Back on March 18th I wrote about what comedian Norm MacDonald calls Tom Hanks Disease:
One reason awareness grew so rapidly is because of the surge in celebrities testing positive for COVID-19, such as Tom Hanks. …
At present, this seems to be a disease that spreads first among the affluent, energetic, and popular. Normally, it’s nice to go through life jetting around to places where everybody wants to shake your hand. But not at the moment.
Nothing is ever certain about viral epidemics, but this one appears to be likely to spread down from the top to the masses unless stringent action is taken very quickly.
But … perhaps there is in this case something epidemiologically different about popular people like Tom Hanks?
First, I want to thank everybody who has already fired off a comment to the effect that “Tom Hanks is NOT popular with me.” Keep doing what you do. Don’t ever change.
Second, I suspect the epidemiologists and public health experts got blindsided by a disease that, by its take-off phase of community spread, was transmitted most not by the Marginalized and the Vulnerable (as was expected, judging by all the February op-eds about how racism is, as always, the real menace), but among the respectable.
AIDS has had the most effect on the worldview of the public health establishment in recent decades, and the lessons many took from it were that the public couldn’t be trusted with the truth about who was spreading it (needle junkies and anonymous sodomy addicts). You could see something similar with Ebola — America doesn’t really need a lot of flights from Kinshasa, but in the Establishment’s view, the sheer unimportance of travel back and forth with central Africa meant that banning flights from the Congo would be a moral evil of the highest order.
To both the Establishment and its handful of unpopular critics, the next epidemic would of course spread from the fringes of society.
So, in a mental atmosphere that has only gotten Woker in the six years since Ebola, it’s not surprising that few were thinking about how to model a pandemic that early on tends to be most prevalent among people whom many other people want to shake their hands.
But instead we got a virus that in February and March seemed to be transmitted most in the West by people at the core of core social networks, the kind of people who get invited frequently to leadership conferences, ski vacations, sales presentations, movie premieres, choir practices, soccer games, funerals, Prime Minister’s Question Time, and the like.
That seems to have flummoxed many people.
But what would this say about models predicting the spread of this novel disease?
Epidemiological models tend to assume that different germs have different rates of transmissibility for biological reasons (e.g., measles very high, the novel coronavirus quite high, flu fairly moderate), which can then be altered by changed policies, such as social distancing.
But most models assume that human beings are fungible. This is partly due to concerns about admitting the existence of racial differences, which would be the Worst Thing Ever, and partly due to the need to simplify.
But what if it turned out that race was a minor factor, but popularity was crucially important? In this perspective, Tom Hanks, Idris Elba, Prince Charles, Boris Johnson, Kevin Durant, Chris Cuomo, and Rand Paul are rather like each other on the most medically relevant dimension that on, say, March 1, lots of people wanted to shake their hand.
But what happens to the spread rate of the disease as the most popular in society either get it or hunker down? Does it continue to spread as rapidly as it gets down to the ho-hum bulk of the population?
The second phenomenon is slightly different: not only should it be necessary to remove fewer vertices to stop the epidemic (above), but the epidemic should remove (i.e., infect) its most “precious” nodes earliest, because they are the most connected ones. •12/42
— Gro-Tsen (@gro_tsen) March 22, 2020
So, the idea is that Tom Hanks is a more “precious” node to the spread of the virus than most of the rest of us, because not that many people want to shake our hands.
Or here (see the next few tweets as well): https://t.co/7SwDKEQhW4 — basically, politicians and celebrities are infected before the rest, because they see a lot of people, and when the become immune the epidemic slows down immensely. •14/42
— Gro-Tsen (@gro_tsen) March 22, 2020
Here is David Madore’s blog post giving the equations for thinking about this.