Life In A Global Pandemic, Part 8

Over the past weeks, a lot of the early information about covid-19 has unraveled.

The overwhelming majority of deaths have occurred among old people with preexisting conditions. Predictably, the rest of the people in American society have started to wonder whether it's fair to shut down the economy and disemploy millions in order to save people whose life expectancy was already quite short, even before the pandemic hit. I say this now without judgment: This sort of resentment was inevitable from the beginning, and the truth of the matter is that the economy will have to start cranking again, no matter what any of us personally believe about the ethics of the matter. Human life did not grind to a halt during the Spanish Flu pandemic or the days of the Black Plague. Life can, will, and must carry on; the sick will be left behind. This is as true anything about human beings can be. Carrying on despite what might befall the unfortunate ones is what we do.

The integrity of the epidemiological models that shaped public policy has also started to unravel. The dangers of covid-19 may have been over-hyped, at least in a manner of speaking. This is a difficult matter for a person to wrap his head around. On the one hand, covid-19 has caused an undeniable spike in human mortality. People are dying out there, and in greater numbers than comparable recent years. At the same time, the virus is far more widespread than anyone realized -- a fact that sounds bad until we realize that is proves that perhaps a majority of infected people show no symptoms, that a definite majority do not require hospitalization, that a decided majority will survive covid-19, and that the strain on the health care system was largely over-estimated. Deadly as the disease may be, it's not nearly as deadly as feared.

And so, as Texas will do tomorrow, the American economic system will soon reopen and life will return to something approximating normalcy.

Excepting, of course, the fact that life will never go back to normal again. The way we have pursued entertainment during the pandemic proves this.

As I expected -- but probably neglected to write down -- people are not as interested in being active outdoors as their initial response to the quarantines might have lead us to believe. At first, people were working from home and taking every opportunity to get outside for periodic walks, runs, and bicycle rides. From my observation, that has trickled to a halt. Once again, there are cars on the road and heavy traffic everywhere. The air is thick with exhaust again. It's hard for me to cross the road on foot, because the vehicles on the road have returned, and are just as aggressive as ever. The charms of walking down the local footpaths and listening to the birdsongs and the croaking frogs has expired. I haven't seen an egret in weeks.

But none of that means that people are trying to get back to normal. What we've discovered under quarantine is the wealth of entertainment available to us from the comfort of our own homes. Of course, most of us have access to streaming video services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, and so on. Now major Hollywood film studios have announced that they will continue to release movies straight-to-streaming even after the lockdown ends. And why not? Our home "theaters" are wonderful: comfortable seats, ample snacks, and alcohol, no fighting for parking spaces or trying to get early tickets, no second choices... Video entertainment has never been better.

Add to that the fact that video gaming is the best it's ever been, and we get to play them essentially in the same gorgeous theaters in which we watch our blockbuster films. The kids can even engage in social media as they play video games, with services like Twitch becoming major forces in how people connect with each other.

Music, too, is readily available at home. We can stream any song we want to hear now, thanks to the likes of Spotify and Amazon Music. The sound quality is as good as it's ever been. But that's not all; major music acts have put on free concerts from their own homes. Some of them do it every week. For musicians who already have a following, it's doubtful that the quarantine will erode their fanbase. It's very good to be a music fan these days.

And then we have the services, all the glorious services. Peloton, Zwift, Strava, Beachbody On Demand, and the likes are booming as people confined to their homes have realized that they don't actually need a gym subscription after all. We thought we would miss our favorite restaurants, but they all deliver now. Alcohol, too, can be delivered, and the cost is not actually as high as anyone expected. Yesterday, I saw an advertisement for a free 5-day guitar home instruction course, in which none other than Paul Gilbert himself teaches you how to play a classic Racer X song. For free! (Yes, I did sign up, and if the first lesson is anything to go by, this will be nothing short of remarkable!) Every conceivable kind of music-production software is on sale for pennies on the dollar of what you'd otherwise have to pay.

The toys now available to us, which we are all now inspired to avail ourselves of, are absolutely dazzling. It is absolutely inconceivable that we will experience such wealth of leisure and then go back to a world of public theaters, gymnasiums, overpriced restaurants, and boring old guitar lessons from the pimply kid at Guitar Center.

Thus, even as we discover that we in less danger from covid-19 than we feared, we are also discovering that we are less reliant on public spaces than we ever imagined. I expect that American life will transition away from densely packed public spaces like New York City public transportation, toward the spacious, comfortable, rural environments of the Midwest. If the prospect of doing yard work doesn't appeal to you, you can always pay to have it done.

This suggests, too, that some of the most valuable work in the coming years will not be the paper-pushing office busy work that so many of us do. Instead, it will be the service-level work that keeps our lives so comfortable: groundskeeping, deliveries and logistics, cloud computing and streaming, artificial intelligence, task automation, and so on.

They always said that necessity is the mother of invention, and brother, I believe it!


Life In A Global Pandemic, Part 7

A short while ago (less than two weeks?), Tyler Cowen wrote about how, in a world undergoing a global pandemic, "the speed premium" increases. That means that the information we received a short while ago will start to feel far less current than it would have in a non-pandemic world.

One case in point is this blog post itself. I read it when it was first published, on March 25th, and by now it almost feels like "ancient history." I had to scroll five pages into the Marginal Revolution blog to find it.

Everything I read about SARS-CoV2 last week seems almost quaint today. Last week was a world in which the United States, and especially Texas, had many thousands fewer COVID-19 cases, and deaths, than this week. That world no longer exists today.

Last week, I was feeling a lot of despair about COVID-19. This week, news is coming in from everywhere, and much of it is good news. The outbreak continues unabated in the United States, that's true, but on the other hand, there are dozens of organizations working on finding the best possible vaccine. There are also a number of non-vaccine therapies currently in testing. The speed with which all this has occurred is truly remarkable! It's inspiring, and it gives me hope.

One interesting thing about the prospect of a SARS-CoV2 vaccine is that this is not the only coronavirus out there. In fact, many coronaviruses lead to the common cold. For decades "a cure for the common cold" has been a metaphor for doing something ingenious that will revolutionize human life across the globe. Although COVID-19 is a frightening illness, it may yet give rise to a literal cure for the common cold. This would be stunning, in a very good way.

Can I allow myself to have that much hope? Perhaps it's a response to the fact that a lot of COVID-19 commentary I'm reading has been almost apocalyptic in scope. People aren't just pessimists, they think this might be the thing that destroys liberal democracy itself. In light of all that doomsaying, it is somewhat comforting to speculate that one of these many coronavirus vaccines might end up being good enough to inoculate us against the common cold.

And while I'm at it, I think the economic hardships we endure during this pandemic will inevitably spur progress through technological and economic innovation. In a few years, life is going to be much better than I ever thought it would be, if I can only hold out long enough to live to see the day.

To that end, I'm extremely disappointed in the vast number of people I see on social media who simply refuse to self-quarantine. They continue to believe that the virus is no big deal, despite many firsthand accounts to the contrary, accounts from clergy, politicians, professional athletes, well-known business-people, and so on. Every COVID-19 account attests to the severity of the disease, and yet some people continue to disbelieve.

These are the people who will risk my life. I think it's only a matter of time before they learn their lesson the hard way. The only question is whether I'll get infected before they figure it out. I hope not. I do not like my odds with this disease. 


Life In A Global Pandemic, Part 6

There are little narrative snippets that exist in people's minds. I think Richard Dawkins calls them "memes." These aren't funny social media post memes, but concepts that spread among human beings that summarize concepts or events, and not always accurately.

Here's an example: "Elvis Presley invented rock and roll by fusing Southern black blues with his home-town gospel music; the Motown artists took this medium further; The Beatles made rock and roll intelligent, and then the punk revolution stole rock music back from the pretentious prog-rockers."

Is this story accurate? No. Is it more or less the accepted official Rolling Stone Magazine history of rock and roll? Yes. It's a meme. People believe it. People repeat it. Its accuracy is less important than its pervasiveness.

One problem with such memes is that they are impossible to overturn once they take hold. It doesn't matter how much rock and roll was invented by Johnny "Guitar" Watson or Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis. It only matters that they're not in the official meme. Another problem with such memes is that they lend themselves too easily to motivated reasoning. If a person really wants to believe that The Beatles were geniuses, then they're going to accept the meme, no matter what. The fact that there were better, more intelligent, more ingenious musicians around at the same time - both in and out of rock music - becomes irrelevant. The Beatles "just had something," or, "you don't understand unless you were there." The most persistent memes are non-falsifiable and uphold a deep-rooted prejudice of some kind.

And so, it's been interesting to watch memes arise and take hold of the COVID-19 epidemic.

First, social distancing was about saving lives; then it was about not overwhelming the health care system; now, it's about reducing the infection rate to the point that a "track-and-trace" policy can be implemented. What's striking about this evolution is that the meme becomes more refined over time, but its function and a soundbite never diminishes.

I am practicing social distancing and have every intention of continuing to do so. Still, my alarm bells start to ring when the advice I get starts to sound more like a soundbite, and less like a real explanation of anything.

I've been thinking about the spread of COVID-19. In the beginning, we were told that COVID-19 was spread through "close, intimate contact." This was one reason why they told us that "masks don't work." In hindsight, though, it's incomprehensible that an entire cruise ship or aircraft carrier, or an entire Chinese city, could suffer an enormous outbreak through something that requires "close, intimate contact." If infection occurs primarily from the inhalation of infected sputum, then masks should be an important tool to reduce viral load; and we now know, of course, that they are.

Still, for weeks now, we've all been terrified of other people's coughing. Even without specific government-enforced social distancing guidelines, it seems unlikely that the spread would not have slowed despite school and daycare closures, work-from-home policies, the closing of restaurants and bars, and so on. Sure, initially most people would resist the idea of social distancing, but as the stories continue to get worse and the numbers continue to climb, this explanation is no longer sufficient. The meme doesn't reflect reality.

I have no real point here, except to say that I think the spread of COVID-19 across more or less the entire human population is inevitable, and that I don't think anyone really knows how it spreads. I think this is a far more dangerous and mysterious virus than anyone yet realizes, and I think it will be many years, perhaps decades, before the full mystery is revealed.