Montrose Journal Covid 19 Edition
‘They Died Not All, but All Were Sick’
So says La Fontaine in his fable: the animals were sick of the plague. There we are, not dead, but a lot sicker than (almost) anyone thought a respiratory pandemic could make the world. It is too early to tell how all this will end up, but some takeaways are already becoming clear. This is all the more important as there is an uncomfortably high probability of other respiratory pandemics materialising at some point in our common future. While Covid-19 shall pass, while the economic damage in its woeful wake shall also pass, the age of the pandemic is with us to stay, if only at the threat level.
As after every disaster, a cry of “never again!” is heard, ensuring that we prepare for what has already happened. Never again will I be stuck and at great risk on a cruise ship because one — yes, one! — fellowtraveler happens to be contagious. Never again will a/my country be dependent on just one other vulnerable country for supplies — masks in this case — which will have demonstrated how vital they are. Never again will I ignore how much damage this form of “butterfly effect”, from one wet market to trillions of dollars of damage, can have here and now. Never again will I purchase vital whatevers from a country without assessing its risk level. Never again will I leave the possibility of national and/or global lockdown out of my strategic planning scenarios. But also, never again will I underestimate the contribution of nurses, cashiers, truckers, warehouse workers.
Needless to say, “never again!”, like insurance, has a cost. All those involved in supplying “never again!” remedies/mitigation/insurance will see opportunities come their way. Conversely, those who sell products and/or services that cannot be protected from “oh, no ! Not again !!” will see a bleaker tomorrow. Some changes in consumer and user practices will simply not be reversed. Some meetings now held electronically will not go back to travel-and-meet form. Some purchases transferred from shops to on-line will remain there. As some businesses crash and burn during lock down, beginning with retail, human transport and their upstream value chain, such as commercial real estate or the oil industry, this will counter intuitively offer opportunities for survivors to grow their market share (albeit in a temporarily at least smaller market). And key providers of “never again!” services (see above) will be able to leverage their extreme usefulness in extreme times into better recognition and pay.
Who am I dancing with?
Covid demonstrates that we are all bedfellows with customers of Wuhan’s wet market, since the consequences of local habits there ripped straight across our world. This forces us to revisit the question with whom we really share our health space. That problems know no borders is clearly established, whether we think the environment (Chernobyl, climate change), or security (terrorism, migrants chased by war). But what about solutions? In this instance, global solutions to a global problem were spectacular in their absence. Even regional alliances failed big-time, as Italy was (once again) left to fend for itself by its EU (supposed) partners. Conversely, solutions at the national level were prominent on budget issues as well as for health policies and directives. But the local level proved unexpectedly relevant, whether it is with confinement (Wuhan and Hubei vs the-rest-of- China, or Codogno in Italy) or local resources, meaning hospital facilities with critical-care beds and ventilators. Hence the failed logic of the one million French people who left the Paris region to “sit out” Covid in the country, thus leaving an area with large, well-equipped hospitals for ones with much smaller medical facilities, which could easily be overwhelmed by the sudden and unwelcome influx of health migrants.
To maximize his chances against Covid, a media mogul holed up on his mega-yacht, bringing back memories of Howard Hughes self-isolating in Las Vegas for years, lest human contact bring him in contact with deadly germs (how prescient). Without going to such extremes (how many mega yachts are available anyhow?), it is foreseeable that there will be health-based closed communities in the same way that there are already security-based ones (think Latin America, South Africa), or prosperity-based ones which are quite common in the US.
Because, in this new world where health roars back to the forefront of our real priorities, ahead of all manners of creature comforts, we have to decide whom we care to be bedfellows with. In this instance critical-care beds. Just as in Edgar Allan Poe’s “the mask of the red death”, when no-one knew who it was wearing the red costume and mask that they danced with at the fatal and final masked ball.
The disappearance of crowds
For years, cost drove down the human-presence-androle factor in many areas. Machines replacing people, electronics enabling remote “contact”. Amazon trying out delivery by drone, and Uber gunning for driverless cars, retail experimenting with human-less shops, just as Air Forces thought next-generation fighters without pilots for greater performance and (obviously) reduced fatalities. Now these changes have new impetus, as drones and driverless cars do not propagate virus-laden droplets through the air. And do not have to bear the cost of
This does however raise the question of those activities where human contact is core and key, be they to share transport, sports, art and moments of faith or emotion. Can football games and F1 races survive the lack of a live audience? Can TV rights fully fund such costly events? Can online worship fully take over? Can elections be all-electronic? What impact on society and history of the waning importance of crowds? What about poorer countries, without the means to pay for “never again!”, and exporting their potentially endemic pandemic? Will we get used to the interdiction of hospital visits and funerals? What of political rallies, AGMs, mass marathons or the simple family-and-friends gatherings? And, of course, the pleasures of sharing meals and clubbing?
Of rats and streets
In attempting to close this wide open subject, it is impossible not to mention the role of media and information channels. Why so little reaction to H1N1 and SARS (relatively speaking), and so much drama/action for Covid? Clearly all manner of media are playing a major role, each with narratives of their own. While one could think that the present high drama and tragedy bodes well for their future, a good case can be made that the portents are actually less than rosy. As groups and crowds take a back seat to ever-more fragmented small-cell and individual lives, macro events dissipate into a multitude of micro ones. Individual deaths are anonymous and uninteresting, unless there is a common thread — and threat — the pandemic, to tie them together. As Camus wrote in his novel: La Peste (The Plague): ”the Press, so glib and talkative in the matter of the rats, weren’t talking about anything anymore. That is because rats die in the streets, and people in their rooms”.
Philippe Berend is a consultant, blogger and and writer on technology questions