Covid 2: The Best/Worst of Times

This is part two of a series on the lessons we should, and shouldn’t be drawing from the Coronavirus Pandemic. Part One is here.

Woman Wearing Mask on Train
Remembering the Cluetrain/Anna Shvets, Moscow

A crisis defines us. Perhaps more precisely, a crisis highlights what we have lost, and what defines us is how quickly we can regain it (or not).

First there’s the humanity. One of the redeeming features about Hong Kong’s dense life — and a restorer of faith in human nature — was that once you got into the hills and trails passing strangers would greet each other as if they were on a jaunt in Kew Gardens. It’s a strange world now, when we venture out alone and nervously pass another lone pedestrian at a safe distance, and bark when they get too close. And you know we are in the territory beyond compassion when a family loses one of its kind to the coronavirus, and yet doesn’t want to say that is the reason for fear of stigma. Society, even at its smallest component unit, can break down quickly if social norms don’t catch up with the crisis in its midst. Now that family (friends of a friend) can’t properly mourn, or warn others in the tightly packed neighbourhood where they live of a lethal infection, and those around can’t find a way to offer support because they can’t speak the killer’s name out loud. Empathy withers, rumours prosper and dog ignores dog.

But there are other trends afoot. When there are practical things to do, air rushes in to fill the gaps. Our obsession with just-in-time supply chains has exposed its achilles heel — a lack of the things we need the most. But others have stepped up. A group calling itself OSCMS-Mods (Open Source Covid-19 Medical Supplies) has emerged on Facebook “to evaluate, design, validate, and source the fabrication of open source emergency medical supplies around the world.” It has quickly proved its mettle: a document listing needs ranges from hand sanitizer to laryngoscopes, complete with glossary and warnings about safety and liability.

The Facebook group is dynamic. At the time of writing it has nearly 48,000 members. In the past hour or so I’ve seen posts by an electrical engineering instructor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison mulling whether to assign as a final project to his students an infrared thermometer. Others chip in, saying they’re working on something similar, offering advice (“don’t forget to program in an emissivity factor”) or help (“I’m pretty fast with 3D modeling and a 3D printer. If you guys need some help with the casing, hit me up!”). In another post a resident of Vancouver Island reports, after driving 500 km, that there is no hand sanitiser or isopropyl on the island. Some offer alternatives (not all them wise) but someone in Hong Kong offers a simpler solution: shipping some of the excess from Hong Kong, where emergency orders arrived too late and the price has fallen below its suppliers’ cost. Medical workers from Southampton, New York, post a photo of themselves in full gear to ask for help alleviate a shortage of surgical caps and masks. The jury is still out on this one, but there are some good suggestions, and hopefully the gap is plugged.

Such adhoc approaches are reassuring. For one thing, people want to help, and the platforms are there to make that a reality — Facebook, with its groups, and a growing mastery of the technology: 3D printing, materials, Arduinos and Raspberry Pis. Of course, these initiatives are only going to be meaningful if they are consistent, and find a way of ensuring that requests for help are not just met by comments and virtue-signalling responses, but concrete action. Time will tell. Technology can often be a hammer looking for a nail.

I think another side to this that may outlast these emergency responses is that the technology will find a way through to real usage, rather than a pure business model. In other words, that tools emerge not because people want to make money, but because they can be useful, and there’s nothing like a jolt to the system for us to realise we need different, or better tools and to define those needs better. A piece in TechCrunch relates how Jahanzeb Sherwani, who developed a popular screensharing app called ScreenHero which he sold to Slack, pushed out a follow-up app called Screen ahead of time — and made it free — to help teams stuck at home share their screens. Given how quickly we’ve grown sick of the ‘heads in a box’ conferencing view (where everyone to me looks like they’re baffled seniors, looking around for their false teeth) this tool works well by going the other way, realising that we’re online to work on something, not look up each other’s noses.

Image result for zoom multiple members

This reminds me much more of the 2000-2005 era, when collaboration and thoughtfulness tended to be the norms, a post-boom pause which led to the development (or propagation) of the tools that became Web 2.0, and which in turn provided the (largely unacknowledged) foundations of the social media era. I’m thinking RSS, XML, podcasts, wikis, tagging, web-based apps, microformats, the Cluetrain Manifesto, simple beautiful interfaces. If you think we could have got to Twitter, Facebook etc without the work of largely unrewarded pioneers of that age, you’re mistaken. But it was born out of a particular era, a transition from the web’s beginnings to the mobile, silo-ed era we know today. It was a vastly underestimated period, where an explosion of ideas and connectedness led to an explosion of tools to make the most of that. Nearly all those tools were open source, nearly all became bedrock of these later, frankly more selfish, times. But the spirit, it seems, lives on, and I am hoping that what I’m seeing in initiatives like OSCMS and Sherwani’s generosity is something akin to that: a realisation that technology is the handservant, not of viral growth and big payoffs, but of building connections between us – in times of calamity (personal or global) and beyond, by providing tools for free because they might be useful and might lead to something great.

I don’t think for a moment that these initiatives will of themselves be enough; it’s clear that nearly every public medical facility and service was woefully underfunded and hence underprepared. No battery of 3D printers is going to be able to fill that void. But hopefully the level of interest and involvement — call it civic, call it individualist — in trying to address that gap contributes to a broader discussion about what is our baseline for supplying, funding, equipping and populating such services in the future. And just as Wikipedia arose, not out of commissioning existing experts to write up entries (an effort that failed abysmally) but out of just letting anyone — no need to flash credentials — to contribute and allow the water level to rise by itself, so may we find that out of this Quarantined Era emerges a new sense of how individuals might contribute, and what mechanisms and tools need to be developed or honed to make that happen.

The Changes A-coming

Covid-19 has reminded us, if we needed reminding, that people behave in unpredictable ways. We are not, it turns out, rational beings. Our leaders lead from the front, the back, not at all, or just feather their own nest first. People defy curfews; they cough on others, smear their saliva on lift buttons, and fight over toilet rolls. Others sacrifice themselves helping strangers, look out for neighbours they barely know, sing and perform to lift others’ spirits. This should give us pause before we start predicting what the world will look like after the virus.

A piece by Politico confirmed my bias that there is a tendency among those viewing the crisis unfold towards confirmation bias — nearly all the experts asked to contribute their thoughts on how the world will be changed effectively said what you think they would say: the author of a book called “The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarisation” said that there would be a, er, decline in polarisation. The author of a book called “The Death of Expertise” said there would be a, um, return to seriousness and respect for expertise. The author of a book about how social infrastructure can help fight inequality said the virus would “force us to reconsider who we are and what we value” and “make substantial new investments in public goods-for health.”

I’m not mocking these writers, or the article itself. It’s natural enough to see in the virus the seeds of the change one is hoping for or has already predicted would happen. Such predictions rarely stand the test of time. We saw the same phenomenon after 9/11, the last great external shock to the West’s system. People talked then about leaving New York, about embracing a different, simpler life. They bought canoes, bulletproof vests, ammunition, parachutes. Analysts predicted a quite different future for us all. A N.R. Kleinfield wrote a decade on in the New York Times:

Paul Simon said he didn’t know if he could ever complete another album. A woman wrote on a remembrance site that she regretted that she had had children, that she had brought their innocence into a world no longer fathomable to her.

But there has been a chasm between expectations and reality. The prophecy of more attacks on the United States has not been the case, not yet at least. Bumbling attempts got close — involving underwear and a shoe and a 1993 Nissan Pathfinder — but the actuality has been that terrorist acts on American soil in the succeeding years have been, as always, largely homegrown.

So many things were expected to be different that have not been. Time passes, and passes some more. Exigencies of living hammer away impatiently. People — most of them, at least — began to become themselves. New York, which by its nature accommodates so much, was willing to absorb 9/11 and keep moving.

That day for many of us is as fresh as if it were yesterday, but the way we thought it would change us has grown stale. Yes, we have the security theatre of airport checks — though they too, might change emphasis once the viral dust has settled — but for most of us our lives didn’t change substantially. (Paul Simon has released six albums, six compilations and one boxed set since 9/11.)

It’s understandable we feel that momentous events have momentous, long-term impacts on our lives, but the reality is that the changes wrought are both less and more than what we anticipate, even by the boffins among us.  

Probably the best way to view the impact of Covid-19 is to view the impact of its predecessor. Not SARS or MERS, although they highlighted how those countries with a institutional and collective memory of a recent epidemic are best equipped mentally and logistically for a new one; but the Spanish ‘Flu of 1918-20, which affected much of the same territory as Covid has — namely the world.

Beds with patients in an emergency hospital in Camp Funston, Kansas, in the midst of the influenza epidemic. Date: circa 1918. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
With masks over their faces, members of the American Red Cross remove a victim of the Spanish Flu from a house at Etzel and Page Avenues, St. Louis, Missouri. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Firstly there are significant similarities between the two in the way they played out. As we have seen in Europe, Australia and the U.S., there’s a reluctance on the part of government to impose unpopular measures — most obviously to get people out of pubs, off beaches and indoors. The same was true in France in 1918, where local officials were reluctant to enforce measures such as closing theatres, cinemas, churches and markets “for fear of annoying the public.” Japan happily banned mass gatherings in its Korean colony, but didn’t even consider trying the same thing back home.

People are people. Officials don’t want to do unpopular things (except when they do not actually face the voter — Japan was by then a democracy of sorts.) And while during the pandemic itself people behaved much as we’re behaving — most of us with “collective resilience”, as Laura Spinney puts it in her excellent Pale Rider — that group identity eventually splinters, and “bad” behaviour emerges. She points to the 1919 Rio carnival, intended to mark the end of the crisis even while the flu was still claiming lives, where the partying took a dark twist: one historian, Sueann Caulfield, found that in the period after the epidemic, there was a surge in reported rapes in the city, temporarily outnumbering other types of crime. The point — beyond the horror of the crimes themselves — is that people behave in strange ways, and crises both fundamentally change their behaviour, but also amplify existing traits. There is no simple outcome.

So predicting is a dangerous game, or it would be if we were ever held to the predictions we make. And it is, of course, far too soon to even know how this crisis will unfold, how long it will take and how many of us it will take with it. So it’s probably unfair to ask others to predict the lasting impacts, at least at this point, and unfair to mock them for their confirmation bias. I would love a more civil society that takes electing its leaders seriously enough to realise they aren’t electing someone to entertain them as much as operate the levers of government. I would love to believe that the selflessness we’ve seen come out of the crisis thus far would linger after peace returns, that we will properly honour those in and serving the medical professions — from the cleaner to the surgeon. That we will realise it can’t go on like this, that we have to take better care of the planet, not move so selfishly through it and past each other, that Gaia is a complex being that weaves everything into her web, even unseen droplets that can pass between us, which we can use to kill each other if we do not take the utmost care.

But that would probably be asking too much. We have to assume that the crisis brings out both the best in us and the worst in us, and we need to stop virtue-signalling about helping old folk with their groceries or checking in on neighbours and just do it, sotto voce, both during the quarantine and after it. If you need a reason why, it’s because collective resilience is as selfish as looking after yourself alone; during crises we tend to perceive ourselves not as individuals but as members of a group, and hence (so the psychological theory goes) helping others in the group is a form of selfishness. Do it, but don’t pat yourself on the back and post something to Facebook about it. If you were really serious about it you would have been doing it long ago, and keep doing it long after.

So my predictions? I’ll jump off that cliff in a later post, but for now, it seems likely that we will both underestimate and overestimate the length and impact of this crisis. Those of us who think we’re well prepared for this, will find that it hits us in other ways. Those of us fearful for the future will probably find fresh reservoirs of strength. The only thing I can predict with any certainty is that it will start to get boring quickly, and while people are dying, others will be defying curfews and sabotaging efforts to stamp out the virus. At the same time, I believe there will be more quiet heroics that will go untold, more quiet domestic solidarity among families that once fought, and the rise of business ideas amidst the lockdown that will make millions for those who nurse them to life. I’ll hang my hat on those predictions, alongside my mask and hand sanitizer gel.