The Confusion Compounds the Contagion: 10 Lessons about our World from Covid-19

Sunday, May 3, 2020 | Kassel, Germany

We're all in Plato's cave these days. (Image from Olafur Eliasson's "Your Uncertain Shadow" installation)
Among the many shocks that the Covid-19 coronavirus has thrust upon our world in the past months, perhaps none is more disorienting than this: At the height of the information age, we are lost in the dark, fumbling desperately for certainty, any certainty at all.

Until quite recently at least, you could ask any reasonable person when our species' technological, economic, scientific, and philosophical prowess and sophistication were greatest and reliably expect them to answer, "Right now, of course." To be honest, we looked down with pity upon our ancestors of a century ago, then still in the dark about so much, bludgeoning each other through World Wars, and suffering blindly through the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. They were so disorganized, so undisciplined, so divided, so... primitive that they couldn't even properly count the dead from that catastrophe. (Estimates range from 17 to 100 million, the numerical equivalent of "who the hell knows.")

Plus ça change. Today, of course, we have a global internet, well established global health institutions, brilliant scientists worldwide, e-mail and translation software that allow them to communicate seamlessly. Surely we should be faring much better than our forebears. Yet months after the coronavirus's arrival, humanity wastes energy on nationalistic squabbling, suffers needless delays and deaths thanks to incompetent leaders, drowns truth in disinformation and conspiracy theories, and still knows shockingly little about the virus. How does it kill? Who does it kill? At what rate? How does it spread? Is it seasonal? How many has it infected? How many has it killed? Without answers to these most basic questions, measures to contain the virus's spread are just guesswork.

Maybe our predecessors back in 1918 weren't so ignorant after all. Maybe they were thinking what so many of us are today: It is the confusion—the astoundingly simple questions that remain unanswered, day after day, gnawing at us all and leaving our worst imaginations to run wild—that may be hardest to explain to future generations.

* * *

Thankfully, we have learned a few things in recent weeks. Even if politics, poor testing capacity, and reporting inconsistencies plague the statistics, they are still updated globally each day, giving us at least a sense of the pandemic's evolution. The statistics almost certainly undercount the true impact. To date, they tell us that the coronavirus has killed 3 of every 100,000 humans on the planet, 65 of every 100,000 Belgians (the highest country in the latest per capita tallies), and more Americans than were killed in the 15-year Vietnam War. More so than Wuhan, China (where the virus originated), hotspots like northern Italy, Ecuador's Guayaquil, and New York City have been ravaged. To limit the virus's spread, governments around the world have declared lockdowns of varying severity, collapsing economies and transforming our world unrecognizably. 2020, annus horibilis, is brought to you by the words "social distancing", "flatten the curve", and "covidiot."

After weeks of contradictory news, spiraling death tolls, profound economic worry, and the many small indignities prompted by swiftly imposed lockdown, we are all cracking under the pressure, myself included. In late March, Nina and I caught a German government evacuation flight out of Algiers, and are now adjusting to a very different lifestyle here in central Germany. Our departure was too abrupt to allow us to properly complete our planned Bourexit; our dogs and most of our belongings remain in Algiers until we can get a flight back. (Next week? Next month? Next year?) Nina is continuing her job remotely, while I am continuing writing my book and have begun German lessons. The grand trip we had planned for this summer is definitively off the table, and we have little visibility on what lies ahead.

Amid all the uncertainty, I've somehow mustered the energy to lean into the coronavirus news, obsessively tracking the trends that are reshaping our world. Here's this infovore's reflections from the past weeks of reading, conversing, and thinking:

1. We are terrible at this. Thanks to hindsight bias, the fact that almost none of us remember a global pandemic meant that we lacked the imagination to prepare sufficiently for this one. And as it crept upon us, the fact that we cannot truly comprehend exponential growth led us to underestimate it. In the absence of reliable data, humans have no choice but to decide with our guts, and our guts (at least the guts of the 99% of us who aren't geniuses) can only grasp arithmetic change, not exponential compounding. Governments, of course, have more tools at their disposal, and should be held to a higher standard. By that standard, few have impressed.
 
2. Rethink everything. Until this year, many Americans in my generation believed 9/11 was the moment when everything changed, defining our lives forever. But throughout April, the US lost a full 9/11 worth of people every day-and-a-half. A cataclysm this big is forcing some deep reevaluation. Never before in history have so many people simultaneously reexamined so many long-held beliefs. (Workers should work in the office. Childcare isn't worth anything. Globalization sucks and my country would be better off going it alone. We don't need real-world friends, we've got the internet. If people don't have health insurance, that's their problem, not mine.) The effects—both negative and positive—on the course of human civilization will be tremendous.
 
3. You don't know the crisis is coming until after it hits. Nobody announced on March 1, "Hey, that virus that has ravaged China is now ready to start spreading worldwide. Please stock up on groceries and prepare your families for months of home lockdown and a shutdown of the global economy." Instead, the news kept growing graver by the day, while still feeling somehow abstract. Until one day, seemingly out of the blue, the UN Secretary General was telling us this would be "the greatest challenge the world has faced since WWII."
 
4. Once the crisis hits, people show their true stripes. This is true of world leaders, whose responses ranged from the competent (Germany's Merkel, New Zealand's Ardern, Taiwan's Tsai) to the buffoonish and negligent (UK's Johnson, USA's Trump) to the actively destructive (Russia's Putin, Egypt's Sisi, with others showing occasional tendencies too). Women leaders, as others have noted, are beating the average. Under Bolsonaro, Brazil is challenging North Korea to see who might become the world's first government to fall in the Covid-19 era. Just like national leaders, public figures and pundits have proven their mettle or lack thereof (Tyler Cowen's reliably sanguine coverage of new developments remains as invaluable as ever). So too for the general public, with many citizens sensibly following preventative directives while others spread dangerous conspiracy theories, burn 5G antennas, or trash the experts and elites working to save lives. Human folly knows no limits.
 
5. Everything is possible. The "Overton window"—the range of political options that mainstream thinkers accept—widened dramatically overnight. As a famous sci-fi author recently mused, "The spring of 2020 is suggestive of how much, and how quickly, we can change. It’s like a bell ringing to start a race. Off we go—into a new time." Within days, Covid-19 had delivered policies that would have appeared fantastical just days before. As cataloged in one recent Twitter thread, the American right has won an immigration freeze, re-shoring of manufacturing, and "woke colleges shut down" while US progressives have seen emissions cuts and dramatic leaps toward application of universal basic income and modern monetary theory. (Centrists, a cynic might conclude, just got the virus.) Given how complex the secondary effects of well-studied policies are in normal times, it's a good bet that the swift and severe measures of recent weeks will provoke colossal unforeseen consequences for years to come. Today we can only speculate.
 
6. Culture matters. In crisis, when there's little time for teaching or nudging the masses toward new behaviors, our cultural defaults are all-important. Tell Germans to expand their lines to leave two meters between each person, and they instantly comply. Back in Algeria, not so much. In the past two decades, wearing of masks when traveling or just going out in public became ubiquitous in many dense Asian countries touched by the SARS and MERS epidemics. Adopting universal mask wearing in response to Covid-19 was automatic in those countries, yet remains a struggle in the rest of the world, where the practice feels uncomfortable and foreign. In the US, confusion abounded in the early weeks around mask supplies, types, efficacy, and usage. Today it's clear: Masks of any kind help diminish viral spread. I predict we will come to view the failure to immediately impose universal mask requirements in public spaces as one of our most critical errors, one that enabled the pandemic's spread and cost thousands of lives.
 
7. Inequality bites back. The virus has highlighted the vast gulf dividing the haves from the have-nots. Many of the world economy's winners had long preferred to ignore this fact, and today are finding it harder to do so. The difference is stark both within nations—where lockdown policies may be a nuisance to the wealthy but a death sentence to the vulnerable poor—and between them. Internationally, many countries are woefully unprepared to weather the virus or a prolonged economic crisis. Where rich nations can bunker down and ride out the storm thanks to their stocks of wealth (and capacity to acquire new debt), many poorer countries effectively cannot afford a lockdown of any duration. Yet with their wealthy trade partners' economies frozen, neither can they carry on as normal. The World Food Programme already expects to see a doubling of acute hunger this year. Hungry people don't sit and starve—they move. Without unprecedented aid, get ready for an unprecedented refugee crisis.
 
8. Covid is just the warm-up for the climate crisis. One factor bedeviling our efforts to contain Covid-19's spread is the delay between when an individual contracts the virus and when he/she begins showing symptoms. Many don't show any at all. So how do we expect to tackle an even less visible foe with a delayed impact measured not in days but in decades? This pandemic is revealing much about our capacity to tackle global climate change, and the news ain't good. Look at the poor international coordination, the distrust of capable institutions and elites, and the rampant spread of anti-science conspiracy theories; this performance suggests our odds of beating the climate crisis are dismal. But thinking optimistically, perhaps this crisis will force more people to heed scientists. And the lockdowns have proven to be a boon for animals, in addition to clearing up our polluted skies—welcome developments that citizens worldwide have observed with their own eyes. Sadly, it's not enough. "Despite the vast changes we have made in our lives," one activist writes, "global carbon dioxide emissions are likely to reduce by only about 5.5% this year." To stay below the critical bar of 1.5°C of planetary warming, however, we would need to reduce them by 7.6% annually for the next decade. As he rightly concludes, we now see plainly that consumer action alone isn't sufficient. Corporations must also implement sweeping changes. Not that they will do so willingly. So unless you want to live on a dying planet, get ready for that fight ahead.
 
9. Work-from-home is a double-edged sword. Covid-19 has obliged institutions of all sorts to rapidly digitize, shifting as many of their old physical and in-person operations to the cloud. For many employers and employees, the overnight switch has been wrenching—but perhaps not as wrenching as one would have imagined. Once the initial angst passed, many office workers have discovered that work-from-home arrangements have surprising advantages; maybe we shouldn't go back to the office at all. Many employers are actually thinking along the same lines. How might they save on rent by downsizing the office, moving to a cheaper city, or adding future hires off-site? And here's the rub: If Dunder Mifflin Paper Co can hire Pam to work in her living room down the street in Scranton, Pennsylvania, then they could also hire Priya in Mumbai to do the same—for a fraction of the salary. If the last decades of economic dislocation in the developed world (most acutely in the US) have centered on job losses in skilled manufacturing, next we're likely to see similar dislocation in the middle and upper strata of the workplace. We already knew that white-collar workers were next in line, but what looked before Covid-19 like another multi-decade shift may now be rapidly accelerated. Good news for Priya, bad news for Pam. Which brings me to my final point...
 
10. Get ready. Eventually, we will "hammer and dance" (or at least muddle) our way out of this mess. But once we do, the world won't sit still and give us a moment to catch our breath. Looking for the right time to start that self-improvement project, train up in new skills, or learn a new language? If you're lucky enough to be sitting at home during this crisis, you won't get a better chance than now.

From these notes, you might conclude that I am pessimistic about humanity's present predicament and our future prospects. Far from it. While I am fascinated by the challenges before us, I remain optimistic that we might yet wring much goodness from this crisis. Stay healthy, forget the old "normal", read widely and think deeply, and get ready to roll up your sleeves and dive into the new world that will soon emerge.

For further inspiration, here are 10 sources I have found valuable in recent weeks:
  1. "The Pandemic is a Portal" by Arundhati Roy (Financial Times)
  2. "Did Anyone Predict Coronavirus?" by Tom Chivers (UnHerd)
  3. "The Virus Should Wake Up the West" by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge (Bloomberg)
  4. "The 'New Normal': Thoughts about the Shape of Things to Come in the Post-Pandemic World" by Nicholas Eberstadt (National Bureau of Asian Research)
  5. "Shipwrecked" by Adam Shatz (London Review of Books)
  6. "We Have the Power to Destroy Ourselves Without the Wisdom to Ensure That We Don't" (podcast) by Toby Ord (Edge)
  7. "The New Future of Work: A Conversation with Matt Mullenweg" (podcast) by Sam Harris (Making Sense)
  8. "How Coronavirus Is Shaking Up the Moral Universe" by John Authers (Bloomberg)
  9. "The Coronavirus is Rewriting our Imaginations" by Kim Stanley Robinson (New Yorker)
  10. Marginal Revolution (blog) by Tyler Cowen

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