covid-19 as vaccination for tomorrow. Part 2.

Picking up from the previous LOTRW post:

Okay, Bill, where does the covid-19-as-vaccine concept come in? Convince me.

Start close. Covid-19 is proving deadly. But it’s a mere “cowpox” compared with other more serious disease threats that have concerned public health officials for years, starting with a suite of truly deadly viruses, some packing whopping 30% fatality rates or greater, that may be merely a mutation or so away from airborne contagion. Covid-19 has revealed a clear need for the world to buttress the science and practice of epidemiology and disease surveillance – early detection, testing, and more. It’s also exposed deficiencies in current healthcare infrastructure, in particular a lack of surge capacity. 

Today, governors, legislators, and their staffers are scrambling to increase the numbers of practitioners and equip them with what they need for self-protection as they treat the rest of us. At the same time, politicians and public-health officials are beginning to rethink the longer term. They’re looking at novel ways to provide surge capacity when needed. They’re rebalancing the current priority the developed world gives to heart disease, diabetes, cancer and other first-world scourges to favor more attention/resources to infectious disease. Such options, and many others, are on the table for policymakers going forward.

And don’t forget that covid-19 is “vaccinating” our children. Millions of young people, including boys and girls at the impressionable age of ten or so, have been forced to stay home from school. At least some of their number are inspired, not simply frightened, by the great drama they see unfolding every day on television. They want to be part of the action. They’re making life-changing career decisions even at that tender age (just as many of today’s weather professionals point back to a tornado or blizzard they experienced in youth). They’ll be the Anthony Faucis and Deborah Birxs of tomorrow.

At the same time, covid-19 is also vaccinating the world economy and financial sectors. The pandemic has revealed today’s global material affluence to be fragile, brittle at best – not by any stretch of the imagination resilient. 

The world financial crisis of 2007-2008 provides a recent parallel. Decades of increasingly dodgy mortgage lending had built up a hidden vulnerability in the system. In the years since, the financial sector has developed and imposed periodic stress tests and other regulatory measures on banks and other financial institutions to protect against recurrence. 

Then there are other global threats. Several have been identified – nuclear war, an asteroid strike, even a pandemic – but none is really being taken seriously.  (Perhaps in the present case it may have been a view that pandemic would cause a problem only if large percentages of workers actually died.) Covid-19 has made it clear that a small number of fatalities, in even a localized area, can by itself cause the global system to seize up. Governments and the private sector worldwide will get more serious about such contingency planning, preparation, and early intervention for a fuller range of disaster scenarios. 

In this way, covid-19 is reinforcing a broader lesson: disasters are inherently integrative and nonlinear[1]. In ordinary times, leaders and peoples might think it reasonable to manage public health and financial sectors as separate entities. But in times of emergency they reveal they’re tightly woven together, and entangled with all other sectors (education, transportation, entertainment, and so on). Future strategic planning and stress tests have to incorporate interactions spanning the whole society in times of emergency. The metaphor “ripple effects” doesn’t do justice to the reality.

Fact is, in emergencies (catastrophe, disaster, disruption – choose your preferred label), “management” itself is an early casualty. That’s because “management” is about doing things right, making incremental improvements when current circumstances are close to ideal. By contrast, dire circumstances call for “leadership:” doing the right things. Management is merely about driving the car; leadership is about actually forming/choosing a goal or destination – a purpose. In democracies worldwide, people are seeing and judging the performance of the men and women in charge under stress: the presidents and governors, the prime ministers and mayors, the legislators. Expect to see a signal from such assessments in the next round of elections worldwide. 

Bottom line? This disease outbreak, however costly and devastating it’s proving (and it’s early days yet), will likely at the same time do us a favor – by inoculating us against the next.  But there’s more…

…to be covered next time.


[1]And considered elsewhere in LOTRW, in both the blog and the book (pp. 2-4). 

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