Sunday, March 29, 2020

Is the Coronavirus Killing Our Jiu Jitsu Gym Model? How We're Planning for the Future

I've been writing quite a bit about the coronavirus pandemic, but one topic I haven't broached? What effect will this pandemic have on jiu jitsu gyms in general and OUR gym in particular? Here are some preliminary thoughts, and what I'm planning to do as a result. Hopefully this will spark some discussions among gym owners and managers, and maybe help more of them survive this catastrophe.

The Current State of Affairs

As of today (March 29th), we've been shut down per our governor's orders for about seventeen days (we're located in Colorado.) While the temptation to keep rolling in secret has been nearly irresistible, we still don't understand the nature of COVID-19 to the point where we can accurately assess the risk this virus really poses. It's becoming increasingly clear China, the country most Americans have been using as a timeline for the progression of this virus, has been disingenuous at best, and have flat-out lied at worst.

EVERYWHERE else this virus has hit is still experiencing an increase in positive cases and an increase in deaths, meaning all of us are still on the upward slope of the exponential bell curve of new daily cases AND deaths. 

The problem? We have no idea WHERE we are on that curve. If it peaks tomorrow, we'll return to some semblance of "normal" within weeks. But if it keeps increasing (which would completely invalidate my prediction from a few days ago), we might be in for a truly horrific worldwide catastrophe where we could see tens or even hundreds of thousands of deaths in the United States. 

Regardless of where this is heading, pretty much every gym in the country is in the same position - we've either been forced to close or, minimally, we've closed because it's the socially-responsible thing to do based on all the unknowns mentioned above. Because let's face it - we're in a sport where transmission from person-to-person is pretty much guaranteed. If one person has the virus at the beginning of a class, by the end of class, EVERYONE will have the virus. 

To further exacerbate the problem, a whole lotta people have either been laid off permanently or furloughed temporarily, and currently have little or no income. Unless every one of a gym's students are independently wealthy, this means all gyms have a percentage of students who cannot afford to continue paying memberships throughout this closure. Given many gyms operate on very thin margins, that means a whole lotta gyms are teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and are in danger of closing permanently. 

The longer this pandemic lasts, the more people will be forced out of their jobs, the more students we're going to lose. No matter what supplemental materials a gym produces, keeping food on the table supersedes paying membership fees. And no ethical gym owner is going to enforce a contract to keep members paying who are struggling to feed their kids.

So the longer this continues, the more gyms we'll lose. And right now, there's little or no indication of how long this is going to last. This Atlantic article highlights the four possible timelines and what circumstances would lead to each scenario:

It's important for people to understand there are only two ways this ends - We either develop a vaccine (which even the most optimistic estimates assume will take 12-18 months) OR enough people get the virus and recover to the point where we develop "herd immunity", which is usually around 60-80% of the population. Until one of those two things happen, we'll be forced to continue social distancing, which means no normal training. 

However, the Herd Immunity situation is dependent on two things we currently don't know. First, if we're infected, do we then obtain long-term immunity to getting re-infected? Second, will the virus mutate enough over time where our previously-obtained immunity will be useless? As of right now, today, it appears as though people can't get re-infected (though there seem to be a few cases coming out of China that people CAN get re-infected) AND it appears as through the virus is very slow to mutate. 

Assessing the Four Timelines

One to Two Months: This scenario could happen for two reasons - one really good and one really bad. First the good. This virus may have been circulating widely for months and months in the US, and a lot of us have already gotten it, showed few if any symptoms, and are now immune. In this scenario, we're probably close to that herd immunity number. Now the bad. The virus could continue exponential growth, we have tens of millions of cases by the end of April and possibly millions of deaths caused by the virus and made MUCH worse by our healthcare system being completely and totally overwhelmed. That would be an apocalyptic scenario. BUT, we'd develop herd immunity quickly. 

In this scenario, the "good" circumstances would be the best-case scenario for our gyms. We could go back to normal training by mid-summer and continue as if nothing happened.

In the "bad" scenario, our society would be absolutely demolished for a fairly long period of time. The sheer number of deaths would have a profound impact on our economy and would likely lead to a prolonged, deep recession. And the general public would likely be too traumatized to want to start rolling around on a mat with strangers. 

In the "good" scenario, we could be reopening by June. In the "bad" scenario, we would probably re-open by mid-summer, but the societal chaos would radically alter HOW we run our businesses. Most gyms could probably survive the "good" scenario, and creative owners with some solid business chops could probably survive the "bad" scenario.

Three to Four Months: In this scenario, we either develop a test for antibodies (meaning we had the virus and are now immune) OR we develop a good treatment. In either of those scenarios, we would probably be able to get back to some semblance of normalcy, which would likely include being able to roll with limited numbers of people.

HOWEVER, and this is a big deal, the very nature of our sport makes it extremely likely we're going to be one of the last businesses that our governments allow to resume. In this scenario, which I think is probably the most likely, gyms will need to alter how they operate IF they're allowed to reopen. Limited class sizes, some documentation of a positive test for antibodies (meaning the person is presumably immune), or the member isn't in a high-risk group (or interact with anyone in a high risk group). 

In this scenario, we could feasibly reopen by the end of summer or early fall, but would require us to alter how we operate. I don't think a lot of gyms have the resources to survive this long with limited income, so I would anticipate a lot of gyms closing permanently as the owners will be forced to find other work to pay the bills and put food on the table.

Four to Twelve Months: This scenario would bring up the issue of summer. Will the virus become significantly less-contagious during the summer months(like the flu), or would it just keep on truckin' on? At this point, we have no idea. Either way, though, this is really bad for our gyms.

In the absolute best-case scenario, we might be allowed to re-open by mid-summer as the number of cases and deaths plummet, but would be forced to close again once the fall wave hit and we're forced to go back to radical physical distancing. This open-then-close scenario would probably allow some gyms to survive longer, but many will close.

In the worst-case scenario, the virus doesn't recede and we're forced to stay closed through summer and into the fall. In this case, we're basically waiting for the aforementioned herd immunity or a vaccine. In this scenario, I cannot imagine many gyms surviving unless the owners have some other significant outside income.

Twelve to Eighteen Months: This would happen if we can't find a way to treat the virus and we don't develop herd immunity (like if we can get re-infected) OR we can't develop a vaccine. This scenario would obviously be the worst case for gym owners because there's few if any gyms that can survive for a year to a year and a half without opening their doors. This would be absolutely catastrophic to our sport. Let's not think about this one too much right now. ;-)

The One Scenario We Should All Be Hoping Come To Fruition

The short-term and intermediate-term outlook for our sport is absolutely god-awful. Even in the best-case scenarios, gym owners are now under immense financial strain. The ONE set of circumstances we should all be hoping for is that we'll soon have a widespread test for antibodies our immune systems produce in response to the virus AND it turns out we can't be re-infected. In this scenario, people who test positive (meaning they had the virus and successfully recovered) could go back to semi-normal life, including training. This would save A LOT of gyms because it would limit the time we're forced to close. 

The really, really good news - some companies have already produced these tests AND the tests are already being used to screen populations just to our southwest. If both of these turn out to work as hoped AND we can't get reinfected, we could feasibly go back to some sort of training by June. 

Our Situation

We own a small gym (less than sixty members) in a small, geographically-isolated town (pop. 20,000 with another 20,000 in the surrounding county.) Our rent is disproportionately high thanks to the pot industry buying up all the commercial space, thus driving up the costs locally and we have a loan we needed to buy the gym from the previous owner.

When we took over the business, we grandfathered a lot of our students in at their previous rates, some of which were very low AND were month-to-month cash payments. We only have a handful of members who are in a position to continue paying memberships (which is an absolute life-saver), so our revenue plummeted to the point where we're now really, really far into the red.

Critically, Shelly and I are both still employed full-time AND our lease ends in July. We're absolutely bleeding money right now, but thanks to our semi-frugal lifestyle, we can absorb the hit for a few months as long as we stay employed. If we don't re-open, we should be able to continue paying our gym bills and our personal bills. It's extremely tight, but we should be able to survive. It helps that we have a significant stockpile of food at home. And guns. Don't get any ideas, grasshopper. 

If we're able to re-open by May, we'll be able to survive as we were before the pandemic, just a little more poor. If we have to wait until June or July, we should be able to re-open as we were, but will need to substantially alter our business model. If we can't re-open by the end of July, we'll be out of our lease, which will cut our gym expenses by over 75% and put us in a position to re-open in a new location and continue as we did before. And take a whole lotta pressure off us financially. 

The real problem, though? Once we're out of the woods and allowed to re-open, we'll have to contend with trying to sell this sport to a public who just went through months and months of both extreme anxiety AND social distancing. Convincing new students to start rolling around on a mat with strangers will not be an easy sell simply because we'll have to overcome the deep, emotionally-charged phobias we're in the process of developing right now, today. This is going to absolutely doom the old way of doing business for jiu jitsu gyms, and not everyone will have the creativity to develop a new way of doing business. This is a time I'm really, really glad I'm a serial hobbyist with a diverse education, have a wealth of life experiences, and excel at creative problem-solving. It also helps that I've surrounded myself with a lot of people smarter than me.

Regardless of what happens, El Diablo Combatives will survive in some way, shape, or form. More importantly, this entire event has been a huge kick in the ass for me personally. I've never liked the martial arts model our gyms use to operate; it's just not a good business model. This pandemic will likely require us to radically alter how we operate. It's an incredibly painful, emotionally-draining, scary process, but it'll fascinate necessary innovations. Which makes all of this pretty damn exciting. Tragic, but exciting nonetheless.

Of course, I could be totally wrong about all of this. Maybe all this will blow over tomorrow and we'll just go back to normal living by Easter. I personally think there's exactly zero change that's going to happen, but a lot of people are still in complete denial about the scope and depth of this pandemic. But sometimes irrational hope is easier than accepting reality and planning for said reality. YMMV.

Anyway, be safe folks. And gym owners? Expect the best. But plan for the worst. 


Friday, March 27, 2020

Using Human Behavior to Predict the Coronavirus Pandemic Outcomes: Relax, This Ain't Gonna Be Too Horrible

[edit - it's Friday night, about 12 hours after publishing this post. Take my numbers predictions at the end with a grain of salt. My numbers are based off people's reactions as outbreaks occur, and each of the outbreaks that have occurred so far seem to still be developing. My estimates are probably at least a little bit optimistic.]

While the coronavirus is a humanitarian and financial disaster, it’s also an absolutely fascinating social psychology experiment. Way back when I was deciding what I wanted to do when I grew up, I wanted to be an experimental psychologist… focused on social psychology in general and sex and gender in particular. 

That didn’t pan out because I ended up falling in love with teaching, but that researcher bug never left. So I tend to look at anything and everything through the lens of a social psychology researcher, including the COVID-19 pandemic. As it turns out, this just might be a halfway decent method of predicting where this pandemic is heading.

The underlying idea is simple - if you can understand how people, as individuals, respond to the coronavirus, you can reasonably predict all kinds of things about the virus and its effects on society. While there’s incredible variability in individual responses, they all kind of work out to an “average response.” For example, for every “I’ve been holed up in my bunker since January eating potted meat” prepper, we have a Gen Z kid licking toilets for Tik Tok affirmations. This “average person” has an “average response”, and that average response can be used to predict all kinds of useful things, especially as we learn more about the nature of the virus. 

The “Average Response”

The average person’s average response goes through about six steps and the approximate amount of anxiety each step causes on a scale of 1 (totally calm) to 7 (scared shitless):

Step One: “This is something that does not affect me, and will not affect me.” This is how almost all of us were prior to the virus arriving in the United States. If we were aware of it, we were likely to joke about it. Anxiety level: 1.

Step Two: “This is something that does not affect me, but it does affect people like me.” At this point, we still rationalize away any growing fear because the virus is still far away from affecting our lives. Specific to the coronavirus, this was the point where the CDC was still able to track WHERE affected people acquired the virus. This likely happened when the virus hit the US for the first time. Anxiety level: 2.

Step Three: “This is something that could affect me.” Once the virus spread throughout the US via "community spread", it became more apparent it would eventually pop up everywhere. At this step, the virus hasn't popped up locally, but the average person recognizes that's inevitable. But the individual hasn't had an emotional reaction to the virus yet. This is also the point where people start washing their hands a little more often and altering their social behaviors to physically distance themselves from others. Anxiety level: 3.

Step Four: “This is something that is going to affect me vicariously by disrupting my life or threatening those I love.” This is when shit starts to get real, and usually happens when a case pops up locally and begins to spread a bit. This is when people start experiencing an involuntary emotional response, which causes a significant shift in behavior. At this point regardless of what their leaders tell them, people start getting a bit fanatical about social distancing. Anxiety level: 4.

Step Five: “This is something that could kill me.” This happens when the number of positive cases starts to explode (like we see happening in New Orleans today (3/27/2020.) Even though the odds are exceptionally low (even in hard-hit Italy, only about .00014, or 136 out of every million people died from the virus), it's still an novel invisible threat we can't cure or stop, which is always terrifying. This is an emotional response usually manifested as serious fear; it cannot usually be diffused through logic or reason. At this point, people will self-isolate for a longer-than-rational amount of time. We see this in New York City and Spain right now, and saw it in Italy and Washington State last week. Anxiety level: 6-7.

Step Six: “I survived, therefore this is no longer scary.” After the virus peaks and recedes, people very slowly return to normal. Anxiety levels slowly drop as people return to their normal routine. This will take time, maybe two months or more. During this time, people will continue A LOT of the same social distancing habits (which is going to kill our jiu jitsu industry long after the virus is no longer areal threat.) We'll see flare-ups of the virus here and there, but we won't have this level of panic because we survived it once already. We'll continue to have SOME anxiety, which will probably last until we find a reliable cure OR we find a vaccine. Anxiety level: 2.

This means the degree of social distancing any given area is experiencing is a very rough approximation of which areas are in which stage. Again, this is based on the average person's response. Some people will have a stronger response, some weaker. This cool tool based on social distancing cell phone data is helpful to see where your area falls. This tool can also be used to predict which areas will be harder hit (high population density + low levels of social distancing + large elderly population = increased likelihood of major outbreak.)

So Why Does This Matter?

There's a great deal of debate on HOW governments should respond. Based on what we've seen in China, Taiwan, and South Korea versus what we've seen in Italy, Spain, and now the UK and US, it's safe to say the degree of infection and death occurs as a function of social distancing. In short, the more draconian the lock-down, the more effective it is.

But there are real costs to lockdowns, especially economically. And here in the US, we really don't like being told what to do, even if it's for our own good. As such, it doesn't really matter what the government tells us to do. Our willingness to self-isolate is what really matters, and that decision is based on the steps I outlined above.

This is both great news and terrible news. First the bad.

This means it doesn't really matter what governments tell us. We're literally just like a small child touching the hot stove. We need to personally experience getting to Step Four and Five ourselves. If the virus isn't affecting our local geographic region, we're going to take a flippant approach to social distancing. Given the virus spreads before positive cases are detected (because people seem to be pretty contagious before they become symptomatic), the virus spreads anywhere and everywhere, which means pretty much everywhere will experience that exponential outbreak eventually.

Now the good.

This also means that it doesn't really matter what government tells us. If governments underestimate the threat (or tell us to go back to work prematurely), we'll once again ignore that and default to our own survival instincts based on the Steps above. We're going to avoid engaging with others as long as we perceive a threat, and our perception of threat won't ebb until the threat actually disappears.

This means we're not going to see the apocalyptic numbers some people are bandying about. We're not going to see a million dead Americans. This also means we're not going to be locked down until the end of summer as others have predicted. It doesn't matter what our government does the the federal, state, or local level; our own self-preservation will guarantee both.

So What Can We Expect?

Here's my bold prediction based off my amateurish attempt to analyze numbers based off the Steps listed above - this will get worse before it gets better. The number of Americans that will end up dying will be around 11,000 to maybe 14,000, the number of cases and deaths will peak around April 10th or 12th, we'll see an exponential outbreak pretty much everywhere, we'll avoid a national-level shut-down, and we'll start resuming a semi-normal life around May 1st. It's important to note this estimate is highly-dependent on our government in general and president in particular not messing things up by making really bad decisions.

In addition to deaths, we'll have normal levels of toilet paper on store shelves by the second week of May. Schools and universities won't re-open until autumn. If we don't find an effective treatment, we'll experience occasional outbreaks that'll shit areas down for a week or three. Our economy will rebound by the middle of the fourth quarter, but won't be enough to save Trump's re-election. He'll lose, but not by much.

A HUGE change - once we develop a test to determine if we've already been infected thus have immunity (which hasn't been determined at the time of writing), we'll self-segregate between the affected and the non-affected. And the affected, given they can continue their lives without interruption, will gain a bit of a competitive advantage over their non-affected peers, which will temporarily set up a two-tiered society. That will bring about "coronavirus infection parties" and calls of inequality from various segments of the population. It's going to be annoying, but it'll work itself out eventually.

This will probably change how we date, too:

We won't return to some semblance of our pre-coronavirus lives until maybe January or February of 2021. This fear of pandemics will be our "Great Depression" in that it will forever change all of our behaviors. Specifically, we'll have internalized social distancing, which will have some negative impacts on intimate relationships for a long, long time. Less hugging and cuddling = less oxytocin = more divorces.

We'll also see a fair number of divorces and break-ups caused by two things - too much closeness during isolation (because a lot of people really do not like their spouses for this reason), and because a lot of women will realize their men aren't up for the challenge of protecting and providing for them. That fear of testosterone is fine in times of prosperity, but when the shit hits the fan, men need to act like men or pay the steep price of social rejection. Basically, this whole pandemic thing is a big test for men. Some passed brilliantly. Some failed miserably.

Unfortunately, those men could have made a HUGE difference had they followed this advice. Or even just understood female psychology. This will also result in a resurgence in interest in traditional gender roles, self-defense, and survivalism, firearms training, and tribalism, all of which will be a boon for me. Unfortunately, that internalized social distancing thing will make the jiu jitsu industry contract significantly as new people will be EXTREMELY hesitant to step on the mats and roll around with strangers.

Some movements, like globalism, fanatical gun control, feminism (which needed to die for these reasons), social justice, and hatred towards law enforcement will weaken significantly because this pandemic scared the shit out of a lot of people who had previously taken our safe, comfy lifestyle for granted. However, this WILL spark a resurgence in support for social safety nets and universal healthcare.

This will also spark a movement away from our harsh sociopolitical divides as a large number of Americans will have been sicked by both the Democrats and Republicans and their handling of this pandemic. We'll see an increase in bipartisanship and an increase in people registering as independents.

There ya go. As of today, that's where I predict this weird-ass thing will head in the near and distant future.

But make no mistake, though, the worst is yet to come. This will get worse before it gets better, and the "worst" will come in local and regional waves. Some local healthcare systems will be pushed to the brink, and some even past that brink. But our social distancing efforts so far WILL have made a difference in this pandemic being bad versus a catastrophe. So keep observing social distancing. We'll know when the worst is behind us.

Be safe, folks. And take care of each other. And thank healthcare workers. They're the unsung heroes in this pandemic.


Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Bury Lots of Bodies or Crash the Economy? The Coronavirus Dilemma

As our coronavirus pandemic worsens, our government leadership is being presented with a pretty bad decision:

Option #1: Do we continue to enact commerce-disrupting “shelter in place” orders to save lives and drive our economy into the ground,


Option #2: Do we relax the orders to save the economy but risk the lives of a large number of people?

Until recently, it seemed our president was following the advice of the medical experts and scientists, and was content to ride out Option #1. Until yesterday. 

Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick took it even further by suggesting our grandparents should be sacrificed to keep the economy from talking. I wonder if he’d also be willing to sacrifice one of his grandchildren.


It’s truly a Cornelian dilemma. We’re damned if we do; we’re damned if we don’t. Assuming we don’t find a miracle cure, a vaccine, or the number of positive cases and deaths start to subside because of natural interventions (like warmer weather or herd immunity), this decision is only going to get more difficult

As of right now, today, we have about 50,000 positive cases around the US and about 580 people have died. Many people, especially in conservative circles, point to these low numbers as a piss-poor excuse to cripple our economy. The problem, of course, is both of those numbers continue to double about every two days. Barring one of those aforementioned interventions, occurring and based on what we’re seeing out of Europe in general and Italy in particular, we can expect the “doubling every day” trend to continue. 

What does that look like? 

Here ya go:

By the middle of April, we could see over 80 MILLION positive cases and over 1.1 MILLION deaths. Those numbers are extremely unlikely to come to fruition, mostly because either the government, individual citizens, or both would begin taking radical self-quarantining measures as the numbers started really shooting up. 

But what about the economy?

If we continue as we are right now, we’re probably looking at a 30% unemployment rate and a staggering 50% drop in GDP growth through early summer. We’re no longer talking about a recession; we’re talking about a full-scale depression. A that would royally suck. If you’re unfamiliar with how life changed for the folks who lived through the Great Depression of the 1930’s give this a read

So should we relax our “shelter in place” orders, reopen schools, and try getting back to normal life?

I say no, at least until a few things happen:

First, we need to get hospitals the supplies they need to do their job. This may require nationalizing industry for the duration of the pandemic. And develop the ability to set up temporary medical facilities for both coronavirus patients AND for the patients who require urgent or emergency care, but cannot receive it due to hospitals being inundated.

Second, we need a reliable, widely-available test to determine if people are carriers of the virus. A negative test would be required to return to any work environment where more than one person occupies a space.

Third, we need a reliable, widely-available test to determine if people have already been infected. This, of course, is based on the assumption that people cannot be re-infected. To the best of my knowledge, this is currently unknown. If it turns out people CAN be reinfected, this test would be unnecessary.

Fourth, we need comprehensive federally-funded sick leave for any employee who tests positive and/or starts showing symptoms. Without this, people will continue working despite being infected, thus quickly spreading the virus to the entire workplace. 

Fifth, we would need to set up the necessary infrastructure that would allow the most vulnerable people to continue to live. We need a plan to protect the elderly, people with heart or lung issues, people with compromised immune systems, smokers, people with asthma, etc.

If we did all five of these things well, we MIGHT be in a position to restart some commerce. Unfortunately, it’s looking increasingly likely our current president is unwilling or incapable of this sort of coordination and planning. 

If we look at the rest of the world, every place the virus has taken a significant toll has implemented radical lockdown procedures. The countries that have fared best did so through extensive testing AND did an excellent job of keeping people away from each other. 

Italy’s number of new cases and number of deaths have decreased for two straight days, which is an encouraging sign that they may have peaked. If they did reach a peak, we’re still eight or nine days away from our own peak, which would mean we’d peak at about a million positive cases and about 13,000 dead. That looks like our current BEST case scenario.

But if we start relaxing our procedures now (or next Monday, the end of the federal government’s 15 day period), there’s no reason to believe we won’t just keep piling up the bodies. 

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Becoming the Best Man You Can Be: Step One - Finding Your Life Purpose

One of the most important steps to becoming the best version of yourself involves finding your life purpose. Most men don’t really have much of a life purpose. Seth Godin summed this up nicely in his excellent book “Linchpin”:

“System we grew up with: Do your job. Show up. Work hard. Listen to the boss. Stick it out. Be part of the system. You’ll be rewarded. This is a scam.”

Or, put another way:

We waste our lives chasing things that don’t matter. And we pay the price. Based on my life experiences as a teacher and running a men’s group, I hypothesize most minor (or maybe even major) mental illnesses are directly related to men not having a life purpose.

Or, they HAVE a purpose, but that purpose is focused on a single woman (or women, if they’re not presently in a relationship.) It’s a bit of a paradox, but as I explained in this post (which is a must-read for anyone who wants to really understand women), this sets up a recipe for relationship disasters. Women do not want to be placed on pedestals and worshiped! Or at least MOST of the time; we all like to be pampered on occasion.

Anyway, I HIGHLY recommend following Mark Manson’s advice in this article:

Manson is the author of one of the books I recommend for all Man Camp members: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*uck. Manson’s “Purpose” post asks seven questions:

  1. What’s your favorite flavor of shit sandwich and does it come with an olive?
  2. What is true about you today that would make your 8-year-old self cry?
  3. What makes you forget to eat and poop?
  4. How can you better embarrass yourself?
  5. How are you going to save the world?
  6. Gun to your head, if you had to leave the house all day, every day, where would you go and what would you do?
  7. If you knew you were going to die one year from today, what would you do and how would you want to be remembered?

The point of clearly defining a purpose is to give you a direction. As we work through these steps to becoming a better man, this life purpose will provide a framework for all future plans for self-improvement. 

So get to work. Answer these seven questions, then get out a note pad and start brainstorming ideas!
CORONAVIRUS Pandemic Update - While the pandemic is unfolding as a major disaster, there is a silver lining. For men who have trouble finding their purpose, here's an easy one- become a leader through this pandemic. That might be a leader in your community, a leader in your workplace, a leader in your social group, or even a leader in your family. Rise to the occasion. Take charge. make decisions. Keep everyone calm and sane.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Expecting the Best; Preparing for the Worst: A Logical Pandemic Response

Yesterday, I was a guest on Scott Jones’ podcast “Athlete on Fire” to discuss my “preparing for a depression” post from a few days ago. Among the topics we talked about - expecting the best and preparing for the worst. It’s an idea that is common in coaching pretty much any sport, and it’s a great life strategy.

This has been my approach throughout this entire coronavirus ordeal. This approach gives me optimism, but still prepares myself and my family for the extreme hardships that may be lurking around the corner. I’m a proactive person. I like acting instead of reacting. And I like having options. This approach accomplishes all those things.

I find this approach far superior to burying our heads in the sand and ignoring what’s happening around us. I’m perplexed to see so many people completely ignoring our current situation. Likewise, I also find this approach superior to going into a full-blown “head to the bunker” approach. Society isn’t collapsing; that panic isn’t rational at this point. 

This approach is heavily influenced by Stoicism, an ancient philosophical school of thought that is incredibly useful in uncertain times. This’ll probably be a topic for a future post, but until then, the really relevant part is the Stoics we huge proponents of focusing only what you can control and accepting what you can’t control. Here’s an example from the linked article:

“An archer is trying to hit a target. He has a number of things under his control, such as training, which bow and arrow to use, how well to aim, and when to let go of the arrow. So he can do his very best up to the moment when the arrow leaves his bow.

Now, will he hit the target?

That is not up to him. After all, a gust of wind, a sudden movement of the target, or something could go between the arrow and the target. And the Stoic archer is ready to accept all possible outcomes with equanimity, because he has done his best and left the rest (what he could not control) to nature.”

So what exactly does this look like? Here’s how I’m handling this:

First, I like to work out the likely BEST case scenario. Even this looks a little bleak right now, but it is what it is. The number of positive coronavirus cases in the US is at about 20,000 and the number of deaths is at about 275, and both of these numbers are doubling about every two days. The element that seems to be limiting that exponential growth are widespread testing of the public AND nation-wide draconian lock-downs that prevent ALL members of society from interacting. Luckily, people will take matters into their own hands.

If we do the basic math and we reach a peak in the number of cases increasing, we’re looking at maybe 200-250,000 positive cases and 5,000 deaths. That's VERY optimistic, but it's important to recognize we're in the "fog of war" at this point. We simply don't know the real lay of the land, and there's a good chance this may not be nearly as bad as it looks right now.

There’s a chance, given how terrible our testing has been, that the virus has actually been circulating widely throughout the US population since late fall/ early winter, and a lot of us have already been infected, thus immune. If that were the case, we might not be too far away from the peak number of infections and deaths.

There's also an incredibly slim chance we could find an effective treatment or vaccine in the near future. There's a chance the virus could quickly die out when it gets warm outside. There's a chance the entire world population suddenly takes this seriously and everyone starts practicing radical social distancing without the threat of fines, imprisonment, or force.

Based on this scenario, the BEST we can hope for would be a widespread lockdown that will last through mid-April. The mass shutdowns cause a significant worldwide recession akin to 2008 with similar unemployment numbers and a similar drop in GDP. So all of us will have to deal with some serious financial issues for a while. But we'll rebound quickly.

Almost all of us have been there, done that, and survived just fine.

Second, I like to work out the likely WORST case scenario. This one gets pretty damn bad. Please stop reading if you’re prone to anxiety over shit you cannot control. In the worst-case scenario, which the CDC has projected, we’re in this social distancing/ lockdown scenario for a year, 214 million Americans would be infected. Up to 21 million of those infected would need hospitalization, and we only have around a million hospital beds available in the US. Over 1.7 million would die (about one out of every 200 Americans.) Millions more would die from unrelated illness (like cancer or heart disease) because they wouldn’t be able to receive treatment. 

In this scenario, we’d see a complete collapse of the global economy that would pitch us into a severe depression that would last years. The unemployment rate could flirt with 30%. Long-distance food chains would evaporate, store shelves would be left bare until local food production could ramp up. Millions starve to death. Cities would become death traps as the food shortages cause people to get extremely desperate. Looting would become the norm as the strong and well-organized quickly start killing the weak and unprepared. Banks close permanently. Hyperinflation takes over and paper money becomes worthless. Widespread civil disobedience forces the federal government to suspend habeas corpus and mobilize the military and the entire country is placed under martial law. And the Internet disappears. The government collapses under the weight of the crushing debt racked up in an attempt to ward off the financial catastrophe. Anarchy ensues.

In this apocalyptic scenario, the world as we knew it would cease to exist, possibly forever

Third, I like to actualize the fear of the worst-case scenario. If that worst-case scenario comes to fruition, what would I do? Normally, this is pretty easy because, in our safe, comfortable world we had at the beginning of this year pretty much always meant our lives would become slightly less comfortable for a little while. 

Now, though? How the Hell do you prepare for the collapse of society? THANKFULLY, Shelly and I started making intentional choices a few years back that would help in this apocalypse scenario, which included moving out of San Diego to rural Western Colorado. Ironically, it was our perception that SoCal was woefully unprepared for any sort of natural disaster (like a major earthquake) that led us to bail. Our choice of Western Colorado was also influenced (a little bit) by the geography in the event some apocalyptic scenario happened - we’re 6,000 feet above sea level (no threat of rising sea levels), it’s a good climate for agriculture, and we’re geographically protected from anyone reaching the area on foot (rugged mountains on three sides, a vast desert on the other.)

Since civil unrest is unlikely in our small town and we know how to grow food, hunt and fish, and can forage, the biggest problems would be financial. We’ve been really, really poor in the recent past AND have a good knowledge of survival, so we know we can still survive if we lost our day jobs, our gym goes out of business, we lose our home, cars, and every other material possession we have. 

Since arriving here, we’ve also deliberately worked to create a “tribe” of like-minded people, which WAS the original intent of this very blog. This was our original goal, which I later expanded on with this post about the logic behind tribal organizations. From that post, which I wrote a little over one month ago:

“The real benefit would come should our safe, prosperous modern society and all the associated comforts ever come under threat. A major war, natural disasters, pandemics... all could and would dramatically affect the safety and convenience we now take for granted. Countless stories throughout history have taught us the veneer of civility can and does disappear in an instant. In those cases, people HAVE to fall back to the basic tenets of tribal unity to survive. Shit, we've seen that in our lifetime with 9/11 and Katrina.

Why wait for disaster to strike before setting up a community that provides mutual support? We have this innate drive to live in and participate in a tribe; why not establish one right now?”  

Our “tribe” is really just a loose collection of diverse friends who would be willing and able to help each other if the shit really starts to hit the fan. Part of the preparations I've been making have been specifically done to be in a position to help any member of our "tribe" should they need it as we navigate this pandemic. This group really eliminates a lot of the anxiety about solving the problems of this worst-case scenario. 

The hardest part of thinking about how we’d handle that worst-case scenario is death. What happens if one or more of us were to die? As difficult as that is to imagine, all five of us are resilient and confident in our ability to thrive despite the circumstances. Both Shelly and I thrive under pressure, and we’ve exposed our kids to all sorts of hardships over their lives; they’re capable of persevering. And we have our tribe. 

So if the shit hits the fan and society basically collapses, we have a plan. 

Fourth, I find the most accurate information I can about the present conditions, which includes traditional media, social media, and a network of friends spread around the world. It’s important to understand the real nature of each of these. Traditional media tends to be sensational, social media tends to be conspiratorial, and friends will have a limited perspective based on geography. Any one information source is problematic, but taken together AND accounting for their individual shortcomings, this is a decent way to clear the “fog of war” a bit. 

A good site to follow, by the way, is Nate Silver's data-driven FiveThirtyEight. For example, this post lays out the facts without the sensationalism.

The purpose of this is to be in a position to act instead of being forced to react. So far, this has allowed us to do a TON of last-minute preparing because we can accurately predict which items people are panic-hoarding, which has allowed us to stock up on those specific products. This has also allowed us to predict which restrictions we’d be under in the next day or two, like schools closing, restaurants and bars closing, and most relevant to us - when we’d be forced to close our gym. 

Fifth, I go about living. Life doesn’t stop because we’re faced with this incredibly terrifying threat to our very way of life. Having considered the absolute worst-case scenario AND having developed a plan if that scenario comes to fruition, I can relax. Perhaps more importantly, the people closest to me can relax. 

If the best-case scenario happens, we can look back on this and chuckle. It’ll make a good story for the grandkids. But if the worst-case scenario happens, we can enjoy the last vestiges of the world that once was. 

Be safe, folks.