Covid-19-crisis-induced mix of feelings

It has been a few extremely weird few weeks. I don’t think anybody is prepared for what is unraveling around us. Personally speaking, I have encountered mixed feelings while dealing with the current crisis. I wrote these down mainly because I know how it feels knowing that somewhere somebody is going through the same thing as I feel. It is helpful and that’s exactly what I want to do.

The most overwhelming feeling is gratitude. I haven’t caught the virus yet. Based on the coverage on what it can do human bodies, I count myself lucky not to be a patient. If you are safe like me so far, I wish you would stay the same throughout this pandemic. Plus, I am feeling blessed for having a full-time paying job that covers my insurance and helps me pay bills. It’s a luxury for many people and something that I definitely do not take for granted. I enrolled in a dual Masters degree in Omaha in 2016. If I had followed the normal path that numerous students did, I would have graduated in December 2019; which would mean that I would have been thrown into a chaotic job market where companies were trying to downsize and the chance that I would be sponsored would have been slim to none. I tried hard to graduate early simply because I wanted to work as soon as possible and get paid better. By no means, I predicted this would happen. I am very grateful for whatever forces there were that put things in place for me.

Like everybody else, I am worried about the future. The economy is shattered and looks to remain so, if not get worse, in the foreseeable future. Given the economic outlook, it doesn’t come as a surprise that companies, including my employer, seek to cut costs and downsize. Though I am employed at the moment, there is nothing set in stone, except the fact that any request such as pay raise or sponsorship may have to wait for a while.

Even though the virus has decimated dozens of countries around the globe, the US is now the most affected. Nobody knows the full extent of the damage done to this country. The government expects next week to the worst week, but what if it was wrong? A few weeks ago, the whole disaster was called a hoax. Masks were recommended only when you were sick. Now, the CDC recommends citizens wear masks in public places. The odds of being affected through community spread increase by the day. Self-isolation will continue for a while and personally, I don’t expect this crisis to blow over before June, if I am being extremely optimistic.

Living alone in America in this time is hard. I have only myself, my computer, my phone and my apartment to keep me entertained and occupied. Of course, I chat with my girlfriend and friends every day, but the constant stare at the screens and the lack of human interaction sometimes are unbearably exhausting and excruciating. On top of that, my family in Vietnam kept checking on me as the news on America in Vietnam worried them. I don’t blame them, but at the same time, I hate making them worried. On the other hand, I am worried about my family, especially my parents who have underlying conditions. The feeling of powerlessness, compounded with the angst and frustration and boredom, is tough to deal with.

Nonetheless, the crisis doesn’t necessarily give me only negative feelings. I tried to look at this in a positive light in a sense that it might be an opportunity. Personally speaking, this crisis presents a chance for me to step up at work. The pandemic prompted a barrage of requests with short turnaround time “in the office”. Everybody in my team has worked more urgently and harder these days. There were days when I felt completely spent around 4pm. However, if I could emerge from this as a reliable and valuable contributor, my boss or his boss would look at me more favorably.

Additionally, my personal portfolio has taken a beating. It’s definitely concerning to lose money on your investments. Assets’ values have gone down significantly, whether they are bitcoins, real estate or stocks. But if you look at it from another perspective, it can be a good time to buy. When the falling knives stop falling and if I can pick the right time, it’s a tremendous opportunity to snap up cheap assets.

Finally, this self-isolation can stimulate self-reflection and creativity. With fewer distractions and plenty of time on hand, all of us should be freer to think about the past, present and future, to reflect, to plan ahead, to live a little slower and to be more creative.

It’s impossible not to acknowledge the detriment of this pandemic. Yet, there is no reason for us not to find opportunity from it either. I hope you will stay safe and come out of the other side safe and better.

Uplifting COVID-19 stories

I want to share with you some uplifting stories that put a smile on my face in this troubling time. I hope they will do yours as well.

A landlord in Wisconsin reduced April’s rent to $100 for his tenants

KETV-TV
Source: ketv

How Czech Republic got everyone to wear masks

Pandemic creates an inflection point

There is no need to talk about the havoc that this pandemic has brought on to our society. Everybody in the world should all feel it now. Terrible as it is, the pandemic presents an opportunity for us to look at the issues that we overlook in normal times

Paid sick leave

The US is one of the only few, if not the only country, where citizens don’t get paid sick leave. When there is a risk of a wide-spreading pandemic, the lack of this benefit forces workers to go to work even though they may be sick; which increases the threat of a spread. After this catastrophe blows over, perhaps it is time for us to bring this issue to the national spotlight and to pressure lawmakers into taking actions

Stock buybacks and corporate bailouts

The fact that corporations are asking for a big bailout after years of continuous stock repurchases and lucrative executive compensation is inexcusable and intolerable. While there is a case to be made that bailouts chop off a body part to save the body and corporations should be forced to return the money once healthy again, it doesn’t make it right the fact that tax payers’ money is used to bail out companies whose failure to prepare for a macroeconomic risk is the executives’.

Regulations over gig economy

For months, gig economy companies such as Lyft and Uber have fought regulations that would require them to treat workers as employees. What that means is that workers would be entitled to healthcare insurance, paid leave and other benefits that white-collar workers usually enjoy. Some folks I saw on Twitter, most from Silicon Valley, even blasted the regulations. However, a study by The Hustle may change perspectives on this. According to The Hustle, 57% of the surveyed drivers would still drive because that’s the only way to make ends meet. Some are not even making enough to pay for their rented vehicle. Furthermore, the lack of health insurance means that they and their family are vulnerable than ever. In light of this crisis and the impact on gig economy workers, is asking for a well-designed regulation to protect workers too much to ask?

Source: The Hustle

Healthcare system

The lack of tests in the US, compared to what is going on in other countries, is seriously shocking. Ask any American and it’s very likely that you will get told that the US has the most advanced healthcare system in the world. That’s true…for rich people and for very sophisticated treatments. However, when it comes to healthcare for ordinary folks and normal ailments, there is a lot to be desired for in the US. The country had disappointingly managed to fail to deliver a universal healthcare solution even before the pandemic broke. Now, the case cannot be made even more pressing. Recently, it’s reported that a woman was hit with a $35,000 bill for COVID-19 treatments and tests. How was that acceptable? It could happen and bankrupt any of the middle class Americans, or, worse, paycheck-to-paycheck folks.

Work from home

This one is polarizing. Proponents of WFH must be ecstatic to make their case when essentially everybody is required to work remotely now. On the other hand, some will experience cabin-fever, frustration and the drop in productivity. Personally, I prefer going to the office. I prefer meeting my colleagues face-to-face and have a setting that helps me focus on my work more than my comfortable home.

Furthermore, WFH presents an opportunity to test a company’s infrastructure. For most of last week, my colleagues and I experienced a laggy and slow connection. Even though home internet bandwidth can contribute to the issue, it’s undoubtedly our company’s network being not set up for a spike in traffic. Additionally, mass remote working can change how managers keep staff productive and keep track of their work.

Personal finance and change in lifestyle

Many of us now face, if you haven’t already, layoff or a drop in salary as companies are downsizing to survive the pandemic. Income may dry up, but the bills will still be there. Without a fund for a rainy day like we are going through, a financial struggle or bankruptcy is likely. The 11-year bull market since the 2009 crisis which many didn’t experience makes folks become complacent. After this COVID-19 disaster, it’s a great time to ponder hard decisions and establish sensible personal finance practices.

This is a scary and confusing time. But what happens in the next few months will be very interesting as decisions are to be made.

Some useful information on Coronavirus

Like almost millions of people on Earth, I have been occupied by the development of the Coronavirus around the world and the potential outbreak here in the US. There is no shortage of coverage and information regarding the pandemic. The challenge is to verify information. Given our limited time every day, the pace at which the developments take place and the inaccuracy of reports spread out by some authority, it’s exceedingly difficult to feel 100% confident in the information received, at least personally for me. Nonetheless, I’d like to share a highly helpful blog post by Elad, which contains a great summary of the virus and other resources for reference, and a report by WHO China.

Here are a few highlights for those of you who are lazy enough not to read either.

The reported death rate has hovered around 2% but may in reality be 0.2% to 1% depending on country and healthcare system. Many estimates tend indicate an overall expected mortality rate of ~0.5% globally.  The current existing fatality rate is biased upwards by Wuhan cases dominating the mix (which are closer to a 3-4% death rate and make up most cases). It is possible the virus is being undertested for in China / rest of world driving the real death rate down (as many more people are infected than is reported).

Source: Elad Blog

In many epidemics disease course follows two waves. In wave one, an initial infection happens followed by governments tightening movements, shutting schools, and in general decreasing the spread of the diseases. Controls are eventually relaxed (people need to work, kids need to go to school etc.) and then a few months later a second wave of the disease hits and infects a subset of the people who were not infected in the first wave. Eventually, enough people get sick, develop antibodies, and there is a strong enough herd immunity in the population to decrease future out breaks in size.

Source: Elad Blog
Source: Elad Blog

COVID-19 is transmitted via droplets and fomites during close unprotected contact between an infector and infectee. Airborne spread has not been reported for COVID-19 and it is not believed to be a major driver of transmission based on available evidence; however, it can be envisaged if certain aerosol-generating procedures are conducted in health care facilities. Fecal shedding has been demonstrated from some patients, and viable virus has been identified in a limited number of case reports. However, the fecal-oral route does not appear to be a driver of COVID-19 transmission; its role and significance for COVID-19 remains to be determined.

Source: WHO China

Typical signs and symptoms include: fever (87.9%), dry cough (67.7%), fatigue (38.1%), sputum production (33.4%), shortness of breath (18.6%), sore throat (13.9%), headache (13.6%), myalgia or arthralgia (14.8%), chills (11.4%), nausea or vomiting (5.0%), nasal congestion (4.8%), diarrhea (3.7%), and hemoptysis (0.9%), and conjunctival congestion (0.8%).

Individuals at highest risk for severe disease and death include people aged over 60 years and those with underlying conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory disease and cancer. Disease in children appears to be relatively rare and mild with approximately 2.4% of the total reported cases reported amongst individuals aged under 19 years. A very small proportion of those aged under 19 years have developed severe (2.5%) or critical disease (0.2%)

Source: WHO China
Source: WHO China

As opposed to Influenza A(H1N1)pdm09, pregnant women do not appear to be at higher risk of severe disease. In an investigation of 147 pregnant women (64 confirmed, 82 suspected and 1 asymptomatic), 8% had severe disease and 1% were critical.

There is a global rush for masks, hand hygiene products and other personal protective equipment. The relative importance of non-pharmaceutical control measures including masks, hand hygiene, and social distancing require further research to quantify their impact. 

Source: WHO China

Also, the Minister of Health of Singapore shares details on the virus in layman’s terms

2020 has been an absolute disaster so far in my opinion. Hundreds died from the virus and millions more are in danger. Economy is badly affected. Lives are seriously disrupted. My hope is that things will look brighter shortly in the near future.

Things I wish would happen in this decade

I am about a few days late into 2020 for this kind of activity, but who cares? What makes it personally tricky for me is to balance between imagination and reality, wishes and my estimation of feasibility. I gave it some thoughts and here are a few things that I wish would happen in this decade.

Higher public transportation usage

I am a big fan of public transportation. If done right, what’s there not to like about it? Having lived in Vietnam and the US, which are not known for public transit, I wish there would be a dramatic increase in the use of buses, metros and trains in exchange for a reduction in car ownership and usage.

Converting image and voice to processible data

A lot of information is stored in oral content and images. Nowadays, it is possible to extract such information, yet it takes a lot of time and resources. 10 years from now, I definitely wish that it would be a lot easier and cheaper.

Change of focus in public education

More attention to personal finance, reading, writing, literature, nutrition, cooking and life skills please

Code by voice

I was running into a coding problem at work lately. It was more of a data manipulation kind. The task could be done at the expense of a great deal of effort. It made me wonder how better it would be if we could dictate computers to execute low-level code. Of course, we can’t just tell computers to “write me an Airbnb application”. Such a task as “get me the accounts that were inactive for the last three months but active for more than three months within the last year” or “compare for me the spend of customers at stores during the holiday season year over year”. That would be tremendously helpful for our society.

Augmented presentation of content

I struggled to label this one. I didn’t know how to call it exactly. We all have seen it in movies. One flick of the fingers and more information is presented in 3D in front of our eyes, like this picture below from Avengers. Imagine if at work we could just get the graphs from Excel, use our hands to place them into Power Point, seize them by our will easily and write the caption by voice. The productivity would increase by multiple folds

Tony Stark studying the Tesseract in 'The Avengers.'
Source: Venture Capital Post

Venture into space

The Earth surface isn’t expanding, yet human race is. We already exceeded the 7 billion mark and I wouldn’t be surprised if we surpassed the 8 billion mark ten years from now. That puts a lot of pressure on Mother Nature and ourselves. We need nature which doesn’t need us. Hence, I wish to see more ventures into space to see what is out there.

More people will have access to sufficient healthcare and fewer will die from diseases that are terminal today

Healthcare in America is ridiculously expensive. Some drugs like insulin can bankrupt patients and so can a trip to an ER. Folks in poor countries crave for access to better care and there are still diseases against which we seem powerless. I wish there would be some advances on healthcare universally.

I would love to have more peace, kindness, compassion and empathy in the world. Sadly, I fear that would be hard. I fear that isolationism and nationalism will rise. I fear that the ugly side of the world won’t get much prettier. My hope is that the mechanism that brings the ugliness to daylight will be used to shed more light to the beauty of the world.

Connecting the dots looking backward

“You can only connect the dots looking backward” – I think those words or something along that line came from Steve Jobs.

When I was 15, I joined High School for the Gifted, a high school that was 20 mins from my home. I was the first person in the family that went to a high school outside of a 10-min radius from my place. All the years studying maths in secondary school led me to sign up for the entrance exam to the maths class at that high school. I failed by 0.5 points. I thought that was it, but I was offered a second chance to join either the IT, Chemistry or Physics class. I chose the latter despite knowing almost zero about physics. When I graduated, I didn’t know much either. Back then, I didn’t even know what a USB was and I was certainly clueless about A LOT of things. But my friends and peers saved me. Their wanting to go overseas motivated me to follow suit and enabled me to dare to dream. The seed was planted in those days and I started to plot my way to go overseas.

After high school, I took on the SAT mission. I couldn’t remember the score anymore, but it wasn’t high enough to secure a scholarship. Two months after the SAT test, I passed the entrance exam to a polytechnic university in Finland. Back in the day, education was free in Finland, even for foreigners. My family’s finance wasn’t great. As a result, I took that chance to go and study in Finland. A few months after coming to Finland, I used my SAT to get into Aalto University, the best university in Finland. That turn of events opened the doors for me later which led me to the University of Nebraska at Omaha and America several years after.

Around 2015, I was working in the Marketing department for a small hotel in Hoi An, Vietnam. Being small and lacking personnel, our hotel didn’t have a designated person to take care of revenue management. I volunteered to assume such responsibility since I was eager to learn and felt comfortable with numbers. Little did I know that the experience was the answer in the interview 4 years later that landed me my current job.

It has been 10 years since the first date I went overseas for the first time. A little more than that since the day I walked into my high school. A lot of things happened and even though it felt insignificant at the time, the events usually took place for a reason and led to bigger consequences later in my life. Like Steve said, we can only connect the dots looking backward. My point is that if you stumble upon this post and read this humble account of a Vietnamese stranger, keep in mind that whatever you go through may pay dividends later. Well, it may also bring about consequences, but a Friday night does call for a little extra optimism, doesn’t it?

Price of freedom

Before I arrived in the US, I planned to learn to drive and get a car within the first 6 months or one year at the latest. Fast forward to now, I met the target two years behind the original plan.

To a person who hadn’t driven before and lives alone in the US, learning to drive is challenging and expensive. I paid $350 to take classroom lessons and 6 hours of training to drive in order to get the permit. Once I got the permit, I needed a car to practice and get a license. But I was in no financial position to afford a car and all the expenses that come with it such as training, parking, insurance, gas, registration and maintenance.

So I aborted the plan to drive and arranged myself so that I wouldn’t have to drive to either school or work. The arrangement saved me money, but incurred a great deal of inconvenience as I relied on the infamously terrible public transit in Omaha.

Finally, when I got my driving license and bought a vehicle, I felt liberated. No more waiting for the buses in the cold. No more rushing to make it to the bus stop in time. No more inconvenience when the destinations are out of the buses’ reach. No more asking for favor from friends. I gained much needed freedom, freedom that comes with expenses and constant risks. It doesn’t matter how well you can drive, there is always a risk of accidents. Since I purchased the car, my expenses have gone up significantly every month.

That’s the price of freedom. As true as sun rises in the East and sets in the West, freedom is hard and expensive to come by. We have to work and pay for it. Yet, I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s too sweet. Too precious.

Only 3% of this decade left

We are a few hours away from saying goodbye to August and welcoming September. If we split a year into three parts and look at the second decade of this century as a whole, around 97% of it is already gone.

It was like yesterday that I hit the beginning of my 20s. Now I am almost heading towards the magical 30. The last decade has seen me study abroad in Finland, Canada and now the US, and go back & work in Vietnam. I used to be a hot-headed rash dude with a severe lack of patience and a poisonous ego. Though I believe I got better, I am still a work in process and there is indeed a lot to be done.

I used to place a lot of value on titles and income. Now, being healthy and free to choose matters a whole lot more.

I used to love going to parties and getting drunk with friends. Now, a quiet uneventful night to work and think means a lot more.

I’d like to believe that I became wiser than when I was 20. Wiser, not still wise yet. Wisdom comes from experience which comes from decisions and usually painful regrets. The older I am, the more I believe that you come to appreciate certain lessons only at a certain phase in your life. If you had told me to focus more on inner peace and happiness instead of flashy materialistic things when I was fresh out of college, I wouldn’t have listened as much as I do now. Nor would I have appreciated the value of patience as much. It’s like you come to understand a book better only when you are older.

Ideally, I would prefer the same amount of gained wisdom with fewer painful regrets. Sometimes, it’s hard to get over some moments when I ponder “what ifs”. Still, if I have to measure the progress I made as a human-being over the last decade, a positive number is still better than a negative one or a zero. At least, there is that.

Summer is crawling to a close. A pity since I enjoy the energy, warmth and light. I am ready for what awaits in the remaining months of this decade and for the next. I hope it will be good. I am not sure I can say I am ready for Midwestern winter.

Reforestation

I came across a cool and quite encouraging video on reforestation in Ethiopia. As the climate change concern grows louder every day, it’s great to see such an effort from the African country

Reforestation doesn’t happen only in Ethiopia. According to Human Progress, 31% of the Earth is covered in forest. Moreover, rich areas such as UK, North Korea and Europe possess more forests than they did decades ago.

The article also said that developing countries such as China, India, Vietnam, Russia and Bangladesh have hit a critical mark of $4,500 GDP Per Capita (forest transition) and achieved net afforestation. Though I do doubt that my country has $4,500 GDP Per Capita or net afforestation, it’s a positive observation.

The news from Ethiopia is probably the first positive event since the horrific weekend. It brought smile to my face. Good things are done everywhere in the world and we need them more than ever.

Struggling to find the right balance

These days, I often find myself in the middle of these dilemmas:

Work on the weekends or enjoy the summer

Some recommend that to get ahead of others, you work on the weekends or when others are not. The logic makes sense. If you work properly, the more hours are put in, the better you should become. Yet, there is another side of me that wants to enjoy this beautiful summer. Midwest winter is hard. It’s unpredictable, it’s cold, it’s winter and it’s lengthy. Summer days are long in demand, but shorter in supply. I constantly struggle to choose which path I should follow in this regard

Set ambitious goals or stay relaxed and spontaneous

I used to be a goal-setting & future-oriented kind of a guy, yet I have worked to be more spontaneous and scale back my obsession with goal setting. It was good till I reflected upon what has been achieved for the first 6 months of the year and what lies ahead in the other 6. I found myself lacking. I found myself becoming a bit complacent. The urge to stay spontaneous and in the moment is still there, but perhaps I should mix it with some ambitious goals to give myself a push. The question is: what constitutes the right balance?

Sleep more or do more

Besides my day job, I commit myself to regular reading, working out, exploring the city, meeting new people and side projects such as this blog. Sometimes, travel sneaks into the to-do list like a thief as well. What I want to do keeps growing and growing while time doesn’t. As a fan of the Why We Sleep book, I understand the importance of sufficient sleep. I do want to sleep at least 8 hours a day, but I also want to do as much as possible when youth is still on my side. If I want an easy life later on, I need to work hard now. But as Matthew Walker, the author of Why We Sleep, said: once you lose sleep time, there is no way to get it back.

These questions and dilemmas need answering and solving quickly. The longer I have them unsolved and unanswered, the more time will be lost. Yet it’s not easy. Not easy to make a decision without full information. Or not easy to live with the consequences. Either way, I need to find a balance soon.