And it must follow, as the night the day: thou canst not then be afraid of any virus. Photo by Chris Barbalis on Unsplash.
In many parts of the world, including where I live, Covid19 has turned things upside-down. Thousands of people—soon to be tens of thousands—are dying every day from a disease that’s novel and still not very well understood. Families everywhere are losing loved ones. Healthcare workers, first responders, and also those who work in logistics, transport, and the food supply chain, are heroes on the front lines of the battle that are putting themselves at risk every day to serve others. More people will die, and life will become harder for many who do not. These are facts and can no longer be avoided, even in the rosiest, best case scenario. We each need to internalize these facts in our own way, and cope with them on our own time.
I don’t want to downplay the seriousness of what’s happening in the world. The coming days and weeks are sure to be grim, no matter what we do today. However, I’m an optimist at heart. I firmly believe that every cloud, even the darkest, scariest one, has a silver lining. This is true even of Covid19. While most attention right now is, rightfully, focused on avoiding the worst case scenario and “flattening the curve,” I’d like to take a slightly different, longer-term perspective.
I find that zooming out and looking at the big picture helps a lot, especially in times of crisis. While the short term outlook may be dark, things will get better over the medium to long term. And there is historical precedent: pandemics that were orders of magnitude worse than the present one actually heralded a “golden age of prosperity and new opportunities” (to quote the Wikipedia page on a far worse pandemic). If we choose to respond to this crisis in a mature way, there’s no reason to believe that the current situation should be any different.
Hopefully these thoughts bring you the same degree of comfort that they have brought me.
“Most of us seldom take the trouble to think. It is a troublesome and fatiguing process and often leads to uncomfortable conclusions. But crises and deadlocks when they occur have at least this advantage, that they force us to think.” - Jawaharlal Nehru
The worst will be over soon
The hardest part of adjusting to a new reality is always the beginning.
We have entered a new reality, and it caught most of us by surprise. Covid19 will make life more complicated for a little while. The most acute issues—overwhelmed hospitals, hoarding, shortages of medical supplies and even some basic goods—will be over in a matter of days or weeks in the areas that are currently hardest-hit. It will be a tense few days, but if China and South Korea are any indication, the virus can be contained, at least in the short term. Even in Italy and Spain, where Covid19 has taken a horrific toll, the growth in new cases has slowed and the total case load will begin to decrease in a matter of days.
We don’t know exactly how long containment will take (and it will happen at different times in different places). We don’t know whether there will be new outbreaks in places that got things under control. But over the coming days, we will begin to settle into a “new normal.” It won’t look and feel exactly like what came before, but it will begin to feel normal, over time. Even before there’s a vaccine—something that will likely take at least 12-18 months—we’ll better understand the virus and the disease it causes, and how to contain it and treat the afflicted. The incredible demand spike on healthcare resources in the areas that were hit the hardest will subside, and those areas will quickly become capable of offering support and guidance to areas that are hit later. Mortality will fall.
In the grand scheme of things, a few weeks is not a very long time. If you begin to feel anxious, as I regularly do these days, take a deep breath and repeat after me: “This, too, shall pass.”
We’ll be more productive
Of course, not everyone is able to work from home, and one of the great tragedies of Covid19 is how it hits the poorest, most vulnerable populations the hardest. As each affected region decides on the most appropriate policy response, they must bear this in mind and ensure that those hit the hardest aren’t left behind.
For those who are able to work from home, however, the present situation might be a golden opportunity to be more productive. The story of how, in spite of being a mediocre student while at school, Isaac Newton developed calculus, optics, and the law of gravitation while working from home in 1666 because Cambridge was closed during the Great Plague has become an oft-repeated meme in the past few days. That may be an extreme example, but a few weeks to work from home might do wonders for your productivity (as well as for your health).
For those who aren’t already used to it, remote work takes some getting used to (here are some great tips). Once you are used to it, however—once you have a comfortable workspace and a productive schedule—you’ll begin to see the magic in having more control over your routine and less distraction throughout the day from colleagues (although pesky family members present their own set of challenges!). Remote meetings are almost always more productive than in-person meetings, if for no other reason than that you can multitask your way through a bad meeting. Turn off the camera, put on headphones and make a sandwich, exercise, or do the dishes.
It’s a great opportunity to do deep work, whether for the day job or for yourself. Have you ever thought about reading more, about writing more, or about trying your hand at art or music? Now is a great opportunity to try it. Dozens of museums, forced to close their physical doors, have opened virtual doors to the world by making their collections available to explore online, for free. Covid19 has also led to a flourishing of online group activities and classes.
I strongly suspect that many people and many companies, forced to try remote work for the first time, will be pleasantly surprised at how much it can reduce costs and increase productivity. As a result, it will become more of a social norm even after the risk of Covid19 is long gone.
We’ll get better at hygiene
Parts of Asia, such as Hong Kong and Singapore, learned important lessons from SARS in 2003 that have proved lifesaving this time around. Anyone who has spent significant time in these cities in recent years is used to regular disinfection of public surfaces, such as elevator buttons and escalator handrails, and to a much higher awareness of the risk of communicable disease in general—witness how it’s long been common practice to wear a facemask in these places when one is feeling ill. The rest of the world has a lot of catching up to do.
I didn’t know how to properly wash my hands just a few weeks ago. Recently, however, we’ve all had a lot of practice at hand washing and at other hygienic practices such as not touching our face with dirty hands. Even handshaking is pretty unhygienic and a great way to spread germs, whether this new coronavirus or something more benign.
We may finally all learn how to properly wash our hands, and to do so regularly. If I never see another bathroom door that can only be pulled open from the inside, after I wash my hands, with no paper towels in sight—which I encounter on an almost daily basis while out and about—that will be a major step forward. We’ll see a lot more touchless technology emerge: in addition to touchless payments, there will be more touchless toilets, urinals, and faucets, touchless elevator buttons, even touchless doors.
These practices will go a long way towards reducing the likelihood of recurrence of Covid19, something which has not happened in places like China that have begun to reopen. And they can and should be maintained even when not in the midst of a dangerous pandemic. They will save many lives that might otherwise be lost to the common flu or other pathogens.
We’ll reflect on the things that really matter
Like many others, I’ve been systematically cutting things out of my life over the past few days and weeks by necessity. I’m staying home and not traveling. I’m preparing more of my own meals, I’m eating simpler, healthier food, and I’m hardly going outside at all. The size of my social circle has shrunk dramatically. The people and the things that are left, however, feel truly precious and I feel grateful for them—and for my health—every day.
Life is a lot less exciting. I’ve chosen to focus on the “simple pleasures”: spending time with family. Writing to the people that matter the most. Doing deep, meaningful work (with much less distraction). Reading and writing. Meditating. Walking in the park, and paying attention to what’s going on all around me.
For someone whose life has been relatively full for a long time—full of things, of people, of places, and of activities—I’m genuinely surprised how, these past few weeks, I’ve come to appreciate the simplest things, such as my health, having access to healthy food and clean water, and having time with family. I’m also surprised by just how little I actually need in order to be comfortable. I suspect that this realization will be with me long after this crisis ends.
We’ll get time with the people we love
Modern life can seem very fast-paced. Many of us live far away from home and family. We move for school, for work, or to find better dating prospects, and busy schedules make it difficult to find time to spend with family (even remotely!). If we’re lucky, we might get a few short days at home around the holidays, once or twice a year, before it’s back to the daily grind.
It wasn’t always this way, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be this way. Most of us will work many jobs and go on many dates, but we only get one family, so it seems strange that modern society suggests that we put things like career before family.
Why not take this opportunity to spend more time reconnecting with family? I know how tough it can be to stay with your parents for an extended period of time. It’s the perfect example of something that’s incredibly important but not time-critical: most of us, somewhere in the back of our minds, feel that we really ought to spend more time getting to know our parents while we still can, but it never feels especially urgent. We take for granted that they’ll always be there for us, so it can wait.
Take my word for it: they won’t always be there. And it cannot wait. The time to prioritize loved ones is now. Play some board games together. Share stories from your childhood. Ask each other hard questions, and get to know each other better. I promise you’ll thank me later. (If you’re looking for some inspiration, here are some resources for starter questions: The School of Life, Conversation Games, The Ultimate List of Conversation Starter Card Decks.)
I couldn’t put it better than Jaron Lanier:
It could reintroduce people to their families. It might make people a little more grounded. It helps you reappreciate the wealth we have in a place like a home. It’s kind of a revelation that we have the good fortune to even be able to do this.
We’ll get better at understanding and estimating risk
In retrospect, the Covid19 crisis was largely predictable. (After all, a similar coronavirus caused the SARS epidemic in 2003.) In fact, some smart people did predict that it, or something like it, was likely to occur. We—and our governments—chose to ignore their many, many warnings to this effect. We were even warned about the lack of basic healthcare supplies such as masks and ventilators. We ignored that warning too. Now we’re paying the price.
nCov19 is not the first virus to leap the species barrier and infect humans (this is called “zoonotic transfer”). While its origins are still unclear, it appears to have originated from bats, which would make it at least the sixth such virus in the past 26 years. It has happened dozens of times, maybe hundreds of times, and will keep happening as long as we continue to encroach on wildlife habitats. (For the record—you guessed it—we were warned about this, too.)
The severity of this preventable crisis speaks volumes to a general lack of preparedness, a failure of imagination, and the fact that many people, including (perhaps especially) world leaders, are very bad at math. We appear to be incapable of collectively estimating and preparing for risk, especially the risk of “black swan” events, and of understanding and responding to threats that grow exponentially.
Just as the financial crisis of 2008 showed us how broken financial risk models were, Covid19 has shown us that many of our models of global health risks are also fundamentally broken. The world outside of China had months to prepare for Covid19, and yet most people and most leaders didn’t take the threat seriously until it was already too late. The places that did take the threat seriously from the beginning—places like Hong Kong and Singapore—acted swiftly and as a result have prevented serious outbreaks, saving many lives.
People and governments everywhere will be much less complacent when the next crisis arrives. Maybe we’ll even learn an important lesson and listen to the experts when they warn us about other serious threats like climate change.
We’ll be more mindful consumers
Like many Millennials, I’ve been fortunate to grow up in a place and during a period of unprecedented wealth and prosperity. As a result, I’ve taken a lot for granted. I began to realize this during a ten day silent meditation retreat last year, when I had to give up everything but the bare essentials for a few days.
The past few weeks have made this even clearer. I’ve noticed that I am suddenly more mindful of consuming even the most basic things: reaching for a tissue, I’ll ask myself, do I really need that tissue right now, or might it be more useful later on? I’ve noticed myself using just a little less toothpaste, spooning a little less yogurt into my bowl, cognizant of the fact that, for the first time in my life, I might not be able to buy more tomorrow.
This is an important, valuable lesson. The world will be a much better place if we’re all a little bit more mindful about the decisions we make throughout each day to consume, and the impact those decisions have, collectively, on the world.
We’ll learn to empathize
The reality for most people alive today is not a life that’s full of plenty, not a world of limitless resources. When you’ve grown up in a world of plenty, however, that can be difficult to fathom. There’s a fundamental asymmetry in the way our brains work: we tend to notice things only in their absence (as in, “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone”). This is one reason most people are risk averse. So it can be hard to appreciate the things we have and take for granted, and by the same token it can be hard to appreciate that many, or most, others don’t have these things. For this reason, going without some of the things that we’re used to for a little while can help us empathize with people who have not been as fortunate as we have.
I think this is one reason Americans struggle to identify with the rest of the world, and even with the poor and unfortunate within our own borders. It becomes easy to vilify and dehumanize “them” when “their” world and “their” reality are so alien to us. It’s very easy to think, “Why don’t they just do the things that we do, so they can have the things we have?” and, in the process, to discount the degree to which someone else’s reality may be quite different than our own.
This experience may help us begin to understand the deprivation that many people face, and how it spurs them to do things like emigrate in search of a better life in spite of huge risks. In a time when even the wealthy face sudden, unexpected challenges such as working from home, taking care of the kids while school is closed, worrying about being able to buy food and basic supplies, caring for more vulnerable relatives, etc., maybe we can begin to empathize and understand how and why life is difficult for other people. The experience may help us understand how a leg up, or a handout, or access to healthcare can sometimes make a big, positive difference.
Healthcare will improve
The United States will suffer more from Covid19 than other wealthy countries with better, stronger healthcare systems. This is because tens of millions of uninsured, underinsured, and undocumented residents may be afraid to visit a doctor, get tested for the disease, or take time off from work, even if they feel sick, for fear of losing income, receiving huge medical bills, or worse, such as deportation.
This critical part of the narrative has been largely missing from the healthcare debate in the United States, probably because we haven’t faced a major public health crisis for decades. That the system is totally broken is obvious even in normal times; in times of crisis like this, it touches the lives of every resident and becomes impossible for even the most out of touch politician to ignore. As Andreas Antonopoulos discussed in an excellent interview this week, this crisis is showing the American healthcare system for what it is: an appalling hybrid with the worst characteristics of both a private system (no coverage for the most vulnerable) and a public system (no competition, high prices).
No man, woman, or child is an island, especially when it comes to public health. Viruses don’t respect socioeconomic boundaries, so the health of every person directly affects the health of everyone around them. No matter how wealthy or privileged you are, your health is only as good as the health of the most vulnerable person in your community.
It’s not just that unhealthy people, without access to healthcare, may spread cold and flu, and more serious diseases, to classmates, coworkers, and community members around them. There are second-order effects as well. Unhealthy people make for unhappy, unhealthy families and communities, and, as the New York Times explains, this can lead to a downward spiral:
When a health crisis hits entire segments of society, it can set off a cycle in which declining economic status leads to rising rates of chronic illness. That, in turn, further depresses productivity and raises health care costs, leading to more poverty, which leads to more disease.
Healthcare in the United States is the perfect example of a Moloch trap: the present system is terrible, and as a result everyone is at risk, but there is seemingly no way out. Some big-picture thinking, more understanding of second order effects, and a dose of compassion might be just what the doctor ordered.
More people will have paid sick leave
There are only two OECD countries where paid sick leave is not guaranteed, South Korea and the United States. While the numbers have risen slightly in recent years, going into this crisis, 33.6 million Americans, or 24% of civilian workers, still do not have access to paid sick leave. Those who earn less and those who perform hourly, occasional, or seasonal work (such as construction and farming) are particularly vulnerable. A shocking 54% of Latinx workers lack access to any form of paid sick leave.
Covid19 has rapidly raised awareness of this issue and its consequences. More people are understanding that, just like the lack of access to reliable healthcare, lack of paid sick leave puts the entire population at risk. Those without are more likely to attend work even when they’re not feeling well, putting others at risk. There is evidence that paid sick leave reduces incidence of flu in the areas where it’s widely available: by 5% in normal times and by 40% when the flu is at its worst. It reduces spending on emergency services. While skimping on health benefits may save employers a few dollars in the short term, paid sick leave actually saves money over the long term by reducing turnover. It also leads to a host of other benefits.
What’s more, there’s long been a norm in many industries and workplaces that you should be at work even if you’re not feeling well. I think it’s safe to say that we’re laying that dangerous norm to rest as well.
War will be less likely
As bad as Covid19 is, I’d choose it over war any day. While shortages, suffering, and deprivation are nothing new, and the twentieth century saw more than its share, most of this tragedy was man-made, directly or indirectly the result of human conflict. Even the worst epidemics, such as Spanish Flu and Ebola, were to a large extent exacerbated by war and conflict.
There’s a funny thing about humans: we tend only to see our differences, and we allow them to divide us in silly and arbitrary ways until a greater threat emerges, one that’s more different. I’ve long wondered if world peace could only be achieved after humanity is attacked by aliens. I thought climate change might do it, but in spite of the fact that it poses long-term existential risk, the “game” is too long and it’s developing so slowly that most still don’t see the risk and aren’t willing to make sacrifices now to avert calamity in a few generations.
This virus is an alien threat of a different kind. It’s the rare threat that transcends politics, geography, and socio-economic status—and, unlike global warming, it’s immediate. As a result, it has the potential to unite much of humanity behind a common cause, if we choose to come together—to share data, treatments, supplies, and the like—rather than closing borders, amplifying toxic nationalism, and letting it divide us even further. This has actually begun to happen in some places.
Covid19 is the clearest possible message that the things that unite us, in sickness and in health, are much greater than those which divide us. In this way, it’s not only better than a war: it could usher in a new era of global cooperation that actually lessens the risk of war—that is, if we want it.
Conclusion: becoming “unstuck”
“Do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger men.” - John F. Kennedy
The nature of human society seems to be that, over the long term, things tend to get better for a while for a lot of people, but then they become stuck. They get stuck for lots of reasons: the revolutionaries grow up and lose their appetite for change, a critical mass of people become happy and wealthy enough that they lose their appetite for change, stalemate occurs, etc. The best explanation I’ve seen of this phenomenon is the excellent article Meditations on Moloch.
When things become stuck, as they inevitably do, the only way out seems to be something dramatic such as war, revolution, or a crisis like a pandemic. (Then, after a while, the process repeats itself.)
Over the past few decades, modern society has gotten stuck in a number of frustrating ways: climate change, stagnating real wages and an increasing gap between rich and poor, ineffectual politics, and increasing US-China rivalry, just to name a few. Lack of universal health care and paid sick leave, as described above, are also good examples.
This crisis represent a once-in-a-century opportunity to get society “unstuck” in some important ways. Healthcare, education, and government, three of the most stubborn, risk-averse institutions, are being forced to evolve as we speak. Many others will follow suit. While the next few weeks and months will be difficult, a lot of good may lie just over the horizon. As Ray Dalio puts it:
These bad periods were like cleansing storms that got rid of weaknesses and excesses… and returned the fundamentals to a sounder footing, albeit painfully.
What we do with this opportunity is up to us. There is great risk that the extraordinary measures being put in place today to combat the epidemic, from closed borders to invasions of privacy, persist long after the epidemic ends. If these measures aren’t temporary, they could make the treatment far worse than the disease. I’m hopeful that we can make the necessary long-term changes, such as better healthcare, better hygiene, and more openness, without sacrificing basic rights. I’m hopeful that we choose to respond not by building walls and blaming others, but rather by uniting to face this common threat, building more resilient and inclusive institutions, and staying unstuck for as long as possible.