Michael’s Magical Bucket Analogy

Or “why we cannot just open small stores even if they spread Covid less than supermarkets.”

A lot of people are confused as to why we cannot just open small businesses when we can have large super markets open. Surely, small stores/services could be just as clean and impose just as good distancing?

Consider we have a bucket. We don’t know the exact size, but from the looks of it, it can contain approximately 10 liters of water. We cannot in any way allow the bucket to overflow. Maybe the water is dirty and the bucket is standing on a particularly nice carpet, or maybe the water is really acid and the bucket is balancing above some kittens/puppies. The details are not that important as long as we agree that overflowing is not just unfortunate but directly fatal.

Every time we open up society, we pour water into the bucket. Opening supermarkets = 6 liters. Opening offices = 4 liters. Opening kindergartens = 1 liter. Opening schools = 2 liters for the younger kids and 1 liter for older kids. Opening specialty stores = 1-10 liters, depending on how many. These numbers are just guesses, so we cannot afford to pour in all 10 liters but have to carefully adjust to make sure we do not overflow the bucket, so opening supermarkets and office together is probably too dangerous as it would put us exactly at the limit. Every individual thing we do in society adds to the R value, just like the water in the bucket, and once the bucket is full, R exceeds 1, and the disease spreads until everybody has been infected. It is completely fatal to keep R above 1 for a longer period of time. An R of 1.1 is not “a bit” worse than an R of 0.9, it is fatally worse and the difference between the disease spreading or receding.

We can probably open supermarkets, kindergartens and some schools, but that adds up to 9 liters. That means, we cannot safely open all schools or even some specialty stores without hitting the 10 liter limit. We can definitely not open both schools and small stores, as that means we hit 11 liters, making the bucket overflow and ruining the carpet or giving the kittens and puppies an acid bath. That means that even if opening a few specialty stores is just 1 liter, way less than the 6 liters for supermarkets, together they add up to 7 liters. Water does not compress well, so 1 + 6 liters is not magically less than 7 liters. By adding the 1 liter from specialty store, we occupy space in the bucket, so there’s no room for other things like opening schools. The space can only be used once, and we have to make an actual choice between pizza or pineapple, there is no pizza with pineapple.

The amount of water for each service is not completely fixed. For example, it is possible to open supermarkets but only allow 10 people inside at a time (5 liters). Or open supermarkets but require everybody wears masks (4 liters). Open offices but everybody wears masks (3 liters). Open offices but everybody wears masks but gets bored of wearing masks after 3 days and starts slacking off (4 liters).

Everybody wants to put their water in the bucket. Pubs/cafés/restaurants (15 liters) want to add their water, hairdressers (½ liters), which apparently are super important, want their water in the bucket. Dentists. Book stores. Butchers. From a very cynical view, the only way politicians can satisfy 50% of the population is to pour in many times the 10 liters of water we have space for in the bucket, so they cannot satisfy all their voters. In addition, since nobody really knows how much water opening each thing adds, people will under-estimate how much water their preferred store/service needs to pour into the bucket. They will also argue that pouring their water in the bucket will reduce how much water others have to pour in (“opening clothes stores will take away pressure from supermarkets,” ignoring that “the internet exists so people can just buy their g-strings there”). Even if it is easy to argue for pouring each individual serving of water in the bucket, it will always prevent others from pouring water in without overflowing. So, to save the pretty carpet, who gets to pour in needs to be considered holistically, and that means rejecting a lot of people that individually have very good reasons for pouring exactly their water in.

This is further complicated by the different services being interconnected. Maybe we pour water into the bucket by pulling strings for each service. The strings are clearly labeled, but also a tangly mess. So, if we pull the “open schools” line, it may be connected to the “open offices” string, so some of that water spills in as well. Maybe the “open pubs” string is connected to the “social distancing” string.

At the beginning of the pandemic, we had only very vague ideas of how big the bucket was, how much water each activity added. Exactly how the strings were interconnected. How much of a difference using masks/doing distancing/etc. reduced water. We now have more data, allowing us to make better guesses, but things are still not clear. We have maybe only opened for offices, schools and small shops together and observed how much water they added together. We have data for offices from 1 year ago, but not for how people behave today, or data from the summer but not for the winter. We cannot really experiment, because making a mistake means killing the carpet or the puppies and kittens, so we have to rely on what we can glean from normal operation.

We might be able to stop adding the 4 liters of supermarkets wearing masks, replacing them by a 2 liter delivery, similar to how clothes stores can be replaced by ordering socks online. Doing so may or may not be possible, depending on whether supermarkets can deliver to everybody. We cannot just close supermarkets without a replacement, because people need food to live while they can use their old sweaters for another month (+ clothes shopping on the internet is much more established than buying groceries online). Moving supermarkets to delivery will give us space to have the choice between schools or specialty shops (not both). But also runs the risk of pulling the 4 liter “panic and riot” string.

Then the UK happens. Now, our bucket is no longer 10 liters, but only 5 liters. Where we once had room for both supermarkets, kindergartens and some schools, that alone will now overflow the bucket. Sure, we have reduced supermarkets from 6 to 4 by wearing masks, but those 4 liters are now almost our entire bucket. Adding 4 liters for supermarkets, 1 liter for kindergartens, and 1 liter for specialty shops is no longer an option. Governments are already gambling at the edge, no longer securing a margin but filling the bucket all the way to the rim and making use of surface tension because it is so small. Vaccines help a little, but only once 50% of the population is fully vaccinated is our bucket back to the original 10 liters, and it will take at least 3 months to reach just that. And that’s just putting us back in March 2020, not even considering opening society completely. The UK Covid variant is much more infectious, meaning that the R value is higher even if we do the same things we did before, corresponding to a smaller bucket: doing what reduced R below 1 in March 2020 is not enough to bring R under 1 in March 2021.

So, we’re in a situation where we have just one bucket, we cannot use the space in it more than once. We have at best a vague idea of how much water is added by pulling each string, and pulling one string may pull others as well without our knowing. Everybody has their favorite strings to pull, and lies about how much water pulling them will add.

All of this ignores that we are not adding water and seeing the effect immediately, we are really deciding how much water to add/remove in 2-4 weeks. And we are not looking at the bucket, but a video feed that is 2-4 weeks delayed. And we’re not really controlling how much water to add to the bucket, but the flow. And many other failures of the analogy. The point is not to explain all of Covid, but merely to illustrate why we cannot just open small businesses even though they probably in isolation contribute less than supermarkets: doing so would be the small amount of water making the bucket overflow, killing the puppies and kittens.

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