As I am writing this, the experts across the world are advocating shutting down everything and asking people to stay at home. The Cornavirus is a respiratory illness that has symptoms very much like a normal flu. I am very much in favor of commonsense measures one would take during a flu epidemic that usually happens during winter and monsoon seasons. Taking precautions in public places, washing of hands, self isolation if you are sick etc. should be done very well. The question is do we need to shut down the global economic system so that we stop the spread of the virus?
Panic, Fear and Social Unrest
Due to social media, the panic has spread far more virally than the virus itself. Watching social media and news, people are flocking to healthcare centers in fear that they may be infected which is causing even more panic. The initial response has been on the basis of the stories coming out of Italy. The Coronavirus tests are really complicated. What if those cases turn out to be false positives? Grocery stores are running out of stock and in cases shoppers are rioting. Stock piling is causing shortage of masks and other gear for healthcare workers.
Fear itself is a big killer. People who are confirmed victims of the virus are getting “death messages”. Shutting down the virus completely could take months. Are people expected to stay at home for such a long period? What about the health risks of physical inactivity and staying at home all the time?
People in the United States are lining up to buy guns in the fear of social unrest caused by food shortages and breakdown of supply chains. What if the large scale agriculture that humans are dependent on fails? Such kind of fear thinking will only accelerate such a scenario.
Stock markets globally are down 25%. People are staying shut at home, stockpiling supplies. It is very clear that the global economy will hit a recession. Banking and financial systems which are already under stress will be further hit by non payment and writing off loans. Governments will have to print more money to help the banks recover from this, which itself puts the morality of capitalism at risk.
Who will finally bear the cost? It will be the people who are most vulnerable. They might lose their jobs, forced to stay hungry and forced to engage in crime.
Governments are calling in “emergency” laws to forcefully restrict people’s movements. People are praising the Chinese model of forced shutdowns and restrictions and shaming democratic governments for taking the time to think and respond.
Putting in such emergency measures for a long time, might make the governments comfortable with controlling the masses and will pave the way for mass surveillance and other deep state tactics to become normal.
A government under pressure will also try and divert attention, as it has been observed in history and give rise to xenophobia and nationalistic feelings. Coupled with economic distress, social unrest, going to war would suddenly become a good option.
More than 90% of Coronavirus cases in China were forced Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), which is not scientifically proven. Indian government agencies and right wing outfits have been accused of promoting traditional Indian medicine, and cow urine, a favorite of the current ruling coalition. People are unknowingly forced to use such medicines.
Doubtful Mathematics and Simulations
Most of the mathematical models and simulations shared on the internet have very few parameters. While doing our graduation in Industrial Engineering, were introduced to the MIT Beer Game. In this game each player controls one “factory” of a supply chain and tries to make “rational” decisions. This game has been played over the ages by school children and Fortune 500 CEOs. And they all fail to predict the outcome of their decisions. The learning is that even such a simple system is wildly unpredictable.
Human society is a wildly unpredictable system to start with. Making continuous mathematical models on only 2 axes with a very few variables and making huge decisions based on such simplified models seems very dangerous.
Coronavirus is not the only big problem for humanity. While it is too early to predict the total number of deaths, humanity has other huge problems that we effectively ignore. Millions of people suffer of hunger and malnutrition and millions die of air pollution. There is broad scientific consensus that global warming will be disastrous for the planet and far more dangerous that the corona virus. But we refuse to act on these just because their impact is much slower.
While I understand we all need to do our best to contain the virus, but knee jerk reactions and authoritarian approaches to solving the problem may not work. We may be forced to solve a problem that may not actually exist. If the shutdown does succeed, we may never find other common sense ways of succeeding either, and such isolationist measures will become the de-factor response to any future crisis.
An alternative approach would be that we take the virus seriously in our own capacity rather than forcing society wide measures that have known to fail over time. Individual groups and societies should be given the best information and allowed to make their own decisions.
Humans are neither prescient nor benevolent. Let us have a healthy dose of skepticism when making such large collective, authoritarian decisions.