The new corona virus: Opportunity in catastrophe


The news are now dominated by the new corona virus pandemic. And for good reason, for the pandemic touches almost every aspect of our lives: our jobs, our social interactions, our schools and even our ability to stay in touch with family. For most professionally active adults in the West, who were born after the last great war and have never lived under armed conflict, what is happening now is the greatest disruption of commercial, social, financial and health care systems they've ever witnessed.

Indeed, our present situation is a very serious one. Should the pandemic be allowed to spread in an uncontrolled fashion, most of the work force could fall ill concurrently, compromising our most essential systems. Who would be there to deliver our food, maintain our basic utilities—water, gas, electricity—in working order, or even take care of us in case we fell ill ourselves? However limited the mortality rate of COVID-19 may be, if the disease makes a large percentage of the population ill at the same time, dramatic social break down could follow.

Yet, despite the seriousness of our situation, there are good reasons to think that not only did we get lucky, but an opportunity has forced itself upon us that may be of enormous value in the future. As Bill Gates and many others had been warning us—see video insert below—a global viral pandemic was an inevitability. Things like this are bound to happen in an interconnected, globalized economy in which people travel around the world regularly for both work and leisure; where basic supply chains span the globe. So the basic question has never been 'if,' but 'how bad' it was going to be.




Indeed, the last major viral pandemic, in 1918, was also propelled by the massive movement of people—armies—around the world for the purpose of waging war. Today, the movement of people and goods is vastly larger and farther-reaching. So only naive wishful thinking and an ostrich attitude—that of burying one's head in the sand to avoid seeing the obvious—prevented us from acknowledging that what is happening now was inevitable.

Given this context, we have been tremendously lucky: the new corona virus has a relatively low mortality rate, compared to the likes of ebola or the 1918 "Spanish flu" virus (which, by the way, didn't come from Spain, but likely from the USA, France or China). Moreover, unlike the "Spanish flu"—which affected young, professionally active adults most severely—the new corona virus affects mostly the elderly, retired part of the population.

I am not saying that the lives of older people are any less valuable than those of younger ones. In fact, a case could be made that, if anything, the reverse statement might hit closer to the mark. However, the social disruption of incapacitating professionally active people—who deliver our food, ensure our utilities keep on working, and take care of us in case we fall ill—is certainly higher than incapacitating retirees. This is merely an objective observation, not a value judgment.

I am also not trying to minimize the drama and loss caused by the new corona virus. For those who perished from it, as well as their families, the current pandemic is as bad as any pandemic could possibly be. For them it is—for very legitimate reasons—offensive to minimize its impact, for they've already lost what was dearest to them.

But it could have been a lot worse. The present pandemic is serious enough to force us to prepare ourselves better for the next, potentially much more destructive one. Yet, it is not a force that can decimate our civilization. As such, it serves as a kind of wake up call, a painful warning that should force us to get our act together. Without it, the next time round our civilization could collapse.

There is another potentially positive side to the drama we are undergoing: the present pandemic offers us an opportunity to revise our unsustainable way of life and experiment with alternatives. In fact, it forces us to try the alternatives, which we would probably have never done otherwise. For instance, we are now forced to dramatically reduce the out-of-control travel binge we have been indulging in for decades. In an era of highly effective and ubiquitous telepresence technology and video conferencing, hundreds of thousands of corporate managers have nonetheless been traveling half way around the globe—multiple times a year—for business meetings. Airplane tickets have become so ridiculously cheap—far cheaper than the actual cost of flying, if we take sustainability and carbon footprint into account—that, every year, multiple and massive human migrations take place: we call them 'holidays.'

Now, the new corona virus is forcing us to think and act more locally; to work more from home as opposed to clogging highways, practically eliminating traffic jams. This sudden change is dramatically reducing pollution and perhaps even forcing us to connect more with our homes, families and immediate environment. It is forcing us to rediscover the richness of what is immediately around us, as opposed to exotic, far distant lands. These aren't bad things. Hopefully, we will have the wisdom to keep some of it after we come out of this painful exercise, as opposed to going back to our crazy old ways. We can turn our present misery into something of tremendous long-term value, on which the sanity and lives of future generations may very well depend.

At an economic level, the devastating effect of the present pandemic is plain to see. Businesses are struggling to keep going. On a more personal note, my pension fund has shrunk to levels comparable to those of several years ago, which certainly isn't fun. However, even here there is an opportunity, if we only pay attention: for decades we have—insanely—linked economic health with growth. The reigning corporate wisdom has been that a business that doesn't grow is a dead business. Yet, our planet isn't growing; it has the same basic resources today that it had millions of years ago. And it also has the same capacity for absorbing pollution without unpleasant consequences. So growth just can't go on forever.

Eventually, we will have to find a way to break our economic dependence on growth. This conclusion is as obvious as it is inescapable. The problem is that we live under a system that stimulates irresponsible pillaging until the eleventh hour: we know we will have to stop doing it at some point but, until then, we will rush even more and try to pillage more than the next guy; just like the race driver who tries to brake at the very last moment before the curve, risking life and limb in the process. This is the reigning psychology of Western capitalism, a psychology of collective suicide. Perhaps the present pandemic will force us to break away from it, to look into the possibility of separating economic health from growth. If it does, then this, too, is a good thing.

For now, our focus must be on surviving the outbreak with the minimum possible level of loss and suffering. But as we do so, it doesn't hurt to pay attention to the changes being forced upon us, and think about whether these changes are worth keeping for the long run, even after the pandemic subsides. For instance, we have the technology to continue to embrace remote work and video conferencing, which we haven't done more broadly thus far merely because of prejudice and force of habit. But now that we are being forced to make this option work, we can learn a thing or two. A lot of good can come out of an otherwise very difficult and painful situation, if only we pay attention.
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12 comments:

  1. Economic growth is a misnomer. There is the same amount of wealth that was on the planet and will ever be. The materials will change forms and remain in existence. The plant kingdom and animal kingdom altered materials enough for human being to evolve.
    The human beings have depleted and pushed the earth into the position that it may not be able to support human life. The problems facing the planet are global and we are still having regional governments.
    My article on wealth may be a good point to consider.
    http://www.ananddamani.com/blog/the-earth-is-rich-so-are-the-animals-and-plants-why-are-humans-poor/

    Loving all your arguments and the metaphysical group discussions Bernado and grateful to all for all your writings.

    Best,
    Ananddamani.com

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  2. it's easy for this kind of message to get taken the wrong way but … how else do you think we should be?! wallowing in our own pity?! i'm okay - let's make something of it !!

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  3. As usual great article Bernardo. If one follows a philosophy that teaches "you only learn from hard times. Good times only teach you lies" then of course this is the opportunity of a life time. I've always felt humans are far more effective at being reactive than proactive. This gives us an opportunity to shine. I think we will have many such opportunities in the near future. The average person has absolutely no idea how dependent we are on man made technological systems. 50 years ago a large percentage of drivers could tinker with their car if there were problems. Now if something breaks all you can do is open the hood and look at the engine not having a clue what to do. I'm convinced this dependence is going to cause a catastrophic event at some point. However the key here is not to be afraid and if someone follows your views there is nothing to be afraid of. I'm of the mind that there is a reason for our existence as human beings and a big part of that is to learn and dealing with "bad" experiences is the root of that learning. A truly wise man would almost wish for life to kick him in the teeth from time to time.

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  4. "the new corona virus affects mostly the elderly, retired part of the population" This is not true. Over 50 % of Dutch ICU patients are under 50. I think the good doctor should write only about philosophy, computer science and corporate strategy which are his expertise.

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    1. Every article about the corona virus on nu.nl has a summary at the bottom, wherein you can read this (I assume you are Dutch): "Bijna alle sterfgevallen betreffen ouderen of andere kwetsbaren." (for instance, this one: https://www.nu.nl/coronavirus/6038167/dit-zijn-de-symptomen-van-het-coronavirus.html). In another article published today (https://www.nu.nl/coronavirus/6033311/het-coronavirus-samengevat-dit-zijn-de-belangrijkste-feiten.html) you can read this: "Overigens is het (overal ter wereld) niet zo dat alle dodelijke slachtoffers kerngezond waren voor ze het virus kregen. Integendeel: onder de overleden patiënten zijn vooral oudere mensen en mensen die verzwakt waren door een andere ziekte." In the official RIVM website, you can read this: "In totaal zijn er nu 43 mensen gestorven aan de ziekte. De leeftijd van de overledenen ligt tussen 63 en 94 jaar." (https://www.rivm.nl/nieuws/actuele-informatie-over-coronavirus).
      So the good doctor will continue to write on whatever subject he feels like writing, and those who don't like his writing are welcome to enforce strict social distancing. And before you try, I won't get into a semantic match with you; don't waste your time.

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  5. I'm not Dutch, I'm Simm Hogue from Finland who is reading Professor Alexander Kekulé's interview in today's Helsingin Sanomat. Quote: "Only emergency brake and luck can save the rest of Europe from the fate of Italy", says Kekulé, a virologist and director of the Institute of Medical Microbiology at Halle University Hospital in Germany.
    One of the many mistakes made in the early stages of the epidemic was the creation of the idea that this was just a serious illness for the elderly, says Kekulé. Now many are surprised by the news that people under the age of 50 are in intensive care because of the virus.
    “It was nonsense. From my point of view, this is very tragic and outrageous,” says Kekulé about the fact that the virus was labeled as dangerous mainly for the elderly.

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  6. First of all, Bernardo, I want to commend you on an excellent article, which makes points that I wish I could find in newspaper opinion articles. Where to begin?

    How about "eventually we will have to find a way to break our economic dependence on growth". We either do this or nature does it for us, in a most unkind manner. In this, nature could be aided by human nature, in the form of wars. Growth by a fixed percentage each year is exponential growth which is inconsistent with a finite resource base.

    I sincerely hope the the optimistic tone of your writing reflects real possibility. Echoing your observation, I have been surprised at how much work is now deemed suitable for doing online at home. Going somewhat beyond that, I have been surprised at how much of the world and its people it is possible to see without leaving the comfort of home and youtube.

    Certainly on-site work and physical travel will continue to be necessary and desirable. But we can certainly strike a better balance.

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    1. My guess is nature will do it for us. Humans are good at being humans and expecting large groups to change their behavior without a significant emotional event is unlikely. Although this virus is pointing to behaviors that are not sustainable my guess is that it won't kill enough of us to have a long term effect. However if there were ever a significant interruption of the technology we have become so dependent on that would provide the significant emotional event we might need to change. In fact even with huge changes in behavior mandated by survival wouldn't be enough. The upside is that we can look forward to jumping back in the game through reincarnation after we die. I want to come back as a cat or dog belonging to my wife. Now that's the life.

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    2. The theme of technological breakdown has been with us for quite some time. In high school, we read a short story by E.M. Forster which made quite an impact on me. Titled "The Machine Stops", it was written around 1900. I recently read it again, and found it eerily relevant to today's world and technology.

      Reincarnation? I knew there was metaphysics in here somewhere. Whether this might be a reason for comfort in the present situation, I must defer to Bernardo.

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    3. I am probably being myopic but having been an automation engineer and seeing it change has made me extremely fearful. When I first went to work at a Goodyear synthetic rubber plant in 1977 the vast majority of the control systems were pneumatic with the basic designs dating back to 1920. I was extremely impressed with what could be accomplished by manipulating air pressure. The systems I was hired to work with were SCADA and almost 100% data acquisition and performed almost no control. My co-workers treated me like some unnecessary nerd. My primary goal was to stay out of the way of everyone else. Management saw my systems strictly as a tool to gather information and use that information to maximize profits. Everyone from the janitor to the plant manager had a rough idea how the process and the pneumatic/electrical control systems worked. And it seemed like over night people like myself were the only ones that understood how the control systems worked and if the computers didn't work there was absolutely nothing that could be accomplished. The people in management were almost pathetic because we became indispensable and if you wanted to make their live miserable it was easy to do and nothing they could do about it. The last projects I worked on in large power plant the control algorithms had become so complex that only a very few really understood how they worked. In the past if the computer systems were not functioning correctly you would switch to manual and the human operator would assume control. Now the manual mode no longer exists and if the computer loses control the system shuts down and there is ABSOLUTELY NO WAY FOR A HUMAN TO INSERT THEMSELVES IN THE MIDDLE OF THE CONTROL PROCESS. IF THE COMPUTER DOESN'T FUNCTION YOU ARE DEAD IN THE WATER.

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  7. Young Adults Hit Hard

    New data from the CDC suggest that adults of all ages can suffer severe COVID-19 disease. The data show that 38% of hospitalized patients in the United States were between 20 and 54 years old, and nearly half of them were younger than 65, as reported by MDedge on Medscape.

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