One of the most fundamental products created by U.S. intelligence agencies is the production of intelligence assessments. Assessments differ from news because the news tells you what has happened or is currently happening, but an intelligence assessment tries to predict what will happen in the future. This article is an attempt to provide an assessment about the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Virus/Covid-19 pandemic, how many people will be affected by the virus, how many people will be affected by the attempts to prevent its spread, what those effects will be, and a rough timeline projecting when these events will occur.
This assessment is made with low confidence (<50% probability) due to the following factors:
- Initial information about the Covid-19 virus was repressed by the CCP.
- The CCP has an incentive to continue to report false information and/or limit the spread of true information if such information is damaging to the CCP.
- Societal factors impacting mortality and infection rates differ between cultures and countries.
- Governmental responses at the state and federal level may differ in their speed of implementation, the scope of application, and level of enforcement
Consequently, the best option is to admit that how fast and how far Covid-19 will spread is unknown. What is known, however, is what the response looks like in the United States. On March 22nd, residents of Ohio, Louisiana, and Delaware were ordered to stay home. New York, California, Illinois, Connecticut, and New Jersey already have similar orders for their residents. Shelter-in-place orders now affect nearly 1-in-3 Americans. Schools are shut down and not expected to open until at least August. Non-essential businesses are closed. Where they are available, dry food, hand-sanitizer, antibacterial soap, N95 masks and gloves, and ammunition are rationed to buyers. For no apparent reason, people are also buying all the toilet paper. Nevertheless, for the first week of self-isolation, people are happy, even jubilant. Spending a week at home eating hot pockets and binge-watching Netflix is fun. It won’t last. Barring significant governmental intervention, people have four weeks from a shelter-in-place order to crisis. Here’s why.
The first week, everyone goes grocery shopping and stocks up on food. People in the service, retail, and travel industries get laid off because their businesses are forced to close due to government directive or due to lack of business caused by residents staying at home or social distancing. These people are okay because, while many Americans don’t have significant savings and work paycheck to paycheck, paychecks usually lag by two weeks, so Americans in many industries will get their last paycheck about two weeks after issuance of the lockdown order. This first week is fun – people catch up on shows, spend time with their kids, and get around to home projects they’ve been meaning to get around to and finally have the time. Social media feeds will be filled with people joking about the quarantine, suggesting Introverts and Gamers have been preparing for this lifestyle their whole lives and suggesting staying at home on the couch binge-watching Netflix is a very easy way to save the world. California is about to enter its second week.
In the second week, things start to take a darker turn. The family still has plenty of food, but the milk and most of the fruits and vegetables will expire in a few days unless they are eaten soon. Family member behavior considered cute the previous week begins to feel grating. People stop posting as many jokes and memes about the Covid-19 pandemic and start posting words of encouragement to their friends on social media instead. It isn’t a joke anymore; it’s become serious. Calls to family members increase. At the end of the second week, most of the food is gone, but there’s still a few boxes of dried spaghetti and those three weird cans of Southwestern Style Garbanzo Beans that were purchased because the grocery store had sold out of all other canned beans. The shortages of essential goods observed in the first week of lockdown are felt more acutely now, because now the family is out of toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and antibacterial soap and it’s impossible to find more. The family spends their last paychecks paying their bills and buying more groceries and hopes help is on the way soon. The shelter-in-place order, if voluntary, becomes mandatory but is seldom enforced.
If help doesn’t come, the third week will be the week where the cracks begin to show. This will be the week of bartering and begging. Social media words of encouragement from the past week will give way to people offering to barter goods they have for goods they don’t have, and by people asking for help paying for bills or food. If the family does not have sufficient food stored, they will start rationing in the third week. The mandatory shelter-in-place order is enforced by police checkpoints to ensure only authorized travelers are outside their homes.
By the fourth week, many families can not afford to buy groceries. Low-grade property crimes will begin. Specifically, these crimes will occur at any small independent retailers who have been able to remain open and these thefts will include baby formula, diapers, hard liquor, and cigarettes. Honest people will go hungry for a few days before they steal, but honest parents will do anything to care for their babies. Liquor and cigarettes will be looted because they are always looted when law enforcement is occupied with a civil crisis. Rioting will occur in large cities due to shortage, irritation, or plain boredom. Martial law will be declared if it has not been already. Social media posts will consist of people sharing where to buy toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and antibacterial soap and stories of crimes occurring in other places. Assuming rations of food are made available, social media posts will also complain about the quantity and quality of the supplied food.
In the fifth week, violent street crimes will occur against delivery truck drivers. Looting will continue but will be more intense and less directed. Every retail store will be targeted, especially those selling food or medicine. If travel is possible, it will become dangerous to travel in public displaying any obvious signs of possessing food or personal hygiene items. Social media posts will consist of people sharing stories of crimes occurring within or close to their own neighborhoods. Assuming rations of food are made available, some of these may be stolen by armed thugs. If the delivery trucks are protected by the national guard, these thugs will rob people returning home once they are outside the reach of the national guard or police, all of whom will have less presence within the community because they are protecting distribution hubs and vehicles or working to suppress ongoing riots.
From the sixth week, until the crisis ends, violent street crimes will continue to occur against delivery truck drivers, assuming any companies are still delivering goods. Families cannot afford to pay their bills and are now fully dependent on government assistance to survive. Looting will continue but will now be expanded to residences since most retail stores will have already been picked clean of food or medicine. If travel is possible, it will remain dangerous to travel in public displaying any obvious signs of possessing food or personal hygiene items and may become dangerous to travel at all. Social media posts will consist of people sharing videos and stories of crimes occurring within or close to their own houses.
The important thing to consider from the dire timeline above is that the timeline itself is not an assessment, nor is it a prediction or a forecast. It’s a description of how large-scale disruptive emergencies like the government shutdown currently affecting one-in-three Americans will play out unless at least one of two things, or both, occur. First, the government must provide food and money to every American affected by the shutdown sufficient for them to pay their bills and feed their families, and these governments must do so no later than three weeks after the shutdown. Providing half-rations or half-income does not change what will happen, only when it will happen – such measures would merely delay but not prevent the events described above. If implemented on a temporary basis, such assistance could be justified in accordance with free-market principles; since the government created the crisis by preventing people from being able to support themselves, it is equitable that the government support them instead until the government-imposed crisis has ended. Second, a vaccine could be created and distributed, though this is unlikely to occur with sufficient speed to affect the timeline described above.
So, is it time to panic? Not yet. Not ever. But it is time to get ready, because the government-created crisis that 100 million Americans are experiencing today will spread to other states far faster than the virus will, and, for almost all of us, will have far more serious consequences. The two-thirds of Americans who have yet to be locked down have a few precious days to get ready for the coming crisis. Those who live in Ohio, Louisiana, and Delaware have four weeks before things become dire. Citizens of California, New York, and New Jersey have only three.
NOTE: This forecast overlooks the effect of unemployment insurance compensation and moratoriums on mortgage/rent payments. As long as most Americans are able to continue to draw unemployment paychecks and mortgage/rent relief occurs, the impacts described in this assessment will not occur on a widespread level nor will they occur with the rapidity described below. For this reason, the article should be viewed as speculation regarding how quickly economic turmoil could have outsized consequences on civil society absent any form of governmental assistance, or if a specific state’s unemployment insurance fund is sufficiently depleted to impact payments to beneficiaries and no alternative methods of assistance are implemented.