Covid 19 Journal, 21 Nov., 2021: Sandpiles, the Stock Market Covid-19 and Emergency Preparedness

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We have now resumed the 4th wave of Covid-19 after a brief hiatus and during November cases have been steadily rising (see Fig. 44*). New cases are rising at an average rate of about 15 new cases per day and should exceed 700 new cases per day by the end of the month. This was as predicted by the government’s advisory group, the Ontario Science Table, but still seems to have caught the government somewhat by surprise. At this point, I don’t know what effect this will have on Christmas, but unless case numbers start to drop, more restrictions on travel, etc. might be needed.

Figure 44. New case numbers in Ontario, Nov. 1-19, 2021 (7-day averages).

The lack of preparedness, at pretty much all levels of government, and not just in Canada, has been noted, and I have commented in a number of these journal postings about various governments’  inability to make effective plans and stick to them during the pandemic. I was therefore interested to see Supriya Swivedi’s recent Toronto Star article (Swivedi, 2021) about this. It appears that the federal government has created a new Ministry of Emergency Preparedness to be headed by former OPP head Bill Blair. She makes some interesting comments in her article.

First, she notes that she took an introductory microbiology course as an undergraduate, as did I. Therefore, she notes, “… I have understood the very real threat of a pandemic caused by a novel zoonotic virus, and have been basically preparing for one since 2004 (p. 1)”, as have I. anyone with any kind of microbiology background has been prepared for this, and worse. She further comments,

A big reason for this is the absence of basic scientific literacy and numeracy in much of our overall political discourse and ensuing media coverage. Indeed, one of the more frustrating aspects of being a strategic communications professional with an undergraduate-level understanding of basic science and math is being constantly inundated with the sad reality that many of the people who are in positions of power lack these skills, and refuse to listen to those who do possess them. (p. 1, emphasis added)

I have discussed this before, referencing Morris Shamos’ 1995 book, The Myth of Scientific Literacy in which he notes, 

[D]espite all the attention given to science education in this century, whether rationalized as a cultural or a practical imperative, beyond training a relatively small number of students for the science and engineering professions the science education movement has failed to penetrate the consciousness of the American public in a manner that even borders on what might be considered ‘scientific literacy’ (p. xi, emphasis added)

His comments apply equally to Canada.

This has to change, and one of the biggest challenges facing Minister Blair is that many of his colleagues simply will be unable to understand the evidence presented and will be unwilling to believe it if it means they might have to do something unpopular.

One reason why this will be so difficult is the difficulty in predicting emergencies. I will give an example why here, and for that, I need to go into a bit of a digression.

Back in the 1990s, physicist Per Bak did a series of computer simulations of landslides in a simulated sand pile. To understand this, imagine a simulated large flat plane. Onto it, the computer drops a simulated cubical grain of sand. It lands, may bounce a bit and them sits there. At regular intervals, another grain of sand drops, and gradually a sand pile grows. At first, nothing interested happens, but gradually, as the sand pile reaches a certain size, landslides begin to occur. The overwhelming number of these landslides are tiny, only a few grains of sand, but then suddenly, and without warning, the whole sand pile will collapse–a catastrophic landslide. It turns out that such events have a mathematical signature called a power-law. I won‘t go into details here, but basically it shows that small events are common and large events quite rare. However what the math can’t predict is when the large events will occur. Currently that is beyond our mathematics.=

It turns out that many systems in the real world follow such power-law relationships, among the stock market, and since stock market graphs are easy to get hold of, I will use one to illustrate this. Figure 45 shows Apple stock from late October to the present, a one-month period.

Figure 45. The change in Apple stock value over a one-month period. Graph from Apple’s Stock Widget.

As can be seen, overall, the stock has grown in value. However, as can also be see, just before 19 on the x-axis, there was a drop, and then a sharp rise. This is in line with what Bak found with his sand piles. If we were to track all of the cascades by size (as Bak did), we would find that small cascades would outnumber large ones, and their distribution would follow a power-law. However as also can be seen, it’s not exactly predictable, is it? The overall growth trend is clear, but on a given day, it’s impossible to predict if a given stock will rise or fall, and if it falls, by how much. If Figure 45, we can see many rises and many falls, all of different sizes and with no obvious pattern.

Why this digression? Emergencies tend to follow a similar pattern. Flooding happens frequently, but usually only small local floods affecting a few houses or fields. Huge floods such as those that have devasted BC last week are more rare and we don’t know when we’ll get one. Likewise, disease outbreaks are very common, with clusters of various diseases such as colds or the flu appearing in local areas, but are rarely major pandemic-level events. Pandemics are rare, but they are also not predictable. The problem here is that governments get complacent during the longer periods between major events.

In Canada’s case, we created the GPHIN pandemic early warning system following the SARS pandemic of 2004. However, when another major pandemic didn’t appear in a few years, the government began to replace the scientists with bureaucrats who could not understand the data they were being given and gradually the early warning system became ineffective (Brewster, 2021). Other preparedness measures were watered down or eliminated to save money. As a result, we were unprepared for Covid-19. This is what I expect to happen with the new Ministry of Emergency Preparedness. At first it will have an adequate budget and effective leadership, but gradually, as complacency sets in, budgets will be cut and staff will be reduced. I hope I’m wrong, but based on past experience, it seems likely. 

That’s all I have for today. I will write again when I have something to say.


Bak, Per. 1996. How Nature Works: The Science of Self-Organized Criticality. 1 vols. New York: Copernicus (Springer-Verlag).

Brewster, Murray. 2021. “Canada’s pandemic warning system was understaffed and unready when COVID hit, review finds.”, Last Modified 12 July, accessed 13 July.

Shamos, Morris. 1995. The Myth of Scientific Literacy. 1 vols. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.

Swivedi, Supriya. 2021. “Canada is not prepared for emergencies. Let’s hope Bill Blair changes that.” Toronto Star, 21 Nov., Opinion.

* As always, figure numbers continue from previous posts.

[This is part of an ongoing series of journal posts about my life during Covid-19. Suggested by a museum colleague, it is intended to eventually be a minor historical document–an account of how life changed during the pandemic. I make no claim to drama or interesting detail, just life as I am living it.]