Looking forward, opening up after the coronavirus pandemic

bridge, Alaska

There is a crisis of epic proportions. With an urgency unmatched by anything in our history. A crisis even more significant than the coronavirus pandemic. What is it you ask? What is this next big thing?

The “opening up” crisis.

Everybody is talking about it. Many are pushing for it right away. As if we don’t open up right away masses of people will die, more people than that of the coronavirus.

Really? Who will die? Is “the economy” a person? How come I’ve never met him?

In seriousness, people are looking to the future. And I think planning for the future is a good thing, even if you don’t have all the information. The problem is making non-refundable reservations when you aren’t sure you will be able to travel. And in the governmental policy analogy, the problem is making firm plans for re-opening when you don’t know what will happen. Because there has been no “re-opening scenario” during our lifetime.

My personal preference is to wait to see what happens in other countries who are re-opening, so you can learn from their experience. Free experience is always better, right? Would you rather cross the swaying rope bridge into the dark jungle, not knowing what lies inside, or let someone else cross first and wait to see if you hear a scream or not?

But if you cannot bear to wait, I think you have to consider a few things.

One, the reality of human deaths caused by the damage to the economy. President Trump always has the economy on his mind. He is worried about the damage to the economy. And yes, there is obvious damage to the economy. But is the damage to the economy killing people? In the US? In poor countries it definitely is. In the US the homeless are actually being sheltered and housed now. Illegal immigrants are hurting but they have been hurting before and he doesn’t care about them, as they “don’t count.” But my big question is: what is the purpose of the economy. Is it for making a few people rich? Is it for helping everybody to live better?

I recall talking to someone about the idea of being anti-social. Most people think it means someone who isn’t friendly, but it actually doesn’t mean that. It means someone who disrespects and breaks social norms. They can often be very charming. And I pursued the topic by talking about “disagreeableness”, which Malcolm Gladwell elaborates on in his book David and Goliath.

These people are often the movers and shakers of our world. Because unlike most people they don’t build up social capital forever. They will build up social capital and then use their social capital to accomplish things, sometimes even going into debt in their “social capital account” when they know they are right.

Well, if the point of the economy is to support the people, shouldn’t we “borrow” from the economy so that we can support human being’s lives? Isn’t it worth it? If we view the economy as a bank account, the S&P 500 figure as the account balance, shouldn’t we accept it going down further if we can save more people’s lives? By preventing them from getting the coronavirus?

Second, we have to consider our value of human life. In the US we believe there is no price tag one can put on the value of a human life. Of any human life (though this is obviously theoretical and we often-times place a dollar amount on a life). If we just re-open society and let many people get it, and just accept the fact that they will die, then we would have to accept that our world will get smaller. If the death rate is 1% then you will soon hear that a few of your high school classmates have passed (my class being 500 it would be 5). In your local office of a hundred persons soon there will be a farewell party of the funeral sort for someone. In your extended family a relative may pass sooner rather than later.

In the third-world they accept this. They have sad stories all the time. It isn’t uncommon. Of a husband who went abroad to work and had an accident and died. In the Philippines I was surprised to learn someone’s uncle had passed. I was about to offer my condolences but she said “no, a lot of people die in the Philippines.” She wasn’t too saddened by it because it happens so commonly. It seems everybody by the age of twenty there has had someone close die. In the US, for me and the people I know, that simply isn’t true. Nobody I was close to died when I was young. The first death I really encountered wasn’t til after my twenties.

To re-open, do we just accept that it will be like the third-world, when many people die? We put such an emphasis on safety. We mandate that people buckle their seatbelt, don’t allow kids to sit in the back of pickup trucks, inspect eateries to ensure they are keeping up with safety standards. Why don’t we just make it like the third-world, and allow freedom? Allow people to sit in vehicles however they want, to eat at roadside stalls and hole-in-the-walls where you never see hand-washing anywhere?

And lastly, you have to think about the long-term consequences. Supposedly many people have recovered from the coronavirus infection. By recovering we mean they aren’t sick in the hospital anymore, they feel better. But are there consequences that one cannot see now, that one may see down the road? Months and years and possibly decades later?

We are learning more and more about infections having long-term consequences. Cervical cancer is almost always caused by the human papilloma virus. Your chance of getting cervical cancer if you never got the virus is very low. But prior the only way to get that was to be celibate. Now, you can get a vaccine (note it doesn’t cover all strains though, just the strains thought highest risk for cancer development).

We know infections cause our bodies to create antibodies and those antibodies may react with other cells in our body as well, in a process called “molecular mimicry”. And in the case of Group A strep (of “strep throat” fame) the antibodies can attack the brain, the heart, and possibly other organs. Culminating in damage that may not be discovered til years or decades down the the road. Damage that is permanent.

It is impossible to know the long-term consequences of having had the coronavirus. Most people think the short-term consequence is only lung damage and death. But more and more data is coming out that you can have stroke, heart issues (“cardiomyopathy”), kidney failure (even requiring dialysis). None of those conditions just “resolve” and go away-your body has been permanently damaged, and you will forever be in a higher-risk health category from the on.

So I would caution those in power, those with the ability to make policy decisions, to think long and hard about opening up. Not to rush it, not listening to those who are saying “wing it”. There is the possibility of doing more harm than good by opening up too quickly and too early. Safeguards are necessary. You may be late to your best friend’s wedding, but if your kid in the back seat isn’t buckled up, you aren’t going to zoom off-no matter how urgent it is.