5 Lessons From the Lockdown

In the spirit of never letting a crisis go to waste, I thought I would share some of the broad lessons I hope we take away from our first direct experience with a full-scale pandemic in more than a century.

I’m going to make a concerted effort to avoid anything that could be construed as political bias, but since the current environment seems to dictate that readers must always infer bias (and always against their party of choice), I’ll state for the record that I’m as politically down the middle as anyone I’ve ever met, which is to say I generally find myself consistently and equally disgusted with both parties (I’m even registered as an independent — you can look it up).

So, infer what you will, I just ask that we all try to take a dispassionate view of what when wrong and work on fixing it before we go back to finger-pointing.

1. It Can Happen Here

I don’t know if this air of invincibility is a uniquely American attitude, but I do know that 1) it’s been a recurring theme since at least the isolationist movement of the late 1930s (maybe longer), 2) I’m certainly guilty of it myself, and 3) despite our consistent belief that it won’t, the unthinkable keeps happening. Pearl Harbor, 9/11, too big to fail — the list goes on and on.

Well, here we are again, completely unprepared for a viral contagion to hit US shores and far too slow to respond when it does. Why does this keep happening despite America having by far the largest pool of collective resources and concentration of the world’s best minds and research facilities? Political will. Which is, in a democratic system, an extension of the will of our populace. This needs to change.

We’ve proven repeatedly, over hundreds of years that Americans are incredible in a crisis. Our collective ingenuity, ability to marshal immense resources on short notice, and unassailable will and collective spirit are unrivaled, but do we always have to get right to the brink before we act?

I appreciate that it wouldn’t make for nearly as good a run of movies after the fact if we just heeded the warnings of our experts ahead of time and avoided some of these crises all together, but as much as I enjoy a good Mark Wahlberg vehicle, can we please try the alternative approach next time?

2. Data and Transparency Are Critical

No country has handled the COVID-19 outbreak nearly as well as South Korea (other than its neighbor to the north, who miraculously hasn’t had a single case of COVID-19). Despite being a very densely populated country (roughly the land mass of Virginia, but with 6 times the population), Korea has barely cracked 10,000 total cases, or 207 cases per million people, growing at fewer than 50 new cases per day. By comparison, the US (at around 650,000 cases as of this writing, growing at more than 25,000 per day) is currently at nearly 2,400 cases per million, and as for Virginia’s relatively thinly spread population, they’re at 1,000 cases per million.

What’s even more remarkable is that Korea never even went on a general lockdown anywhere near the scale of the US or western Europe. They accomplished this through early and widespread testing.

When South Korea went from 31 cases to over 1,000 in a week due to patient number 31’s having been a “Super-Spreader” (which, incidentally, wouldn’t be a bad title for the aforementioned Mark Wahlberg movie), they immediately began widespread testing and isolation for those infected, having tested hundreds of thousands of people by the time the US was still debating whether we should even consider worrying about the threat, and the results speak for themselves.

New daily cases in Korea peaked at 851 on March 3rd, only 2 weeks after the infamous Patient 31 (also a solid title for the Wahlberg movie), and within 12 days (March 15th) were under 100 where they’ve mostly remained since.

Bottom line — it’s hard to prevent or solve a problem while making zero effort to even understand that problem. The almost willful avoidance of COVID testing in the US until the problem was massive and our only option was to indiscriminately shut down everything, is arguably our biggest failing in this crisis.

3. Uncertainty is Always Worse Than Bad News

This isn’t a new idea, but worth repeating as a corollary to the previous lesson about data and transparency. Everyone fears uncertainty more than bad news and this is especially true both in the general economy and the stock market. When all risks — big and small — are known, business owners and workers can make informed decisions on hiring, investment, career paths, etc. When faced with a risk that is unknown, however, they stop making any decisions at all (fearing the potential size and scope of that unknown risk). Similarly, when investors in the stock market understand risk, they price it in accordingly, but when they don’t understand risk, they indiscriminately sell everything and wait for more information.

This makes the aforementioned willful avoidance of implementing widespread COVID testing that much more baffling. Far be it from me to suggest that a national leader might have a transparently self-serving agenda in an election year (even in the face of humanitarian crisis), but let’s suppose (just hypothetically, of course) that such a leader’s sole aim was to maintain record stock market levels. The answer is not to repeatedly deny that a potential problem is brewing, the answer is to assess the scope and severity of the problem, and act to address it.

If this wasn’t clear before, I hope it is now.

4. Don’t Politicize Everything

Actually, make that, “don’t politicize anything.” On the one hand, this may be a naive pipe dream. On the other hand, grow up, Washington. Sadly, it might be too much to ask every member of the Legislative and Executive branches to show real leadership, but is it too much to ask each of them to act like an adult with a least a degree of concern for their fellow human? It certainly shouldn’t be.

Under normal circumstances, you may feel the need to treat every action and utterance as campaign commercial, but in a crisis, you can just do a good job. People will notice, I promise. There will be plenty of time afterwards to make outlandish claims about how you single-handedly slew the corona monster.

This is making me sad, let’s just move on….

5. Do Not Spread Misinformation

I understand that politically bent journalism gets better ratings than good old-fashioned reporting (hang in there CNN), but there’s very distinct difference between hammering the other party’s response to a crisis and just making things up. While MSNBC was obviously going to highlight every White House and GOP congressional gaff and gloss over those made on the other side of the aisle, that’s a lot (A LOT) different than throwing the “hoax” label on any inconvenient scientific data and confidently telling viewers they’re not at risk when they are in fact at risk.

I’m personally not a fan of the cartoonish vilification of politicians in either party and as a result I can’t stomach MSNBC any more than I can stomach Fox News (seriously, hang in there CNN), but at least that won’t get anyone killed.

Bonus Lesson: Carole Baskin is a Historically Horrific Human Being

Somehow she managed to make Joe Exotic, a man who hired a meth addict to kill her, come off as a sympathetic character. How is that possible? We haven’t seen anything like this since Hitler had Americans rooting for Stalin for a few years.



Startup and funding commentary and advice from the perspective of founders, CEOs, and VCs on the frontlines.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Matt Olivo

General Partner at C2 Ventures (early-stage venture fund), with 20+ years in finance as a banker, hedge fund manager and CFO.