID-19 deaths yet.
Oh, another rule of thumb I use to filter out the opinions of idiots is if they disparage “anecdotal evidence”—that is, things that really happened in real life. Some people like to believe that things that happen in the real world are fake, and only things that happen in the laboratory are real.
“In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.”
—Nicholas Naseem Taleb
Don’t get me wrong: laboratory science is essential. But it’s just a means to an end. The end is for today’s living, breathing general public to take as little of a beating from this epidemic as possible. How well this is working and which areas need more effort lavished on them depends on what’s happening in real life (and in real time).
So, for example, the bodies piling up in New York City are far more indicative than anyone’s laboratory tests or computer models, at least so far as “where we are now” is concerned. And the relative success of South Korea in containing the virus with their methods is more instructive, too.
Which reminds me of a story: My dad once went to a test of a super-high-pressure gas cylinder for a missile. The test was to see if the cylinder would burst. The guy running the test asked the design engineer if he wanted to cradle the gas cylinder in his arms during the test. The engineer said, “I’ll hold my blueprints. Let the damned welder hold the cylinder!”
In real life, it’s always the people in the front lines who are holding the cylinder.
Which Experts to Trust
Who can you trust? People on the front lines, who are having some success, and are sharing their methods with others. For example, the University of Washington Medical Center had most of the early coronavirus cases in the US. They make their COVID-19 treatment guidelines public. They update them about once a week.
One thing they do is try to get every single COVID-19 patient into their remdesivir clinical trial from the very start. Remdesivir is a new antiviral drug. If the patient is in a risk group, the rule is “consider hydroxychloroquine, even if they’re also getting remdesivir.”
Their use of hydroxychloroquine predates the dithering and panic we saw in the FDA. The folks at UW are real doctors with real patients who will really die if they make missteps. Compare this to the ceremonial blathering of people like the Surgeon General or the head of the FDA and you’ll see what I mean. (How anyone can pretend that a drug is mysterious and scary when it was introduced in 1955 and is routinely prescribed for Lupus and rheumatoid arthritis by every physician alive, I have no idea.)
Which Research to Trust?
I prefer reading research papers to anything by journalists. The purpose of journalists is to provide me with links to the research itself.
I like research by real practicing doctors who are reporting their results with real patients.
I like third-world research about what to do if you can’t get real N95 or surgical masks because you have almost no budget. (Psst! It’s “Use cloth masks.”) The starkness of the problems facing third-world hospitals, combined with the often excellent caliber of their doctors, makes their research reassuringly practical.
I like unpretentious, results-oriented research that just makes the world a better place without bringing much prestige or funding to the researchers or their institutions.
If the topic has become politicized in recent years, I like research that predates the politicization. It’s less weird.
I like research done in the wake of SARS and Swine flu, where plenty of people briefly had both the right attitude and a little funding to work out how to do things next time. This wave of pre-COVID-19 pandemic research showed that hyroxychloroquine looked promising with SARS (which is closely related to COVID-19) and that improvised masks worked surprisingly well. Not as well as real surgical masks, let alone N95 masks, but pretty well.
What Happens Next?
Since I like my kidneys, I’ll say right out that I don’t know. But no epidemic can maintain exponential growth forever, since it’s not technically possible to kill more people than actually exist, or even to infect that many.
You’d be surprised how few people are willing to state the obvious. Once we more test kits than we know what to do with, plus a zillion masks and infrared thermometers, we can do South-Korea-style contact tracing and stomp out the disease without shutting down the whole country. It worked for them; it’ll work for us. So why are we sitting around twiddling our thumbs? Because we don’t have the goods yet. Gotta ramp up production. Ramp it up to a ludicrous degree. The FDA actually had its choice of two tests, and instead of saying, “Let’s do both!” they picked just one. Let’s not do that anymore. All we need is more of the stuff that South Korea used so successfully.