Who Got the Coronavirus Right?
Lessons From the People Who Were Right About the Latest Global Crisis
Call it what you want, coronavirus, COVID-19, the “China” virus. No matter the name, this viral pandemic represents the biggest global event since 2008. In that great calamity, many modern-day Cassandras made their name by being early to warn us. It got me wondering, who got this crisis right? That is, who called it early and is likely to see their credibility rise after this is all over. I have a few ideas.
The unsung heroes of any pandemic are undoubtedly the doctors and scientists who fight to understand the threat. There are many who have warned for years about the kind of global shutdown that we are experiencing. For my money though, the one who has communicated the most clearly before and during this event is Scott Gottlieb.
Gottlieb has been consistent in his warnings, even as others were too sanguine about this pandemic. Here he is on Face the Nation on March 1, warning anyone that would listen about how grave the virus threat is.
Beyond communicating with the public, Gottlieb has also amplified other scientific voices, even starting an online tracker to share lab testing capacity with the public. This sort of constructive activity to stop the virus is what makes scientists like Gottlieb the front line in this war. Others like Sue Hellmann and Liz Specht have also been amazing at both fighting the virus and communicating their efforts.
One surprise of this pandemic has been the prescience of silicon valley VCs. Back in February, they were being mocked for avoiding handshakes and wearing masks to work. Since then it’s been clear that startup investors were one of the few groups who understood the power exponential growth.
While Paul Graham, Sam Altman, Dave McClure, Naval Ravikant, and other silicon valley legends were all early in warning about the pandemic, there is one investor who stands above the others. For months Balaji S. Srinivasan has been screaming from the rooftops about this threat. Here he is in mid February warning that the conditional probability of full-blown contagion was much higher than most expected.
Since then, his Twitter account has been bookmarked by any good coronavirus obsessive. Every day he shares the latest scientific information, as well as lessons that can be learned from other countries that have successfully battled COVID-19.
As in 2008, journalists largely failed to warn the public about this crisis. For the most part, the big news outlets don’t like to challenging institutional power, especially respected names like the FDA and CDC (both were slow to ramp up testing). However, there are some major exceptions.
Alexis Madrigal and the Atlantic staff have done a great job of taking this catastrophe seriously, even in its early stages. Like most of us, Madrigal somewhat underestimated the virus in his early January columns. Since then, he has been a vital source of news about pandemic. More importantly, he started the COVID19 Tracking Project to collect reliable testing data across the United States. This project scrapes state and local testing websites and compiles the results in to a central database, reflecting the true state of the epidemic in the US. Where federal data on testing has been lacking, this news source has been crucially important.
Other journalists who has proved indispensable during this crisis are more surprising. Now long past his annoying bowtie days, Tucker Carlson has emerged as one of the few sane voices in cable news. Thankfully he also seems to have the ear of the president. This recent story from Vanity Fair describes how Carlson flew to Mar-a-Lago on March 7 to personally impress on the president the seriousness of the virus. A week later Trump had totally changed his messaging around the crisis and had encouraged the entire nation to stay at home. Not many will want to admit it, but I think Carlson is responsible for saving many, many lives.
The behavior of politicians during this pandemic has ranged from unhelpful to downright treasonous. Still, not all Senators were secretly dumping stock after being privately warned about Coronavirus. Some like Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri have been sounding the alarm for months.
After raising warnings about the fragility of our medical supply chain, Hawley introduced legislation to reduce our dependence on foreign nations for key medical supplies. In Senator Hawley, we see a new breed of right-wing politician. Both a populist and nationalist, Hawley supports massive federal aid to workers while pursuing antitrust action against large corporations like Google. Just as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez rose to prominence on the back of the Trump election, I expect to see senator Hawley’s star rise in the aftermath of this crisis.
Many have criticized the decline of American academia, exemplified most by skyrocketing costs and aging administrators. Nevertheless, there are still many beacons of wisdom and sanity in the ivory tower. Nicholas Christakis has been one of the most persuasive people to warn about the dangers of COVID-19. Every day for weeks, Christakis has been tweeting the latest information about the virus and urging essential measures like school closing and social distancing. With a large online following, Chistakis is a bonafide member of “intellectual dark web”, having credibility with both mainstream and fringe audiences. He has used that influence for tremendous good.
Mike Cernovich is not widely accepted as a journalists by mainstream outlets. Despite helping to break the Jeffrey Epstein story (among others), Cernovich is regularly labelled a simple “blogger”. Regardless of his proper title, Cernovich was early to alert his half-million twitter followers of the need to prepare for the consequences of the virus. In the time since, he has been a useful source of news on the topic, especially for people who no longer trust old-school news gatekeepers.
There are many other private individuals who defy easy description, yet who have been consistently correct about the course of the coronavirus. Among these, the most prominent is probably Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Taleb has the rare honor of being correct both in 2008 and now in 2020. One could easily say that an expert on “Black Swan” events is always prophesying doom. Still, I think that misses the point. Taleb’s key insight is that the tails of real-life probability distributions are much fatter than we realize. These catastrophic events are more likely than we assume and so we must act with an abundance of caution. His focus on the precautionary principle has never been more explicitly mirrored in real life than now, with society almost completely shut down. I don’t know when this pandemic will end, but I’ll bet that copies of Taleb’s Incerto books will sell better than ever when it’s over.
In my experience, crises closely follow the Kubler-Ross stages of grief. We have already passed through denial and anger, and are now moving through depression and perhaps bargaining. Once the pandemic begins to recede, and we enter the acceptance phase, we’ll look back at who was right and who was able to guide us wisely. I’ve proposed a few names that might become more prominent after this crisis, and I’m interesting in knowing who I’ve missed (feel free to add them in the comments). One thing is certain, careers are made in a catastrophe. Let’s hope this one doesn’t go to waste.