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Fire Drill for the Apocalypse or Wake-Up Call?

8 lessons to learn from dealing with a global threat together.

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Source: Photo by author

What if COVID-19 is the dawn of a new era for humanity? Information technology, computers, science, mathematics, culture, globalization, media, and physical channels for world-wide transmission have created a seemingly egalitarian threat.

Nothing like this has ever happened before. A blend of sufficient but not massive danger with a heightened sense of vigilance, primed by earlier events, against the current geopolitical backdrop, catalyzed by globalization and tech. Many countries got caught flat-footed on this one, revealing their weak points. Other countries responded effectively with speed and coordination.

As with all illness and mortality, COVID-19 is a great leveler, walking right through the security of many wealthy and powerful nations, straining healthcare and commerce. The imperative to keep physically distant competes with the need to pull closer together communally. This tension is a spur for development, requiring creativity and flexibility.

Although there are strong divides in perspective on how serious COVID-19 is—in the US organized on political lines, of course, and suffused with disinformation tactics—many people still think a vigorous response to this virus is an over-reaction. I hope they are correct. We are in uncharted waters when it comes to the socio-economic impact.

Could COVID-19 crash the system, or can we emerge more resilient, tempering curiosity with wisdom? Or just go back to the status quo? It's been a while since people in more developed nations really felt an existential threat. While nations aren't going to trust each other and collaborate effectively as a result of this, nor are human beings going to suddenly acquire universal compassion, maybe the needle can move a little bit.

With luck and vigilant action, we can learn lessons from COVID-19.

1. We could learn what it really means to be a global community. It won’t be complete, and there will be large unconnected areas, but the planet is already knit together in a way we’ve never seen before. At the same time, as borders close and travel becomes restricted, we are also practicing social distancing on the level of nation-states.

2. We are becoming more aware of vulnerabilities in the population. We knew this in theory, but that stuff is about to get real. Different kinds of work are, in their current incarnation, more resilient to physical distancing whereas other jobs and industries are very brittle. More than robotics, work-from-home is the revolution.

People living week-to-week have no cushion and no parachute. We'll see terrible suffering as a significant proportion of the population is unable to sustain day-to-day life due to financial issues. Governments will have greater difficulty ignoring glaring problems. If there are plans to deal with this on a mass level, they aren't being shared.

3. We will learn to be more intimate within digital media. We just got started with this in the last few decades, and it's only now starting to accelerate. It is fundamentally changing human identity on every level, individually, relationally, culturally, collectively.

We aren't fully immersed yet, keeping most of ourselves in conventional reality, rather than augmented or virtual. People who are good at this have an advantage. COVID-19 is an opportunity to get better at it fast, including needing to adopt telehealth on a much more massive scale.

4. Now we may learn what interdependence really means. More than climate change somehow, COVID-19 teaches us that like it or not, we are one. The virus crosses national borders. Even countries with quick lockdown or protective factors are evidence of how undeniable the connection is. While one country may respond to a threat with a lockdown immediately the next time, how reassuring it would be to have the country with the outbreak respond with alacrity.

5. Mutually assured salvation is preferable to mutually assured destruction. Selfishness and altruism ought to work together when it comes to communities fighting contagion. When the disaffected Peter Parker let the mugger run away, little did he know he would later cause his Uncle Ben’s death by heart attack when Ben stood up to the same thief—leading to his own transformation through learning from adversity into Spiderman. Social antiviral response requires a level of collective intelligence and coordination we clearly cannot yet muster. Unfortunately, superheroes are not typically well-integrated. We are leveraging machine learning to find treatments faster than the human mind can muster.

6. We are resilient. More than nuclear threats, biological threats chill us to the evolutionary bone. Our memory if death by pestilence runs deep on symbolic and genetic levels. The Black Plague, 1918, chronic infections like Varicella (chickenpox and shingles) and HIV—infection has not been defeated. Most people will find a way through this, though the losses are profound already and will continue to deepen. Resilience means growing from adversity as much as possible and minimizing the impact of trauma to carve a path through.

7. Conventional authority and leadership are on trial. All around the world, there has been a crisis in leadership brewing for several decades. Abuse of power is rampant throughout our history. Only now are we beginning to see even a hint of more diverse leadership, and the reactionary backlash. Responsible use of power is hard to audit, and power, like the proverbial genie, is hard to get back in the bottle. Who will run the world if the people who do it now are not doing a good enough job?

8. Learning to learn the easy way. This is a stretch, but human beings seem wired to learn the hard way. We are too dependent still on existential threats, for instance from failing to think ahead and prepare, or from visiting trauma upon ourselves and each other. It would be nice to work smarter, not harder, as a species. Covid-19 is a prime example of this, more of a present threat than climate change because it hits close to home, affecting more people in a more immediate sense. For climate change to have the same impact, the waters would have to be rising all over the world. But everyone laughed at Noah until it was too late.

Tolerating Ambiguity

We are learning that the systems we rely on to keep life stable are not that reliable. Many people already know this, but especially for people in seemingly safe developed nations COVID-19 is an ice-bucket shock, like the 10-year challenge, looking back to go forward. Whatever happens, it will leave us irreversibly changed. It’s up to us how that looks.

Right now, no one knows how long we'll have to live with physical distance, but it will be longer than most people would guess. It is a great chance to grow closer with family and loved ones, meet new people virtually, and re-kindle old connections. After teetering between denial and hysteria, sober reflection is overdue.

On a collective level, humanity has made great strides over the centuries. The better things get, the worse they seem. Life is better for more people than it ever has been, making the pain points ever-more unacceptable and glaring by comparison. What we do with that recognition will make all the difference.

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