What If Coronavirus Was More Deadly?

A possible future.

I have been attending to the ministrations of the Long Now Foundation for quite some time. Even before they existed I was engaged at The Well and participated in discussions about the future of society. Ever since about 2008 I’ve been more of an optimistic pessimist, because Nouriel Roubini. What that means is that even though since 9/11 I wake up and ask ‘What broke while I was asleep?’, I always assumed it might be something that could be fixed. Now I basically think that everything can break permanently so it makes sense to make friends with Nouriel Roubini and other members of the Long Now Foundation. This is different than tribal associations in an open society, this is feudalism for a failed state.

Since I don’t believe we are actually speeding down the road to serfdom, we are ambling mindlessly like teens in the beginning of a horror flick, I can keep Roubini at an intellectual distance. I much prefer the approaches of John Boyd and of Nassim Taleb. It was Taleb, through his approach to risk management who introduced me to the idea of the Lindy Effect. This basically means what worked in the days of yore and works now is likely to survive any catastrophe of our contemporary times. Pizza is better than Hot Pockets because pizza can survive the death of Panasonic and all other microwave manufacturers. I look at society through this lens, in particular the ways and means by which societies communicate ideas. In particular, I think about the longevity of one-hit wonders vs that of jazz standards. When it comes to music I always think of John Williams’ Imperial March aka Darth Vader’s Theme as something destined to be around for centuries. A large number of Americans are convinced, and so communicate by a wide variety of means, that the American Century is over. I’m not necessarily convinced.

What is America at the deepest level? America is the experiment in democracy, and specifically it is the creation of divided government. It is the divestiture of sovereign power from a single head of state. It is the successor to monarchy, and it also defies autocracy by definition. I haven’t bothered to count, but my nickel says the number of nations that have adopted divided government that have subsequently reverted to dictatorship are few, and that Lindy is in full effect for this new type of sovereign power. Nevertheless monarchy has the edge and imperium has its prerogatives. A lot more of human history has been conducted under such regimes. I feel a bit pathetic that I wasn’t given the standard indoctrination about Rome during high school, but I recognize many of the metaphors. Stories about ancient Rome are legion. They are cautionary tales and I agree with Stephen Pinker’s theories to the extent that they demonstrate the better quality of our legal institutions and national infrastructure in the contemporary era over that of the prior. The rule of law in a divided government is superior to the rule of man in what we now call a failed state.

Nevertheless it is quite useful to examine what a bad day in America is like when compared to a bad day in Venezuela or the Congo. In that way the poor examples of authoritarian governments are good to know for the aimless teenaged horror bait among our electorate. That includes Harry Belafonte who publicly endorsed Hugo Chavez. Today’s news is that the appointment of a certain Neera Tanden, archenemy to Bernie Sanders is proof of my scenario that a Trump loss could keep Democrats Blue. The Progressive Left wasn’t born yesterday and they won’t die tomorrow, but the Blues are older and more established. This liberal order is baked into the political infrastructure of the USA and it will persist, so is the conservative. Neither will enjoy their agendas being taken off the front burners of American dialog which would have to happen were our experiment to ultimately fail into true authoritarianism. Those of us who warn against it were not so much afraid of Trump, but of a second Trump. When he skedaddles in 2021, the threat is for another of his ilk. Biden is of the same ilk as the Obama neoliberal proving its own Lindy Effect. I say Trump didn’t erase so much of our great experiment in democracy and divided government as he did any notion that the Republicans could provide anything nearing the secular royalty American society petulantly demands. So we’re stuck with Beyonce.

What did and continues to twist and contort our society is the coronavirus. Like the destruction of 2008, our pre-existing vulnerabilities were only recognized by a few. Since March, my go to guy in this has been Michael Osterholm of CIDRAP and I also took very seriously the prediction and sigh of relief from Nicholas Christakis that we would only suffer half a million deaths. As we approach that number in this the second wave of infections, I remain mostly annoyed but not disturbed. I am annoyed that political partisans think that we have no divided government and nobody else to hear out but the Tweeter in Chief in whom is endowed the power of The Answer provided by The Science (To which there is also an equal and opposite True Answer provided by True Science). I also know that America and even Venezuela survived AIDS which has killed over 30 million people worldwide since the 1980s.

Somehow, not that I’m looking, there hasn’t been any excruciatingly brutal and viral video of somebody suffering through to their final moments under the indifferent knee of COVID-19. It is an impersonal enemy we haven’t managed to muster quite enough fear against. The downside is, of course, the matter of lockdown fatigue, a particularly American kind of malaise which is directly proportional to the liberties of our open society of the sort few enjoy in Asia. My cousin who has spent many years in the East reminded me of the uselessness of various passports and papers when the men in military uniforms enforce lockdown by pointing people towards their homes with rifles. Even after 9/11 we have suffered only the inconveniences of the TSA, but nobody talks about TSA brutality. As much as we mouth off about the freedom to go about be unmasked, even the most hated governors (yeah you Gavin) haven’t broken out the Guard.

If COVID-19 were passed through Americans via sexual transmission, it would probably kill a lot fewer people than it does. As much as we balk at lockdowns and curfews, we would pretend that our sex lives were much more under control than they are. Syphilis, chlamydia and gonorrhea are on the rise to about 2.4 million right about now according to the CDC. Who cares about that? 3.9 million Americans have Hepatitis C. Are we really paying attention? It seems to me that we’re all just playing waiting games with the assumption that eventually there will be a new, slightly more uncomfortable normal in which we will suffer through another set of ridiculous advertisements with happy people flying kites at the beach while the narrator drones on about side effects. Do we ever consider that there might be more deadly incurable and fast-acting diseases to contend with?

There are such things and the flu is one of them. I believe this is why the coronavirus was compared so often and early with the flu, which most of us ignore despite the fact that we know it kills every year. My great grandparents are presumed to have died in the 1918 pandemic which orphaned my grandfather. Michael Osterholm’s excellent book (published in 2017) uses H7N9 as the pathogen of his pandemic scenario that starts in mid-April some time in the future.

By the first week of July the casualty rate has started to decline. Within weeks, hospitals are recording only a few new cases. The CDC reports that though there are sporadic hot spots around the world, the flu appears to be abating. The stock market starts to climb, while analysts warn that this may only last until earnings season, when we will see how much damage the pandemic has done. The loss to worldwide gross national product is difficult to measure, but it is certainly in the many trillions of dollars. Everyone says it will take years to recover.

The CDC estimates the total number of cases in the United States at 31 million, or approximately 9 percent of the population. Of those, deaths totaled approximately 1,932,000, for a fatality rate of around 6 percent. Global statistics are not yet available but are thought to be at least as severe.

Osterholm, Michael T.; Olshaker, Mark. Deadliest Enemy (p. 278). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.

His example has subsequent waves. The above paragraphs are just the beginning of the tabletop scenario he illustrates in his chapter Pandemic: From Unspeakable to Inevitable. However it is Osterholm’s grasp of the policy and strategic deficits of the US and of global institutions that are the more chilling matters. He also understand human psychology about contagion. We simply don’t fear flu the way we fear Ebola. It doesn’t kill us fast enough.

We don’t seem to mind dying slowly, do we? After all, morbid folks among us are telling this all the time. Everything is killing us softly. Are we really afraid of heart disease? Yes? Enough to blame the President if too many people die? Probably not. Yet for what we have suffered in divisiveness and failure of confidence in our democratic institutions as well as of higher learning, a salient lesson should have been learned. What civility and patience has done, death and chaos can undo, and we have had only the merest taste of those social wrecking balls. The Trump era is not worse than the Nixon era. The Portland and Seattle riots combined were nowhere nearly as deadly and destructive as either Watts or Detroit. We haven’t suffered assassinations of our nation’s most treasured individuals. There are no Trumpvilles in 2020 like there were Hoovervilles in the 1930s.

We need to start thinking more seriously about giving a lot more respect to our nation and recognize what catastrophic stress is truly like. When celebrities make noises about leaving the country but never do it signals to me a spoiled lack of devotion. I don’t wish suffering on any of us, but is that what it will take for us to stop playing games? I hope not. Then again, hope is not a strategy. The ship of state has taken on water. We are listing and limping along. It’s time to man the pumps and start and righting the ship, not cursing the captain and calling for abandoning.

COVID-19 is getting worse and we are not out of the woods yet. Your health is the most important thing you possess. Recognize what truly threatens you and what truly threatens America.