It’s occurred to me that this may be the new normal. It’s certainly the old normal.
It’s been 102 years since the 1918 flu pandemic, which has certainly got to be a record for how long we’ve gone without a major outbreak of disease. It’s especially surprising given how interconnected the world has been for many years now. Seen with the retrospectoscope, the vector of mass air travel made something like this nearly inevitable.
And in this time of high anxiety, we find ourselves rediscovering all the skills and techniques that our forebears used to manage pandemics in the ancient and pre-industrial world. We’re closing our borders, isolating ourselves, hoarding the necessities of life, and if you’re me, thinking about pickling things.
I wonder how much of this will translate into long-term behaviour change. There’s no doubt in my mind that the COVID pandemic, even if it ends up being a bit of a fizzer, has exposed a lot of the shortcomings of our highly-optimised, just-in-time technological culture. In Taleb-ian terms, we are highly fragile to shocks of this kind. Our optimisation of everything is a false economy because it does not allow us to ride out inevitable disasters with equanimity. Culturally, we have fooled ourself into believing that because there have been no global outbreaks of disease in a couple of generations, that they are not possible. There is no-one now alive who remembers the 1918 pandemic, and the ferocious sensationalisation of SARS, Swine Flu and MERS may have lulled us into a false sense of security about how bad these things can get. Cutting stockpiles of food and critical medical supplies may look like a smart cost saving on the balance sheet, but when it really matters they may be the only thing that counts.
But tech may be our saviour, in the form of the internet. With a speed which surprises me, everyone seems to be moving to online business. As people have been saying, the world seems to be waking up to exactly how many meetings could have been memos. There is some speculation that Australia’s National Broadband Network may not be able to cope with the load – if true, this is another failure of forward thinking.
In the Bloomberg press, Tyler Cowen suggests that big business may end up even more powerful after this pandemic, because unlike the US government (hidebound) and small business (too small to be effective), companies like Amazon have the reach to deliver the goods and services that people need. I’m not entirely convinced because I think large companies have fragilities which aren’t obvious yet, most particularly in their supply chains. But this too will be interesting to discover.
People are starting to think creatively about possible isolation, and how to deal with the social fallout. I’m hearing people speculate that the harms from loneliness incurred by elderly people confined to quarters may outweigh the harms from the disease. I find that unlikely, but I’m sure the studies will emerge in due course.
Friends of mine have begun having dinner parties over Skype and FaceTime. Not the same as an actual dinner party, but better than nothing. I feel sorry for highly extroverted people who live for social contact – this is likely to be hard for them. But for the less socially-promiscuous portion of the population, a few weeks stuck at home doing whatever you enjoy sounds like heaven.
I’ll end this entry with a couple of resources.
This website is a good aggregator of the Australia-specific data on infection rates and spread, and much more up to date than the WHO data.
Ten Percent Happier, a company that provides meditation and mindfulness resources, is giving six-month free subscriptions to healthcare workers. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for deets.