COVID-19: some perspective and silver linings

Sonnie Bailey

7 April 2020

I'm very conscious that everyone's circumstances are different, and that COVID-19 is impacting people in many different ways. (A great article that captures this is "Some people" by Jason Kottke. It's poetry in prose.)

I don't want to downplay or dismiss what many people are going through right now. For a lot of people, things are hard financially. There are some people who fear for their lives, and are scared that life as they know it is forever changed. Some people don't know how they're going to support themselves in the foreseeable future. 

But I'm also conscious that some of us – including some of us who are struggling – need some perspective right now. 

If it's too soon for you to be trying to look for silver linings, please stop reading.

If you want some silver linings about the current situation, below are some things that give me comfort right now.

This isn't an existential threat

Existential threats concern me. As I've written before, "the probability of some of the X risks [ie, existential risks, such as asteroids, supervolcanoes, nuclear war, pandemic, crop failures, hostile AI] we’re exposed to may be low in absolute figures, but alarmingly high when you factor in their potential consequences. As a society I think we need to pay more attention to these risks".

COVID-19 isn't an existential threat to the human race*. 

*At least, not directly. However, COVID-19 with an awful person at the helm of the most powerful country in the world is fertile ground for a Franz Ferdinand event. Also, I guess we could define "existential" loosely and argue that our way of life in the post-COVID-19 world will be different. But in the more specific sense, humanity will survive. 

This is a short-term shock

We're one week into a 4-week(?) lock-down in New Zealand. My feeling is that we are going to cycle up and down all four Alert Levels over the next year or two. 

At the moment this lock-down is a sledgehammer and my guess is that eventually they'll become more precise. Eventually the Alert Levels will become an artifact of history.

As time goes on, testing will become more effective. Capacity for dealing with outbreaks will improve. We will start to see anti-virals that result in better outcomes for people who come down with COVID-19. Eventually, we will have vaccines.  

There will come a time when we won't have to worry about COVID-19 to nearly the same extent. We will still have to deal with the repercussions, but COVID-19 itself will become much less problematic.

This is a liability that has always been on our balance sheet

Human history is littered with epidemics and pandemics that have killed enormous amounts of people. 

In the 20th century alone, the Spanish Flu killed more people than World War I. By some estimates it killed more people than World War II. Some people say it killed more people than both World Wars combined. 

Of course, there is also the Black Death, which is estimated to have killed between 30% and 60% of Europe's population. 

And there are others.

To suggest that this sort of event was behind us was ludicrous. 

I recall reading an interview with Bill Gates, describing an epidemic as "The most predictable disaster in the history of the human race"

It was going to happen. And here we are. 

The way I see it, it was such a certain risk that it should have been on our societal balance sheet as a liability. It was inevitable that we'd have to pay the debt. It just turns out that now is the time.

We could have been hit with something much worse than COVID-19

COVID-19 is bad. Don't get me wrong. But I don't think it's the Big Bad it could have been.

COVID-19 could have been worse. Consider a virus that is identical in every expect, but that doesn't spare children. 

Alternatively, consider a virus that only targets people with certain genetic characteristics, making it hard to detect or identify. Or a virus with a very long incubation period, like HIV, which can be spread in a way similar to COVID-19. 

I've heard of someone describe COVID-19 as a "puppy dog virus". I wouldn't say it's quite like that. But relative to what we could be dealing with, I feel like we dodged a bullet. 

We were lucky with the timing

We were lucky about the timing of COVID-19. It turned up in 2020, when something equivalent could have turned up in, say, 1995. 

Do you remember Windows 95? That's what technology was like back then, if you were lucky enough to have a computer. 

We didn't have Youtube. We didn't have Netflix. We didn't have smart phones, let alone cellphones. The internet didn't exist in the way we know it now. Google didn't exist.

Being locked-in in 1995 wouldn't have been fun. 

We also have technology that enables us to stay in contact and get informed in a way that was inconceivable back then.

From a more practical perspective, scientists have technology and a body of knowledge for dealing with diseases like COVID-19 that they didn't have back then. 

Our response, whether or not you think it has been inadequate (*ahem United States*), probably wouldn't have been possible at another time. A terrible response in 2020 is probably better than the best possible response in 1995.

It's also worth noting that collectively, we are a lot wealthier in absolute terms now than we ever have been. The Great Depression had a lot of unemployment and misery. But we also need to put it in the context of a society and economy that was a lot, lot poorer and didn't have the technology we have today. 

We'll be better positioned to deal with future pandemics 

To date, Singapore and Hong Kong have done a reasonably good job of dealing with the threat of COVID-19. One of the likely reasons for this is that they had to deal directly with SARS in 2003.

(It might also be because Singapore and Hong Kong is more numerate than other countries. There appears to be a strong correlation in developed nations between countries with high numeracy and more effective dealing with COVID-19. Don't forget that correlation isn't causation.)

One silver lining is that as a society we'll learn how to deal with pandemics in the future. If the Big Bad one eventually comes (and in my view, something far nastier will definitely come; the devil is in the timing), then we will be much better prepared next time around. 

It's conceivable that all of the deaths caused by COVID-19 could more than make up for any loss of life for a really Big Bad one if and when it comes along. 

At least we have a reason for this crash

This one is more psychological, and it might be idiosyncratic to me. One thing I find weirdly comforting about this current crash is that it has a cause.

One of the mystifying things about the GFC in 2008 was that there wasn't a single event that triggered it. There are a number of narratives about what caused the GFC and what it meant. There are some entertaining movies about it (eg The Big Short and Margin Call). But really, it was a mystery and remains a mystery.

Ultimately, a crash was inevitable. The timing and details were unclear. At least we can point to a trigger for this one.

This is better than a war

In my lifetime, we haven't had to fight in a major war. Unless, of course, you count the "spiritual war" Tyler Durden talks about in Fight Club:

But I digress. All we are being asked to do is to physically distance, stay at home, and stop working for a period of time. 

We aren't sending young men off to kill and be killed, or maim and be maimed. 

We may not be productive, but we aren't being destructive in the way that war is destructive. 

This is a chapter in our lives

According to Wikipedia, the life expectancy at birth for a New Zealander is 82.1. (Interestingly, this is higher than the United Kingdom (81.2) and the United States (78.9).)

Let's say the immediate impact of COVID-19 takes up two years. That's two years out of 80 years or so for an average Kiwi. Even if the repercussions are longer-lived than that, it's only going to be a chapter in our lives. 

Yes. It might be a setback. Many of us may need to recalibrate our financial plans and expectations. But if it means we get to live, and we have to work an extra couple of years or so, is that really so bad?

Life is long and has many seasons. We all have tough times. Most of us have good times. It's part of the package.

There might be some hardships. But I find that stepping back and seeing these challenges within a broader time horizon can give us much-needed perspective.

COVID-19 is here. It's bad. But it's within our control to try to make the best of our situation. 

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