Charlie Stross: April 2020 Archives

Let me make some predictions, starting with:

No it won't.

Vaccine development will take a flat minimum of 12 months. Then another 1-3 months to ramp up (on a Manhattan Project management basis) and a to-some-extent-overlapping 1-3 months to roll out around the various nations that are involved. (I predict the USA will merrily go its own way and faceplant, unless y'all elect a competent next POTUS. Or VPOTUS, insofar as Biden appears to be past it and Pence is incompetent at anything but arse-licking.)


Lockdown can't be sustained more than 1-2 weeks after peak ICU occupancy passes, so it will be lifted in mid-May in the UK and possibly as early as May 1st in the USA. (I know the Eastern Coalition are kicking back against Trump's deranged demand for an early restart: I expect other states may also join in if their estimates of the long-term damage track reality.)

Trump is shooting for May 1st because he's been told the economy will take 6 months to recover, minimum, and he's shooting for the November election deadline. This is laughably optimistic, even if the pandemic had burned out by May 1st: we're in Greatest Depression territory already, the hospitality sector has crashed 75%, airlines have crashed 90%, etcetera. It's not going to be back to normal by November, even if the Fairy Godmother shows up and banishes the horrid virus with a wave of her wand. Period.

So. The immediate peak hospital occupancy will pass, lockdown will be lifted sector by sector (or all at once) and region by region ... and the 50% of COVID19 cases who are asymptomatic will go back to work, mingling with the uninfected.

1-4 weeks later there will be a secondary surge in infections and it'll follow the same exponential growth as the first spike in Feb/March. And lockdown will resume, probably in mid-June. (It may be mitigated by summer heat, in which case things will look good for a month or two longer, but I'm not holding my breath: even if heat prevents spread, the prevalence of air conditioning in public spaces in the US provides a transmission-friendly environment.)

If the howls of rage at the first lockdown are deafening, the second lockdown will be worse: think of toddlers being sent back to bed with no supper. And that's the lucky work-from-home class: the working poor—with no savings and jobs they need to be physically present for—are going to be increasingly angry and fractious at their exposure. Expect civil disobedience and possibly summer riots unless central banks throw money at the grassroots -- and not $1200 for 10 weeks: more like $1200 per week.

Oh, and then there are the hospitals. Hospital staff will begin to catch their breath in mid-May after two months of running at maximum speed ... then it'll all crash again 4 weeks later. They're getting no respite. About 25% of medical staff are off sick with COVID19 themselves at present, far as I can tell: this cohort will be coming back to work by the second lockdown, but a bunch more will be down and sick.

You can't run doctors and nurses at full pandemic intensity for all that long without them burning out, as well as getting sick. There will be horrifying staff attrition, and although this year's graduate cohort got pressed into service early, next year's cohort will be suspended because teaching ain't happening.

So we're going to see repeated 4-6 week lockdown periods alternating with 2-4 week "business as usual" patches. Somewhere during the second or third lockdown most of the pubs/bars/hotels/restaurants that hibernated during the first lockdown and came back from the dead will give up the ghost: by September-November the damage to about 10-30% of the economy, disproportionately the service sector, will be permanent (FSVO "permanent" that means not coming back until after the pandemic, growing afresh from zero rather than reviving from hibernation).

I do not know what the hell Trump will do when his "get America open again" agenda runs into pandemic spike #2, around the beginning of June. Expect denial and heel-dragging and a much worse death toll, this time reaching the rural heartland (where hospitals may not have any ICU beds at all: there's going to be carnage). By August he may well be in full-on meltdown. I wouldn't even be surprised to see a second round of impeachment hearings as the Senate Republican Party tries to throw him under the bus so they can pivot to President Pence. Assuming it's not too late to save their campaign ...

By September there's going to be social unrest just about everywhere that hasn't nailed down a massive social spending/social security project on a scale that makes the New Deal look restrained and conservative.

And that's going to be the picture until June or July 2022.

Extra lulz in the UK: the Prime Minister is out of hospital but hasn't been seen since Monday—my guess is he's hors de combat for at least another two weeks. A quarter of the senior ministers of state are rabid objectivists who actively hate the poor and want them to die, and a majority of the cabinet are still going full steam ahead for a no-deal Brexit transition on January 31st, at which point the UK economy shrinks another 8% overnight. Boris, in principle, has the credibility to pull them back from the brink (and is a perfectly ideology-free vacuum of naked ambition, so he's personally capable of pivoting) but if they try for a maximalist brexit in the middle of a pandemic there will be pandemonium.

Wildcards: we might conceivably find a simple and effective medical treatment. Or vaccine development is ridiculously easy. Or the 50% of asymptomatic carriers are a sign that the pandemic is more advanced than we realize, that immunity is long-lasting, and that we're much closer to achieving "herd immunity" than anyone in the epidemiology community currently realizes. But I want to emphasize that these are all straw-clutching exercises. In all probability, they're not going to eventuate.

Have I missed anything out? (Aside from the giant meteor, Cthulhu awakening, Krakatoa erupting, and a Dalek invasion. NB: one of those things actually happened last month.)

So, some years ago I blogged a whole bunch of times about books I wasn't going to write for one reason or another.

Now, thanks to COVID-19, I can add another to the list.

Some of you have been waiting years (is it really a decade? Gosh!) for a third book in the would-be trilogy that began with Halting State and Rule 34. The third Scottish near-future police procedural kept getting put back and back because reality wouldn't sit still and behave itself: it's really hard to write something set 10 years in the future (or even 5) if you don't even know what the country it's set in is going to be called. I named the period starting in 2012 "the Scottish political singularity", because it made all near-future fiction set in Scotland problematic: first we had the referendum on independence from the UK, then a general election, then the Brexit referendum. Back in 2012 I thought things would have settled down by 2016 or so: alas, I was sadly disillusioned.

So around 2016 I hatched a Plan B.

(Had, past tense.)



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This page is an archive of recent entries written by Charlie Stross in April 2020.

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