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MIT Technology Review

How to prepare for the coronavirus like a pro

Some of the smartest people I know are getting ready for a crisis—including me.

February 28, 2020
Coronavirus prepperCoronavirus prepper
Coronavirus prepperMs Tech / Getty, Unsplash

Are you stocking up on masks and soap and putting meat in the freezer? If you are, you might be like me: a coronavirus prepper.

The way a prepper sees things, our society is efficient but also fragile. How many days’ worth of food does your city have? How many extra ventilator machines are at your nearest hospital? It may be fewer than you think.

A month ago, stockpiling anything would have seemed a little crazy for someone like me in Boston, far from the center of the coronavirus epidemic spreading in China. When I started laying in protective suits, sterile gloves, and bags of potatoes, I didn’t advertise it. I seemed like the weird, paranoid one.

“But isn’t the virus in China?” wondered my astonished 11-year-old as I hauled bottles of bleach to the basement.

Not anymore. This week, more new cases of the infection were being detected outside China than in it, including the first US case without a clear link to international travel. The US Centers for Disease Control warned that a “significant disruption” to American life is inevitable and Hawaii’s health department advised people to have two weeks’ worth of emergency supplies at home. The stock market is in free fall. Even the vice president of Iran is sick.

The reason to prepare: if there is an outbreak where you are, you’ll be able to reduce contact with other people and cut your chances of being exposed to the germ. Quarantines—lasting 14 days or longer—are already a reality for millions in Chinese cities. That’s a long time to be trapped in your home. Videos on the internet filmed in China appear to show people climbing out of apartment windows to try to get food.

So far, in Boston, life continues as usual on the surface. But certain items have been quietly disappearing from shelves. Just today, the six-pack of Germ-X hand sanitizer that I put in my Amazon shopping cart is suddenly no longer available. When I called Amazon, a spokesperson told me the company had no comment on whether it was seeing signs of panic buying. Too bad; their data would be an x-ray of how broad the hoarding is.

As I talked to my contacts—many of them scientists, startup founders, and investors who closely track technology trends—I heard stories of people renting remote cabins and others who’d liquidated their entire stock portfolios. Jamie Heywood, a health-care entrepreneur and the cofounder of PatientsLikeMe, told me he’s always prepared to survive for an extended period without external resources. Now he’s added some new materials, like respirator masks. He has what is basically a low-tech intensive care unit at home. If someone in his family gets sick, he wants to be able to take care of them, in case hospitals are overwhelmed.

“The just-in-time society based on Amazon is profoundly efficient, but very non-resilient,” says Heywood, who worries what significant disruptions to the supply chain will mean for "a society with only weeks of food on the shelves."

Have money, will prep

Even now, the World Health Organization (WHO) doesn’t want to call the respiratory germ a pandemic, though cases have cropped up in more than 50 countries. About 80% of cases are mild. But the rest are serious. The data so far shows the death rate may be as high as 2%, from lung and organ failure. This virus is no joke.

There isn’t much extra capacity at hospitals either, says Heywood, who served for several years on a biosurveillance committee for the US Centers for Disease Control. In particular, there will be a shortage of respirators, needed to treat the most serious cases of Covid-19, as the lung infection is being called. “They can handle only a little more load before they collapse. I don’t believe that we have a society that can handle a serious increase in load for any serious disease,” he says.

A number of savvy technologists I know have been getting ready for a while. One of them is Robert Nelsen, an investor with Arch Venture Partners. Nelsen was once named biotech’s top venture capitalist and has made a career out of seeing what other people don’t, whether it’s new cancer drugs or CRISPR. So when his Twitter feed took an alarmist turn last month, I noticed. He called the coronavirus a “slow moving train crash at epic scale.”

The Seattle-based investor told me he had been playing Plague Inc., a video game where you try to annihilate humanity with a pandemic virus. “It’s a scary game and it’s not that hard,” says Nelsen, who thinks the coronavirus is “eerily” like it. Back when the WHO was still debating whether the virus was an international emergency, Nelsen was trying to short-sell airline stocks. “I do these things because it’s a way to keep my brain engaged,” he says.

On February 25, Nelsen went public with his preparations when he posted to Twitter a picture of a Costco cart loaded with bottled water, Frosted Flakes, and six supersized bottles of Grey Goose vodka. “Look closely,” he advised his followers. The picture had been taken nearly a month earlier. You want to get your own basement stocked before you raise the alarm.

His tweet got some snarky replies. “Waaay too many carbs,” said one. “Fatality rate of that food > 1%.” And who but a wealthy man would buy top-shelf vodka as a disinfectant? The fact is, many Americans wouldn’t be able to stockpile even if they wanted to. I’ve probably spent $1,000 in the last month ensuring I don’t run out of coffee, potatoes, paper towels, candles, and canned milk.

What’s on a coronavirus prepper’s shopping list

I heard from other technologists preparing for the virus, and here were some supplies they’d laid aside:

  •  a month’s worth of shelf-stable food
  •  prescriptions, antibiotics, and cold medicine
  •  paper towels, dry goods
  •  reading material
  •  disinfectants, like alcohol

Brian Pardy, a database engineer I know on social media, sent me a far more complete list of preparations he has circulated to friends. It includes more than 70 items, including shaving razors, Sterno, a chest freezer, cotton swabs, cough medicine, vitamin C, cans of V8 juice, granola, fuel, and mousetraps to protect supplies.

“Don’t buy stuff you wouldn’t eat or use anyway—this is about moving consumption forward, not hoarding a big pile of crap,” Pardy says.

There’s an argument that stockpiling is antisocial—especially if done in a panic. If the coronavirus spreads in a major US city, the most important people to protect will be the health-care workers. They will need those masks and respirators, not you. A run on the supermarket—like a run on the banks or the stock market—is a symptom of fear and broken trust.

Critics of last-minute buying include hard-core preppers. On Reddit, moderators have started removing posts about coronavirus from r/Preppers, a subreddit about preparing for emergencies. “We are removing these posts as fast as we can, as they add absolutely no value to this sub or society as a whole,” writes user u/webdoodle, one of the moderators. “Why do we do this? None of these things are prepping. Prepping is about PREparing for emergencies, not creating a supply shortage because you now suddenly need 3 boxes of N95 masks for your personal use (yes, I removed one of these today).”

The moderators suggest looking at old posts about SARS to “see the fear and panic, and realize how many of those people still have a bunch of crap stored in their basements and garages that is a complete waste of space and money.”

Some other ways to reduce the risk of coronavirus infection

To Alistair Miles, who studies malaria at the University of Oxford and is a self-described biohacker, behavioral change is a big part of reducing risk, too. He thinks masks provide a false sense of security (though they are good at stopping people who are already sick from spreading germs). He’s been telling people to take these simple steps:

  • Don’t touch your face, especially your eyes, nose, or mouth
  • Wash hands often, with soap, for 20 seconds
  • Use alcohol-based hand sanitizer

If the virus keeps spreading and isn’t contained, there is a chance that everyone will come into contact with it eventually. For people like Heywood and Miles, the longer you postpone getting it, the better. The longer the delay, the more doctors will know about how to make serious cases less lethal. Within a few weeks there may be an idea of what drugs help; in two years, there might be a vaccine. What’s more, the more slowly the virus spreads overall, the less acute its effects on society will be.

“My assumption is that everyone in my family will get this virus at some point, but I think you can delay it,” says Heywood. “The value of delay can be substantial, for society and for you.”

This week, President Donald Trump sought to reassure Americans, holding a news conference in which he said the virus was under control and naming Vice President Mike Pence to oversee the government’s response. “There’s a chance that it could get worse,” Trump said. “There’s a chance that it could get fairly, substantially worse. But I don’t think it’s inevitable ... there’s a chance that it won’t spread.”

But what if it does? Experts say US preparedness isn’t what it could be. And it’s frightening to see that health information is already getting politicized. Billionaire presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg quickly launched a TV campaign ad cutting into Trump’s handling of the threat. If US society proves unprepared, it could become a political liability for the president, just as George W. Bush was blamed for the response to Hurricane Katrina.

Over the years, public health officials have routinely clamored for preparation and stockpiles. That’s so the system can handle a surge of sick people. But it’s not easy to convince anyone to spend money on maybe-type threats. Heywood says that after his stint with the CDC, “the thing that I came away [with] is a question about the balance of efficiency, of capitalism, which drives storage capacity to as close to zero as possible, and it makes the networks that deliver them as thin as possible.” He adds, “That works well in a stable environment. But what about during a disruption? Imagine Amazon going into Christmas without preparation. That’s a pandemic.”

It could be that Heywood’s preparations, like mine, will prove unnecessary. But all those cans in the basement are at least food for thought. “I do see a little bit of a positive side of this. I think it is not a bad thing that the world is reminding us that we are one species on a small planet and that the tools of science, diplomacy, and effective governments are central to us living on that planet,” says Heywood. “Being reminded that humanity is vulnerable, and that Wall Street does not rule biology, is a good thing.”

—with reporting by Benjamin Rosen