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 is 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 ’til 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.
Lesson learned – we are not likely to die from an airplane crashing into a skyscraper. It appears that we should have invested our time and 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.
Citizens of almost all countries like to criticize their governments. Even during the so-called “good times”, there is always something that any given government is either not doing enough of or not doing it satisfactory. 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.
The most obvious behavior I observed personally and heard about from many international friends were fear, panic, distrust of authorities, hoarding the supplies (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 grab their supplies of toilet paper, drinking water and frozen pizza.
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!
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 early stage of pandemic, it is very common to see photographs of empty supermarket shelves, lines of people waiting to enter stores, as well as articles describing the worst-case scenarios for the COVID-19 spread, rumors and so on. People enthusiastically share this (dis)information because it is very unusual, scary and often funny.
The end result of the avalanche of this massive sharing is that panic increases, more people run to the stores to get the supplies, 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.
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. On one hand, the news outlets have the responsibility to keep public informed. On the other, they scare everyone to death.
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, paid for by the local taxpayers. It is too early to say which approach will be better suited to handle an influx of millions of patients, all arriving at the same time.
What’s clear, is that none of the healthcare systems were properly 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.
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 (depression?) 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.
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. 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 a hundred years ago, we are 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 see all kinds of shortages and, most importantly, we’re missing a vaccine that would limit and control the infection.
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 sick, and create a vaccine.
However, similarly to the Spanish Flu, COVID-19 will mutate and continue to infect and kill humans. In fact, the modern mutated 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 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!
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. My friends and us are guilty as well – we had just taken a 15 hour flight to the Philippines in order to spend a few days on the beach, essentially. How irresponsible was that?
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!