Some Thoughts On COVID-19

The first pandemic of the modern era will be massively damaging to human society.

If you ask people over a certain age, they can always tell you where they were when they found out about 9/11.

I was a sophomore at Auburn, and my first class that day was at like 1pm, so I enjoyed the great collegiate tradition of sleeping in. Usually when I wake up the first thing I do is check my email. It’s still the first thing I do. That morning my inbox was full with messages on the fraternity mailing list, with things like “pray, a lot of people are dying today.” I turned on the TV just minutes before the first tower collapsed.

Stayed glued to the TV the rest of the day. News coverage was on every channel, even Discovery Channel. Class was cancelled. I went and filled up my car in case I needed to drive the 250 miles back home to Tennessee.

That evening I was in the SGA office in Foy Student Union folding thousands of little yellow ribbons for a very hastily organized memorial service on Samford lawn a few days later. We listened to President Bush’s speech on a small boombox in the office.

I feel like I have been living that day over and over again for the last two weeks.

The news comes sometimes too quickly to even keep track of. It was like that after 9/11, too.

As an Auburn fan, I was looking forward to seeing Auburn Basketball play in the NCAA Tournament, something that until the last few years has been a rarity. Last year we made it to our first Final Four, so there was a lot of excitement.

But then the NCAA announced that the tournament would be played in empty arenas. Shortly thereafter the NBA became the fist league to straight up suspend play. Other leagues followed suit. Then the college conferences started suspending their tournaments, then suspending athletic competition entirely. Less than 48 hours later, the NCAA tournament was officially cancelled.

Colleges started closing or going totally online. Schools followed suit after a delay. My daughter’s school system first announced they would be suspending classes until April 6th. At first they were going to suspend starting on a Thursday, but they finally decided to just suspend outright. At this point given that April 6th is only about two weeks away I am doubtful that date will be met. I am really doubtful that she will even go back to school at all this year given that this epidemic has only just begun to spread.

Just like after 9/11, there is so much news floating around and things are changing so quickly that it is difficult if not impossible for us to keep up with things. Whatever you look at is just a snapshot in time of what we currently think. It is subject to change and more than likely will.

These are new times we’re in, and the change happened so quickly. In two weeks, I went from horsing around with Home Assistant to worrying about whether I could keep my family safe from a pandemic. It feels like there is going to be a Before Corona, and After Corona for our civilization. Eventually it will fade to another chapter in the long history of human pandemics. But it certainly doesn’t feel that way to the people living it. I’m sure the 1918 Influenza Pandemic felt like the end of the world to many. And the Black Death, and the Plague of Justinian. It’s a long history we’ve had with pestience.

If anything, we are so fortunate to have gone a century without having to experience this in the United States. We’ve had a few close calls (the early 2000s SARS epidemic comes to mind), but very few people alive today remember a worldwide pandemic of the severity of this one. Even typing that sentence feels weird. Like I’m writing science fiction and not a blog post while it is actually taking place.

New diseases can emerge anywhere. The Swine Flu epidemic (which incidentally involved the same strain of Influenza as the 1918 Spanish Flu) emerged in Mexico. MERS (Middle-East Respiratory Syndrome, a disease also caused by a coronavirus from the same family as SARS and COVID-19) began in Egypt.

Some people are trying to place the blame on China. And very likely they (and when I say “they” I am speaking of the Chinese government here, by the way, not the Chinese people) do share some blame for perhaps downplaying the initial severity of the virus. But that is really irrelevant at this point because there was basically no chance they could contain this to just Wuhan, or Hubei province. Our world is so interconnected at this point that it had very likely already spread before it was even recognized as a distinct disease.

The Chinese, in locking down Wuhan and Hubei, may have even bought us some time. The problem was we weren’t paying attention.

This should not have come as a surprise. I was watching videos on Reddit in December and January of people in Wuhan being loaded into “containment boxes” in the back of pickups. It was very clear to anyone paying attention that this was bad and that, like SARS before it, it was very likely not to be contained. And if I am watching this on a large public website, surely people in governments around the world are paying attention, right?

Guess not.

What we didn’t know at that time was that it had already spread. Later reports seem to indicate it was in Washington state as early as late December or early January but, again like in China, it was not immediately recognized as a distinct disease. People just assumed it was just several bad cases of the flu.

The world was blindsided by this, but it shouldn’t have been. Not only was there a full month at least of warning, but pandemics had been a part of human history for literally the entirety of our species’ existence. We have perhaps been lulled into a false sense of security by modern medicine having cured a lot of those diseases that used to ravage humanity on a regular basis. People still get Bubonic Plague every year, but antibiotics can treat it. Smallpox has been totally eradicated and we’re almost there with Polio as well. Pandemics are just not something that a normal person even thinks about. We’re used to seeing news about them going away.

The problem is exacerbated by our fragmented tribalized world. If we don’t have a way to track these emerging diseases in a unified, globalized way, we will always be one step behind the disease. We can’t coordinate a global response to track, supply and treat these diseases. Every country is doing their own thing, sometimes dramatically different from the approach their neighbor is taking. But we’re all part of the same species, all interconnected together through travel and trade. We will never be able to defeat this if we don’t all work together on it.

Climate change and habitat loss will mean that this sort of thing will become more common, not less, in the future. As more people come into contact with previously wild areas, the greater the chance of an exposure to a new pathogen. All while diseases that we have previously beaten, but not eradicated, develop new strains that are resistent to our drugs. It’s a cat-and-mouse game played with peoples’ health.

The death toll continues to rise. As of this writing of this post, Italy had nearly 800 deaths in one day. I’ve seen video of Italian Army trucks in Bergamo carrying away the corpses of the dead because the local crematoriums are overloaded and they can’t bury them fast enough. This is a surreal scene to modern eyes but one that would look quite familar to a person from 700 years ago. Plague pits turn up every so often in archaeological digs and are an amazing resource. Will that be the case 700 years hence?

A hundred years is a long time to go without a massive global pandemic. But maybe this time it would be a good idea to pass the lessons we’re learning the hard way down to our descendents.

The economic damage from this is almost too much to fathom. Right now, global trade is at a virtual standstill. Borders are closed, businesses are suspended. People that can are working from home. Those that can’t but are still employed face the very real possibility of exposure. And many, many more people are now without work.

We are facing the very real possibility of an economic downturn that makes 2008 look like a speedbump. Governments around the world need to be taking coordinated efforts to be sure that people don’t starve or go homeless during the pandemic, and that we are able to turn the economy back on once the pandemic has ended. And that means money. Lots of money.

The thing is, people are pushing this idea that you need to fund either businesses (through loans or direct payments) or people directly through cash payments. Neither of these will work without the other.

We can’t just pay businesses to keep them afloat if people are too afraid to go out and spend money. Especially not without a guarantee that they would use the money for payroll and not to further enrich business owners. It also rewards what has, frankly, been wildly irresponsible behavior by many businesses over the last few years who, during one of the longest runs of economic prosperity ever (and after having been given a massive tax cut!) turned around and spent the excesses on stock buybacks to prop up the price and reward shareholders rather than saving money for an emergency. I mean, even without COVID-19, it was pure lunacy to believe that the good times would continue forever. They always end.

At the same time, just paying money directly to people will only go so far. It will be sure that they don’t go homeless or hungry (which is what we need to be doing immediately), but will not significantly boost large sectors of the economy because those sectors are literally closed for business and may not even reopen at all.

I am not an economist so I will defer to experts on this. But it seems to me like we should tackle one thing at at time. Right now, make sure people don’t go hungry or homeless. That’s the last thing we need during a pandemic. But we need a long-term plan to help businesses as well.

There is going to be a recession. I don’t see any way right now that there isn’t. Even if aliens showed up and cured every COVID-19 patient overnight, extensive damage has already been done. Damage is going to continue until the pandemic is over or at least managed enough that people can start working and trading again. But it will be the decisions of our political leaders that determine whether this is a short recession, a 2008 style recession, or a new great depression.

Given the caliber of leaders I currently see on the world stage, I am not very optimistic.

Ultimately, I hope the economy that emerges from this period will be more resilant to black swan events like COVID-19. The reality is that this is going to change a lot of things and we can’t go back to the “roaring teens” like nothing happened. Everything that emerges from this period needs to be made more shock resistent, and the people will need to be as well. We can’t necessarily count on there always being good times and planning for the bad times should, by definition, be the responsibility of every government, every business and every person as well.

Two weeks ago, I was worried about booking hotel rooms for our planned train trip across America. Those concerns seem so quaint now.

Ultimately, humanity will survive this.

96% of people who get this survive (at least currently, we won’t know the actual percentage until the pandemic is over). To put that into perspective, the case-fatality rate for Spanish Flu was about 2.5%, very similar to COVID-19. But Spanish Flu also may have killed up to 100 million people athough it is difficult ot know an actual number. We probably will never know a true number with COVID-19 either. The Black Death is believed to have killed between 30% and 60% of all of Europe’s population, and it would be 200 years before it recovered.

But it did recover.

The human species that emerges from this period will be different from that which entered it. We will hopefully have a better understanding of the importance of monitoring and responding quickly, worldwide, to infectious diseases. We will have a new awareness of how interconnected our modern world is and how important it is that we care about others, whether they are our neighbor or on the other side of the world. Because all of our safety depends on each other. And hopefully our economy will be more resiliant as well.

The last thing we should do is turn inward. That will not stop this from happening, it will only ensure that we are not prepared when it inevitably does again.

We will get through this together. I know that seems little comfort to the frightened, the dying and the mourning, but we will pull through this and we will be a more resiliant when it is all over.

In the meantime, care for yourself. Care for your family and friends. Mourn the dead. Take it one day at a time.

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