Covid19 and remaking society

One of the commonest failings of self-certified smart people is to underestimate or not take seriously those people with whom they disagree or whom they find otherwise ideologically repugnant or abhorrent. This is a common emotional mistake that can lead to cognitive failings of much larger proportions.

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In the past week I have spent hours trying to either coach younger friends about the risks of Covid19 or coach my peers on how to talk to their elderly or aging parents who are not taking this seriously.

Though inductive teaching is my favourite tool — and I mostly teach management oriented topics so it works — it is very clear that using this complex situation as a “case study” to teach anything to maths and science illiterate people is a grave mistake. Pun not intended but it fits.

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We know close to squat about Covid19. Of course we know something.

We know that people may be contagious for 5 days before any signs show, that it may be 11-14 days before symptoms appear, that they may shed the virus for up to 37 days after, making every person a possible Corona Carrier without their knowledge, and that we have no treatment and no vaccine yet. An unpublished paper (link has the full PDF downloadable) finds that “viable virus could be detected in aerosols up to 3 hours post aerosolization, up to 4 hours on copper, up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to 2-3 days on plastic and stainless steel”.

We are therefore a live petridish for experiments. Every experiment will teach us something if we indeed learn.

If this thought scares you, take a break, and come back to read this again later if you wish.

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We do not know if Covid19 will peter out in the heat of summer. Many of us are watching southern hemisphere countries like a hawk. But in that let us not forget that having learnt lessons from Ebola, many African countries are better equipped in many ways than many western democracies are. Now some African nations are imposing restrictions on European visitors seeing as most of their Covid19 cases were imports by travellers to Italy, France, Germany or other European countries.

In any case the diversity of governance and historical experience and societies is such that the outcomes from any one country may or may not be fully worth copying for one’s own context. In management speak – best practice does not travel well.

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It is worth remembering that most western democracies have seen AIDS but they had also chosen to take a racist lens to Ebola and SARS as “foreign epidemics”. Characterising Covid19 as “Wuhan or China virus” is similar. That sort of casual racism does nothing to prepare the public at large for “this could happen here”.

My hot take on Telepath at least 3 weeks before writing this piece was that authoritarian regimes were going to manage to control Covid19 better than liberal democracies where citizens do not take orders from their governments.

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China with its central command-and-control polity locked down people early, testing and isolating with care, and succeeded in reducing death rates though not in making most westerners believe anything they say. That disbelief is a shame as we could learn a lot from their experiment. China is now helping Italy with expertise as well as supplies of masks and respirators.

South Korea has leaned on extensive testing and they can now teach us about prevalence, tracing and treatment.

A friend of mine was in Italy a day before their first Covid19 case. She and I were discussing, as she refused to leave her hotel room, how the culture – with huge crowds coming together for Shrove Tuesday, drinking, sharing food, kissing each other on cheeks, hanging out without a care – was going to be unhelpful in containing the spread. The hair-raising story of how she left Italy to return to the USA is hers to tell. But having witnessed it as she kept me informed on text, I would say the current Italian situation comes as no surprise to either of us. Italy took precautions quite late. They have a much older population and a health infrastructure built for assumptions of a different demography, potentially also underfunded and understaffed like many others. It is also an age-mixed society. Unfortunately they have borne the worst brunt of it with over 1000 deaths reported at the time of writing, their medical establishment having to resort to catastrophe medicine, and a full lock down.

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Even as the WHO declared Covid19 a pandemic and notes Europe as the pandemic epicentre, the response in the UK is baffling many observers.

We are to wash hands and to self isolate for a week if we have a cold, while Cheltenham races were allowed to go ahead, no large or small gatherings were expressly forbidden, no schools were shutdown.

So far so predictable.

The British public does not take well to hectoring. Instructions to wash hands are being roundly mocked even as soap and sanitisers vanish from the shelves (suggesting people are actually washing hands more). The science is not in doubt.

The British public is also naturally inclined to protecting the underdog. So even though the PM standing up in front of the whole nation and declaring “some people will lose their loved ones before their time” may not be to everyone’s taste, most of us British folk process it as a call to action, to protect the vulnerable among us. And the vulnerable may be our elderly, or our young but at-risk compatriots.

However, not being told to do this or that has not stopped people thinking for themselves. Football clubs and universities and employers have all made their own decisions. I am a governor of LondonMet and our Uni shuts at 5pm on 20 March as a precautionary measure.

A “u-turn” (a favourite phrase in British media) is expected next week by way of new legislation.

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Boris Johnson floated the idea of “herd immunity” on morning TV one day. It has been repeated often since.

Herd immunity is acquired by a population either through vaccination (which is why many of us find the anti-vaxxers so morally challenging and tricky to respect) or through some 70-80% of the public actually acquiring an infection and then immunity to it, if they survive. This 2:13min video is worth watching.

But there is a catch here. Several catches, in fact.

Professor Peter Piot, who discovered Ebola, says Covid19, which is a respiratory virus, is “much much worse than Ebola“. (Can’t embed that video alas but click through to watch him talk about it.)

We do not know enough about herd immunity & coronaviruses, and whether these viruses will trigger robust and reliable adaptive immune response. Vaccines remain a safer bet.

So, big “if” on survival.

Hence the message to focus on protecting the vulnerable while the smarter ones among us frantically work to make a vaccine for Covid19.

Let us not be in any doubt that we are in a big population-wide medical and social experiment — Richard Horton said “the government is playing roulette with the public” — and the British public is being asked to just take responsibility for their role in it.

Each household should prepare to have somebody gravely ill. After all if 70-80% of us are to get it, statistically in most households someone will get it.

The best NHS care though will need to be channelled to those who need it the most else an Italy-like catastrophe medicine scenario is not far.

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Here is the less benign formulation of the above.

With the greatest care in the world, we should brace to lose some of our loved ones. Cruelly teens are already referring to Covid19 as “boomer remover“.

Indeed some commentators are going a step further. Jeremy Warner wrote in the Telegraph (3 March 2020) “From an entirely disinterested economic perspective, COVID-19 might even prove mildly beneficial in the long term by disproportionately culling elderly dependents..”. The word “culling” is normally reserved for cattle and barnyard animals, not for humans.

But the phraseology is indicative of a particular kind of thinking.

If the deceased happen to be the older generation, we will also be witness to considerable inter-generational wealth transfer. Most of this wealth transfer will happen to millennials who are famously poor, we are repeatedly told, working gig jobs. living in cramped shared quarters, unable to buy houses etc. Such a wealth transfer may help the govt reduce some of the largesse it is extending to those who may not have employee protections, as well as gain much into the coffers by way of inheritance tax.

One could argue that our capitalistic system has incentives aligned to letting a lot of our vulnerable population succumb to Covid19.

The added benefit is that the pandemic can be used as a good excuse to shut down borders and reduce immigration, while fostering community spirit and cohesion within our own society. So as we potentially arrive at a no-deal Brexit in the shadow of all this, the remaining – presumably healthy – citizens brace with the blitz spirit and take on the task of rebuilding the country.

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Did you roll your eyes as you read that?

My friend Nick asked on Twitter if anyone else was wondering whether the EU response might have been different without the extreme distraction of Brexit. I asked him if he had considered the possibility of the UK being led into a hard or no-deal Brexit while we were distracted by Covid19. He had not thought of Covid’s impact on this year’s negotiations. I responded that I believe the folks in power at the moment are more focused on their big picture goal than we might want to give them credit for, and a Churchillian view of not letting a crisis go to waste. Examples abound in the UK and in the USA.

As I said earlier, one of the commonest failings of smart people is to underestimate, ignore, or not take seriously those people with whom they disagree. This is a common emotional mistake that can lead to cognitive failings of much larger proportions.

Just because we are distracted by Covid19 does not mean that ideologues are going to waste this opportunity to create a nation, a society in the image of the ideals they believe in.

Just because we are distracted by the acute containment needs of Covid19 does not mean we need to stop thinking about possible scenarios three, six, nine months from now. This is what any thinking person should do, however uncomfortable those scenarios may be.

The question for us as citizens or in any of our other roles in life and work: how are we using this crisis to shape the society, the world we live in?

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(Disclaimer: These are my own views and do not reflect the views of the boards of JP Morgan US Smaller Co.s Investment Trust or Temple Bar Investment Trust or London Metropolitan University, where I serve as a non-exec director.)