Quarantine Preparations

by jefftkjefftk1 min read25th Feb 202038 comments



A month ago I wrote about disaster preparedness, and while the current coronavirus outbreak had started it wasn't something I knew about yet. Now that there's a real possibility that it will spread globally, it's worth preparing for this specific disaster.

The ideal time to start thinking about how to respond was probably several weeks ago: some supplies like masks are already hard to find or very expensive. On the other hand, paying enough attention to potential issues that you catch them early is pretty unpleasant unless you enjoy it as a hobby. This is a strong advantage of preparing in advance when there's no particular issue of the day.

Still, there's time now, so what should we be thinking through? A good way to predict here is to look at how this has gone where the outbreak has already been at its most severe, and what you see is a long period of quarantine. They shut down public transit, within cities and between regions, cancelled school, and told people to work remotely if possible and cancelled most other work. In some cases people aren't allowed to leave their houses, and even when people are allowed to they mostly don't want to risk it.

So the question is, if at some point in the next few weeks to next few months you needed to stay home for several weeks, how would that go? Are there things you could do now that would make that go better? Especially, if you didn't want to risk going out at all, couldn't count on stores being stocked in things you need, and delivery wasn't running, would you be ok?

Things to consider buying a lot of in advance:

  • medications you're dependent on
  • food
  • tissues, toilet paper, menstrual stuff
  • soap, hand sanitizer
  • anything that you buy regularly and would be hard to do without

Since we could be talking about something months from now, it makes sense to stock up on non-perishable versions of things. If this all ends up being a big nothing you can just work through them over time, and it's not a major inconvenience.

We have a lot of food in the house, generally cans of beans, tomatoes, and other things we use in our cooking. But we don't have much in terms of food that's ready to be eaten with minimal preparation, so yesterday we got some extra crackers and canned soup.

Other things that would be good to have on hand:

  • thermometers
  • plain bleach
  • masks, or respirators (a bit more expensive normally, but they fit better, last longer, and aren't currently sold out)
  • disposable gloves

I'm less worried about non-stuff aspects of preparation because these are easier to deal with if and when it becomes apparent there's a problem. Quarantine could lead to severe supply chain disruptions, but things like "talk to the other people in your house and get on the same page about how much to avoid going out" can wait until there'a a clearer picture of the risks.

At this point I do still think "everything in my community will be fine" is the most likely outcome. Taking some steps now is not very hard or costly, however, and if things do go poorly we'll be glad we did.

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If everybody starts hoarding food now, we could end with global famine even without decline in food production.

In my childhood I lived in Soviet Union and once (circs 1988) there was a rumor that there will no more sugar (because it was used for illegal alcohol production after Gorbachev's prohibition laws) . Everybody who heard it, stockpile as much sugar as they can; a friend bought 20 kg. Obviously it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and it took around a year to normalize sugar market via large import.

I think you could also argue that panic buying of this sort makes our supply chain more resilient in the event of an actual disaster, since warehouse owners will have an incentive to stockpile goods that people might hoard?

I agree with your logic, but not sure that they actually will do it. If they expect the next disaster in 10 years from now, when keeping larger stockpiles is expensive and useless. Also, they could earn more by selling less, if prices jump.

Keeping a larger stockpile seems like a one-time fixed cost, if you own the warehouse you're operating? You need more shelf space, and you need to increase your inventory as a one-time payment. But after that, the inflows and outflows should be the same as before. And every year you have a chance of making bank in the event of panic buying.

The ideal outcome might be panic buying which leads to nothing but a bunch of warehouse owners saying "Darn it, we ran out of X right before the price went way high! Let's keep more on reserve going forward in case that happens again in the future."

I don't think you can fully treat it as a one time cost. You also need to consider it something of a capitalized cost so the direct out of pocket is likely understating the economic cost.

I think your experience in the Soviet Union isn't that similar to how it would go here. If there were a serious rumor in the US that sugar was going to run out and people started buying a lot, initially stores would have empty shelves, yes -- this is what happens right before a blizzard or hurricane. But then prices would rise, some people would decide they didn't want sugar at the higher price, it would be worth it to import sugar from other countries we don't normally import from (paying the high sugar import tariff that makes the US use so much corn) and sugar production would ramp up. Raising prices to manage high demand and merchants being free to arrange their own imports are both (a) really important and (b) to my knowledge not the sort of thing that the Soviet Union did.

Rising prices would affect poorest countries, like Egypt was affected in 2011 by rising prices of grain. And if there is a global scale panic, when increasing the production like 2 times would take years - and will be risky for manufactures, as when the panic ends, people will stop buying sugar at all, as they have large stockpile.

The advice of this post seems to be advice on the margin (i.e., assuming everything else is held constant), which seems reasonable given that this one post won't change collective behavior by much.

So the question isn't "what happens if everyone stockpiles food?" but rather, "do we expect enough people to stockpile food that stockpiling more food will lead to bad consequences?". I don't know the answer to that one.

The advise of this post seems to be an advise on the margin

FYI, 'advise' is the verb, and 'advice' is the noun.

(Also, advice is a mass noun, so you'd say "piece of advice" or just "advice" rather than "an advice".)

Thanks; fixed & will try to remember.

The first question for me is are people starving in Wuhan due to the outbreak?

If not then stockpiling food seems a poor choice at the time.

Some of the other advice might makes sense, meds for instance but again that hangs on the real risk to production, delivery and retail options.

I think the other thing to consider is where one is. Seems this group has a fairly wide geographic distribution so local conditions should inform.

The first question for me is are people starving in Wuhan due to the outbreak?

Answer is no, as of now, though food situation is uncomfortable. (my wife has relatives there she's in contact with). Trucks come to apartment complexes and people pick up.

I'm not sure the analogy translates well to US though. For better or worse us people are less organized. Also large % population live in suburbs where such deliveries are not feasible.

OTOH we have an excellent general delivery system in Amazon, UPS etc.

I'm slightly worried.

I'm suburban and at least one of the local grocers has a delivery -- some of the others offer online order and then pickup from a locker or they will bring to the car.

I think the other thing is that in the suburban setting you already mitigate some of the risk because you simply don't get as close to each other as is the case with urban living -- I don't get on the same elevator as everyone else on the floor or in the building generally. (Though the condo residential-retail-commercial model is starting to appear.)

I think if you live in any of the big US cities and this starts spreading you need to think a bit more about preparing for quarantine and general dealing with things. Standard, single family home suburban USA and rural USA is going to see much less impact.

Only if we use causal decision theory. If we use some variant of UDT, the same line of reasoning is experienced by many other minds and we should reason as if we have causal power over all these minds. If we decline to use UDT here, we fail the practical test of UDT. In other words, we don't cooperate in real world prisoners dilemma and this would undermine any our future hopes of usefulness of alternative decision theories.

In other words, we don’t cooperate in real world prisoners dilemma and this would undermine any our future hopes of usefulness of alternative decision theories.

I keep saying that I don't know how to apply UDT to humans, especially to human cooperation. The "hope" for UDT was originally to solve anthropic reasoning and then later as a theoretical foundation for a safe AI decision procedure. Despite my repeated disclaimers, people seem really tempted to use it in real life, in very hand-wavy ways, which I feel obligated to disendorse.

How would UDT solve anthropic reasoning? Any Links?

You might find Stuart Armstrong's paper Anthropic decision theory for self-locating beliefs helpful.

Note that ADT is nothing but the Anthropic version of the far more general Updateless Decision Theory and Functional Decision Theory

Thanks for the reference

I feel about partial correlation the way I used to feel about the categorical imperative in general; I don't think our formalisations discuss it well at all. However. I know that the CDT way is wrong and I need a name for whatever the better way is supposed to be. What would you recommend. "Newcomblike reasoning"?

If we use some variant of UDT, the same line of reasoning is experienced by many other minds and we should reason as if we have causal power over all these minds.

As I understand UDT, this isn't right. UDT 1.1 chooses an input-output mapping that maximizes expected utility. Even assuming that all people who read LW run UDT 1.1, this choice still only determines the input-output behavior of a couple of programs (humans). The outputs of programs that don't depend on our outputs because those programs aren't running UDT are held constant. Therefore, if you formalized this problem, UDT's output could be "stockpile food" even if [every human doing that] would lead to a disaster.

I think "pretend as if everyone runs UDT" was neither intentioned by Wei Dei nor is it a good idea.
Differently put, UDT agents don't cooperate in a one-shot prisoner's dilemma if they play vs. CDT agents.

Also: if a couple of people stockpile food, but most people don't, that seems like a preferable outcome to everyone doing nothing (provided stockpiling food is worth doing). It means some get to prepare, and the food market isn't significantly affected. So this particular situation actually doesn't seem to be isomorphic to the prisoner's dilemma (if modeled via game theory).

I agree with avturchin, it's an appropriate thought to be having. UDT-like reasoning is actually fairly common in populations that have not been tainted with CDT rationality (IE, normal people) (usually it is written off by cdt rationalists as moralising or collectivism). This line of thinking doesn't require exact equivalence, the fact that there are many other people telling many other communities to prep is enough that all of those communities should consider the aggregate effects of that reasoning process. They are all capable of saying "what if everyone else did this as well? Wouldn't it be bad? Should we really do it?"

They are all capable of saying “what if everyone else did this as well? Wouldn’t it be bad? Should we really do it?”

This doesn't seem very similar to actual UDT reasoning though. It seems like a perfectly consistent outcome if "normal people" reason like this and conclude that they should refrain from hoarding food, and UDT agents do hoard food because they calculate a low logical correlation between themselves and "normal people".

How do you calculate logical correlation? Do we know anything about how this would work under UDT? Does UDT not really discuss it, or is it bad at it?

I think that cooperating only with those who are provably UDT-agents would make the whole UDT-idea weaker. However, in our case people don't need to know the word "UDT" to understand that by buying food they are limiting other's chances to buy it.

I don't think there is a UDT-idea that prescribes cooperating with non-UDT agents. UDT is sufficiently formalized that we know what happens if a UDT agent plays a prisoner's dilemma with a CDT agent and both parties know each other's algorithm/code: they both defect.

If you want to cooperate out of altruism, I think the solution is to model the game differently. The outputs that go into the game theory model should be whatever your utility function says, not your well-being. So if you value the other person's well-being as much as yours, then you don't have a prisoner's dilemma because cooperate/defect is a better outcome for you than defect/defect.

by buying food they are limiting other's chances to buy it.

But they're only doing that if there will, in fact, be a supply shortage. That was my initial point – it depends on how many other people will stockpile food.

What worries me here is that while playing, say, prisoner dilemma, an agent needs to perform an act of communication with another prisoner to learn her decision theory, which kills all the problem: if we can communicate, we can have some coordination strategy. In one shot prisoner's dilemma we don't know if the other side UDT or CDT agent, and other side also don't know this about us. So the both are using similar lines of reasoning trying to guess if other agent is CDT or UDT. This similar reasoning itself could be a subject of UDT on meta-level, as we both would win more, if we assume that the other agent is UDT-agent.

the same line of reasoning is experienced by many other minds and we should reason as if we have causal power over all these minds.

Luckily, the world we live in is not the least convenient possible one: The relevant mind-similarity is not the planning around hoarding food, it is planning based on UDT-type concerns. E.g., you should reason as if you have causal power over all minds that think "I'll use a mixed strategy, and hoard food IFF my RNG comes up below .05." (substituting whatever fraction would not cause a significant market disruption).

Since these minds comprise an insignificant portion of consumers, UDT shrugs and says "go ahead and hoard, I guess."

That may be true, but it is not a product of the general public not knowing UDT. A large number of people don't think or act in a CDT way either, and a lot of people that don't care for decision theory follow the categorical imperative.

Just a slight update on this thought if others have not yet seen it. This morning I read a news story about how panic buying in Italy (not sure if it was in the infection area but suspect that would make more sense) emptying all the shelves in stores.

Now, I did not investigate further (or read the full story, obviously) but we probably should not under estimate the potential here. It doesn't seem irrational to expect irrational behavior in a crisis situation -- or even a situation a lot of people fear.

A rational egoist should end his panic buying before other people start panicing :)

It seems that zinc supplements (especially LifeExtension Enhanced Zinc Lozenges) can be useful to reduce flu severity.

Given that this Coronavirus seems to have more virus particles in the throat it seems like there's a chance that the zinc supplements might be more effective then they are against standard flu.

I'm not seriously worried about this (quarantine, as opposed to other disasters that disrupt supplies and travel), but it's worth doing the next level of modeling. Outside of China, or at an international border (or on a cruise ship), it's simply impossible to enforce it well, and kind of ludicrous to believe it'll work on a population over a few hundred thousand. The current "lockdown" in italy is a couple of villages and towns, a total of 50K effected people, and lightly enforced by a small number of policemen. It's really more advisory than mandatory.

A government MIGHT try something more rigorous for the fist couple of medium-sized cities with a major outbreak, but if it gets that bad, it won't be long until a dozen more are hit, and it's simply not going to happen that a majority of residents in any region are going to stay inside for very long, especially when the food starts running out.

Thinking tactically for how to make a week or two tolerable makes a ton of sense. Always, not just now. This is general insurance against many kinds of bad thing. Do that.

Thinking strategically about longer-term disasters, you should probably consider a more defensible spot over trying to fortify your current residence. Get out before a quarantine happens, and/or have enough cash or gold or drugs to convince a coyote to get you out. If it comes to that, though, all bets are off about what you'll find outside the quarantine area anyway.

Basically, when I imagine scenarios with large-scale non-localized disasters, it comes out bimodal: either it's unpleasant for a week or two then recovers, or the whole thing collapses and everyone dies.

This doesn't sound right to me. I think there's a significant chance of a scenario where a lot of people are sick, most people are voluntarily staying home as much as possible to limit risk, some things are still working (utilities) but many other things are not (home delivery services, shortages at stores).

I think "the whole thing collapses and everyone dies" is incredibly unlikely for a disease that kills only a few percent of people.

Sure, that's the "things are unpleasant for a while and then get better" scenario. After a week of staying in, you have to go to the store, and then stay in mostly with only "important" errands. They may call it "quarantine", but really it's mostly voluntary - infrastructure and deliveries are still being made, and if you really tried to leave, you'd be able to.

Note that the "unpleasant" case is actually deadly for vulnerable populations. I don't mean to minimize this, only to say that there's a different level of preparation that makes sense than for deeper or more widespread disasters.

The "long period of quarantine" with transportation shut down and people not allowed to leave their houses (but not devolved into chaos and lawlessness) really can't happen in a modern decentralized democracy. We're far too entitled to put up with it.

Sure, that's the "things are unpleasant for a while and then get better" scenario.

Where would you place global economic depression on your bimodal distribution?

See my shortform post.

I agree with the view that COVIS-19 is going to be worse than many want to admit -- though very likely not as bad as some are anticipating. Regardless, though, having a plan does make good sense.

I think there are two big meta-level type questions in terms of this post and the underlying audience.

1) Acting now, in advance, would seem to offer something of a first move advantage when thinking in terms of individual interests. That would seem to be a bit contrary to the general view of the EA sub-group here.

2) If the suggested advice is really one of those private vices not leading to public virtue outcomes, perhaps there is a better way of approaching preparations for a worse case scenario for COVID-19.

One aspect of this might to at least acknowledge that we're not all facing the same risks. Urban populations who rely on public transit, frequent crowded environment where close contact and breathing the air someone else just exhaled are at one end of the spectrum. Those living in rural areas, drive their own car, shop where their might be 5 people in the store at the same time and are off all the major routes and almost never see outsiders at the other.

> Acting now, in advance, would seem to offer something of a first move advantage when thinking in terms of individual interests. That would seem to be a bit contrary to the general view of the EA sub-group here.

I wrote a response to this here https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/jc4XihXLM5uqKcqmr/hoarding-and-shortages -- it depends a lot on whether you think there's time and capacity for producers to react to increased demand.

I'm interested in the mask recommendation.

Not that I've done a ton of research but most of the articles I've come across have been neutral-to-negative about masks.

Here's one of the articles I just came across today:


edit: Though, I guess maybe the idea of getting some is to protect others if you have symptoms rather than protecting yourself from getting infected.