Some Unpleasant Outbreak Considerations – and a Hope

Some reasons why this outbreak is probably going to go on for quite some time. And one reason why we might be able to rise to the challenge.  These may sound harsh, but so are the times.

Most people can’t sit still for extended periods (or short periods for that matter). As the weather gets nicer in the US, it will be harder not to scratch cabin fever itches.

Many public officials will keep flip-flopping and making poor decisions, persisting in scientism masquerading as science. 

Major media organizations will keep publishing superficial takes on infection control, while alternative and social media will continue to mislead and misinform. Platform algorithms won’t fully compensate – and may do more damage.

Conspiracy theorizing will continue to infiltrate public discourse. Just as 14th Century superstitions may have worsened plagues, so too will media-propagated apophenia frustrate management efforts. (Although, paradoxically, literacy rates were much lower 500 hundred years, which means fewer people we reading bad information than they are today!)

Supply chains will struggle to link together and support demand for critical equipment and resources. 

An extreme possibility: Massive displacement and surpluses of labor will hammer-down output and consumption. Collapses of equity capital markets will propel debt to historical highs. (Exponential terror isn’t limited to viral spread.) The resulting tension-gap between high debt and low GDP will be precarious enough to snap in an unprecedented way. 

Strategies for fine-grain management to properly lift suppression measures will be malformed or improperly implemented. We have no backup generator for the economy, so the starts and stops will be a nightmare as we try to work through new outbreak cycles.

We will continue to obsess on one feature of a complex problem (e.g. ventilators) at the expense of more comprehensive understanding…until another obsession consumes attention. Masks are the most critical factor in managing this pandemic. They not the only factors, but they are absolutely crucial.

Wearing masks to reduce the spread of an airborne pathogen is not only long-established practice, it’s common sense. And yet as I write this I can already see mixed messages. This failure alone indicates that Coronavirus is likely here to stay – probably for years, even if vaccines are developed (which probably won’t be scalable deployed until at least the first or second half of 2021!)

We may be myopically conceiving Covid as a strictly respiratory illness. Could SARS-CoV-2 material be hammering other systems too? “SARS” might be forcing a *respiratory* pathology assumption on us at the expense of a broader and deeper understanding of Covid’s etiologies. 

Antigenic morphologies might be more complex and multifaceted with this virus than we currently think. After all, there are more ways for a body to suffocate than only from lack of pulmonary ventilation – think sickle cell anemia. We might be dealing with a viral hydra.

We still need more information about immune responses to SARS-CoV-2. If it is the case that re-infections are in fact re-infections and not observations based on false positives, then vaccination development will be more challenging than originally thought, and intervening herd immunity may be more difficult to achieve. By the end of 2020 or early 2021, at least one new variant might evolve with novel conferring of higher transmissibility. That’s just how evolution via natural selection works. Let’s hope luck is on our side.

Will we overlook indirect observations to help guide decisions, such as viral fragments in sewage (if viable)? Indirect observations are crucial when direct observation is partially or fully occluded. 

Are we willing to rethink almost everything we know? Do we have the guts to challenge accepted medical, social, cultural, economic, and political dogmas, without discarding scientific methodology?

These aren’t predictions, but are simply warnings and questions. The difference between warnings and predictions might not be much solace, but it can increase the likelihood of better decisions and outcomes. 

Right now, ingenuity is a vital resource. America is in the worst shape in its history. And yet, there are still slivers of ingenuity left – slender threads. Not much, but perhaps enough to pull us through. Maybe even to a better world than the one that got us here.

Refashion Versus Innovation

During major crises, such as those that arise out of the failure to take well-known proactive measures against emerging pandemics, there are often loud calls for innovation. The basic idea of these calls is to bring out the best in us to focus on new ways or technologies to solve problems.

These calls often assume that new problems require new solutions. That’s a potentially costly assumption because it is more likely that new problems can best be solved by implementing old established solutions.

Yes, innovations (which are markets as much as they are new intellectual of tangible assets) can yield benefits.

But when the first reaction to emerging problems is to innovate, it’s at the expense of refashioning existing infrastructures and processes.

The opportunity cost of innovation is forgoing efforts to refashion. That cost might be justified. If it isn’t, the cost is probably very high.

Perhaps there is a slight error in the notion that crises implicitly require innovation: overlooking ingenuity that can be applied to refashioning.

That error – a cognitive skipping over ingenuity right into innovation – could very well send talented minds and scarce resources down an enormous drain.

We know enough about infectious diseases to know what measures work. We know – or should know – how to feed people during lockdowns. In spite of gaps in our knowledge of C19, we know enough to rise to the occasion.

We know that we need ventilators to treat critically-ill covid patients. But if you have a limited number of healthcare providers to attend ventilated patients, producing an infinite supply of ventilators or ECMO circuits won’t help, and will recruit away precious resources from other projects.

An innovation won’t help if it fails to account for the limiting agents in a system.

More healthcare providers would help more than a ventilator that’s passed the final marginal limit. How do you create critical care specialists and nurses in a short time?

You could refashion non-specialists, and that might take a take a lot more ingenuity than innovation. Ingenious refashioning will get to a quicker and safer solution than an innovation because the cumulative experiences and practical knowledge of billions of human hours can be leveraged more immediately.

Applying ingenuity under those pressures would then make clearer how existing conditions can be refashioned, with the benefit of openning-up specific spaces for innovation to then enter. An innovation in itself won’t create more critical-care workers.

Just because there are challenges in refashioning tried-and-true measures and technologies and infrastructures, it doesn’t mean innovation is necessarily cheaper and more effective than (ingenious) efforts to surmount those challenges.

As a matter of fact, last-moment and desperate urges to innovate can make things worse, especially when resources and ingenuity can be marshaled to refashion the givens.

Economies of Capital without Labor Are Not Economies

An outbreak of tiny thoughtless machines is now ripping apart the cellular functioning of our economic systems.

It is conceivable that entire economies will partially or fully collapse, along with social structures and behaviors.

The fiscal and monetary policies of the past which worked – at least superficially and transiently – have substantially less power to perform their magic. That is because fiscal and monetary policies require economies.

What is an economy? A simple definition is a system of capital and labor working with each other. The better these two powers work together, the healthier an economy. Think cardio-pulmonary systems. Lungs supply currency (capital), hearts do the work (labor).

An economy that is overly capital-intensive eventually suffers from a toxic buildup of oxygen. An economy that is overly labor-intensive eventually infarcts and depletes oxygen.

The current outbreak has revealed the severe intoxication of capital that has plagued global economies for many decades. But now, the cellular components of economic bodies are dying of oxygen-deprevation – they are suffocating to death. Ventilating capital into economies – whatever surpluses are remaining – won’t be enough to oxygenate the system.

Our economies are getting into critical condition, not too dissimilar to how C19 can cause acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). In ARDS, ventilation alone is not enough – intense labor is required to save life.

If we want to either ‘save’ economies or start to re-conceive how to build healthy economies with reliable backup systems, we need to figure out how to get capital and labor to work with each other – neither should be at the expense of the other. Clearly, that model is failing us – it was always apparent, but C19 is forcing us to take a deeper look.

Currently, we are facing the potential for massive displacement of labor. Employers, running out of capital and the prospect capital growth, will start to trim their payrolls, which in turn will reduce their ability to produce and serve…feedback loop.

What could be done, at least in the short-run to make outbreak suppression measures more successful (a crucial goal since those in lockdown will need vital goods to survive for months-long period(s))? On the labor side:

  • Employers with enough capital/cash could consider reducing payrolls only partially rather than full layoffs
  • Governments could apply carrots and sticks to those employers who do their part to alleviate the suffering and danger of lockdowns
  • A fantasy to be sure – but are we willing to just let it all collapse?

On the capital side:

  • Businesses should start thinking of capital in terms of resources, not just monetary capital (e.g. physical assets than can be repurposed to outbreak-related projects)
  • Governments could apply carrots and sticks to those businesses who do their part to get us through lockdowns, as well during as the succeeding wave, or waves, of continued efforts to safely inoculate the population until safe vaccination is established and implemented.

The world has changed. Yesterday is gone. A new world will emerge, one way or another.

The sooner we figure out how to make capital and labor work better together, the sooner we’ll get to the kinds of healthy economies that will be needed to survive global threats. This outbreak is not the only threat the world will face.