What are you prepping for?

It's the coronavirus edition that nobody asked for

Costco ran out of rice and Clorox wipes this weekend, apparently (in SF and Seattle, at least). On the one hand, this tells me that people are just now panicking and the markets are going to be a bloodbath from retail traders, justifying having sold out of the market last week and rotating into put options. On the other hand, it is distressing how poorly people decide what to buy for. 

So I wanted to think more deeply about why people disaster prep, starting with the stockpiling my parents ordered me to do.

What are you preparing for?

The first thing they tell you in PM bootcamp is “understand your customer and their needs.” The coronavirus outbreak is a good case study. when prepping, you and your house are the customers. But what are your needs? There are a couple ways this goes, on the individual level:

  • You don’t get sick and now have a billion grains of rice to go through.

  • You get somewhat sick, like a mild flu or cold, which is the vast majority of cases, and need to be quarantined for 2 weeks.

  • You get extremely sick (roughly 10% of diagnosed cases, and many cases are too mild to warrant diagnosis). In this scenario, you go to a hospital and your prepping is for naught.

On a societal level, why might we want to stock up on supplies?

  • Supply chains are disrupted and it is harder to get groceries and other goods, especially imported goods, and obviously those from China. I’m not going to pretend this won’t hurt, but in terms of essentials, we are generally not that dependent on China for groceries and other basics. Chinese manufacturing has moved up market generally and America has overall more arable farmland than China anyways.

  • Stores limit the number of people who can enter at a time. Big deal.

  • Society completely breaks down and we go to martial law. What are your canned soups gonna do then? If you think this is the case, you should buy guns.

And of course, WeChat groups are encouraging middle aged Chinese-Americans with absolutely no training to buy assault rifles. Please do not tell me that an “AR-15 style semi-automatic rifle” is not technically an assault rifle.

That last picture was the really concerning one. Under $550 shipped for a military style rifle - and low interest financing! Someone call up Affirm’s sales team. All you’re missing now are a box of ammunition and the contact info of a good estate lawyer.

How much did you think an AR-15 was? I would have guessed around $1000, but now I see why they’re so popular. I’m pretty sure that more Americans will die from “firearms involved incidents” than coronavirus in 2020.

I think the most likely scenario, by far, is that people will get mildly sick and need to quarantine for a few weeks. In that scenario, what do you need? It’s not “bare essentials” and 10 gallon jugs of Mountain House beef stroganoff (sold out at REI, Jesus Christ). That’s what you need in a zombie apocalypse; 2 weeks indoors is roughly 20 thousand calories of expenditure. You don’t need all that shit.

What you need is variety and balance. You will absolutely be bored eating just rice and beans, and if I know Americans at all, an unseasoned variety thereof. Still: that’s the stuff that old time sailors ate, and they were very famously free of diseases caused by lack of nutrients or an imbalance in their diet, right?

What you really want

There are two distinct problems to solve, your body and your brain. It’s easy to stockpile and stay alive, it’s another to not be bored to the point of preferring starvation.

Avoiding boredom means getting fresh vegetables and fruit (by any means necessary), as well as having entertainment options. 

On the food side, here’s some of what I got or would recommend:

  • Multiple varieties of instant ramen: a pandemic is as good a time as ever to try new flavors and styles of instant noodles, one of this Earth’s greatest guilty pleasures. Skip the Maruchan Cup Noodles - there is a time and place for those, and that’s when you don’t have any other choice: for example, the Air France lounge in SFO, where the most edible option was “chicken” Cup Noodle chased with Johnny Walker Black. Hold some Shin Ramen (readily available everywhere), but why not try Indomie Mi Goreng or Mama brand Thai instant noodles (I’m particular to the Tom Yum shrimp and artificial pork flavors)? My all time favorite instant ramen are the Sun Noodle ramen kits, but those are sold out everywhere I’ve checked.

  • Pickled vegetables: it’s what our ancestors did to survive winter, and it’s what keeps vegetables fresh for weeks. I took a napa cabbage and made separate batches of kimchi and Sichuan-style paocai, both of which can last for quite a while. 

  • Cured meats: again, take a lesson from the ancestors. Bacon, ham, and sausage are your friends. I think variety is the most important here - any bulk package from Costco will last you through a 2 week period but is that really what you want? I say, as I look at my 4 pounds of bacon, that my roommate complains “isn’t thick-enough cut.” 

  • Spices and oils: some people can live on the same rice and beans routine forever, but the rest of us need flavor and variety. Essential spices (salt, pepper, Laoganma) and oils (canola, olive, Laoganma) are stockable. An underrated combo is hondashi (the precursor to dashi broth) and miso, the ingredients for miso soup and very shelf-stable. 

  • Vitamins and medicine: Most likely you’ll just need some multivitamins, with a focus on calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin C. Nobody has come up with a coronavirus-specific medicine, just as nobody has come up with a cure for the flu, so it wouldn’t hurt to pickup some Theraflu or Robitussin or whatever, but it’s probably not going to be the difference between life and death.

  • Coffee: hopefully you have a setup and can make your own cold brew or coffee. If you don’t, get some instant coffee. No more mooching the office Blue Bottle coffee!

  • Liquor: self explanatory.

I guess toilet paper, regular paper towels, and hand sanitizer/soap are good too, but you don’t need years worth of it. If you have roommates and one gets sick, I mean, everyone’s gonna catch this thing. Not medical advice, but you’re probably all just gonna be in it together. Also, when you’re used to running on a thousand-calorie deficit, facing a couple weeks in quarantine really doesn’t seem that bad, from a physical perspective.

On the other hand, what you definitely don’t need:

  • Fresh fruit and vegetables: it’s going to go bad before you actually need it! I mean, you should buy them anyways, because fresh produce is great, but don’t stockpile it.

  • Bottled water: In what home quarantine scenario are you going to need 50 single-use water bottles? If we lose functioning water supplies, I guess at that point you can loot a grocery store for some. 

  • Generators: see above, if we lose electricity, you might as well riot. Nobody’s going to fight you for supplies if you cough in their direction, bonus points if you’re Asian.

  • Guns: living in a house with a gun increases your odds of death. Things can get bad but they won’t be that bad.

I think what irritates me about all of these apocalypse scenarios is that if you truly believe Zerohedge and that we’re headed for martial law, you could save your $600 on guns and ammunition, and instead buy very deep out-of-the-money put options to profit heavily when the markets collapse. There will always be supplies, at the right price, and now you can buy it!

Skin in the game

The closest I’ve come to death wasn’t when I fell off a mountain in Korea or the time I sprinted into a chain link fence (or the time a BCG consultant punched me in the face) -- it was catching pneumonia. Pneumonia fucking sucks, the cure is basically “take some antibiotics and sleep,” but you can’t sleep because lying down causes you to cough, so you just kind of just half sleep and curse God in alternating 45 minute stretches.

So I’ve had some experience with respiratory diseases and quarantines. I remember attempting to work for the first few days, until somebody messaged me and said that I was completely incoherent and should rest. You know, I’m not actually sure if they knew I was sick. My girlfriend at the time would also leave me (extremely delicious) pho and other soups in the fridge. I, of course, would forget that the food was there, and then would also forget to eat. 

I guess the point is, when you’re sick and exhausted, you’re going to be bored and in need of stimulation, whether it comes from your tastebuds or Netflix. I actually watched so much Netflix that it felt like I ran out of things to watch, or maybe I was just tired and cranky. 

The real danger isn’t running out of rice, or needing to shoot down looters, but rather being needing to confront yourself. At least for people like me, with comfortable tech jobs, life is pretty easy and at no point do you really need to challenge yourself. You can, but you don’t need to. I consider myself extremely lucky that I have the financial resources to weather anything short of total apocalypse, a job which encourages remote work, and good enough healthcare (I am still holding my health insurance company puts through Super Tuesday).

However, I know that no matter how good my healthcare is or how well prepared I am, diseases spread through the lowest common denominator. Many Americans, and especially those of lower-income and/or with worse health insurance situations, don’t have the luxury of choosing to work from home or take paid sick leave. All your preparation will be for naught if the deli worker is sick, or if the waiter or bartender is, and so on. Healthcare for all is a moral decision rule, and even if you are acting purely in your own selfish interests, you should want everyone around you to be healthy, just so you are also healthy.

If you think about prepping as a response to dealing with yourself, then what you prepare is just a projection of your insecurities. Rich people fear death, WeChat groups fear missing out, and I fear boredom and bad food. As any therapist would tell you, you don’t deal with your insecurities and fears by enabling them, but by examining yourself and how you have arrived at this point. 

Maybe that’ll be something to think about when you’re in quarantine.