COVID-19: The Black Swan is Circling
March 3, 2020
I am not an expert on infectious disease. If you haven’t done so already, please read an article or listen to a podcast by someone who is—I’d suggest Laurie Garrett, author of the Pulitzer-winning The Coming Plague. Unfortunately, some of her best new pieces are behind a paywall, but there is a good short interview with her here, and you can read her recent tweets here. Another good introductory article is this one by Jon Barron.
What I do bring to the table is a couple of decades of thinking about what might take down industrial civilization. I’m not saying that COVID-19 (the official name of the coronavirus that’s currently in the process of causing a global pandemic) will necessarily do that, but the risks are growing that it could trigger a major unraveling that would leave the world substantially less networked, less wealthy, and less secure.
I won’t rehearse here why many systems thinkers see the current world industrial system as inherently unsustainable. For an overview of those reasons, see Bill Rees’s recent article. For skeptics of fossil-fueled industrial growth and globalization, it was always a question of how and when a reckoning would come, not whether.
First, a few basic facts about COVID-19. This is a highly infectious virus, and containment has so far failed. Cases have been diagnosed in dozens of countries, but most cases remain undiagnosed. Garrett cites experts who believe that ultimately 70 percent of the world’s 7.8 billion people could become infected. The mortality rate for COVID-19 has yet to be determined, but early estimates are in the range of 2 percent (for comparison, a typical flu virus has a 0.1 percent mortality rate). That puts it in the ballpark of, or slightly more virulent than, the influenza of 1918, which infected about a third of the world and caused roughly 50 million deaths. Given today’s much higher population levels (there were only 1.5 billion alive in 1918), we could expect tens of millions of deaths from COVID-19 unless the spread of the disease is somehow stopped in its tracks.
The large majority of those infected with COVID-19 will experience cold or flu symptoms and will recover without treatment. Perhaps up to 20 percent will require treatment by a physician or hospitalization; only about 2 percent will succumb. So, for any individual, the odds are good. The real problem is, what does a highly networked global society do about this? And, in highly unequal countries like the United States, how will people who have no health insurance or financial resources cope with a prolonged public health crisis?
COVID-19 presents the world with an insoluble dilemma: unplug the networked economy to fight the pandemic, or power on through it?
China has largely unplugged, in an effort to stop the spread of infection and minimize mortality. But this massive effort—closing businesses and factories, enforcing quarantines across cities and provinces—is itself having a huge impact not just on China’s economy, but on the entire global system. Supply chains are being disrupted, and not just for cars and smart phones, but also for medical equipment and pharmaceuticals. This is the main reason world stock markets have crashed in recent days.
Recent satellite images show a massive drop-off in nitrogen dioxide emissions from China. While we don’t yet know the full economic impact of the virus in China, especially when things are changing so quickly, we do know from historical data that there’s a nearly 1:1:1 correlation between energy usage, CO2 emissions, and GDP. China’s carbon emissions have dropped 25 percent, so that may mean their economy has contracted accordingly. Even without further disease contagion, the global economy may be on track for financial and economic turmoil simply as a result of China’s efforts to contain the virus.
It could be argued that the treatment would be worse than the disease: unplugging the world’s networked economy could ultimately result in a worse global financial crisis than the one we weathered in 2008, along with the joblessness and general suffering that accompany economic depressions. Meanwhile, enforcing quarantines and making sure that necessities were properly distributed might require authoritarian measures on the part of governments at both national and local levels.
But what if we power through, showing up at work and keeping the economy humming as best we can, pretending that we’re not at risk? That would effectively mean accepting and dealing with very high rates of sickness and mortality, which would still impact the economy while leaving a death toll perhaps rivaling that of World War II.
Could powering through even work? If officials ignore the onslaught of sickness, their credibility will soon evaporate. Panic might spread. That’s what happened in China during its initial response to the epidemic: Party leaders denied what was clearly happening and vilified the public health official, ophthalmologist Li Wenliang, who raised the alarm (and who later died of the disease). That strategy proved untenable, and the country’s leader, Xi Jinping, then opted for a strenuous containment effort. But it was too late. The virus had already escaped Wuhan’s and China’s borders.
The Trump administration seems to prefer trying to power through, but its efforts do not inspire confidence. During the Ebola epidemic in 2014, the Obama administration created a chain of command for dealing with future pandemics, with a plan for coordinating the various federal and local government agencies and also for coordinating with other nations. The Trump administration dismantled this infrastructure in 2018. In public briefings, Trump and some cabinet officials have tried to minimize the risk to public health, suggesting that there will be only “a few” more US cases and that any concerns about how the government is handling the crisis constitute a “hoax.” Widespread trust in authorities is key to weathering a public health crisis; I wish I could simply say, “Listen to the folks in charge and do what they recommend,” but the reality seems more complicated. The CDC website is excellent and you should refer to it frequently, but I would not recommend blindly following the advice of the President or his political appointees.
Laurie Garrett suggests that you should prepare in common-sense ways. See to your own household, but also get to know your community. Who is in your personal networks? How will you stay in touch? Start conversations with all the people you trust, and also with public officials in your community. Who will you call in case of need? Who are the most vulnerable people in your neighborhood? Who will look in on them? Is your company preparing to have as many staff as possible work from home? Who has to be on site?
The key is to prepare not just for disease, but for a broad-scale societal disruption. Consider how you’ll maintain access to food, water, and money during the next few months if things really start to come apart. Even if the best outcome ensues and COVID-19 is soon contained, this kind of preparation is vital given the suite of existential threats that industrial society faces.
Now is the time to think, talk, build trust, and take action.