Preparing for the next Pandemic
System lessons possible solutions and why this is a perfect time to do so.
As the current covid 19 ( coronavirus ) pandemic wreaks havoc in our countries, economies and daily lives I think it’s worth taking a moment amidst the crisis to write down what is obvious but might soon be forgotten, important things that might save or help us if it turns out this is going to be a recurring event or worse, a preview of a bigger one…
The big picture
I’ll try covering my bases by noting that being critical of the current status quo needs some justification and explanation. It is not like we can easily affect socio political and economical change just by reflecting on the wrong in the world, it takes real effort and in a certain sense we are continually fighting for a better system, the system at times pushes back, we retreat, charge again, this dynamic goes on until a breaking point and sometimes ( not always ) we get a better system ( sometimes we revert ) or worse end up in a worse system…For most of us at times we are simply born into the result of this dynamic and we try to adapt to the best of our abilities.
A crisis is a good point to measure and test a system, our systems are supposed to helps us survive in a group setting during normal conditions, but what good are they if they fail us when situations are dire and we need help the most ?
We have seen what happens at the mid point, some quickly cancel their social contract and throw everyone else under the bus, a few were prepared for this and will ride it out successfully yet the vast majority has no option but to deal with a crisis as it comes and this is exactly what the dinosaurs did, they just stared at the sky, shrugged it off and died.
Our saving grace as a species is that we can reflect and plan, and this is a good time to do just that, we are not here to criticize because it makes us feel good, but rather to see what we can do better.
I am human and get that pointing fingers is a very cathartic thing, let's have a small taste:“China failed to rein on animal markets even though it is inhumane and dangerous, they misreported the numbers giving the rest of the world bad information to prepare, The WHO was slow and late to declare a pandemic, leaders response has been abysmal and it's painfully clear some are not qualified for the job, the masses are not blameless, celebrities are tone deaf, there's been racism, hoarding and willfully spreading of the virus, people can't stay at home and some think this is a joke, hoax or conspiracy, they should be fired, jailed, impeached and ridiculed."We could keep going down this path, name names and raise fists, but what does this accomplish ? Probably nothing, it is also worth noting that for all the awful things this crisis has shown us, there is a lot to admire (more on this later).
“Everything we do before a pandemic will seem alarmist. Everything we do after a pandemic will seem inadequate.” Michael O. Leavitt, 2007
Our Institutions failed us.
The space between the dashed line, our system capacity and the day to day demands can be considered our reserve capacity, if you opened your pantry, bank account or medicine cabinet just as this crisis hit you probably realized it wouldn’t be enough, you are in the same camp as most of the governments, countries and institutions in the world, but why ?
The short answer is not that we are an awful species that can’t plan it’s way out of a paper bag, it is more likely that there is a cost for planning and we failed to see the risks involved and this is where our institutions and systems failed us in the worst possible way, they misguided us.
Before the current crisis if you were a prepper or survivalist some might have seen you as an oddball, now you are genius but I suspect this will be short lived.
If you had argued in favor of universal free healthcare, housing and care for the most vulnerable in society at the cost of higher taxes, strict regulation and conservative economic and financial policies, you’d most likely have found yourself on the defense and losing to more free market cut throat capitalistic tendencies.
So a picture emerges:
The problem with this picture is that in order to make a reasonable decision, we need to also have a clear understanding of the risk involved and here we have been left to our own devices or worse misinformed by global and local health organizations, governments and the media, we had no idea of the magnitude, we had no idea of the risk.
The media it should be noted is doing a great job during the actual pandemic, but this is probably due to the “If it bleeds it leads" mantra of the news, in comparison coverage and information before the pandemic is almost nonexistent because well, it's boring.
The takeaway is that we simply need better information and to hold those in power accountable to provide good information, which as noted is not the easiest thing to do, but for now let’s look at some other specific ways things have failed even though they fundamentally stem from a lack of foresight.
Our Economy failed us.
Why does the market crash during a pandemic ? And why do we have markets that crash during a pandemic ?
These are the sort of nagging questions a 7yr old asks all day, but they do cut to the heart of the matter.
The markets are in the hands of traders and speculators on the day to day, nothing against them, they are useful as price discovery tools, they are not tied emotionally to the well being of a nation or company, but rather to making a profit against risk, when uncertainty rises they are quick to sell everything they own as to minimize risk, additionally shorting the market has become a profitable way to make money when things go south, add leverage and you have a system that makes no sense:
A storm is coming and your kitchen catches fire, suddenly people show up and take away the fire extinguishers and to your horror start setting the rest of your house on fire, they even borrow lighters since the system allows them to do controlled burns in normal times as well as extraordinary times and they make a lot of money in the process, the storm is 10 times worse as a result.
Direct intervention in free markets and the economy is a messy uncertain affair in the best of times. I believe clear rules of operation (agreed beforehand) during a crisis and restrictions on certain instruments during this time would be more helpful.I am not optimistic about any of this happening though, so I believe it is better to prepare against the markets turning on us rather than trying to change them, you can also position yourself to take advantage of these type of situations, such is the poor state of the financial system.
Our supply chain failed us.
This is as much a medical crisis as it is a supply chain crisis, I think the fact this started out in China where we have concentrated much of the worlds manufacturing clouds a bit the issue, if it had started in the Americas it would probably had reached Asia at some point and still brought down global manufacturing.
As I write this there are shortages of masks and hand sanitizing gel which help mitigate the risk of infection, shortages of ventilators and medical supplies for health professionals which help them save lives and protect themselves, international shipping is slow or stalled, launches of new products delayed.
In short we can’t produce, order and deliver things, and some of these things can help us deal with the crisis which makes for another unwanted feedback loop.
How we got here is probably not as important as describing what we have and what an alternative would look like. We have a supply and manufacturing system that is global and interconnected and not one that is local and isolated and when something breaks in the chain the whole chain goes down:
Meanwhile local self sufficient producers are thriving or at least pivoting and surviving; it is clear though that you are left with whatever your local supply chain can make so it might be a good idea to balance global manufacturing with local manufacturing if we wish to avoid a repeat, not a silver bullet, but at least the odds of disruption are less:
Increasing local manufacturing or aiming for a balance of global and local manufacturing is not a new idea, but once more political and economical incentives makes this change difficult.
Did timing-cycles acerbated the crisis or were they the cause ?A bit of both actually ( sorry no neat answers here); an exuberant market & global economy, populist unqualified governments and institutions seemed to have peaked just as this crisis emerged, as such they are both the cause and magnifying factor, a perfect storm if you will.
While the odds of rapidly inventing something to stem the pandemic are small, it is non the less a good time to think about what these solutions would be and how they could be achieved, again this is better done before having the need and could help in future pandemics…
The few countries that have had some success in lowering the mortality rate and flattening the epidemic curve have done so primarily through wide, free and methodical testing for infection.
I am not sure the government is the right entity to do these test because having a government one trusts is rare, having a capable government is even more unusual.
The private sector with some supervision and guidance from the government could fill this void, but there are bound to be mandate, cost and privacy issues. Ideally an independent entity which we currently do not have could administer the tests.
A vaccine might seem like an obvious silver bullet but we are simply not set up for the rapid research and development involved, on average it is said to take around 1-2 years to come up with a new vaccine, how much this is red tape vs real testing is something I ignore, but even if the research and testing parts were solved, there is still the actual production issues.
It takes literally thousands of chickens and eggs to make vaccines( or an alternative manufacturing method ) and we can’t just materialize either on demand.
Alternative treatments like plasma transfusion could be the emerging silver bullets of the future, treatments like this sound a bit medieval, but the precursor to vaccines was variation so a pandemic might be what is needed to accelerate research and push new treatments into the limelight, this things are mostly out of our hands so getting all excited about a new promising cure while the pandemic is happening feels good, but probably doesn’t help much.
Early detection & Isolation
What we have now during this pandemic is late detection and blanket isolation; This has proven to help reduce both infection and mortality rates, yet it is far from a perfect solution due to the high economic costs.
Abetter solution might entail early screening and selective isolation done at a greater scale across many countries, the organizational and technological effort would be significant and since the responsibility is shared it is unclear who would start this initiative.
Every country during this pandemic has done exactly what it wants, what it has prepared for or what it’s leaders have capriciously commanded and in some cases this has amounted to nothing.
Things like how early self isolation or lock downs have been imposed, borders closed and other measures vary from country to country and we are just starting to see patterns and results. It is a big experiment where each country’s response is a small experiment in a bigger one, hence the meta tag.
What we unfortunately don’t have is a live scoreboard or panel that analyses the results in real time and guides action across the board, this treasure trove of information will surely be analyzed during the following months or years and guidelines will emerge, but alas it will be too late for this particular crisis.
A common tread with these silver bullets is that they require a global concerted effort and at first glance no one is responsible even though we all share the negative results of not implementing them. Let's say we ask each country for a contribution to a global vaccine fund, a poor or populist country might see this as too taxing or encroaching ( sometimes justified) yet it will be the hardest hit and the one that could benefit the most of such initiatives.The solution to this problem I think is an opportunity for those countries seeking leadership positions, the equivalent of raising ones hand and saying I'll start this movement or I'll cover for this person.
And last but certainly not least, it is down to both you and me… when institutions fail us ( they might even make things worse ) and the silver bullets fail to materialize ( or materialize only for some ) it will be up to you and only you to take care of yourself and your loved ones, this might sound alarmist once the current crisis ends, or even right now if you are weathering the storm in relative comfort, but adding another common crisis like weather or political events would probably worsen things for everyone, removing one single utility like water, electricity or internet is enough to change the picture for everyone but overly prepared folk which is what we need to become.
You probably don't need to become a bushman or build a nuclear shelter in your basement, prepping for 2 weeks, having a plan for 3 months and 1 yr will get you far, see links section below.
It is now painfully clear that our rainy day funds are inadequate , the so called 2 week typical emergency is now a 2-3 month long one followed by unemployment. I know it’s hard to save, that’s why we need to remember these awful days when deciding whether to buy a $100 watch or a $3,000 one in regular times, substitute watch for whatever is unnecessary in your life.
Note that if something brings you joy or happiness you should spend your money on that, that is necessary...but you should cut costs elsewhere.
The quality and makeup of your local people, government and environment are also something to consider during normal times as to improve your personal outcome during a pandemic. A disorganized community will have a disorganized response, an expensive tourist location will not necessarily be the safest place if you are out of a job and high density places which in normal times are attractive are not where you’d like to be in a pandemic. Becoming self sufficient and having location options is helpful but might not be economically feasible. I’d start by contrasting your current location during this pandemic with others around your country or the world, think about where you’d like to spend the next one.
It’s not clear who the next pandemic will hit the hardest, but if it is a repeat of the current one service, travel and tourism will suffer again, medical and basic service jobs will still be available, but at a higher risk, beyond that it is increasingly hard to find job security in any industry during these times.
My suggestion is to have multiple diversified independent income streams, something that unfortunately takes time and a lot of trial and error.
Some time ago I turned down a 6 figure job because it was a startup that required 60+ weekly hours which left me no time to work on my own projects. I’ve always tried to do side hustles, but the thing no one tells you is that you have to try about 100 to have one that works and this takes time, so even though my friends and family (and sometimes myself) thought I was crazy leaving a steady good paying job, I used that time to explore and try things, most failed but a few of those are currently helping me through these difficult times even while other supposedly secure ones have dried up.
As dire as things are in the current moment, there are a few silver linings and clues that we might come out stronger once the dust has settled.
Technology has made things easier.
Thanks to technology we can easily communicate with loved ones, entertain ourselves, keep informed and perhaps most importantly still be able to work and even order food and supplies; suddenly and clumsily a lot of people became remote workers and by and large we seem to be coping.
As this was an unforeseen event we work with whatever telepresence products and remote work tooling we have available, but I feel these tools will become better and remote work will finally become accepted.
The human spirit.
What kind of species is the human species when confronted with a life or death situation ?
For all our faults, the vast majority of us has decided that it is better to be inconvenienced in the short term to save a fraction of the species, young people are by and large opting to self isolate in favor of protecting those at risk, the damage to the economy is in a sense a sacrifice we might not individually like or agree with, but as a collective we do, and there are plenty of other signs that we are not all that bad:
- In the vacuum of global leadership some local figures have stepped up to fill the void.
- Tales of personal sacrifice from doctors, nurses, medical personnel and other service workers that still show up for work amidst the risk.
- Individuals and companies producing much needed equipment.
These are just a few I could think of, but I hope it goes to show that it’s not all bad…
I hope we take to heart these and other upcoming lessons, as I write this we are still in the midst of the crisis.
This pandemic found us divided, misguided and naive, I hope we realize this and change for the better or at least individually be better prepared for the next one.
Thanks for reading.
Sources & Links :
I recommend Donella’s work to anybody that is curious about systems:
Meadows, Donella H., and Diana Wright. Thinking in Systems: a Primer. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2015.
Want to be better prepared but don’t know where to start ?
A Survival Expert's Guide to Sheltering-in-Place | Art of Manliness
The coronavirus pandemic has forced tens of millions of people to stay home due to shelter-in-place orders and even…
Couple of excellent reads into financial markets and why they fail:
Easy reading :
Reinhart, Carmen M., and Kenneth S. Rogoff. This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly. Princeton University Press, 2011.
A bit more technical:
Dalio, Ray. Principles for Navigating Big Debt Crises. Bridegweater, 2018.
Why do you need a thousand chickens to make a vaccine ?
Episode 977: Where's The Vaccine?
subscribe to Planet Money podcast subscribe to Planet Money podcast COVID-19 isn't the first coronavirus outbreak. It's…
Alternative coronavirus treatments:
Dispatch 3: Shared Immunity | Radiolab | WNYC Studios
Could a century-old treatment become our best weapon in the fight against Covid-19?
The German response is shaping to be a role model:
A German Exception? Why the Country's Coronavirus Death Rate Is Low
The pandemic has hit Germany hard, with more than 100,000 people infected. But the percentage of fatal cases has been…
Detailed country by country data:
2019-20 coronavirus pandemic
2019-20 coronavirus pandemic Map of confirmed cases per capita as of 7 April 2020 1,000+ confirmed cases per million…
A look into supply chains in the time of covid-19:
And some self isolation accounts :