The Kübler-Ross model (better known as the five stages of grief) tells us that, when hit by a tragedy, people move through a predictable sequence of stages as they try to adapt to the new circumstances — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These days, a similar dynamic seems to be at play for the novel Coronavirus. At first, hardly anyone acknowledged that we were headed for a full-blown pandemic. Anger came next: The concert that was cancelled, the trip that would have to be postponed. As more and more events were affected by this, there was still hope that things would go back to normal soon— a few halfhearted measures here and there would be enough to return to business as usual by spring. My guess is that, at least in many Western countries, we’re now somewhere between the depression and the acceptance stage.
Before reaching the final stage, there is another phase, often coexisting with the previously described ones, that Kübler-Ross (whose model, like all good psychological models, works best if you focus on where it fits, rather than where it’s completely off) couldn’t have anticipated: Hot takes on social media about how the real danger isn’t what everyone thinks it is. Numerous outlets and “content creators” have opined on how it’s not the virus, but the ensuing panic, the government’s reaction, the general complacency, the stigmatization of minorities or … that we should be afraid of, and there’s still no end in sight.
I bring this up because there’s an undeniable temptation for bloggers to fall into this trap, especially if you’re not an expert on the topic. It’s not my intention to take the same line here and pretend to be able to heal the masses from their dogmatic slumber: Blogs are not the place to stay informed about a pandemic, and I strongly advise you to heed to the advice of the relevant medical authorities. Consequently, you will find very little discussion of the epidemiological arguments being advanced, although it’s sometimes unavoidable. Does that mean I shouldn’t be writing this article in the first place, resisting the urge to collect a handful of likes by riding the Coronavirus wave, as some have suggested? It sure seems plausible, but I beg to differ: In a diverse, interconnected, open society, simply deferring to the experts is no viable options. This is especially true when we zoom out and shift our focus away from narrow factual questions. As we begin to look at the bigger picture, we must recognize that all of us— despite our expertise in certain fields — are ignorant about an awful lot of things, but that, at the same time, this is no excuse for refusing to stay informed, form opinions, deliberate, and arrive at actionable proposals. In an uncertain world, there is no guarantee that what we settle for will the right thing. But when the stakes are high — as they are undoubtedly now — and there’s a potential to cause great harm lest we follow a certain course of action, deference to the experts is not an option. We should welcome the variety of perspectives, even though each of them undoubtedly leaves out important aspects.
This is precisely what I want to do here. I’m the first one to admit that it’s unlikely I’ll be able to say something original on the topic; after weeks of COVID-19 dominating the news like nothing has since probably WWII. What I feel has been largely absent from the scene so far, however, were attempts to paint a bigger picture of what’s ahead; not only concerning the current pandemic, but also future outbreaks that will undoubtedly occur. By “bigger picture”, I don’t mean the sorry game of conspiracy theorists who suggest that the virus is an invention of governments and international organizations to distract citizens from their sinister plans. I equally reject the milder version of the same story, according to which the disease is used as a convenient excuse to secretly install totalitarian policies behind our backs (exception that proves the rule: Hungary, among others). Rather than overshooting, I believe we have every reason to assume that we were long underestimating the situation. How so?
A Wolf On The Loose
At bottom, I see a huge coordination problem: Absent efficient and reliable testing procedures or a vaccine, social distancing seems to be the only way to slow down the spread of the infection, hopefully giving us enough time to adapt our capacities (intensive care units, respiratory devices, logistics) to the challenge. But social distancing only works if (almost) everyone participates in it. Conversely and equally true, any given person is unlikely to affect the dynamics of an epidemic much. For the individual, the incentives clearly point in the direction of ignoring the recommendations: Why limit myself, stay at home and miss out on things I enjoy while my neighbors still goes about their lives as if nothing happened? To a first approximation, we should expect everyone to disregard the appeals, thus making us all worse off.
One of the most potent biases we all carry around with us stems from the fact that we — subconsciously, maybe — are pretty good at putting our own interests before those of everybody else, to the point of self-delusion. It’s one thing to recognize this in the abstract, and another one to realize how often we fall prey to it ourselves. In the crisis, we are quick to condemn the others for behaving so selfishly — the teenagers that continue going to bars, the elderly who meet with their friends for coffee, the families who crowd the parks during these first days of spring — and equally quick to come up with plausible reasons why our own behavior is perfectly reasonably, given the current situation. I wish I could claim to be an exception, but that seems to be a bit of a stretch. It’s not that I’m deliberately endangering others or that I failed to stay away from social gatherings as much as possible, but when push came to shove and France announced 15 days of quarantine (eventually extended to 2 months), I packed up my belongings and fled my tiny Paris apartment. When it comes to justifying our own actions, there’ll be no shortage of excuses.
That’s not yet it. The fact that “if it bleeds, it leads” became a time-honored news principle should warn us not to take everything we read about in the journals at face value. Most of the time, we’re well advised to discount the importance and magnitude of the stories that make headlines; murder is newsworthy, while billions of people going about their lives peacefully isn’t. Given that, it’s a healthy reaction to compare the recent outbreak of COVID-19 to the swine flu, SARS, MERS and — yes! — the common flu. When stories about the novel virus first surfaced, it was reasonable to expect it would develop in a similar fashion, and that drastic measures were overblown. What actually happened, however, is that — instead of approaching it with a skeptic’s eye and evaluating its dangers carefully—many of us automatically rejected the possibility that it could be something more dangerous.
These are the basic ingredients needed to produce a market failure. Alas, while a competent government could in principle improve the situation, politicians, too, face perverse incentives: Anticipating disaster and acting accordingly sounds good in theory, but in practice it might mean that you spend money and see no (negative) results. (History doesn’t offer us the possibility to simulate counterfactuals, so an averted catastrophe remains forever unseen. The French economist Frederic Bastiat famously made a similar point about economic policy.) By contrast, spending money on disaster relief — i.e. after the catastrophe struck — conveys the impression that the government cares for its citizenry. At least for the US, the data suggest that voters reward the incumbent party for providing disaster relief much more than for spending money on preparedness. Put cynically: If you’re a sitting president, the best way to improve your chances of reelection is to wait for a calamity to happen and then assume the position of the crisis manager.
So there you have it all: An unfortunate alliance of politicians and the general public, overwhelmed by attention-grabbing headlines and bad news about disasters and tragedies, has no quarrels to ignore seemingly far-fetched risks and focus on smaller issues of immediate concern. Telling someone that in addition to their everyday worries (Will I lose my job? Will my child pass the grade? How do I explain exploding costs for the new train station to my voters?), they should also set aside time to ponder potential risks isn’t going to make you hugely popular. And, of course, in a world with unlimited risks, you have to make a choice which risks are worth addressing. It’s not really surprising, then, that we did too little, too late, to counter the spread of the pandemic.
Of Good And Evil People
At this point, the appropriate question is why I would spend two sections explaining what I’m not going to say. The main reason is actually quite straightforward: I’ve read too many opinion pieces, back-of-the-envelope calculations and the like downplaying the extent of the crisis. In some of the worst cases, they used their authority in other areas as a platform for what we now know have been irresponsibly low estimates, and I want to state in no uncertain terms that this isn’t the team I’m rooting for. The other reasons are a bit more subtle, but no less important.
A lot has been said and written about political polarization recently. It’s probably nowhere as obvious as in the US, where the two major parties have drifted further and further apart, and with them the (sub-)cultures typically attributed to them. The divide is driven both by radicalization (right-of-center parties to the right and vice versa for the left), but maybe even more so by an unwillingness (or inability?) to understand the other side’s point of view — not only correctly stating in in neutral terms, but, deep down, to understand why anyone would sincerely believe in it. On the flip side, this means it’s often possible to predict someone’s reaction to a new problem based solely on their political affiliation, and with a surprising degree of accuracy.
Whether the Coronavirus pandemic will fit neatly into this scheme remains to be seen, but one thing seems abundantly clear: Collectively, we jumped straight into polarization mode when the virus became topic №1, and the longer it dominates our lives, the more irreconcilable both sides appear. One the one hand, we have the “skeptics”, a group ranging from outright deniers to those who say that we should just let nature run its course, or at most ramp up on testing. They habitually accuse the other side of spreading panic, false rumors, and desiring a totalitarian superstate to enforce whatever measures they come up with combat the pandemic. One the other hand, we have the “true believers” (both terms are intentionally derogatory)— those who always knew what was bound to happen and who hold that any means are justified to combat it. Typically, their battle cry is that their opponents are ignorant, complacent science-deniers and guilty of causing the death of tens of thousands of people. The middle ground is rapidly shrinking, either drowning in the battle noise, or pushed to abandon their initial positions. It would be preposterous to claim that most people are extremists on the issue, but we do see more and more “centrists” swaying to either side, unnerved by increasingly more vicious attacks. In a conflict of visions, opponents are evil incarnate, and those who fall between the cracks are traitors to a righteous cause.
Lest you accuse me of being lukewarm, let me repeat: While I can’t claim to have predicted the extent of the crisis early on, I was stunned by just how long it took for drastic actions to be taken. At a time when Italy already experienced a near breakdown of the health infrastructure, Germany was still debating whether clubs and bars really have to close, or if they could remain open as long as visitors kept a distance from one another. When Lombardy was being put under quarantine, France still allowed large sports events (of up to 5,000 people) to take place. For a long time, voices that urged us not to freak out dominated the discourse, and this, together with people’s normal inertia, prevented an early, radical response. Tragically, this means that whatever measures will be taken now have to be more extreme, more prolonged and less effective than what could have been. And yet, this is perfectly consistent with the fact that even (or especially?) during a pandemic, there are important trade-offs to be made, none of them obvious or appealing, and that we should confront openly and honestly.
Understandably, people who have been “early adopters” feel vindicated now. In the fight over sovereignty of interpretation, they have gained a decisive advantage, and this should make us wary. When a crisis hits, it’s all too natural to pay more attention to those who claim to have foreseen, and equip with them additional privileges. (A similar thing could have been observed the last time the global economy took a nosedive, during the 2007–08 financial crisis.) That’s dangerous because our standards for what counts as “collectedly anticipated” are so lax: Predicting a crisis is actually much easier than it seems if you (a) look only at those who got it right, (b) don’t check their general record on forecasting and (c ) don’t press them to make specific statement with a clear time horizon and definite consequences. “There will be a horrible pandemic very soon” is exactly the kind of vague statement that would fool us into believing that somebody is an expert on the topic, a point that Philip Tetlock forcefully made. In other words, we might just be picking the lucky winners, who are by no means necessarily the most competent people to “fix” the issue.
Confirmation bias makes this all the more difficult. It’s of course something we see at play all the times, but just how pervasive it is should surprise even a hardened behavorial economist. Case study from my filter bubble: A significant percentage of people I know who can credibly claim to be very knowledgeable about law, economics, philosophy and many other disciplines (though rarely knowledgeable enough to justify many of their bold statements and sweeping generalizations), but I doubt that I’m acquainted with even just a handful of virologists or epidemiologists. Yet as the crisis began to unfold, all of a sudden everybody knew exactly what the correct response to it should be. I can only admire the speed with which they were able to pull out all those articles, memes and celebrity statements that were in total agreement with their own position. None of this is new, but at this very moment, it’s particularly worrisome. Getting a pandemic wrong may result in thousands, if not millions, of avoidable deaths. Shutting down all social and economic life “until further notice” may permanently transform societies in ways that are harder to visualize but are no less severe (I’ll get back to this later). A bit of humility in the face of such a stark choice, especially given the average person’s prior knowledge of the subject, is the least thing to ask for.
There’s another way in which the early adopters’ behavior worries me. Let’s be honest: If you are in a position to decide (or influence somebody else’s decision) to shut down an entire country, chances are you are much better off than the median person affected by this decision (which, yes, is also by and large true of those voicing their discontent with the lockdowns). There are worse things than being quarantined in a large country house if, in addition to this, you have to possibility to work from home, and so we tend to forget how challenging the situation is for the less fortunate. I, too, sometimes catch myself thinking of this as a kind of extended holiday with a bit of work to keep you occupied. But when I hear Emmanuel Macron urging his compatriots to use the time to focus on their education or read a good book as he announced the lockdown, I can’t help but wonder whether the populists’ laments about the liberal elite, completely detached from the rest of the population, had a point after all. Even in relatively rich countries, quarantine might mean being stuck in a tiny apartment with small kids, either already unemployed or on the verge of it, without knowing when things will change again. Indeed, many of the measures in place now are a privileged path that rich nations can walk. But since most of these strategies rely on the compliance of almost everybody, we better think good and hard about how to alleviate the situation of those hit the most by the lockdown.
Saying “but the economy” against the backdrop of exponentially mounting deaths caused by an unknown disease typically elicits incredulity. The belief that we need to put all economical considerations aside and focus all our energy on combating the virus is widespread and hard to argue against. It comes in many forms — as in the old battle cry “people before profits”, or more recently as accusations that selfish actors are unwilling to trade in a few percentage points of GDP growth for thousands of lives — but they all share the same essence: One, that the “economy” is some holistic entity that a couple of investors, hedge fund managers and CEOs have set up to our detriment, and two, that a recession means reduced boni for already overpaid people, slower growth (good for the environment?) and less mindless consumption. This sentiment is understandable — the global economy is indeed impossible to comprehend for anyone, and the familiar economic reporting, with its focus on macro features such as unemployment numbers, growth rates and the stock market, generates the impression that the economy is something that’s happening to us, rather than a process we are all participating in. But the intuitive feeling is wrong, often dangerously so.
(This is not to say that people fail to realize the many economic of the current lockdown approach. Of course they see that their friends and relatives become (temporarily) unemployed. They see artists, musicians, writers burning through their savings as most if not all of their engagements are being cancelled, they see start-ups going bankrupt. Yet somehow, there is a kinds of unshakeable optimism that this won’t last, that the state will provide support during these troubled times for all in need.)
In which respect is it wrong? A few points are worth emphasizing:
- Current estimates expect that up to 47 million (US) resp. 59 million (EU) could be lost due to the Corona-induced economic crisis. No one knows how much of this will be transformed into long-term unemployment, but the longer this crisis lasts, the more likely it is that jobs will be permanently lost, as companies go out of business. Unemployment is bad, obviously so because you somehow have to provide for people who can’t make a living, and, worse yet, because unemployment is highly correlated with depression, alcoholism and suicide. So even if we manage to cope with the financial costs (how big will they be?), we don’t really know how to address the psychological costs.
- Zero (or negative) growth doesn’t sound all that bad for a typical Westerner because the consequences appear bearable — fewer restaurant visits, maybe wait a bit longer for the new car, those kinds of things. The situation looks quite different in developing countries, where lost economic opportunities often translate to a family going hungry for days or worse. And it’s not like we can neatly separate “our” economy from “theirs” — if international trade decreases, as one would expect, the world’s poorest will suffer the most.
- Do you really think large firms are going to suffer most from the crisis? If anyone has the resources to make it through this, it’s the giant multinational, which has the expertise to secure government funds, the pockets to sustain operations, maybe even the platforms to continue selling their product. A horrible CEO might even welcome the development, as it crushes many of their smaller competitors.
- Prosperous societies are better places to live in. They have better healthcare, take better care of the environment, and their values are more inclusive. As primal fears and immediate material concerns recede to the background, our moral circle is expanding and now includes people with different sexual orientation, non-traditional lifestyles and even animal. Life expectancy is much higher in rich countries, probably stemming for a combination of these factors. The reactionaries’ favorite meme about how good times create weak men has it exactly backwards — as societies prosper, the sphere of justice widens to include minorities and issues that were ignored before.
All of these issues point to the same fundamental issue: In a world of scarce resources, trade-offs have to be made. There simply is no way around it. As a consequence, some of us, however indirectly and ethically justifiable, will be made worse off for the benefit of others. We can choose to deny this reality and make those trade-offs implicitly, meaning that we’re more likely to be slaves to our prejudices, or we can confront them openly. Using the image of the famous moral dilemma, it’s the choice between letting the trolley run on whatever its current course happens to be, and operating the switch yourself.
Let me rephrase this last point once again, because I think it’s extremely important and often misunderstood: Saying that economics matters isn’t the same as claiming that we should, under no circumstances, interfere with the free market, and let the pandemic run amok. Indeed, the costs of not intervening in the market process would be massive and might outdo any harm caused by the current measures, as top economists from across the US argue. I would like to believe that this leads support to a more optimistic outlook — at least we’re not wrecking the economy and the public health system simultaneously, right? — but I see little reason to think so. If the timeline thus far proves anything, it’s highly likely that we’ll again avoid confronting the costs head-on and engage in self-deception instead. To make matters worse, do you expect people will just resume their normal consumption patterns once the current state-imposed restrictions on businesses are lifted? Recessions can be caused in many ways, and I think that even without governments doing anything, we would see a significant decrease in economic activity right now. All of this will delay the time until we’ll get back to normal.
Surveillance And Basic Liberties
Crises offer the grim opportunity to update our Menschenbild, the fundamental characteristics we ascribe to what it means to be human. I was certainly hoping that people would come to realize the gravity of the situation themselves, and use their freedom responsibly, as new reports about Italian hospitals operating under war-like circumstances started to appear. Politics is partly to blame, since major figures long hesitated to make any clear statements about what was needed, but even the most die-hard libertarian would have to concede that it’s unlikely that a majority of citizens would have voluntarily stayed at home. People cannot be trusted to do the right thing was the unsurprising conclusion that most of us drew. Already before, few were the voices of those who upheld that people, when left to their own devices, will generally act in ways that are both individually and socially beneficial. Call this the presumption of liberty — unless there are good reasons to assume the opposite, we would allow people to act freely and refrain from trying to subjugate their every action to investigation or prior approval by the authorities. It’s an honorable principle, but it’s come a lot under attack lately. The responsible citizen is rapidly being transformed into a subject of paternalistic care: We need to ensure they eat and drink the right things, work under an impressive array of regulations, have our news fact-checked for us, and generally be guided from cradle to the grave by the state’s protective hands. While some of these things, in some cases, can no doubt be justified, it’s also true that every additional blow to it is another nail in the coffin of liberal democracy. That’s when the real trouble begins.
I find it hard to believe that many people who now praise the Chinese model for its efficiency at fighting the disease would love to live under the Chinese government, but the idea that authoritarian models of government are superior to the messy, indeterminate ways of parliamentary democracy is picking up steam. That’s grist on the mills of populists left and right, who have long harbored a disdain for it. By that, I don’t just mean the extremist parties — if the polls are correct, they’re not exactly profiting from the pandemic — but also the more authoritarian factions within the established parties. There will be more situations in which a “benevolent dictator” could change things for the better, and calls for exactly such strongmen will only grow louder if we can’t fight the narrative that repressive regimes outperform open societies in times of crisis.
Again, narrowly focusing on politics won’t do it justice. Yes, there is a very real danger that things put in place to address an emergency remain in effect long after the situation has improved, as captured by Milton Friedman’s famous quip that nothing’s as permanent as a temporary government program. Think of surveillance measures that are being kept in place for convenience’s sake, the more-or-less permanent suspension of basic liberties (which will be easier to achieve in the future, now that a precedent has been established), redistributive programs that continue to exist not because they help people in need, but because powerful players figured out ways to game the system, or even the dystopian nightmare of a society in which everything that’s not explicitly allowed is forbidden — all of these are legitimate concerns, and I have no intention of downplaying them. But they hardly tell the whole story, as they leave out the societal angle.
Those who are familiar with Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone will no doubt have heard of the concept of social capital. Very broadly speaking, an open society does not live in a vacuum, and won’t continue to exist if everybody just minds their own business. A shared sense of belonging to a community, of being able to trust others is essential for lowering transaction costs. If this sounds too theoretical and impractical for your tastes, try imagining how stores would have to operate if they assumed every customer was a potential thief. This erosion of trust has been observed in many places before, infamously so, for example, in the former GDR. A vast network of “informers”, most of whom voluntarily agreed to spy on their neighbors, friends and families, enabled a level of control that would be impossible to achieve by decree alone. Will we see a renaissance of this mindset? Will people once again begin to report anyone they suspect of violating the curfew to the police? Will we begin to frame strangers primarily as carriers of pathogens? I don’t think our society is so fragile as to break apart after a few weeks of quarantine, but what about several months? A year? Do we factor in this problem into our worst-case scenarios? It’s tempting to accuse me of pretending that we’ll have a new 1984 by tomorrow to deflect from the real problems, but how sure are we that the whole process isn’t a creeping one with no obvious stopping point (until, of course, it’s too late)?
Which brings me to the next point. The word “exit strategy” has been making the rounds recently, but most governments remain uneasily silent on this topic, presumably to avoid raising false hopes. That’s understandable, but it has little to do with taking one’s citizens seriously. Even though there’s undeniably a lot of confusion and uncertainty right now that hard-and-fast rules would poorly address, steps out of the state of emergency are as important as the measures that are being taken to combat the pandemic. Yes, it would be irresponsible to simply lift the lockdown entirely now; and foolish to imagine that we could beam ourselves back to the status quo ante. Public life will be transformed for a long time, as we’ll learn to adapt to, and live with, the virus. Nevertheless, we need to aggressively search for ways to reduce the impact of the crisis in low-risk settings, cut back restrictions and/or replace them with smart rules that would allow businesses to reopen, believers to worship, and — yes! — for anyone to be able to enjoy their leisure time. All of this will have to happen under the premise of potentially having to tighten the screws again if things go out of hand. It would have to happen progressively, and at different paces for different segments for the population. Crucially, there need to be clear guidelines under which conditions which emergency measures can be upheld and when they become unconstitutional. Why should stores not be able to open again, if they follow social distancing guidelines (not too many people at once, keep a distance, mandatory face masks)? Why should churches not be able to operate, if they ensure that congregation is seated far enough apart? These times require creative solutions, not all-encompassing shutdowns.
Pandemics Of The Future
All of this still leaves one avenue of escape open: In the long run, none of these things really matter all that much. Should we really risk crunching up the reproduction number again so that people can meet their friends again a little early? The economy sure looks like it’s gonna take a nosedive, but then again, it will start to recover again at some point — how many lives is that temporary setback worth? I’m inclined to agree — if a longer lockdown is the price to pay for wiping out this beast for good, I’m all in. Sadly, this option is not on the menu, neither for COVID-19, nor for any of the other pandemics that await humanity.
We’ve gotten lucky a number of times in the past, since neither SARS, nor MERS, H1N1, Ebola or the common flu possessed the “right” combination of characteristics to wreak havoc on the scale that COVID-19 has. But even the novel Coronavirus is far from the worst thing nature could have designed —a disease with even longer incubation times, higher mortality rates, different infectiousness or percentage of asymptomatic cases  would easily make COVID-19 pale by comparison. Dramatic pandemics have haunted humanity in the past — the Spanish flu of 1918–19 (which has claimed somewhere between three and four times as many lives as the Great War that it followed) being the most salient example — and there’s little reason to believe they will cease becoming relevant in the future.
Let’s look at a couple of indicators: First and foremost, evolutionary logic should lead us to expect that we’re far away from having reached the upper bounds of a virus’ deadliness. We also know that a virus can easily infect large swaths of the population. The 2009–10 H1N1 outbreak, for example, caused by a relatively mild influenza strain, is estimated to have led to 12,000 deaths in the US, but infected some 60 million people, or about 20% of the population at the time. It’s become painfully obvious that even highly developed countries are at loss to stop such diseases from spreading far and wide, and it seems incredibly naive to hope the viruses of the future will have a similarly low infection fatality rate (= number of deaths among all infected). Third, there’s no shortage of newly emerging and reemerging diseases, and thus of starter kits for epidemic events. Between 2011 and 2018 alone, the WHO reported 1483 of such events (p. 12), some of which turned into full-blown pandemics. Fourth, as our understanding of viral disease, and the methods to combat them, grow in sophistication, so does the probability of an engineered disaster, whether intentionally (bioterrorism) or unintentionally (a virus accidentally release from a lab). Lastly, despite my general support for globalization and open borders, I do recognize that these can accelerate the spread of a pandemic, especially if the carriers are airborne. Nassim Taleb has a story about a turkey who, being fed by its owners on a regular basis, grows more and more confident that they mean well with it — until, of course, Thanksgiving arrives. It’s maybe not the most accurate metaphor, but the message is clear: Don’t fool yourself into believing that because we were left off the hook in the past, pandemics will be equally manageable in the future.
This is the sense in which the title of the article has to be understood. Not as to imply that the virus will simply disappear, or that we will soon be able to control it (this seems to be an illusion largely fueled by the facts that most epidemics don’t take place in our backyard), but that there will be a time when — almost by definition — the world will have to shift out of emergency mode. It will be a world “after the virus” in the sense that the pandemic will cease to be the one and only topic worth of coverage, the pivotal point around which all discussions revolve. And precisely how this new normal will look like is my greatest concern: How will our everyday lives be like, and what we are going to do to prepare for the next pandemic hits?
Both questions are intimately connected, of course. The worse we prepare for future outbreaks, the more likely we are to fall back on the last line of defense: lockdowns, travel restrictions, shop closings and nationwide surveillance measures. At the very least, we need to ramp up our capacities to test, trace and (if unavoidable) isolate potential carriers of a new pathogen, expand funding for research into antiviral drugs, and cut red tape for laboratories and private companies working on them. None of these steps will shield us against any harm, but accepting this fundamental reality is part and parcel of what it means to live with the virus.
Above, I discussed at length the damage done to civil liberties and the economy. Now imagine this happens not once every hundred years or so (thus allowing humanity to quickly recover from it), but every time we see the harbingers of a new pandemic. In this case, we’d be downward spiraling from recession to recession, with fewer resources at our hands every time we face a new crisis. There are many other preventable causes of death (check GiveWell’s list of top charities to get an idea how much it costs to save a live in sub-Saharan Africa, for example), but how much money and energy will we still have left to combat them? Make no mistake: A preventive program like the one outlined before will be costly, and with every pandemic-free year, the political pressure will grow to cut back on it. But if the alternative is widespread unemployment and police state eruptions every couple of years, we should be very cautious indeed.
And that’s not all. Right now, with all eyes set on airborne diseases, there’s a fair chance that we learn overly specific lessons from it. This is the curse of availability bias — we like to prepare for what we know, regardless of whether it’s the most likely (or most dangerous) thing that could happen. If our only conclusion at the end of the year is that we’ll need to invest way more to treat respiratory illness (e.g. by stocking large quantities of ventilators), we’d have wasted a huge opportunity. The problem is rooted more deeply: We, as humans, are notoriously bad at dealing with cases of enormous impact and low probability (but high expected value), a category I’d call existential risks. Potential candidates for those are supervolcanoes, astronomic impact events, nuclear overkill, runaway climate change or malicious “general” AI, to name just a few. None of them are likely to happen — but imagine that there’s just a 0.01% chance of any of them taking place in a given year, wiping out most if not all of humanity. What’s the appropriate reaction? How does it change if the probability rises to 0.1%? 1%? This isn’t the place to go into the details and analyze the plausibility of such scenarios (many of them are ridiculously wrong), but the current crisis offer a solemn chance to remind us of our negligence.
Writing this article has been a rather depressing process, not just because it took much longer than expected (Hofstadter’s Law strikes again), but because I became increasingly gloomy, as I continued incorporating new aspects and evidence into it. Typically, at this point, the author would offer some tidbits that give reason for hope, that we’re on the right track after all, or, at the very least, that it’s not too late to change the road we’re on. That’s prophet mode 101: You’ve sinned, but if you acknowledge your misdeeds and take actions to overcome your past failures, everything’s gonna be alright. But, frankly, lots of very clever people have racked their brains about it, and it this point, it’s safe to assume that the problem won’t vanish into thin by implementing any one person’s revolutionary ideas. I would not presume to be the exception.
One crucial question is how we can do better in the future. Realistically, precise estimates will remain elusive for a long time to come. For example, it’s not true that people were oblivious about the possibility of a new, devastating pandemic (to the contrary: it doesn’t take an investigative journalist to dig up dozens of articles written to warn us of exactly this!), although the specifics often remained vague. And yet, we find examples of forecasters with an excellent track record who go out of their way to ensure their biases don’t get in the way of making accurate predictions (here’s Philip Tetlock again), on March 12, estimated a less than 1 in 7 chance that there would be more than 200,000 reported cases a week later (March 20, the actual number was 275,680), down from an initial 25% on February 4. Not good.
Other things give more reason for hope. Crises of act as catalysts for new innovations, a point that has been stressed repeatedly with respect to the financial crisis 2007–08 (think Uber, Airbnb, Pinterest, Slack). Inefficient, ossified companies will go out of business, freeing up resources for newcomers, whose lean business models are less likely to succeed in saturated markets. Although the process was not without bumps, most companies quickly managed to adapt their working conditions to the new circumstances, cutting out at least some of the clutter they had amassed over the years. I’m not just talking about the much-cited meeting that could have been an email, but also routine employee tasks that were kept in place long after the justification for them vanished. By focusing on the essential, some of them will no doubt even increase their output. And while it’s too early to say anything with certainty at this point, I’m positive that this period without face-to-face client meetings will help us to reevaluate our business travel attitudes, which would be great news for environment as well as for many employees.
Even more than this aspect, I was relieved to see that the discussions around the proper response to COVID-19 — fierce and hostile as they sometimes were — did not neatly fall along the usual political fault lines. I’ve seen conservative, social-democratic and green politicians defending their reluctance to suspend fundamental civil rights; I’ve seen classical liberals pointing out that emergency situations require a different approach than normal times, and that this could justify strong state action. Within the different factions, there was heated debate about the right approach towards it, maybe the strongest indicator of a healthy, functioning democracy. It means that people are willing to rethink their priors and adapt their views based on the available evidence, rather than forcing the evidence into their worldview. The jury is still out on who got it right, but if we managed to cultivate this attitude of open-mindedness, even a wrong decision now will pale in the long term.
 I’d like to point out that for some of these factors, “higher” doesn’t always mean “worse”. For example, more asymptomatic cases are good news because it means that many people will be fine even if they contract the virus, but also that they are more likely to infect others with it (since they’re not aware of being a carrier, and will thus likely refrain from implementing protective steps). Also, the parameters are not fully independent; whether a a high value for one of them is bad news will often depend on the respective values of the others.