Coronavirus Pandemic Thoughts
Pure optimism does not make sense as a philosophy. Bad things occur, and one can detect when they have a high chance of occurring with any reasonable epistemology. With the coronavirus pandemic, there exist poignant stories of death, economic destruction, poverty, war, and loss of freedom. But I want to bring attention to another narrative, where the United States and the world look inward to reinvent its institutions based on these events.
One does not know the maximum capacity of a bridge until you see it collapse. Likewise, we could not know that our institutions would fail until this pandemic. Given that Western governments failed to contain the virus that the relatively poorer Asian Tigers could, it is clear that our institutions need work. They were unprepared for an event similar to the movie Contagion (came out in 2011!), the Spanish Flu (happened in 1918!), and SARS (nearly identical to the coronavirus!). One could argue that they had a lack of funding, but organizations like the World Health Organization have budgets in the billions of US dollars and still clearly lack effectiveness. For an optimistic view, we can show that a lack of funding hurts less than other factors, including its incentives and culture.
Health experts had ineffective models. We should accept this given the variables involved, including the R0, incubation period, asymptomatic cases, fatality rate, injury rate, hospitalization rate, cause of death, effects of different co-morbidities, and others. Even if we learned that the virus could not harm many people (as one could argue that the antibody tests show), scientific studies take too much time to warrant anything other than strict caution. If we had the correct variable values, the complexity of viral transmission rivals that of meteorology without the real-world data needed to create useful models. So when we can only get a decent weather forecast for the week, we should not expect a prediction for coronavirus deaths to exactly match reality.
However, our policies and media do not seem to recognize this uncertainty. Governments continue to hide their processes and models that determine their lockdown policies. Their lack of transparency leaves the public unable to intervene to create the best economic, mental health, and physical health solutions. The public continues to rely on a legacy for-profit news media, which in this case, relayed the guidance from conflicting health officials with ideological bias and sensationalism. The general public then gets mad when the experts give a prediction that fails to appear or advice that turns out not to work. The world could use this disaster to teach us about our expectations for government, its accountability, our media, and our reliance on the government’s and academia’s judgment.
Traditional media loses its monopoly every day, as anyone can start a blog or social media feed and share their opinion. Even as YouTube censors videos that go against an organization that argued against the public’s use of masks for months, anyone can make a website to host their content and share it with others. The problem appears when the best ideas do not become the most popular ideas. As an example, Balaji S. Srinivasan writes a lot, mostly on Twitter, with many plans on the best ways to implement lockdowns given new information about the virus. But his ideas seem to fall on relatively deaf ears due to his avoidance of traditional media and the layman’s inability to determine the merit of his thoughts. It shows how we need to explicitly identify the validity of ideas without needing to rely on decades-old reputation.
The best institutions in the US in regards to this event were markets and private companies. Pandemic concerns changed the prices of oil futures and stocks, which seemed to make Trump more worried than the WHO’s warnings. Perhaps we can start incorporating prediction markets into our government and culture (see Futarchy by Robin Hanson), or at least think about new ways to utilize incentives and the internet to find the truth. The US leads the world in testing, treatment research, and vaccine development. The country does this despite significant regulatory hurdles from the FDA and CDC, due to the country’s extensive biotech industry. Perhaps we could have had a much different pandemic experience if the US had a better regulatory environment.
We now have the opportunity to create new institutions that can respond to modern threats and enable innovation. This pandemic should have killed the idea that we can afford to procrastinate on fixing our societal stagnation. A stagnating society in a changing world results in a decaying society. We do not need to fear other countries that handled this well outcompeting the West; both the governments of South Korea and Taiwan resemble the US and UK, and all Asian Tigers are allies of the US and Western Europe. But it seems that the main difference between those countries and the West appears as the West’s absurd notion that its ideas allow it to succeed always. If the West dies, it will have done so because it refused to enact much-needed and uncomfortable change.