Life at the time of COVID-19

Earlier today I drove by our neighborhood supermarket. Outside the doors was a queue of 20 or so people, waiting under the rain to enter the store. Inside they were greeted by empty shelves, frustrated clerks and a sign saying that people could buy no more than 2 items of the same product. The situation brought back distant memories of my childhood in the Soviet Union, only then the stores were much smaller, darker and the clerks were angrier. 

What had happened to America and the entire planet? Just a month ago things were very different from the way they are today…

Our way of life are under attack

The attack is not coming from the usual enemies, such as religious radicals, communist ideologies, fascist dictators, rogue regimes, international bankers, global corporations, illegal immigrants or even zombies. We’ve been always afraid of these threats, arming ourselves and getting ready to defend our freedom until the last drop of blood. However, our efforts and fears were largely misplaced and wasted.

The most dangerous attack on our civilization came from a primitive invisible organism, which can easily infect our bodies and kill the host, due to a weak immune system and underlying health conditions. There is no one crashing airplanes into skyscrapers, taking hostages or demanding a ransom.

In the end, it appears that we should have invested our money in modern hospitals, scientific research, respirators and vaccines. Spending trillions of dollars on ICBM’s, aircraft carriers, jets, drones and other “sexy” toys proved to be rather… unimportant.

Of course, there are plenty of other lessons we have learned during the first few months of 2020. Here is my attempt to summarize some of them.

Government

Citizens of almost all countries like to criticize their governments. Even during the so-called “good times”, there is always something that a government is either not doing at all or doing it inadequately. Of course, on a really “bad day”, the governing inadequacy becomes much more visible and dangerous. 

COVID-19 has clearly demonstrated that not a single country was prepared for the pandemic, even though there were plenty of warnings around. No one had enough protective gear, hospitals, ICU beds, medical personnel, medications, diagnostics and operating procedures in order to effectively face the deadly crisis. 

Some governments managed better than others, but only because they were able to take advantage of their unique political and social circumstances, such as in the Peoples Republic of China. 

Most Western Democracies fell flat on their faces, especially during the early stages of the Pandemic. These governments issued conflicting messages, simplistic recommendations and provided no real leadership. Some were able to recover a bit of initiative by shutting down almost all aspects of social, political and business life and closing national borders.

People’s Attitudes

The most obvious behavior I observed personally and heard about from many international friends were fear, panic, distrust of authorities, hoarding the supplies (whether needed or not), and self-isolation. 

As it is usual for the “Land of the Brave”, many Americans started to buy firearms and ammunition, as if they were getting ready to withstand attacks by intruders, who wanted to stake a claim to their supplies of toilet paper, drinking water and foodstuffs.

Another prevalent thought among many people is that this pandemic was initiated on purpose, by someone who would eventually benefit from the calamity, either politically or financially. Some say that it was started by the Chinese military, others claim that the CIA was responsible. Many other usual suspects were identified, among them – George Soros, of course!

Social Networks 

Ever since Facebook entered our lives in 2008 or so, millions of people have used Social Network platforms to share their personal experiences with the world. Now, during the pandemic, it is very common to see photographs of empty supermarket shelves, lines of people waiting to enter stores, articles describing the worst-case scenarios for the COVID-19 spread, rumors and so on. People enthusiastically share this information because it is very unusual, scary and often funny.

The end result of the avalanche of this massive sharing is that the panic increases, more and more people run to the stores to get the supplies they don’t necessarily need, just “in case” there will be shortages in the future. Sure enough, these shortages are created by the same irresponsible shoppers.

At the same time, Social Networks play an important role in sharing valuable health related information among millions of users around the world. As always, this is a double edge sword with good and not so good sides.

News Reporting

There is an old saying in the mass media: “Good news don’t get high ratings”. Well, there is plenty of bad news to go around during the pandemic and it easily fills the 24 hour news cycle. One one hand, the news outlets have the responsibility to keep public informed. On another, they scare everyone to death.

Healthcare Systems

For years there has been an argument between the US liberals and conservatives comparing the American “for profit” medical system and the rest of the “developed” world, which adopted various flavors of Universal Healthcare, financed by the local taxpayers. It is too early to say which approach will be better suited to handle an influx of millions of patients, possibly infected with COVID-19. 

What is clear is that none of the healthcare systems was prepared for the onslaught – there wasn’t enough equipment, hospital beds and qualified personnel to handle the waves of patients. Virtually everyone in the world underestimated how contagious and deadly COVID-19 turned out to be.

An additional problem for the US system is that there are millions of uninsured and underinsured Americans who may get infected during the Pandemic, yet will not be able to afford to get any help from a medical professional. 

Financial Markets

Virtually every day the financial markets around the world either gain or loose around 10% of their value. Thousands of businesses are forced to curtail their activities and millions of people are unable to earn a living. This is an unprecedented level of instability, which will likely drive the world into a deep recession and record-high unemployment.

Most economies can withstand a few months of reduced activity, but will not survive a longer shutdown and the calamity of the financial markets.

International Borders

I believe that the pandemic proved once and for all that no country is an island. If your neighbors have high level of COVID-19 infections and deaths, then it is guaranteed that your country will get the same in the very near future.

Nevertheless, most countries are trying to isolate themselves by shutting down or limiting air travel and border crossings. Perhaps, they are doing it for the same reason that many Americans hoarding toilet paper – this is something within their power to do and they really don’t know what else they could be doing. Obviously, I wish them well, but I don’t think that these measures will put any dent into the pandemic’s growth rate.

The Near Future

“It is hard to make predictions, especially about the future”, said the American baseball legend and philosopher, Yogi Berra. I admit that many of my predictions have been proven wrong on multiple occasions. One of my recent pearls of wisdom foresaw significant eradication of COVID-19 by early summer 2020. Well, so much for that. Now it seems to me that COVID-19 is here to stay for a while, perhaps forever.

Just as it happened during the outbreak of the Spanish Flu epidemic in 1914, we are currently experiencing fast and dangerous spread of the virus across the entire planet. We are taken aback by the virus’ exponential infection rate and high mortality rate. Because of the surprise attack, we experience all kinds of shortages and, most importantly, we’re missing a vaccine that would limit and control the virus. 

Nevertheless, I believe that our enterprising world will regain the upper hand in this fight during the next 12 – 18 months. During this period of time we will build new hospitals and respirators, train the necessary specialists to deal with patients, and create the vaccine. 

However, similarly to the Spanish Flu, COVID-19 will mutate and continue to infect and kill humans. In fact, the modern version of the Spanish Flu (also known as Influenza) had killed about 61,000 Americans during the winter season of 2017 – 2018. 

The bottom line is that COVID-19 will become yet another cause of death, joining heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes and so on. So, it is be here to stay, but we may be able to prevent it from becoming one of the top ten causes of death.

I am also confident that we will find a way to eliminate shortages of toilet paper and other supplies. Therefore, our beloved United States will not resemble the Soviet Union of my childhood!

Summary

I feel that we, as a civilization, became too spoiled by the benefits of progress, globalization and Good Life. We have not had a big devastating war for 75 years, we don’t know what hunger is, we are not concerned about shortages of medicine or any products or services…

Instead, we worry about making money, paying our bills, going on holidays and buying fancy stuff for ourselves. My wife and I are guilty in this regard as well – we had recently taken a 15 hour flight to the Philippines in order to spend a few days on the beach, essentially. How irresponsible was that?

Well, this is a wakeup call. The old lifestyle is bankrupt and we have to live differently from now on. It is not uncommon for different generations to have a unique outlook on life, depending on the events that they experienced during their lives. Just look at the generations that suffered during the Great Depression, or survived World War II – these people are very different from, let’s say, the Baby Boomers or the Millennials. 

The current situation may change the present generation as well. Everything depends on how long this nightmare will last.

Good night and good luck!

IY

Thinking out of the box

During the last few weeks I’ve been consuming lots of political reports from around the world. Here is a quick summary of what I’ve read:

  1. Many countries, not just the US, are having hard time coping with the speed and intensity of the changes affecting people’s lives, i.e. Immigration, Globalization, Automation, Aging Demographics, Gender Conflicts, etc.
  2. The “Right” political factions take full advantage of the rapidly shifting landscape. The Conservatives employ a slew of simple messages that promise people to restore the order in their lives. These message resonate with many parts of the society, including the Millennials who are not happy with limited employment prospects, educational debt and unaffordable housing cost.
  3. Liberals have preciously little to offer in return. Their response to the populist slogans consists of calling their opponents “fascists”, “dictators” and criticizing their personality faults. Most importantly, the “left” strategies do not address the core concerns of the voters.

As a result, the Conservative demagogues keep on winning the elections. The self-proclaimed “national saviors” of the Philippines, Turkey, Bulgaria, Poland, Hungary, Russia, UK, USA not only win at the polls, but appear to grow in popularity.

What can the “Left” do in order to win the voters’ hearts and minds?

All the articles I’ve read go to a great length to describe the problems, but offer no solutions. This “bankruptcy of ideas” stems from the fact that modern voters can not be reached via logical persuasion.

People “feel” what they like and don’t like. For example, the voters don’t want to have Syrian, N. African or C. American immigrants moving into their towns en-masse, and hate the idea of Transgender bathrooms and same sex marriage. They could not care less about the melting polar caps, cancelation of the Iran nuclear agreement or elimination of the Affordable Care Act. It seems that the only thing the voters want to hear is a promise that they will be great again and again, even if they know that it is only a mirage.

Clearly, Liberals need to rethink their entire platform. Why do they push the ideas that the voters don’t care about?

I’m beginning to think that Liberals should agree with their conservative opponents. Let’s surround US by a huge wall, stop all forms of immigration, get rid of the social programs (Welfare, Medicaid, Food Stamps, Social Security), eliminate the EPA, IRS, and Department of Education, prohibit abortions and same-sex marriage, privatize most governmental functions, reduce taxes to a minimum, etc. In other words, let’s finally implement the Conservatives’ dream of ‘small government”. Let’s see if our citizens, especially the young ones, will like living in a country like that! May be then and only then, they will start to exercise their right to vote, although it may be too late for that.

Deja Vu… all over again

Soon after the 2016 US Presidential elections I started to wonder about the reasons for Donald Trump’s accession to the White House. As a part of my research, I interviewed a number of DT supporters and asked them why they voted for this candidate. Here is what these people told me:

  • DT is a much better choice than Hillary Clinton.
  • DT is a successful businessman and, therefore, he is not as corrupt as other politicians. In fact, DT is not a politician at all and I really hate professional politicians.
  • DT hates Muslims as much as I do.
  • DT hates immigrants (especially the Latinos) as much as I do. On the same note, DT will build the Wall, which will eliminate illegal immigration.
  • DT will get rid of Obamacare and replace it with something better.
  • DT will lower my taxes and will slash the Government’s wasteful spending.
  • DT wants to cooperate with Putin (i.e. Russia) and I feel that the two countries should unite to fight against the Muslims.
  • DT will get rid of all liberal policies (which I hate), such as: climate change treaties; American support of the United Nations and even NATO; aid to foreign countries; free-trade agreements; etc.
  • DT will strongly support Israel and will relocate the US Embassy to Jerusalem.
  • DT will bring back millions of American jobs lost to the off-shoring, free trade, etc.
  • DT will return the control of the Supreme Court to the conservatives.

Much of the wish list above sounds naive, but that will never discourage hopeful supporters. In fact, many of the DT voters may not even care to notice in 2020 that most of the 2016 promises were not implemented as they hoped.

Be as it may… However, something about the list makes me uncomfortable, as if I haven’t heard a satisfactory answer. Then I happened to listen to a lecture about the work of Friedrich von Hayek, a famous Austrian – British economist. In 1940 he wrote a book called “The Road to Serfdom” in which he analyzes the uneasy relationship between Capitalism and Fascism. Here is an interesting quote from this book:

“The progress created by the resourceful few, while it brings long-term benefits to the society at large, comes at the expense of some established social groups. Fascism and Nazism are the desperate attempts by social losers to regain the rewards denied them in the marketplace through force and ideological special pleading .”

This is the answer I was looking for! Our society is being rapidly revolutionized by three mega trends: Immigration, Globalization, and Automation. These trends are spearheaded by “the resourceful few”, who reap astronomical profit from the progress. The “few” amount to 1% of the population (or 0.1% of the American households, per Marc Faber) that own more assets than the bottom 90%.

The “social losers” on the bottom either know about this math or can sense that the famous American “level playing field” is disappearing. They can clearly see that the well-paying jobs are getting scarce, the personal debt increases, while the professional politicians work for and together with “the resourceful few”.

The November 2016 election has shown that our society has already reached the dangerous tipping point when a simple-minded demagogue can beat the well-entrenched Establishment of both American parties. Make no mistake about it, he may do it again in 2020! All it will take is a simple message, a promise to return the suffering masses to their former glory. Somehow, the rest of our political Establishment can not offer any other idea that can compete with that.

Good night and good luck!

Igor

Жить стало лучше, жить стало веселее!

Путешествуя по странам и континентам на протяжении почти четырёх десятилетий, я отметил для себя интересную тенденцию – резкое улучшение благосостояния населения в разных частях света. Соответственно, это явление распространяется на города, инфраструктуру и относительную безопасность на улицах.

Очень часто я слышу такую фразу от местных гидов и жителей: “Раньше здесь был ужасный район с брошенными фабриками, разрушенными портовыми складами, действующими притонами, наркотиками, и т.д. Даже полиция боялась приезжать сюда… А теперь тут построены торговые центры, фешенебельные гостиницы, рестораны, пешеходные зоны. Стоимость кв. метра здесь зашкаливает…” Ну и далее, в таком же духе.

Что интересно, похожий разговор происходит в таких непохожих городах как Рио, Сайгон, Маракеш, Батуми, Лондон, Барселона, Бангкок, Пекин, и т.д. Да я и сам могу сказать тоже самое про “свои” города (Бруклин, Манхэттен, Бронкс и Лос Анджелес), которые заметно улучшились (и подорожали!) за последние 10 – 15 лет.

Не могу не отметить изменения в Одессе, превратившуюся за несколько лет моего отсутствия из провинциального разрушенного городка (образца 2006 г) в настоящую жемчужину Черноморского побережья (2012 г). Даже такие проблематичные явления как страшные пробки на улицах Москвы и Киева свидетельствуют о том, что местные обыватели не стесняются покупать дорогостоящие авто и заправлять их дорогим топливом!

Приезжая в пыльный городок Риссани на краю Сахары в Ю. Марокко, не могу не заметить многочисленные кафе и молодых людей с ноутбуками на столиках. Рядом стоят красавцы внедорожники, окружённые тучками мотоциклов. “Туристы”, скажете вы. Да, тут много туристов, но и не мало берберов, которые общаются с будущими клиентами из всех стран света при помощи Facebook и TripAdvisor. Внедорожники – тоже местные. Ими владеют дети кочевников, которые родились в пустыне, но переквалифицировались в гидов и водителей. Семья нашего молодого водителя-бербера обменяла своё стадо верблюдов на несколько джипов и автобус для обслуживания больших тур-групп. Теперь старики живут в современном доме со всеми удобствами, а молодёжь разъезжает по стране с иностранцами на борту. Причём, они в состоянии сносно объясниться как минимум на 5-и европейских языках.

Почитайте любой путеводитель по Бильбао и вы узнаете, что не так давно это был грязный индустриальный город с высокой безработицей, пустующим портом и умирающей рекой. И вдруг, в 1990-е годы начинается возрождение региона, строится красавец-музей Гуггенхайма, новый аэропорт и метро, чистится экология, инвестируются сотни миллионов долларов в сам город. Я был в Бильбао в апреле и могу доложить как здорово прогуляться вдоль живописной реки от музея в Старый Город, как много туристов, решивших потратить свои деньги и время в цветущей столице Страны Басков.

Далеко не всё, конечно, улучшается на планете. Тут и там свирепствуют гражданские войны, этнические зачистки, эпидемии, религиозные конфликты, коррупция, и т.д. Старушка Европа трещит по всем экономическим швам, Америка страдает от астрономических долгов и растущих расходов. Безработица карает юное поколение с высшим образованием и без оного. Немудрено, что часто приходится слышать грустное замечание от иммигрантов со стажем: “Америка уже совсем другая, чем та в которую мы приехали”. Да, другая. Как, впрочем, другая уже Бразилия, Китай, страны бывшего СССР, и вся планета. Даже мы сами уже другие, ведь сорок лет – это срок!

И всё таки – положительные изменения видны невооружённым глазом, по крайней мере моим глазом.

Кризис! Или нет?

Совсем недавно, еще будучи премьер-министром Италии, Сильвио Берлускони сболтнул: “Нет никакого кризиса, вот посмотрите сколько народу сидит в ресторанах и ездит на курорты”. Это заявление в конце концов переполнило чашу терпения итальянского общества и Сильвио пришлось вернуться к своим малолеткам и к своему футбольному клубу.

Однако и у меня есть похожие наблюдения, да мне и не грозит потерять министерское кресло. Во время нашего октябрьского визита в Париж и Амстердам не раз приходилось качать головой, наблюдая за переполненными ресторанами и дорогими магазинами на Елисеевских Полях. А как не отметить эксклюзивные курорты Южной Африки, заполненные европейцами и американцами, которые с радостью катаются на джипах возле диких животных. И как мне редко удается найти свободное место на самолете, чтобы хоть немного устроиться поудобнее, а ведь билеты дорожают просто на глазах.

Мои украинские друзья мчатся на горных лыжах по Австрии и Италии. В США народ ломится в торговые центры и тратит рекордные суммы на такие глупости как рождественские подарки. Одни американские приятели покупают квартиры для своих подросших детей, а другие присматривают симпатичную новенькую Порше. Круизы и путевки в мексиканские курорты дорожают, но раскупаются за много месяцев вперед.

И все таки, беспощадный меч безработицы висит над каждым американцем, а каждый европеец только может догадываться будет ли банкротом его страна. Внешние и внутренние долги растут, банки лопаются, фондовые рынки пляшут как ошалелые, климат меняется, пенсии откладываются, революции взрывают устоявшиеся режимы, мировой океан заливает архипелаги – как здесь не задуматься над нашим общим будущем?

Очевидно, старый прохвост Сильвио ошибается – нельзя измерять экономику количеством съеденных макарон в местном ресторанчике!