• Richard Spitzer

Coronavirus good news and bad news. Our fragile life revealed.

Updated: Jun 30

The coronavirus is bad news. Global, no vaccine, no treatment, almost unstoppable for now, and dangers aggravated by the people in denial and those who have made the economic calculation of the value of human life. Zero.

The good news, maybe. The global virus should be the pivotal moment when the world realizes we really are all connected economically, socially, biologically. When governments and businesses realize that both short-term and long-term goals are so easily destroyed literally within a few hours. Dystopian + apocalyptic scenarios are no longer a fictionalized event.

It doesn't take much imagination to realize how extraordinarily fragile our societies and modern civilizations are in the face of a natural event. And, the United States and industrialized countries are more susceptible to damage than so-called Third World countries, who are already living in various states of deprivation.

Have we reached the survival inflection point?

The industrialized/westernized world loves to proclaim that we are living at the highest level of well-being and civilization in the history of the world. That's true for many people in many countries. But, the development of this very high level is on the razor's edge with no room for error.

Think about this simple fact — in the most prosperous country in the history of the world, the United States, there is virtually no cushion or room for any error.

We are living in a reversal of historical precedent. We've had our recessions and depressions that we thought were catastrophic but were more limited than the current pandemic. The most recent large-scale example started with the depression in the 1920s. Efforts were started to revive the economy, and the advent of World War II was the catalyst that mobilized public, social and economic efforts to fight the war and rebuild the entire construct of the US economy.

Past catastrophes have been catalysts for innovation in search of solutions. The current pandemic can still spur creative economic solutions, but as of May 15, 2020, instead of mobilizing our economic and industrial structure, the virus response has shut down the economy.

In the 2008 economic crisis, consumer demand fell by just 10%, and that caused a market collapse and recession. Today the negative consequences are more widespread, deeper and there are no off-the-shelf remedies. At this stage of the pandemic, our country, let alone the world, has no cushion to absorb just a few weeks of being put on pause. We see the flaws of capitalism and democracy as never before.

Insurance anyone?

There's nothing that any government or organization can do to prevent future pandemics. But our societies can accept and prioritize efforts to monitor, prepare for and manage the inevitable future pandemics. It's been documented that the cost of building a pandemic response infrastructure is far less costly than the economic consequences of shutting down global commerce. We all buy insurance policies for every imaginable, although in many cases, low-risk consequences. Yet, the economic psychology of governments and companies is to relegate pandemic risk to a low priority even though it is the one catastrophe that is inevitable.

Every single health-related insurance risk is based on the inevitability of health events. There is flood insurance, hurricane insurance, fire insurance, earthquake insurance, relatively infrequent but highly dramatic catastrophes. And the catastrophes also generate post-event economic investment.

But it seems that health risks in general and the pandemic specifically is not seen in the same context as a major hurricane. Taking our cue from the current administration, being afraid of health risks is not manly.

The perfect healthcare storm.

The convergence of unavoidable natural dangers, economic priorities, social awareness and political leadership is now at the tipping point. We either recognize the pandemic as the possibly last reminder of our fragility, and collectively change the way we operate economically and politically. Or we do not make the necessary changes in our societal psychology and behavior and continue on the path to a high likelihood apocalyptic outcome in the very near future.

I apologize to those who think I'm getting political. But the current US leadership has been the best friend of the coated virus, helping to sustain its longevity by delaying and denying the battle against the virus.

The fragility of civilization and human life and the flaws and political and economic systems have been lamented for decades. But this post is not a historical review; it's hopefully one more call to make changes now.

Where is the wisdom we need today?

A few quotes from past wise people. Sinclair Lewis wrote many books about the inequities of American society. EF Schumacher , the British economist is one my favorites most wise people with an almost supernatural prescience of our conditions today.

Change the words in the Sinclair Lewis quote from bombs to pandemics, income inequality or global warming. They all can result in the same retreat in the dark ages.

"We can go back to the Dark Ages! The crust of learning and good manners and tolerance is so thin! It would just take a few thousand big shells and gas bombs to wipe out all the eager young men, and all the libraries and historical archives and patent offices, all the laboratories and art galleries, all the castles and Periclean temples and Gothic cathedrals, all the cooperative stores and motor factories—every storehouse of learning. No inherent reason why Sissy's grandchildren—if anybody's grandchildren will survive at all—shouldn't be living in caves and heaving rocks at catamounts." Sinclair Lewis, It Can't Happen Here

EF Schumacher wrote several small books with enormous wisdom.

"If greed were not the master of modern man--ably assisted by envy--how could it be that the frenzy of economic does not abate as higher "standards of living" are attained, and that it is precisely the richest societies which pursue their economic advantage with the greatest ruthlessness? How could we explain the almost universal refusal on the part of the rulers of the rich societies--where organized along private enterprise or collective enterprise lines--to work towards the humanization of work? It is only necessary to assert that something would reduce the "standard of living" and every debate is instantly closed. That soul-destroying, meaningless, mechanical, monotonous, moronic work is an insult to human nature which must necessarily and inevitably produce either escapism or aggression, and that no amount of "bread and circuses" can compensate for the damage done--these are facts which are neither denied nor acknowledged but are met with an unbreakable conspiracy of silence--because to deny them would be too obviously absurd and to acknowledge them would condemn the central preoccupation of modern society as a crime against humanity."

E.F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered

"An attitude to life which seeks fulfilment in the single-minded pursuit of wealth - in short, materialism - does not fit into this world, because it contains within itself no limiting principle, while the environment in which it is placed is strictly limited." E.F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered

We are trivial. But we want to survive.

In the scheme of the natural world, human societies and our physical lives are the most trivial. Capitalism, democracy, and all benefits we have enjoyed up until the last few months are all great things and should be available to people throughout the world. But we need to prioritize the necessities of sustaining our lives and our way of life.

The Corona virus is fighting to survive, and adapting to human countermeasures. Can’t we be at leasr as smart as a microscopic virus? Today, our physical health is at the top of the list. But to some people health is second to the economy. Whatever happened to the homily from our mothers or grandmothers — "as long as you have your health." Having your health may not mean that you have everything else you would like it, but if you have your health, you do have the opportunity to achieve what you want in life.

Rich Spitzer


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