We’re all wondering how to survive the virus: how to stay alive, and also solvent.
Assuming we manage that, what will be its lasting impacts?
1. Appreciation of exponentials
The rising death tolls in many countries has been shocking to watch. Many people are getting their first up-close-and-personal view of the astonishing power of exponential growth. We have seen it for decades in the dramatic growth of computing power described by Moore’s Law, but like the mythical boiling frog in the saucepan (it really is a myth: frogs are not that daft), we acclimatise to improvements on that timescale, and take them for granted.
Exponential growth accelerates, and it is going to transform our lives in amazing ways over the coming years. The more we all understand the rate of change that is coming, the better our chance of responding intelligently to the challenges it will pose.
2. A closer look at UBI
Proponents of Universal Basic Income argue that it is an idea whose time has come. And indeed, governments everywhere are unveiling radical packages of economic assistance to keep their citizens fed and housed, and to keep businesses afloat so that they can resume trading once the crisis is over.
But the flaws of UBI mean it is unlikely to be implemented anywhere during this crisis. People have different needs and liabilities, so an identical payment for everyone is inappropriate. And there is no point wasting funds on Mark Zuckerberg or Rupert Murdoch. We may well learn lessons from this nightmare which will serve us well if and when technological unemployment moves into view – probably two or three decades from now. UBI is a genuine attempt to answer the question of how to keep everyone alive in that situation, but it is looking less and less like a silver bullet.
Instead, governments are exploring temporary measures to shore up and enhance their welfare systems, and to keep companies from laying off their staff. If we are smart, we will learn what works, and what does not. During our long journey towards technological unemployment, we will experience increased employment Churn, and the most successful measures deployed now will come in handy then.
3. More digital nomads
Entire populations are confined to their homes, but many organisations continue to function. People are working from home and millions of meetings are being held online. Apart from Netflix, the teleconferencing platform Zoom may be enjoying the biggest silver lining in this dark cloud. Many people are finding working and meeting remotely both efficient and congenial, saving both time and money. Not all meetings are best conducted online: conferences and festivals are being postponed rather than cancelled. But many of the people who find there is rarely any reason to be in the office may join the ranks of the digital nomads, using AirBnb and home exchanges to change location every few weeks, and see the world as they work.
4. Telemedicine and AI triage
Obtaining an appointment, travelling to the surgery, and hanging around in the waiting room is a pain. Especially if you are already sick, and would prefer to be tucked up in bed. Asking the doctor for a diagnosis by teleconference is a much better solution in many cases, and it exposes doctors and their staff to fewer contagious patients. The virus will make this desirable change a necessity. People will invest in devices and apps to take measurements to inform the remote consultations.
By making them easier, telemedicine will increase the demand for consultations, and this in turn will boost the acceptability and use of AI triage.
5. Acceptance of automation
As well as saving lives and money, self-driving cars and automated delivery services will help prevent or slow down the spread of communicable diseases. Likewise automated checkouts in shops. There is a certain amount of resistance to these developments at the moment, and the present crisis could well diminish that.
6. Acceptance of government
In 1986, Ronald Reagan said “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” This attitude still prevails on the political Right, and cynicism about the public sector is common across the spectrum. But it turns out there are problems which only government is equipped to handle, and the virus is certainly one of them. The ideological resistance to government intervention seems to have delayed lockdown measures in the Anglo-Saxon countries, which is likely to increase their relative casualty rates.
It is obviously important that government intervention is intelligent and efficient. At the time of writing it looks as though Asian governments have shown themselves more capable, regardless whether they are dictatorships or democracies. Relentless testing and fast isolation there is keeping their casualty rates low, although their younger populations is also a factor.
7. Acceptance of experts, and diversity
“We’ve had enough of experts”, quipped Michael Gove in June 2016. We are rediscovering their value. Cynics have commented that last year only one in a million people were epidemiologists, whereas today at least half of us are – at least on Twitter. Nevertheless, we are all hungry to hear what the genuine experts have to say.
A more subtle point is that experts do not agree – and nor should they. “We are following the science” suggests that there is one settled view on complicated matters. There is not. Religious devotion to one conventional wisdom can be dangerous in science, as elsewhere. Sorting out the wheat from the chaff in a debate is not easy: it takes time, effort, and healthy scepticism. A basic understanding of statistics is a pre-requisite for informed citizenship.
8. Physical distancing, not social distancing
While most of us are to a greater or lesser degree self-isolating, anecdotal evidence suggests that we are talking to each other – to friends and family – more than ever. This is a good thing, and let’s hope the habit persists.
9. Less polarisation
There can be no doubt that we are all in this together. The virus does not discriminate between Brexiteer and Remainer (except by their age), or between the supporters and opponents of Trump. Could the rabid polarisation of political debate introduced by the Tea Party movement in reaction to Obama’s election be soothed by a common enemy? Sadly, judging by the discussions raging on Twitter, it looks unlikely.
10. From Chernobyl to Suez
It is pretty clear that the virus originated in a live animal market in Wuhan, not in a US military lab. In the early days, various levels of Chinese government covered it up and lied about it. If the rest of the world had reacted quickly and responsibly, this epidemic would have been China’s Chernobyl – a disaster aggravated by official incompetence and malpractice.
But the rest of the world did not do that. The widespread perception that Trump downplayed the significance of the virus for weeks, and proceeded to lie about his behaviour, has deprived the world of its natural leadership through the crisis. Furthermore, Western governments have proved less able than those in Asia to take the necessary steps to mitigate the impacts of the virus.
The Suez crisis in 1956 exposed Britain’s precipitate decline to the world, and to itself. The Economist magazine has suggested that the virus could become America’s Suez. China is assiduously burnishing its philanthropic credentials, sharing data and distributing masks and medicines. America still has the world’s largest and most innovative economy, and by far its most powerful armed forces. But depending on what happens next, its management of this crisis could devastate its global influence.
Maybe this is the real beginning of the Asian century.
This article first appeared in Forbes