A Little Hope for Beyond the Epidemic

After a week more of challenging Coronavirus news from the scary to continuing sad events to the downright ridiculous, I was reflecting on what the best news was.

The record speed on gene sequencing of the virus and progress on virus vaccines are definitely up there. In the end though, I think this politico article contained some of the most cheering thoughts.

The 30 predictions for what the biggest long term impacts of the virus certainly contain some scary things. In amongst the challenges though, there are also a good number of things I agree could well happen and that really are for the positive:

  • A possible Decline in polarization, – Peter T. Coleman. The shock of the virus is indeed a “common enemy” of sorts and it already seems to be bringing people from across the globe and political spectrum together to collaborate. Maybe it’ll make us remember there is not so much that separates us after all.
  • A possible Return to faith in serious experts, – Tom Nichols. This hasn’t fully happened yet in some places (here’s looking at you USA..) where some people are still in denial or dismissal of the dangers we face, but there certainly seems to be an uptick in the respect for people who really bring the right scientific knowledge to bear.
  • A possible Reduction in Individualism, – Eric Klinenberg. In the dystopian version of this we may push towards more totalitarianism. However, it seems more likely that there will be more understanding that the collective of society needs safety nets and collaboration for everybody’s good.
  • A possible Opening for stronger family care, – Ai-Jen Poo. In line with the previous prediction, a recognition that a better, deeper and more inclusive healthcare system benefits everybody, not just the individual.
  • Possible Revived trust in institutions, – Michiko Kakutani. Along the lines of Tom Nichols’ prediction, our public institutions are playing a crucial role in coordinating responses to the virus. Some have done amazingly well, others have struggled, but the value is clear for all to see. The value of investing institutions should be more obvious than ever.
  • The possibility of More restraints on mass consumption, – Sonia Shah. Sonia Shah’s prediction focuses on a reduction of impact on the planet and a greater orientation towards community rather than goods. I’d take this further: in the event of long quarantines, we will all realize we miss some simple things terribly and some others not at all. From huge conferences to outrageous/ostentatious trinkets, there could be a meaningful reset. Some of this will (sadly) be economically enforced and have its own economic impacts, but some will likely come from a simple recognition of a lack of need.

Lastly, the most profound prediction in the piece for me is Matthew Continetti’s prediction of A change in our understanding of ‘change.’ which I quote in full here:

“Paradigm shift” is among the most overused phrases in journalism. Yet the coronavirus pandemic may be one case where it applies. American society is familiar with a specific model of change, operating within the existing parameters of our liberal democratic institutions, mostly free market and society of expressive individualism. But the coronavirus doesn’t just attack the immune system. Like the Civil War, Great Depression and World War II, it has the potential to infect the foundations of free society. State and local government are moving at varying and sometimes contrary speeds to address a crisis of profound dimensions. The global economy has entered the opening stages of a recession that has the potential to become a depression. Already, large parts of America have shut down entirely. Americans have said goodbye to a society of frivolity and ceaseless activity in a flash, and the federal government is taking steps more often seen during wartime. Our collective notions of the possible have changed already. If the danger the coronavirus poses both to individual health and to public health capacity persists, we will be forced to revise our very conception of “change.” The paradigm will shift.

Matthew Continetti // resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

This resonates strongly with the kind of thinking Nassim Taleb so clearly defines in his Incerto series of books. As a society, we naturally assume a certain set of facts will persist over time, we begin to optimize for them, we overfit, we assume our assumptions are laws of nature. behaviors reinforce our beliefs as we benefit from that adaptation and we continue to overfit even more closely. Then suddenly out of nowhere:

  • We can’t leave the house,
  • We can no longer fly to another country,
  • Visiting your parents could mean you are the carrier of a disease which could kill them, or their neighbors,
  • Supply chains cease to function,
  • etc.

A tiny organism with no brain is able to cause such fundamental change. This is an outlier event that has always been “possible” but not probable. Further, as a society, we basically forget that it could happen or simply hope it doesn’t (a true Taleb “Black Swan”). Hence it wasn’t prepared for. (*)

Part of the problem right now is that some of our leaders still haven’t grasped that such fundamental change is possible. Their loss aversion to the previous reality is so great, they can’t see it.

This might be forgivable to some extent. There are possibly scenarios where the virus could be beaten with less serious societal/economic impact. Human attachment might make one tempted to hope those could work out. However, given the level of uncertainty about almost everything to do with the virus, it is extremely foolish to try. In the absence of information about a major threat, the reaction is in fact extremely easy as Taleb will tell you: you do everything possible to hedge against the danger. There are no complicated decisions to make and no optimization problems to solve.

If nothing else, the virus will serve as a warning that unexpected things can happen. Our world order had gotten highly fragile and over-fitted to a particular market reality. This shock will hurt badly, but in doing so it will hopefully make us a bit more resistant to the next shock(s) to come!

Stay safe and sane!

Photo by John Kappa on Unsplash.

(*) Note I’m not saying it could or even should have been completely prepared for. You can’t effectively hedge against every edge case. But you can leave more resilience and adaptiveness in the system than most modern societies have.

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