May you live in interesting times

It might sound like a blessing, but this expression is the English translation of a Chinese curse. How apropos.

COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on our societies for the past ~15 months or so, and the second wave is really hitting Europe and the USA hard. This pattern is similar to previous pandemics, like the 1917-1918 outbreak of the “Spanish” flu.

As of this post, we’re at around 98.2 million cases worldwide, and 2.1 million casualties. Those are staggering numbers, and some will say they were easily preventable. I agree some, maybe most, could be prevented - but that would be anything but easy to do in 2020.

Fear and disinformation

Fear is a powerful emotion. For some, it’s the guiding force of politics in the 21st century in the absence of real ideas, planning or leadership, and in my opinion it is precisely that mainstreaming and instrumentation of fear that has made the COVID-19 response so tepid in the “developed” world.

In March of 2020, fear was everywhere. We haven’t been through a pandemic in a century, and with movies like Outbreak (cheesy) and Contagion (really good) as part of our doomsday scenario canon, parallels were soon drawn and people were genuinely terrified. I still vividly remember shopping for groceries and being faced with empty shelves. An older lady in the same aisle looked to the side to face me, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget the look of fear in her face.

This fear, for a while, made sure case numbers went down even as soulless neo-liberals everywhere insisted that people’s lives had to be sacrificed in order to keep The Economy churning profit for the 1%, like for example this chud:

But then, the fountain of misinformation we call The Internet did its thing, and we started seeing the rise of the “2-hour virologist”, the kind of person that completely believes he/she knows more than a medical professional because “I’ve done my research” (on Youtube). In my own close circles, I started getting WhatsApp messages about:

  • how this is all a lie, and doctors get paid to write COVID-19 as cause of death
  • how the numbers are way lower in reality
  • how this was a plan from China to ruin Brazil so they can buy cheaper soy for their livestock (!)
  • how this is all just people who were too weak to be alive, anyway (!!)
  • how this is because the Earth needs 40 days of spirituality without technology to heal
  • how this is all because of 5G

Paired, of course, with anti-mask and anti-lockdown sentiment.

Critical thought and despair

It’s easy to blame this on educational systems that, throughout the Western world, have over time become less and less about learning and more about job training - this is in line with the ethos of “something is only useful if it makes money”, not just in educational matters but in pretty much every facet of modern life. After all, who needs a Philosophy degree or a major in English, amirite?

Turns out critical thought is more important than the bean counters that write cheques for teachers give it credit. Critical thought is our main defense against online bullshit and manipulation, which has serious knock-on effects on our democracies and, as it turns out, responding to pandemics. And other than that, a society of merely job-trained individuals is one that is lacking in progressive ideals, ideals that are fundamental to, well, societal progress. Someone took the end of History too literally, and maybe thinks we’re already educated enough.

But it’s not just decades of budget decline for education that got us here. Another very strong human emotion is despair.

I completely understand that someone who’s been neglected by their representatives, crushed with debt and not really hopeful for the future has little reason to trust governments, the WHO or established media sources and turns instead to echo chambers online that tell them what they want to hear. Unfortunately “neglected by their representatives, crushed with debt and not really hopeful for the future” is a moniker that applies to an ever increasing portion of the general population.

My point here is I think we can agree that The Economy is not just about money and GDP charts going up. The Economy’s choices impact tomorrow’s citizens’ education and worldview, the quality of our intensive care units, and how easily hucksters and incompetent politicians get in to office. For those saying “get your Marxist sociology out of my economics” or that economics is apolitical, bad news: there’s no such thing as being apolitical, that in itself is a political statement. One that quietly screams “I’m OK with the status quo, and I just want to go back to making money” (looking at you Coinbase).

And as for Marx - why do you think he’s so popular these days? Because he got a lot of the current power dynamics in society right in his critique of capitalism over a century ago.

Even the economical argument for the end of the lockdown is shockingly narrow in perspective, another consequence of our next-quarter-results driven corporate world. We could have:

  • A) remained under lockdown until the virus was wiped out / we had an effective vaccine, which ended up taking about a year. Global GDP crunch would have been massive, and people and businesses would have needed equally massive bailouts.
  • B) locked down for a few months, give people no help after that as their jobs/homes are taken away. Global GDP crunch is severe, but already bouncing back. The USA billionaire population, for example, grew by 56, and massive profits went to the same people as usual.

Under A) we’d have a really hard time for around a year and a half, schools would have to move online for real, Wall St. would be hit hard because the magical money printer would not be made to service them, but instead the people. Upside: the virus would potentially be gone, much fewer than 2 million people would be dead. And about Wall St. being hit hard: does it matter as much as we think it does? Financial markets seem to be increasingly separated from financial reality, anyway.

Under B) over 2 million people are dead, the global GDP is already showing signs of recovery (led by China, cue conspiracy theories), Wall St. is fine as the market had over a trillion dollars injected into it in the US alone (turns out there is a magic money tree after all!), the virus is showing no signs of abating during this second wave and worst of all, it might become endemic and a permanent fixture of our near future (think yearly 50$ COVID shots as soon as pandemic-level subsidies go away), affecting GDP for years to come.

I don’t know about you, but economically I think A) would have made more sense in the long term.

Worst of all? Having to bailout companies that for years have been spending 96% of their cash flow on stock buybacks. Of course, it only takes 2 or 3 bad months for these companies to go under but it’s OK - hold your hand out, and the government gives you a ton of taxpayer money. Socialism for the rich, capitalism for the poor!

On societal cohesion

The first year of COVID-19 has shown that Asian leadership in both public policy and health deserves greater global attention, with a final lesson from Asia being humility.

Asia is not just China, which has enough power over their citizens to give authoritarians the world over wet dreams. Asia is also Vietnam, Japan and South Korea - countries that have had much better success with the pandemic than the West. What does this tell us? That Asian societies still value the collective and not just the individual? That their institutions haven’t given their citizens enough reasons to completely distrust them? That the EU and the US increasingly look like old farts, and that the future on the world stage seems to belong to Asia more and more?

I’m not sure, but unless we take these recent extraordinary months as a warning that a lot of things need to change, the rest of the 21st century’s challenges (climate change, peak oil and the energy crisis, class-derived unrest) will only make for more painful lessons.

Feel free to reply with comments to this tweet

PS: mRNA vaccines are awesome