Corona Crisis – Tunnel Vision vs Comprehensive Risk Assessment

Summary of a Leaked Report from the Crisis Management Unit KM4 of the German Ministry of the Interior (BMI)

Mainstream and alternative media in Germany are brewing with news of a leaked report assessing the German government’s crisis management with respect to COVID-19. The liberal-conservative magazine Tichys Einblick first published extracts of the report that was circulated by its author, a civil servant who has since been suspended. Another alternative media platform, Die Achse des Guten, documents that a draft of the “corona paper” had been presented internally as early as March 23 and the minister’s office was approached by the report’s author on April 25, but as the report continued to be shut down, the author decided to circulate it more widely and it was eventually leaked. The Ministry responded with an unusual Sunday press release dismissing the report as a personal opinion. Interestingly, nine eminent medical experts who were consulted in preparing the report issued a press release of their own on Monday, stating their surprise that the Ministry seems determined to continue ignoring expert analyses of the collateral damage of the COVID-19 response and fail to substantiate its claims that the protective measures taken were effective and are continuously being reassessed.

So what’s in the leaked report? The 187-page PDF document that I downloaded from Achgut.com consists of an anonymized 1-page cover letter, an 8-page summary, an 82-page full report, and a 96-page appendix (pages 3-5 of the appendix are missing). The subject line of the cover letter – “Results of internal assessment of corona crisis management” – is supplemented with three brutally honest bullet points:

  • Grave errors of judgement in crisis management
  • Deficits in the regulatory framework for pandemics
  • Corona crisis likely proves to be a false alarm

The report’s summary starts with the definition of the goal of crisis management: to detect and combat threats until the “normal” state is re-established (p. 2). The author further notes: “Therefore, a normal state cannot be a crisis.” This reads like a personal statement against the idea of a “new normal”, which has recently been promoted by many politicians and experts globally.

The remainder of the summary document outlines results of the author’s analysis (pp. 2-3, points 1-8) and conclusions (p. 2, points a) to c)). These sweeping points, which I will paraphrase below, are followed by an explanation of interdependencies during a crisis, including the declaration of an eminent threat (the pandemic) and the impact of protective measures and resulting collateral damage (pp. 3-4). The author then professes his perspective with respect to available courses of action (pp. 4-5) – also outlined below. What follows on pp. 5-8 is a section titled “Overview of health impacts (damages) of the government measures and limitations during the 2020 corona crisis”. This section is given a separate date of May 7 and is also attached to the press release of the nine medical experts mentioned above.

The report’s summary concludes with the author’s reasons to proceed with circulating the report without further consultation (p. 8). The stated reasons include the ongoing threat of collateral damage of the lockdown measures including avoidable deaths and the inability to have his analysis acknowledged through the ministerial hierarchy. The main report, which is double-dated to April 25 and May 7, 2020, is titled “Corona Crisis from the Perspective of Critical Infrastructure Protection”. In this blog post, I focus on summarizing, paraphrasing, and commenting on the 8-page summary.

Results of the Analysis

The author, who speaks alternatively in singular (“I”) or plural (“we”), summarizes his analysis in eight results:

  1. Despite better knowledge, crisis management [in Germany] has not developed adequate tools for threat analysis and assessment. Status reports in the current crisis include only a fraction of information on the range of threats. Incomplete and unsuitable information does not allow for a proper threat assessment and thus does not support appropriate and effective emergency response. This methodological deficit translates upwards through levels of public administration; politics has had a much reduced ability to make evidence-based decisions.
  2. The observed health impacts of COVID-19 on the general population suggest that we are dealing with a global false alarm. In relation to general mortality, there has likely never been an unusual threat to the population and the danger of COVID-19 was over-estimated. The author of the report adds a special note that these results were scientifically vetted and do not contradict the data and risk assessments presented by the German centre for disease control, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI).
  3. The fact that the false alarm remained undetected to this point is owed to the lack of instruments that would trigger a warning in case of an unwarranted pandemic declaration or a situation in which the collateral damage of the response measures exceeds the disease’s impacts on public health, and specifically on fatalities.
  4. At this point, it is plausible to assume that the direct loss of lives owed to the emergency response measures [i.e. lockdown, distancing, hospital procedures] is already greater than the COVID-19 death count [in Germany].
  5. The collateral damage of the corona crisis is gigantic and pointless, will primarily manifest itself in the future, and can only be limited, not prevented any more.
  6. As a consequence of the protective measures, the security and resilience of critical infrastructure has declined. Our society is subject to increased vulnerability and risk of failure of survival systems that could be fatal if a truly dangerous pandemic or another threat, such a bioterrorism attack, would occur.
  7. Emergency orders and other protective measures that lost any meaning and are now causing collateral damage are still in place for the most part. It is urgently recommended to lift these measure immediately to avert harm to the population – in particular additional unnecessary deaths – and stabilize the possibly precarious state of critical infrastructure.
  8. Deficits and errors in crisis management have led to the distribution of misinformation to the population. It could be said that the state has become one of the greatest producers of fake news in the corona crisis.

Conclusions

Three broad conclusions are drawn by the author:

a) The proportionality of restrictions of civil liberties is not evident, since governments have not properly assessed the consequences, as required by the German constitutional court on May 5.

b) Status reports from the ministries of the Interior and Health as well as federal communications to the provinces should immediately:

  • undertake an adequate risk analysis and assessment,
  • include a section with meaningful data on collateral damage,
  • be cleared of superfluous data and information that are unhelpful for risk assessment, and
  • develop and emphasize metrics [this point remains oddly vague].

c) An adequate risk analysis and assessment is to be completed immediately; otherwise, the state may become liable for damages.

Available Courses of Action

The report’s author sees the German government and administration in a precarious position, since in his assessment there is no reasonable doubt that the corona warning was a false alarm and that crisis management failed with respect to danger prevention and instead caused harm, including fatalities that continue to occur every day that the emergency response measures are kept in place.

The author further notes, which is not without humour, that technically a new crisis situation should be declared and the out-of-control pandemic crisis management itself be battled. In case the executive arm is not be able to regroup, the following options for a correction are proposed:

a) The legislative arm, i.e. the federal and provincial parliaments, could change the crisis management framework to force a change in the direction of the executive.

b) The judiciary has so far supported restrictions of constitutional rights with reference to the eminent threat but without in-depth test of plausibility of the government’s threat assessment. This could change as demonstrated in the author’s report.

c) The online and mainstream media could also serve as a corrective. However, at present the leading media not least the public broadcasters seem to view themselves as messengers of the dominant political orientation. This lack of plurality of opinions tends to stabilize the executive even when their actions threaten the existential interests of the nation, e.g. in case of a factual error of judgement.

Collateral Health Impacts

The following information was obtained from 10 eminent experts who were randomly selected (not representative) by the report’s author.

  1. Fatalities:
    a) Due to limited availability of hospital beds and services, it is estimated that 2.5 million surgeries were delayed or cancelled that would have taken place in March or April. This could result in between 5,000 and 125,000 premature deaths.
    b) For the same reason, follow-up treatment for cancer, stroke, or heart attack patients, which number in the order of million(s) annually, were delayed or cancelled, resulting in the possibility of avoidable death of up to several thousand patients.
    c) The quality of long-term care homes and services with 3.5 million recipients has declined; a concrete estimate of fatalities is not feasible, yet even a tenth of a percent impact would result in 3,500 premature deaths.
    d) The current annual average of 9,000 suicides will increase due to long-term impact on living conditions that could become critical for psychologically unstable persons. Additional suicides also have to be expected due to personal bankruptcies and destroyed livelihoods, as well as emotional pressures for specific professional groups that are most affected by ongoing change.
    e) An unspecified number of acute heart attack and stroke sufferers will not receive timely treatment resulting in death or reduced life expectancy in the short- or long-term.
  2. Other health and psychological damage from:
    a) isolation experienced by elderly long-term care patients;
    b) persons with psychoses and neuroses requiring treatment;
    c) domestic violence and child abuse;
    d) broad-based communication disorders, e.g. due to mandatory wearing of face masks.
  3. A long-term reduction in life expectancy is likely to become the greatest harm from this crisis. The decline arises from reduced general prosperity and wellbeing.

My Take

As you can tell, the leaked BMI report convincingly argues for a comprehensive risk assessment and holistic crisis management rather than the current tunnel vision focused on virology and acute medical concerns around COVID-19. The report’s summary does not engage with the actual threat of the novel coronavirus, which I hasten to add is a serious illness that has caused deaths and individual hardship around the world. However, viewed at the population level, the report’s assessment is in line with a growing number of international experts who demonstrate that the threat of COVID-19 is no worse than a severe influenza cycle.

Our political decision-makers and public health officials would be well advised to conduct continuous (re)assessments of the lockdowns and other emergency response measures in comparison to their collateral damage, and inform the public of the outcome of these assessments. As a geographer, I am particularly interested in the fact that there is strong spatial clustering of confirmed COVID-19 cases and attributed fatalities, which suggests geographically specific responses. As a data scientist, I am puzzled by the high degree of uncertainty in all coronavirus-related datasets and the multitude of interpretations that each time series generates. In addition to the ongoing medical and epidemiological research there will be many more topics to study if and when we are able to leave this crisis behind us.

The Great Escape – 3D Fantasy Map Tutorial

The COVID-19 lockdown has brought with it an abundance of online professional development opportunities – a welcome escape from the terrors caused by the novel coronavirus (or by the house arrest and social distancing regime itself, if you concur with my view ;). On April 29, cartographer Daniel P. Huffman of Madison, Wisconsin, organized “How to do Map Stuff: A Live Community Sharing Event” with virtual workshops offered by volunteers from around the world, see https://somethingaboutmaps.wordpress.com/2020/03/19/how-to-do-map-stuff/.

Along with several interesting presentations, I listened in to Minnesota-based cartographer Ross Thorn, who went through the process of “Creating an Interactive Fantasy Map” using QGIS and MapBox. The recording is now posted on Youtube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2nmLibB3lGs (starts around minute 9:30). Rather than create a set of islands from scratch, Ross “floods” a digital elevation model (DEM) so that mountains or hills turn into islands while lower elevations are transformed into the open seas… The remainder of that tutorial focused on vectorizing the island boundaries and adding land-use polygons as well as settlement locations with attached information.

During the April 29 live session, a chat participant asked whether the original elevations could be preserved as terrain on the islands. In this post, I would like to show how this can be done and how the result become an interactive 3D map within the QGIS and Web environment. I am using QGIS 3.4.12 and QGIS 3.10 with the Qgis2threejs plugin. The plugin does not correctly install on my Windows 8.1 office computer, thus the second part of this post is completed using the newer Windows and QGIS versions on my laptop. Also, this is certainly not the first time someone has created a 3D fantasy map, nor the only way in which it can be done; it just happens to be the first time I was motivated to try this myself using one of the GIS tools I am familiar with.

To begin the process outlined in Ross Thorn’s tutorial, I downloaded the southern portion of Ontario’s provincial DEM from https://geohub.lio.gov.on.ca/datasets/mnrf::provincial-digital-elevation-model-pdem. Attention: This file is almost 2 GB large! You can likely find smaller DEMs from your local or regional government that can be used equally well, or work with the data that Ross used.

The above screenshots show the PDEM displayed in QGIS using the default black-to-white gradient for increasing elevations. The Niagara Escarpment is visible in the south adjacent to the Greater Toronto Area, while the remaining high altitudes are all part of the Canadian Shield. I zoomed in to an area west of Lake Temiskaming near the eastern border of Ontario with Quebec.

A further zoom yielded an area with several distinct peaks above 500m in elevation. Also shown above is the symbology dialog to distinguish pixels by elevation above and below 500m and the resulting “islands”. Using the menu sequence Raster | Extraction | Clip Raster by Extent | Use Canvas Extent | Save to File “PDEM_Escape.tif”, I clipped the province-wide DEM to the area shown. I renamed the new layer and used copy & paste to apply the same blue-red style from PDEM_South.

Under layer properties, you can view a histogram of raster grid values. The above screenshot is zoomed in to values above 500m to get a sense of their frequency distribution; I didn’t know what to expect, but the fast decline of higher elevation certainly makes sense.

We now use Raster | Raster Calculator for what is the key “contribution” of this post. In his tutorial, Ross used the following formula to set cells with elevation below the threshold (here: 500m) to zero (= water) and cells above threshold to one (= land):

(("PDEM_South@1" <= 500) * 0) + (("PDEM_South@1" > 500) * 1)

Here, we do not want to condense the higher elevations to a categorical value representing land, but keep them as land elevations above the new “sea level” of 0. We achieve this by multiplying the values selected in the second term of the sum by the original elevation value, from which we subtract the threshold. Thus, while values up to 500m will be converted to 0m, the value of 501m will be converted to 1m (= 501m – 500m) and so on:

(("PDEM_South@1" <= 500) * 0) + (("PDEM_South@1" > 500) * ("PDEM_South@1" - 500))

After completing the remainder of the tutorial, I realized that the configuration of my area’s elevations did not yield sufficient terrain variation. I went back to the current step to introduce a vertical exaggeration factor of 5. Therefore, the final raster calculation is as follows:

(("PDEM_South@1" <= 500) * 0) + (("PDEM_South@1" > 500) * ("PDEM_South@1" - 500) * 5)

The following screenshot shows a colour scheme I created for the symbology property of the new LDEM_Escape5 layer, to allude to the different land cover classes that may be associated with increasing elevations, i.e. water, coastal sand, grasslands, forests, and bare rock. Another important change I made here is under Project | Properties | CRS tab, where you want to find and set “WGS 84 / Pseudo-Mercator” (EPSG:3857) to set the map units to metres instead of degrees (if that’s what it was before).

For the 3D version of our fantasy world, we will primarily use the raster dataset. However, we will also complete the instructions from Ross Thorn’s tutorial to create a vector dataset with the coastlines of our islands. The command sequence Raster | Conversion | Polygonize (Raster to Vector) turns the grid cells of the raster layer into square polygons. Unfortunately, cells with different elevation values on the islands will result in separate polygons, as shown in the first of the following screenshots (I clicked to select and highlight the large water polygon as well as a few small in-land squares for illustration). Ross did not have this issue, since all of his land pixels had the same value of 1 and formed contiguous polygons for each island. We will achieve this with the command sequence Vector | Geoprocessing Tools | Dissolve. This generates the situation shown in the second screenshot, with all land pixels combined and the water polygon removed. However, different islands are now all combined into one, multi-part polygon (I clicked to select only one island, which results in the highlighting of all land areas, since they are part of this multi-part feature). We now use Vector | Geometry Tools | Multipart to Singleparts in order to separate the land mass into independent entities, as shown in the third screenshot where a small island in the northwest is highlighted without also selecting the remaining islands. After adapting the symbology and project background colour, and adding a text field with a few island names for labelling, we achieve the status shown in the fourth screenshot below.

Our last steps in QGIS include making the island polygon fill transparent and give its borders a sand colour. For island labelling, I selected the three islands that actually had a name assigned and used right-click on the layer name | Export | Save Selected Features to create a new Shapefile layer with only these three islands; otherwise, there would be a lot of NULL labels down the road (not in QGIS but in the 3D export). I also created two new point layers according to Ross’ video: one for named cities and another for a mountain peak. Labels are activated under each layer’s properties and I am using “buffers” in the label options to make the label text better visible. The end result is shown in the following screenshot.

At this point we are starting to work with the Qgis2threejs plugin, which will convert our 2D map into an interactive 3D scene that is exportable to the Web. As noted above, I had to migrate the project to my Windows 10 laptop using QGIS 3.10. To find the Qgis2threejs plugin, go to Plugins | Manage and Install Plugins and let the system fetch the latest plugins. In the search field, type “threejs” to find the plugin and install it. If all goes well, you should have a new item in the “Web” menu and be able to run the “Exporter” from there. The tool opens with all project layers available for display and customization.

Check to activate the (vertically exaggerated) island terrain layer (LDEM_Escape5) and right-click for properties. I enabled “Surrounding blocks” to extend the seas beyond the map canvas and deactivated “Build sides” so that the water level is a plane rather than a block. The default material setting to display “Map canvas image” drapes the 2D map from QGIS over the elevation model. While this is what we want for the topographic colour scheme, it does not work for the points of interest and labels, which we’d rather turn into 3D objects. The QGIS window underneath the plugin window is still actionable and we thus uncheck the visibility of the places, mountain, and island names layers (see background/left side of the following screenshot).

So for example, we see the places layer unchecked in the QGIS project/map canvas but checked in the Qgis2threejs Explorer. In the corresponding 3D layer properties, we set the object for cities to a box sized 400m x 400m x 100m (assuming you set a coordinate reference system with metres as the map unit, as outlined above). Under “Features”, I should have checked “All features” to ensure that points that aren’t included in the current QGIS map extent are still exported. Lastly, activating “Export attributes” creates the 3D “airborne” labels at a set height that you can see in the scene. All this is done for the cities, island labels (only names are visible, coastlines of this layer remain invisible but come from the other island polygon layer), and the mountain peak (also no object symbol, just the name/label).

Under File | Export Settings, you have the option to save the Qgsi2threejs settings if you need to close your session and load them to restore it.

I did not play with the other Explorer settings but proceeded straight to File | Export to Web, using a temporary directory, the “3D Viewer” template, and “Enable the Viewer to Run Locally”. The template “3D Viewer with dat-gui panel” may be of interest in other applications where controlling layer visibility and opacity is useful (try it!). The above screenshot of the 3D Web map shows our fantasy world from the northwest. A live version can be accessed in my Github repository at https://crinner.github.io/escape5/.

Future work should include checking out the HTML and Javascript code that was generated. Another participant in Ross Thorn’s tutorial asked about putting units in the fantasy world, and while I was not sure whether they were referring to map units or game avatars, it would certainly be neat to add animated objects (or subjects!?) to the three.js scene! A quick Web search suggests that this is perfectly possible. I can think of other customizations of the geospatial objects, their appearance, or the functionality of the 3D viz, some of which are inspired by student work posted at https://spatial.blog.ryerson.ca/, e.g. flight simulation or vintage map design.