Corona Diaries #2 – The Penny Drops

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Life was still normal, enjoying the summer sun on mountain bike rides and going about our daily lives.

Business as Usual?

It took me a while to understand and fully grasp the severity of this impending crisis. Despite some news emerging like How the Wuhan coronavirus compares to the world’s biggest killer diseases from Bussinesstech on 24 Jan. There were also some indications of market pressure,  South African stocks hit hard by coronavirus from Bloomberg on 27 January 2020.  For the whole of February, it still seemed like it was really just a China problem. Even though a few cases started to emerge in other countries and the actual contagion and deadliness didn’t seem to be clear.

My thinking was that it would essentially be contained in China and then there would be a few isolated cases in other parts of the world. The previous SARS and MERS viruses had had little or no effect on South Africa. Last year I actually contracted the Bird Flu, but it was nothing major and I recovered in a week. So my concern levels regarding this new virus were still low.

During late January and early February, I was finalising some travel bookings for a planned trip in December. Unaware of a hint of concern that there would be any problems with travel.

Coronavirus Stock Market Crash

The stock markets can be an indicator of troubled times ahead as investors take positions based on their views of the future. It was difficult to see on the JSE as our country has had such volatility, with budget speech, looming credit downgrades and SAA bailouts it was not possible to see. However the DOW did show some flattening out at the end of January as coronavirus headlines kept on coming,

Coronavirus market crash 2020 DOW Jones vs JSE

Then the first real signs and shock on the stock market came on 20 Feb as the coronavirus market crash started. The initial drops were related to continuing coronavirus news and a growing uncertainty of how big of a problem this could be. This was also the time that the outbreak in Italy started to take off and it was clear that this was obviously not just a China problem. From then everything seemed to pickup pace as the awareness grew with travel restrictions issued by some countries. March leading into April is a busy time of the year in South Africa with many events, functions and a busy pre easter retail period.

Suddenly it all Changed

In the beginning of March South Arica had its first confirmed case. At that point we started to wonder about some contingency plans for March and April. Then all of a sudden it all seemed to happen in one week as major events were happening on a daily basis. On 11 March WHO declared a pandemic, the oil shock came and the stock markets had officially crashed and continued downwards. By the end of the week we had canceled all plans for March and April. It was during this week that the penny finally dropped for me understanding the coronavirus market crash and how big this problem was.

The Penny Finally Dropped

Up until this point I was still not convinced that this was really such a big problem or a threat with the view that it was no worse than normal flu and required normal prevention measures. This was largely because I had not informed myself and understood the whole picture. First step was to understand more about the virus itself and how it worked, this article and the image below from The Economist was useful, Understanding SARS-CoV-2 and the drugs that might lessen its power.

It was this article  Coronavirus: Why You Must Act Now that I found very comprehensive as it  used the information available at the time to highlight the reasons why this needed to be taken seriously.

Why Coronavirus was Serious

The key points that made me situp were that this virus would spread exponentially, mainly because it is spread by people showing no symptoms yet or being asymptomatic.

I later discovered that this was a significant difference between SARS-CoV-2 and the other SARS viruses. Previous SARS viruses showed symptoms almost immediately to it was easier to identify and isolate infected people.

This exponential spread would then result in large numbers of people infected at the same time and then the medical facilities would be overwhelmed and not be able to provide enough care. We had already seen this situation in Wuhan were temporary hospitals had to be erected in a matter of days to cope.

The second main piece of info for me was understanding that this was a new virus hence the term  Novel coronavirus. This means that we do not have a cure or widespread immunity for it. So essentially the problem was that countries were not adequately prepared to deal with this pandemic. There was insufficient testing capacity and limited equipment and hospital beds.

If they did nothing then we could have huge numbers of people dying, a risk not worth taking. The only option then was to buy time by slowing down the infection rate. This had to be done by social distancing and isolation. Due to the urgency and the need for all to comply most countries had to implement forced lockdowns to limit movement.

Historic Address SA Takes Action

On 15 March as South Africa had 61 confirmed cases of COVID-19 Cyril Ramaphosa declared a national state of disaster. This included travel ban on badly affected countries closing of ports and borders, closing of schools, and ban of gatherings of 100+. This then triggered a spate of cancellations of major sporting events like the Cape Epic and also affected professional sports. This was not good news and meant that we had entered a period of huge uncertainty and rapid change. The live address was a proud moment to see our leadership and government taking strong decisive action early, much earlier than most other countries and there was good support for this.

If anyone was in doubt about this being serious these actions made it clear.

Leave your comments and share how you experienced this time, when did the penny drop?