It seems surreal to think that not even two months ago, we were treating the tragic death of Kobe Bryant as the defining moment of a generation. Indeed, the events around it were extraordinary, and in terms of public figures, his death alone was AT LEAST on par with that of Princess Diana and John Lennon. Factor in that his daughter and seven others were in the private helicopter with him, and it made the whole event even more painful to think about. Nevertheless, Kobe Bryant was still just one man, and outside of the few individuals close to him, his daughter, and the others lost in the accident, life would go on the same for all the rest of us.
But here we are, barely on the other side of an event that apparently changed American life more than anything since December 7th, 1941. (Yes, including 9-11.) The Coronavirus, something that entered our lexicon at the end of 2019, has fully taken over our society, days before the Spring of 2020 commences. Indeed, its spread has taken on a life of its own, like the deadly virus that is, but at least so far, in a very unexpected, ironic way. Rather than infecting our immune systems at the exponential rate that has been predicted, it has infected our society and way of life, in a way that we will likely not recover from any time soon. By trying to preemptively stop the virus from harming us in mass numbers, we have ended up harming ourselves. The whole thing kind of feels like the episode of South Park, where the parents banished the children from the town, in the hopes that they wouldn’t be kidnapped.
None of this is to make light of the Coronavirus itself. It has created chaos in the health industry across the rather motley crew of Iran, Italy, and especially China, where the virus started. It is far deadlier than the “common” flu, and more contagious than other diseases that have made their way to the headlines in the early 21st century, such as Ebola, SARS, and H1N1. But in a highly interconnected world of 7+ billion people, these types of disease are, unfortunately, inevitable. While the worse case scenario projections are terrifying, the reality so far is nowhere near a fraction of that. Nothing in our lifetimes- at least for those of us under 80 years old- has ever altered the course of our collective lives so dramatically as this. We still do not know if these draconian actions are justified, as only time will tell. But what we DO know is that there is no turning back.
But what exactly caused this event to “succeed”, in a way that The Cold War, Radical Islamic Jihad, the aforementioned diseases (H1N1 killed over 10,000 Americans), climate change, and various other scares did not? Part of it is the spread of social media, which in some ways, behaves in a virus-like way itself. As news permeates through the internet, stories that have “sizzle” manage to grow exponentially. We watched through the news what was happening in China, and knew that it was only a matter of time before SOME variation hit home. Then in early March, Rudy Gobert, a star player in the NBA who had mocked the Coronavirus with a crude “prank” just days earlier, was diagnosed with the disease. Within two days, professional sports leagues were shut down, creating shock not experienced in generations throughout society. Sure, this happened for a very brief time during 9-11, but that was because the country was in mourning. This time around, sports leagues, along with all the industries that followed, were shut down as a preventative measure for a microscopic menace, fearing that those in crowded spaces could catch the virus very easily. It also didn’t help matters when Tom Hanks, a larger-than-life figure in a similar vein to Kobe Bryant, turned out to be mortal as well. People don’t like to say it out loud, but when bad things happen to these “invincible” celebrities, we wonder what kind of chance the rest of us have.
So now, we have toilet paper shortages- another irony, seeing how Coronavirus is not THAT kind of disease- as well as soap, hand sanitizer, and other products that are running low on the shelves. But all that is merely a warmup act for the TRUE damage we are just beginning to experience- the shutting down of the global economy, “led” by the American consumer. For a small, vocal minority that included yours truly, this has been in the pipeline for decades, as financial institutions and their willing-if-unknowing accomplices have been kicking the can down the curb, hoping to put off the inevitable juuuuuuuust a little longer. It was always heading for disaster- glimpses of that could be seen after the DotCom bust, followed by the one in real estate a half decade later. What’s so surprising is that it is not an external event that likely took the whole thing down, but that it was dismantled willingly by a society fearful of what MIGHT be. And make no mistake- even if the shutting down of commerce “only” lasts for two weeks, as unlikely as that seems, it will cause catastrophic waves that will be felt for years to come. The global economy was set up with an appetite similar to the hummingbird- it needs to be fed constantly, or it will die. Whatever unprecedented measures await us to keep it afloat, on top of the unprecedented measures that DID keep it afloat up until this point, they will have unintended consequences that will likely change the way business is done forever.
And what of this soon-to-be defunct economy, that is all most of us have ever known? If we’re looking for silver linings- and if we ever needed silver linings it would be now- one might be that the power will be shifted away from industries that have done more long term harm than good. Around the same time that the current President made his infamous comment about Mexican immigrants in 2016, Michael Bloomberg, the wealthy tycoon and former New York City mayor who ran a disastrous Presidential campaign, said something arguably as offensive and ignorant. Trying to make a point about the superiority of the Information Age businessman over the seemingly-archaic blue collar farmer, Bloomberg implied that those who succeeded in the Information Age (eg. people like him) did so because of superior intellect, whereas “anybody” could learn how to farm. Bloomberg, who apparently thinks his food is grown in a Sparrow’s pizza chain restaurant, completely disregarded the critical importance of the farmers that allow us Americans to take for granted just how easy it is to fill our bellies whenever we feel like it. As the financial system that helped Bloomberg become one of the world’s wealthiest men crumbles in real time, while our digestive systems still demand three meals a day, it will be interesting to see whose skills are really necessary to keep the world going.
Finally, a cold, perhaps even cruel question that needs to be asked- how many deaths will justify the dismantling our way of life? Until the last few weeks, we were told that the largest threat to our society was climate change, although very few practical changes were made, even by those who claimed to be most concerned. If the Coronavirus has taught us anything, even in its early stages, it’s that our fragile society can be hit by any threat at any time, without any time to prepare. Now that we have been caught flat-footed, our leaders are trying to make up for it by overcompensating. When we look back at the actions that are being taken as this blog post is being written, will we be able to say it was worth it? More than half a generation ago, George W Bush got lukewarm support for the invasion of Iraq, on the grounds that Saddam Hussein was harboring weapons of mass destruction. A few empty canisters later, the whole thing appeared to be a catastrophic miscalculation at best, a deadly set of lies at worse. This is obviously a different threat, in that we KNOW it’s real. But justifying our countermeasures will be a Catch-22. If the number is too low- let’s say, below the number of people killed by H1N1- the whole thing will be seen as a supersized, overly sensationalized media news cycle. If the number is too large- let’s say, approaching or, heaven forbid, EXCEEDING the Spanish flu of 1918, the last TRUE American plague- we’ll say that the social distancing movement was a giant failure. So, the number probably be somewhere well above H1N1, but well below the Spanish flu, to even TRY to justify the current actions being taken.
If I may emphasize the point, I know how heartless this sounds, and it’s not to minimize the tragedy that we have already seen, nor the tragedy that still lies ahead of us. But sometimes, overreaction can be as bad or WORSE than doing nothing at all. (Keep in mind Saddam Hussein was, after all, a mass murdering tyrant.) For those who think that these actions are justified, even if they only end up saving a relatively small number of lives, consider this- is bringing the national speed limit down to 25 miles per hour worth the tens of thousands of lives that would be saved on the road? Remember- throughout most of civilization, the only time anyone traveled more than 25 miles per hour was when they lost control of their chariot.
Anyway, best of health to anyone reading this. Let’s hope that when it’s time to look back to see how well this blog post held up, we’re all around to do so.