Some frank thoughts on the pandemic

2-4-20

Dear Partners in thought,

We are already reading – as it should be – a lot about the pandemic and I was hesitant to add to the flood of news and thoughts on the dire matter. However, if I may and if you could indulge me, I would like to take the liberty of expressing some very frank thoughts about the pandemic we are all going through, this in full respect of those who have suffered and will suffer directly and indirectly from this very tragic event.

These thoughts, while frank in nature, do not cover all key aspects of the pandemic but only some coming to mind now. There is no doubt we could add to the sad pile. In sharing these thoughts, I will stay away (if only for one or two aspects) from those macro-developments triggered now or later in the economic sphere, the latter which has already been the theater of unprecedented and massive financial assistance packages from most leading governments in the world.

The virus did not come from nowhere and its roots require fixing. We hear that it is a “natural” development and it happened through the virus passing from animals to humans. Fine but this passing process happened due to “unsafe practices” in wild animal markets in Wuhan, China. The point here is not to blame China and call Covid-19 the “Chinese virus” as did President Trump for his own reasons, but to make sure that the Beijing authorities drastically change these unsafe practices in their wild animal markets so we avoid a repeat.

Good Chinese behavior now should not excuse lack of timely response earlier. The Beijing and Wuhan authorities knew of the virus outbreak in December and did nothing, likely out of worries about local and national responsibilities or blame, thus delaying early responses that might have prevented the pandemic we know today. The fact that China helps countries in need is very good, but showing their superior skillset astutely compared with substandard American crisis management should not make us forget that geopolitics never catches viruses.

Crises of that nature may show that the emperor has few clothes. The White House reaction throughout the crisis was staggeringly inept, with Trump going from denial to gradual crisis recognition and now dire death toll prospects all the while finger pointing and offering false hopes of crisis resolution in terms of means or timing. To be fair, the very set-up of America with its 50 states and mutually arduous relation with their federal government could never produce time-efficient and practical nation-wide solutions to crises like the pandemic. America simply cannot manage the pandemic like the Czech Republic or Taiwan.

Rallying around the flag is a default mechanism in times of crises. While both Donald Trump and Boris Johnson have been less than stellar in the way they slowly reacted to the crisis and prepared their countries to manage it, their popularity ratings have risen. The same happened to most leaders across the world (not sure about Brazil or Mexico as apparently there is no pandemic in the minds of their leaders). While this is surprising – especially in the blatant American case – this reaction is normal as people do not focus on facts and want comfort and solace from whomever leads them formally. However, it is likely that such over-reactions will not translate well in an electoral context, like in November in the U.S., if the crisis has passed by then and the economy has markedly declined.

Many people are often stupid, at times greedy or even prisoners of cultural habits, worsening the onslaught. While we can understand why traditional family gatherings and masses in Northern Italian villages went on initially as people did not seize the extent of the threat, then why did these mass evangelical gatherings take place like in Florida over the weekend? What about righteous Liberty University and its come-back to campus approach? What about letting Mardi Gras go on in New Orleans? What about Madrid being fine with the International Women’s Day march of hundreds of thousands on…8th March? All these events have worsened the rate of local infections with additional secondary effects. What did they think? Why did they think a God or more people in restaurants and cafés could help them, assuming they were not in total denial? It is also hard to think that the now lonely Swedish bet on its population being asocial and well behaved is a sound one.

Big Tech may again win in the end. As the “office” concept may be reconsidered as we go through the pandemic and many will work from home, remote working or home-working may become the way of the future for many. This new era will be facilitated by Big Tech which will provide the tools for people to go through this redefinition of what work may mean. Better be prepared to upgrade your skills as Skype, Zoom or Huddle will soon be obsolete!

What do we do with those small jobs that may not come back? Many companies have gone under and will keep going under triggering mass unemployment among low-paid workers as already seen by U.S. job market figures. Many of these jobs will not come back any time soon and will create social upheaval in terms of livelihood as well as simply paying the rent. The concept of Universal Basic Income, be it temporary or not, that was heralded by people as different as Jeff Bezos, Andrew Yang or Rutger Bregman may be the only solution going forward that governments will institute out of sheer necessity while forgetting whether they like its philosophical foundations.

Do not make globalization the culprit. Globalization that gives trendy Nike sneakers or dazzling Apple phones to many may indeed retreat but not forever and completely. Travel and its airlines, the latter which had to be a pandemic vector and will suffer (not from that sin), will keep bringing people all over the world for business and pleasure. The world, even if it changes in some aspects post-pandemic, will not go to where it was one hundred years from now. Solutions will be found and globalization will adjust as will we. Globalization as it adjusts and learns lessons from this pandemic will be ready for the challenges of the future, this likely through an increased focus on multilateralism, reflecting a multipolar world that will keep moving forward as we will want it to do so.

Beware the creeping dictator supposedly acting for your own good. The extraordinary measures that are taken to fight the pandemic have to be temporary and with a good parliamentary-like oversight. Civil liberties are at stake and some governments, however democratic in name only would be too happy to seize the opportunity for a permanent or, supposedly on health grounds, long-lasting state of emergency. Such an approach would give rise to another pandemic, this time of a political nature.

In the end, three things seem to matter in winning the war against this pandemic:

  1. Adopting tough temporary lockdown and physical distancing measures at country level.
  2. Cooperating among nation-states against a borderless evil.
  3. Behaving individually with common sense and not falling for any easy superstition.

Stay safe and well, do not watch CNN (or Fox News, mind you!) all day, read and watch more great movies at home and do not forget to Pence-elbow ☺.

To borrow from a great man: “We shall overcome”.

Warmest regards,

Serge

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