The consequences of COVID on office space leasing.

One of the many ripple-effects of the COVID-19 pandemic is the effect it’s had on the demand for commercial office space. 

In a word, it’s been pretty devastating. 

The numbers are stark.  According to an estimate published by Dallas-based commercial real estate services and investment firm CBRE Group, Inc., as of the end of 2020, nearly 140 million sq. ft. of office space was available for sublease across America. 

That’s a 40% jump from the previous year.  Not only that, it’s the highest sublease availability figure since 2003, which means the situation is worse than even during the Great Recession of 2008.

Of course, it isn’t surprising to expect that more sublet space would become available during periods of economic downturn, when many businesses naturally look for ways to cut costs.  But those dynamics typically reverse when the economy picks up again.  This time around, it’s very possible – even probable – that the changes are permanent.

The reason?  Many companies that reduced their office space footprint in 2020 didn’t doing so because they we’re suffering financially.  It was because of government-mandated lockdowns.  And now they’re expecting many of those employees to continue working from home, either part-time or full-time, after the pandemic subsides. 

Employee surveys have shown that many workers prefer to work from home where they can avoid the hassle and expense of daily commuting.  It’s understandable that they don’t want that to change back again.  In many business sectors which don’t actually need their workforce be onsite to produce revenue, companies are simply ratifying a reality that’s already happened.  Accordingly, they’ve changed their expectations about employee attendance at the office going forward.

Commercial landlords are now feeling the long-term effects of this shift in thinking.  Rents for prime office space fell an average of 13% across the United States over the past year.  In places like New York and San Francisco the drop has been even steeper — as much as a 20% contraction.

For many of the lessees, it’s less onerous to sublease space to others rather than attempt to undertake the messy business of renegotiating long-term lease contracts with landlords.  Still, there’s pain involved; sublease space historically comes with a significant discount — around 25% — but with the amount of sublet space that’s been coming onstream, those discounts may well go even deeper due to the lack of demand.

The cumulative effect of these leasing dynamics is to put even more downward pressure on broader rental rates, as the deeply discounted space that’s available to sublet puts more pressure on the price of “regular” office space.  It’s a classic downward spiral.

Is there a natural bottom?  Most likely, yes.  But we haven’t reached it yet, and it’ll be interesting to see when — and at what level — things finally even out.  In the meantime, it isn’t a very pretty picture.

What are you witnessing with regards to office space dynamics within your own firm, or other companies in your business community?  Please share your thoughts below.

Have we finally reached “peak oil”?

Likely not in crude oil consumption, but the IEA is now projecting that demand for gasoline will never return to its pre-COVID level.

This past week the International Energy Agency (IEA) issued an intriguing forecast about future of gasoline consumption.  If true, it means that the world will have reached its peak demand for gasoline back in 2019, and won’t ever again return to that level.

Of course, with the advent of electric vehicles, the day when gasoline demand would begin to decline was bound to come sooner or later.  But the COVID-19 pandemic has hastened the event. 

During the widespread restrictions on work and travel imposed by most governments in 2020, daily gasoline demand dropped by more than 10%. Some of that demand is expected to return, but the global shift towards electric vehicles — not to mention continuing improvements in fuel efficiency in conventional gasoline-powered vehicles themselves — means that any growth in demand for gasoline within developing countries will be more than offset by these other forces.

In 2019, only around 7 million electric vehicles were sold worldwide, but that number is expected to grow steadily, reaching 60 million annually just five years from now.  Several major car manufacturers have committed to selling electric vehicles exclusively in future years, including Volvo (committed to all-electric vehicle sales by 2030) and GM (by 2035).

As for the demand for crude oil, it is expected to rebound from 2020’s dip to reach as much as 104 million barrels per day by 2026, which would be around 4% higher than the usage that was recorded in 2019.  Asian countries – particularly China and India – will be responsible for all of that increase and more, even as some developed nations are expected to see a drop in their demand for crude.

The implications of these forecasts are far-reaching – as are the questions they raise.  How well will the legacy car companies perform in comparison to the new all-electric car company upstarts?  Can they remake themselves quickly enough to preserve their market position vitality? 

What will the effects of lower demand for gasoline – and a lower pace of growth in demand for crude – be on global climate change?  Dramatic? … or only minimal?

What do the prospects of lessening demand for crude do to the economies (and politics) of countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Venezuela and other key OPEC nations?  Will lowered demand lessen geopolitical tensions? … or contribute to even bigger ones?

If you have thoughts or perspectives on these points, please share them in the comment section below.

Changing the “work-live location paradigm” in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

As the COVID-19 pandemic grinds on, its long-term implications on how we will live and work in the future are becoming clearer. 

Along those lines, a feature article written by urban studies theorist Richard Florida and economist Adam Ozimek that appeared in this past weekend’s Wall Street Journal explores how remote working has the potential to reshape America’s urban geography in very fundamental ways.

Just before the first lockdowns began in April 2020, fewer than 10% of the U.S. labor force worked remotely full-time.  But barely a month later, around half of the labor was working remotely.  And now, even after the slow easing of workplace restrictions that began to take effect in the summer of 2020, most of the workers who were working remotely have continued to do so.

The longer-term forecast is that perhaps 25% of the labor force will continue to work fully remote, even after life returns to “normal” in the post-COVID era.

For clues as to why the “new normal” will be so different from the “old” one, we can start with worker productivity data.  Stanford University economist Nicholas Bloom has studied such productivity trends in the wake of the coronavirus and finds evidence that the productivity boost from remote work could be as high as 2.5%. 

Sure, there may be more instances of personal work being done on company time, but counterbalancing that is the decline of commuting time, as well as the end of time-suck distractions that characterized daily life at the office.

As Florida and Ozimek explain further in their WSJ article:

“Major companies … have already announced that employees working from home may continue to do so permanently.  They have embraced remote work not only because it saves them money on office space, but because it gives them greater access to talent, since they don’t have to relocate new hires.”

The shift to remote working severs the traditional connection between where people live and where they work.  The impact of that change promises to be significant for quite a few cities, towns and regions.  For smaller urban areas especially, they can now build their local economies based on remote workers and thus compete more easily against the big-city, high-tech coastal business centers that have dominated the employment landscape for so long.

Whereas metro areas like Boston, San Francisco, Washington DC and New York had become prohibitively expensive from a cost-of-living standpoint, today smaller metro areas such as Austin, Charlotte, Nashville and Denver are able to use their more attractive cost-of-living characteristics to attract newly mobile professionals who wish to keep more of their hard-earned incomes. 

For smaller urban areas and regions such as Tulsa, OK, Bozeman, MT, Door County, WI and the Hudson Valley of New York it’s a similar scenario, as they become magnets for newly mobile workers whose work relies on digital tools, not physical location.

Pew Research has found that the number of people moving spiked in the months following the onset of the coronavirus pandemic – who suddenly were relocating at double the pre-pandemic rate.  As for the reasons why, more than half of newly remote workers who are looking to relocate say that they would like a significantly less expensive house. The locational choices they have are far more numerous than before, because they can select a place that best meets their own personal or family needs without worrying about how much they can earn in the local business market.

For many cities and regions, economic development initiatives are likely to morph from luring companies with special tax incentives or other financial perks, and more towards luring a workforce through civic services and amenities:  better schools, safer streets, and more parks and green spaces. 

There’s no question that the “big city” will continue to hold attraction for certain segments of the populace.  Younger workers without children will be drawn to the excitement and edginess of urban living without having to regard for things like quality schools.  Those with a love for the arts will continue to value the kind of convenient access to museums, theatres and the symphony that only a large city can provide.  And sports fanatics will never want to be too far away from attending the games of their favorite teams.

But for families with children, or for people who wish to have a less “city” environment, their options are broader than ever before.  Those people will likely be attracted to small cities, high-end suburbs, exurban environments or rural regions that offer attractive amenities including recreation. 

Getting the short end of the stick will be older suburbs or other run-of-the-mill localities with little to offer but tract housing – or anything else that’s even remotely “unique.”

They’re interesting future prospects we’re looking at – and on balance probably a good one for the country and our society as it’s enabling us to smooth out some of the stark regional disparities that had developed over the past several decades.

What are your thoughts on these trends?  Please share your perspectives with other readers.

“You are what you wear.”

Research from Duke University suggests that people who are dressed up buy more and spend more than their casually dressed counterparts.

Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, people have been “dressing down” more than ever.  But recent consumer research suggests that for buying more and spending more, retailers do much better when their customers are dressing sharp.

Researchers at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business analyzed the shopping habits of two different groups of consumers.  Smartly dressed shoppers — as in wearing dresses or blazers — put more items in their carts and spent more money compared to casual dressers (as in wearing T-shirts and flip-flops).

The difference among the two groups’ shopping behaviors were significant, too:  18% more items purchased and 6% more money spent by the sharp dressers.

The Duke University research findings were written up in a paper titled “The Aesthetics We Wear: How Attire Influences What We Buy,” which was published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research.

According to Keisha Cutright, a Duke University professor of marketing and a co-author of the report, when people are dressed up they tend to have more social confidence, which in turn reduces the anxiety people may feel about making certain purchasing decisions:

“We focus on how your dress affects your own perceptions.  When you’re dressed formally, you believe that people are looking at you more favorably and they believe you are more competent.  If you feel competent, you can buy whatever you want without worrying what other people think, or whether they will be judging you negatively.”

Parallel Duke research also found that retailers can actually prompt would-be shoppers to wear nicer outfits when shopping at their stores by featuring nicely dressed models in their advertising.  “So, there are some practical implications from the research for retailers,” Cutright says.

How about you? What sort of dynamics are in play regarding how you’re dressed and what you buy as a result?  Is there a correlation between what you’re wearing and how you’re shopping?  Please share your observations with other readers here.

The ripple effects — good and bad — of the COVID-19 pandemic on our health and wellness.

One of the lessons that the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us is that the advent of an unexpected medical danger can have ripple effects that go well-beyond just the specific health matters at hand. 

One that has been well-covered in the news is how the precautions most people are taking to avoid contracting the coronavirus are driving flu cases down to levels never before seen.  This chart pretty much says it all:But as it turns out, there are some other, perhaps more unanticipated consequences — ones that have positive and negative aspects.

We’re reminded of this in the form of several newly published reports.  One report comes from Altria, the largest U.S. producer of tobacco products.  According to Altria, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic appears to be responsible — at least in part — to halting a decades-long steady decline in cigarette usage among Americans.

While the trend hasn’t actually gone in reverse, Altria does report that in 2020, the cigarette industry’s unit sales in the U.S. were flat as compared to 2019. 

That’s a big shift from the 5.5% annual decline in usage that was observed between 2018 and 2019.

As for the reasons behind such a sudden shift in consumer behavior, the Altria report touches on several probable factors, including:

  • People had more opportunities to smoke because of spending more time at home rather than the office.
  • More disposable income available for smokes because of less money being spent on commuting, travel and entertainment expenses.
  • The heretofore-robust growth of substitute products (e-cigarettes) was reversed in response to reports about unexplained lung illnesses among e-cigarette users, the ban on flavored vaping products, plus increased taxes on e-cigarette products.
  • A more acute sense of personal stress and anxiety in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

The newest trends in cigarette usage can’t be good for seeing a return to the decline in death rates that are tied to smoking.  Unfortunately, those rates remain high: The effects of smoking account for more than 480,000 deaths in the United States each year.

On the other hand, there are positive ripple effects related to the coronavirus pandemic, too.  As it turns out, the medical innovations that have been part of the worldwide response to the pandemic are delivering parallel positive benefits in the broader war on cancer. 

One piece of evidence is the success of newly developed mRNA vaccines for combating the COVID-19 virus.  Those same vaccines are now being repurposed to battle various forms of cancerous tumors.

Naturally, any such development on the cancer treatment front won’t be a quick “silver bullet” solution in the decades-long battle to defeat cancer.  But a report released in January 2021 by the American Cancer Society points to the promising success that such new initiatives are having. 

The key stats are telling:  American cancer death rates have dropped steadily since 1991 – with an overall decrease of ~31% in the death rate through 2018 that was capped by a one-year decline of ~2.5% observed in 2017-18 alone. 

The ACS report summarizes:

“An estimated 3.2 million cancer deaths have been averted from 1991 through 2018 due to reductions in smoking, earlier [cancer] detection, and improvements in treatment, which are reflected in long-term declines in mortality for the four leading cancers: lung, breast, colorectal and prostate.”

Not surprisingly, lung cancer is the biggest driver of the death rate decline. Whereas a dozen years ago the overall survival rate for non-small cell lung cancer was just 34%, in 2015 it was 42% (and it’s higher today).

Looking forward, even as we eagerly anticipated the large-scale rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations which can’t come soon enough, we can also be happy in the hope that the emerging science will deliver a parallel positive impact on cancer treatments – so long as we can convince people not to regress in their smoking habits.

What lifestyle adjustments – positive or negative – have you or people you know made over the past year?  Beyond the risks of the coronavirus itself, what other new health challenges have you or they faced in its wake?  Please share your perspectives with other readers here. 

The COVID-19 pandemic and the future of telehealth services.

There isn’t a whole lot of good news that has resulted from the coronavirus pandemic, but we can look to the healthcare industry and see several positive outcomes.  One is the pace at which new vaccines have been developed, trialed and approved for use.  Considering how successful that initiative has been, It’s likely that we’ll never go back to the “snail’s pace” approach of yore in developing new pharmaceutical products — and few people are likely to complain about that.

Another positive development is the wholesale adoption of telehealth services.  Until the pandemic, telehealth was taking its own time being adopted by medical practitioners and patients, and it was little more than a novelty in many quarters. 

That’s all changed.  Telehealth has been a huge bright spot during the coronavirus crisis.  As regulator eased rules inhibiting its use, access to telehealth — and its affordability — have dramatically improved in a time when in-person doctor visits have proven impractical if not impossible.

Speaking personally, I have engaged in several telehealth sessions with my primary care physician since March of this year.  My experience has been nothing but positive — and so much more convenient than hoofing it to the doctor’s office while feeling under the weather.

Also important to the continuing adoption of telehealth services is how Medicare and other insurance programs cover and reimburse providers for telehealth services, and we can only hope that those newfound flexibilities won’t disappear once the public health emergency subsides.

Beyond the possible resurgence of regulations, there is another risk to the long-term viability of providing telehealth services to patients, and it comes in the form of “patent trolls.”  Those are the obnoxious non-practicing entities (NPEs) that scoop up obscure patents and then proceed to sue other companies that are unwittingly using the patented technology.

In nearly every case, the NPEs in question add no value whatsoever to the marketplace, but seek instead to line their own pockets by leveraging obscure patents to sue for infringement and seek massive financial settlements from the “offending” manufacturers just to keep their products in the marketplace.

Telehealth service providers are especially vulnerable to such extortion attempts since their products (including the smart devices that support them) involve highly complex operating systems utilizing hundreds or even thousands of patents. 

At the moment, two particularly egregious patent infringement cases have been filed with the International Trade Commission, the quasi-judicial federal international body that investigates and makes determinations about unfair trade practices.  Both lawsuits emanate from Neodron, an NPE based in Ireland which purchased a number of patents related to certain touchscreen features.  Immediately upon gaining ownership of the patents, Neodron proceed to file suit against Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and other tech companies that are in the laptop, tablet and smartphone manufacturing business.

A Neodron victory, if it happens, could block access to as many as 90% of the devices Americans rely on to access mobile health services, thereby crippling the platforms needed for telehealth functionality.

Unfortunately, the ITC has a history of siding with the patent trolls.  In fact, in more than 750 investigations conducted over the past 15 years, the ITC has never refused to issue an exclusion order based on the public interest.  One would think that telehealth functionality would qualify as being in the public interest, but the track record so far doesn’t bode particularly well for such a ruling.

Recognizing the threat, the U.S. Congress is now getting in on the act.  Bipartisan legislation has been introduced in the House of Representatives that would curtail the ability of NPEs to bring ITC complaints.  Let’s see if that legislation will actually become law — and in so doing help telehealth services maintain their forward momentum in changing the way that healthcare is delivered to patients.

Post-pandemic, will the office landscape ever be the same again?

Nearly every business or organization, regardless of thee industry segment in which it operates, has been at least somewhat impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. 

Existential forces have been responsible for quite a few businesses having to reduce staff working hours, either as a mandatory or voluntary measure. In a world of tough choices, often that action was the most reasonable way to cut costs while preventing redundancies and furloughs.

Months into the pandemic and with more restrictions being put in place again for the foreseeable future at least, what began as a short-term fix to weather the economic pressures of the COVID-19 outbreak now has some employers rethinking the possibilities of how they can restructure jobs to “work” effectively outside of the traditional work-week model.

In doing so, employers are responding to a growing appetite for part-time and flexible working as people re-evaluate their own work/life balance situations.

The economic benefits of allowing a higher proportion of staff to choose reduced hours on a more permanent basis could be beneficial for companies already operating on historically thin margins.  While it’s too early to see widespread policy changes happening, some companies are already actively planning to offer more part-time and flexible work to meet the desires of those who no longer wish to work a traditional 8-hour day/40-hour work week.

Among the numerous repercussions of the “coronavirus economy,” one may be the growing realization that office employees actually can take back some control of their time – that they can still do good work while structuring their work days, weeks or months differently. 

Any lingering stigma once associated with working fewer hours, working from home, or leaving the office early to pick up children has pretty much disappeared.  Employees doing any of those things are no longer the exception – and hence there’s no longer the guilt associated with bending or breaking the rules of attendance at the office.  And that’s before factoring in the economic attraction of saving thousands of dollars per year in commuting and other travel-related costs.

One chief marketing officer, Amanda Goetz of Teal Communications, goes so far so to declare that the 40-hour work week won’t exist in 10 years.  “The way companies operate now, there’s no need to ‘own’ someone’s calendar as long as you know they have very clear metrics and can hit their goals,” this manager emphasizes.

What are your thoughts?  How much will the recent changes be permanent going forward … or will we soon return to the paradigms of the pre-pandemic office world?  Please share your perspectives with other readers here.

The COVID pandemic and the race to raise digital skills.

The Coronavirus pandemic has certainly made its mark on many markets and industries – some more than others, of course. But one consequence of the events of 2020 appears to cross all industry lines. 

Because of the rapid adjustments organizations have been required to make in the way jobs are performed – borne out of necessity because of health fears, not to mention government edicts – workers have been forced to come up the digital learning curve in a big hurry in order to do their jobs properly.

This “digital upskilling” dynamic isn’t affecting only office workers.  It’s happening across the board – in the private and public sector alike. 

Simply put, digital upskilling isn’t a matter of choice.  If workers want to remain relevant — and to keep their jobs — they’re having to ramp up their digital skill-sets without delay.

Moreover, the new skills aren’t limited to the efficient use of mobile devices, digital meeting/presentation functions, cloud applications and the like.  According to LinkedIn’s recruitment data, highly in-demand skills over the past few months encompass wide-ranging and comprehensive knowledge sets such as data science, data storage, and tech support.

Not so long ago, there were “tech jobs” and “non-tech jobs.”  Now there are just “jobs” – and nearly every one of them require the people doing them to possess a high comfort level with technology.

Will things revert back to older norms with the anticipated arrival of coronavirus vaccines in 2021?  I think the chances of that are “less than zero.”  But what are your thoughts?  Please share your perspectives with other readers.

Contact Tracing: The giant obstacle smack in the middle of the road to COVID-19 recovery.

… But we’ve got to figure out how to do it right.

In recent days, news reports about the coronavirus pandemic have gravitated from a shortage of ventilators and possible overcrowding in the nation’s hospitals to how best to reopen the economy (and society).

The challenge, of course, is how to “reopen” in responsible ways that don’t result in a new flare-up of COVID-19 cases.

Governors, medical professionals and governmental personnel have been cogitating about this issue for a number of weeks now, and it appears that some “baby steps” are starting to be taken in some states, with other jurisdictions to follow in the coming days and weeks.

One of the biggest obstacles in the way of bringing the economy – and life – back to some semblance of “normal” is being able to know who has, or has had, the coronavirus — and beyond that identifying who the people are that each affected person has interfaced with in the previous weeks.

There’s the old-fashioned way of doing contract tracing: undertaking in-depth interviews with patients to learn who they have interfaced with for 15 minutes or longer over a period of 2-3 weeks … and then interviewing those persons plus the people they’ve interfaced with … and so on down the line.

Those suspected of being exposed can then be directed to quarantine themselves for the requisite two-week period so as to arrest the spread of the virus.

This is a hugely costly undertaking.

Moreover, it’s labor-intensive — to the tune that a state like Massachusetts is attempting to hire 1,000 new workers to undertake these duties. And that’s just to get through Phase 1 of the recovery effort.

The other challenge with traditional contact tracing is that the data being collected is based on memory and recollections, which as we all know are prone to fallibility.

In our tech-savvy world, some giants are “on the case” – entities like Google and Apple that have teamed up to use cellphone tracking technology to “keep tabs” on people’s movements and thereby know what people may have been exposed to the COVID-19 virus.

Of course, this solution is also prone to gaps in coverage, as phones aren’t turned “on” at all times, not to mention that significant swaths of the population – particularly the elderly – aren’t using cellphones equipped with the types of location information functionalities that can be tracked.  (Surprisingly perhaps, smartphone penetration worldwide still languishes at only around 45% of cellphone users.)

And then there’s always the issue of “privacy” lurking the background – a factor which can’t be ignored in a world where many people are already suspicious of governments snooping into their private lives.

But there could be other methods to employ by which contact tracing can be made more efficient, and more accurate – and at a more reasonable price tag.

Recently my brother, Nelson Nones, whose company, Geoprise Technologies Corporation, specializes in encrypted data management, outlined just such a practical solution that can accomplish this trio of disparate-yet-important goals.

His article on the topic, titled “Call to Action: Recovering from the COVID-19 Pandemic,” has been published and can be read here.

I find the article as persuasive as it is understandable to a technology layperson like myself. Moreover, it seems as though the solutions proposed could become an essential software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution not just for government agencies but for private business organizations, too.

Action is already happening, but so far, the results have been somewhat mixed despite strong support from governments, private businesses and end-users. Functionalities need to continue to build.

But it looks like we may be on our way … and that’s extremely good news for anyone who has an interest in reopening the economies of the world – and going back to living life the way humans were meant to live it.

The Coronavirus Threat: A view from East Asia.

Regular readers of Nones Notes Blog know that my brother, Nelson Nones, has lived and worked outside the United States for nearly 25 years – much of that time in East Asia. So naturally I was curious about his perspectives on the spread of the Coronavirus from its epicenter in Wuhan, China, what precautions he is taking in the face of the threat, and his perspectives on how the actions of Asian countries affected by the outbreak may be mitigating the potential effects of the virus.

Here is what Nelson wrote to me in response to my query:

The Coronavirus has not affected my business here in Bangkok to date. I did make a trip to Singapore during the last week of January and to Taiwan during the first week of February, after arriving back in Thailand from the U.S. on January 12th.  I haven’t been sick at all – before or since.

However, in an abundance of caution I am keeping myself at home as much as possible, and I have decided not to travel anywhere until the current hullabaloo dies down.

As for the situation here in Thailand, this country is actually the location of the first COVID-19 (Coronavirus) case ever recorded outside Mainland China. This was back on January 13th, just two weeks after China first notified the World Health Organization (WHO) of the new disease, and only two days after China recorded its first COVID-19 death.  

The patient here in Thailand was a Chinese woman who had traveled from Wuhan, the epicenter of the pandemic.

Since then, Thailand has recorded 42 additional cases for a total of 43 patients, of whom only one died (on Sunday March 1st), and 31 have recovered.  This leaves 11 active cases – all considered mild.

The first case of human-to-human virus transmission within Thailand was recorded on January 16th, affecting a taxi driver. Of the 43 cases confirmed so far, 25 affected Chinese citizens; seven affected Thai citizens with travel histories to China, Japan or South Korea; seven affected Thai citizens who work in the tourism or healthcare industries; and the remaining four were other domestic cases (of which only two potentially represent “community spread”).  Thailand’s infection growth factor peaked on January 26th.

Being one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations (especially from China), Thailand has never imposed any travel restrictions, even from China (nor has the U.S. ever imposed any COVID-19 travel restrictions on Thailand), but all arriving international passengers are screened by an initial body temperature check. Those who fail the initial screening are required to disclose their travel histories within the past 14 days, in detail.  If they have travelled to or from any affected areas, and exhibit any COVID-19 symptoms, they are immediately quarantined at a specially-designated hospital for isolation and treatment.

Under the circumstances, and considering its geographic proximity to China as well as the normal volume of Chinese tourist travel, I think Thailand’s containment efforts so far have been successful and offer some lessons for the United States. Containment in India, Indonesia and Bangladesh so far is even more impressive (Indonesia reported its first two cases only on March 2nd).

Displayed below is a listing of South, Southeast and East Asian countries, ranked by population (together with the U.S. for comparison purposes), showing the number of cases and deaths reported so far:

* Excludes Diamond Princess cruise liner cases.

Sources:

Case data are from https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/#countries

Populations are from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_population_(United_Nations)

The countries shaded in green, above, are those which did not require advance visas for Chinese citizens holding ordinary passports, prior to the imposition of temporary COVID-19 travel restrictions. These countries were either visa-free or allowed “visa on arrival.”

The countries in red typeface, above, are those which had imposed temporary COVID-19 travel restrictions as of early February 2020. These include “entry bans on Chinese citizens or recent visitors to China, ceased issuing of visas to Chinese citizens and re-imposed visa requirements on Chinese citizens or countries that have responded with border closures with China.” (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Visa_requirements_for_Chinese_citizens for source data.)

It’s quite clear from the data above that, excluding Mainland China itself, there is little or no correlation between the incidence of COVID-19 cases or deaths and the leniency of a country’s previous or current travel restrictions in so far as Mainland Chinese are concerned.

Indeed, all of the four countries having a higher number of cases than Thailand (Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore) required advance visas before the COVID-19 outbreak, and all but one (Hong Kong) had imposed COVID-19 entry bans as of February 2nd

Conversely, apart from Thailand, the countries which did not require advance visas before the COVID-19 outbreak have averaged fewer than one case per country (although all of them except Cambodia and East Timor had imposed temporary COVID-19 travel bans by February 2nd).

The countries shown in bold typeface above are those which are geographically closest to the COVID-19 epicenter. An average of 570 COVID-19 cases have been reported within each of these 10 countries; only Laos has been immune so far. Conversely, an average of 6 COVID-19 cases have been reported within each of the remaining 26 countries (excluding China itself).

From these data, I’ve drawn the following four generalizations:

  • Outside of Mainland China, international travel bans and visa restrictions are not effective tools for controlling the spread of COVID-19 disease within a country.
  • Geographic proximity to Mainland China is well-correlated to the historical spread of COVID-19 disease in South, Southeast and East Asia.
  • Vigilant screening and disposition of suspected cases is vital to containing the spread of COVID-19 disease, as Thailand’s experience demonstrates.
  • Allowing high concentrations of suspected cases to form without treatment, such as Wuhan (China), the Diamond Princess docked at Yokohama (Japan) and Shincheonji church at Daegu (South Korea), is a recipe for disaster.  

Of course, the virus and its spread is an evolving narrative, and Nelson’s observations may soon be overwhelmed by new developments. Still, I was somewhat surprised to read that the situation is not quite as dire as the news reporting here in the U.S. would seem to indicate.

Have you heard from overseas friends or colleagues about how they are responding to the Coronavirus outbreak? Please share their perspectives with other readers here.