Perspectives on the Pandemic

A Long Now Boston Virtual Conversation

Long Now Boston has held two virtual conversations in the past month to identify how the Covid-19 pandemic is affecting human society and culture and what the implications may be for us in the long term. The first conversation, with Long Now Boston volunteers, was held April 6. The second, open to Charter Members, was convened on May 11. While the perspectives are varied and the future trajectory of the virus and its impacts are highly uncertain, one thing seems clear:  The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to be the most significant global disruption since the mid 20th century. How we collectively respond to it will shape the history of the 21st century.  

CDC Image of the COVID-19 Virus

Summary by George Gantz for Long Now Boston

History of Pandemics Past

Human history shows a pattern of episodic pandemics, separated in some cases by centuries, across the last 2,000 years. There must have been epidemics before then, extending back through the paleolithic to the origins of the human species, but data for that period does not exist. What we do know from biology is that all life demonstrates a constant engagement between hosts and pathogens – we are no different. 

The biggest pandemic in history was the Bubonic Plague, or Black Death, in the mid-14th century. An estimated 200 million people died, including an estimated  30 to 50 percent of the population of Europe. Smallpox, in the 16th century, is estimated to have killed 56 million people. Indeed, that epidemic claimed an estimated 90% of the American Native populations. The third in size was the Spanish Flu in 1918 – just over a century ago. Up to one quarter of the world’s 2 billion people are estimated to have caught the virus and 50 million or more died. Through the 20th century we experienced a series of smaller outbreaks, until the HIV epidemic began in the 1980s. That pandemic has claimed some 35 million lives, and it continues today. The death toll from COVID-19, at just over 300,000 so far, is still very small in comparison.

Images from Visual Capitalist, Visualizing the History of Pandemics March 14, 2020

The comparison of raw death statistics ignores an important factor – human population has been growing. Population is estimated to have been about 200 million 2000 years ago. During the Black Death, world population dropped by about 25%, from 600 to 400 million. By 1918, when the Spanish Flu hit, the world population was 1.8 billion, having grown fivefold in six centuries. Spanish Flu fatalities were only one-fourth as high, so the actual fatality rate (the percentage of the population that died) was one twentieth that of the Black Death. Today, one century after the Spanish Flu, total population has increased by another four times.

One estimate of the eventual global death toll from COVID-19, assuming continued suppression efforts, is about 2 million. That would put the global fatality rate from COVID-19 about 100 times less than the Spanish Flu. We can certainly hope that will be the case.

Two factors are contributing to an improvement in our success in responding to a virus that seems to have similarities in contagion and severity to the Spanish Flu. Our medical knowledge is much better than it was then, and our access to information through global communication networks is vastly quicker and more sophisticated. However, our global trade and travel makes us vastly more interconnected, which makes us more susceptible. However this one turns out, we will experience significant social and economic disruption for an extended period of time.

That experience is going to change us. 

The Pandemic Now – COVID-19

The April conversation among Long Now Boston volunteers dealt principally with how we are all experiencing the reality of COVID-19 and the accompanying lockdowns, curtailments, social distancing and economic disruptions. The discussion made clear that people’s experiences and feelings about the pandemic varied considerably. One person noticed the tendency for people to greet each other when social distancing, while another felt there was a more isolated, less welcoming response. One person felt quite anxious visiting a grocery store, and then was upset and felt helpless watching an elderly lady struggling to shop for herself while social distancing. 

One individual observed how inappropriate it seemed for all of us in wealthy, comfortable settings to feel anxious or upset. These are minor inconveniences for most of us, while so many truly vulnerable communities around the world do not have economic or medical resources and will suffer terribly. On the other hand, some individuals felt a personal sense of fear and grief, particularly from losing people or relatives they knew. As of April 6, there continued to be a high level of uncertainty.

Some people felt comfortable with the isolation of staying at home and practicing social distancing. The quietness and lack of activity was seen as an opportunity to explore different interests. They enjoyed the slower pace. Whether this would continue to be the case as the weeks of isolation stretched into months was unknown.

Clearly there will be lessons from this experience that can help us learn to be better ancestors. One person noted that the original response in the US to the outbreak in China was arrogant and condescending, viewing this as a Chinese problem. Then when the epidemic accelerated in Italy, the response was to explain it away, by saying the Italians have really botched their response. As of April 6, the US, which has only one-fourth of the population of China, was reporting four times the number of cases as China, with a rapidly rising death toll. Since then the story has only gotten worse. The  mythology of “American exceptionalism,” and the corollary view of foreign incompetence, had been proven to be a fraud.

There was a discussion about how the experience is going to change us and our society. This might be an opportunity to appreciate the fact that we are globally connected and need to cooperate more and be more open. Yet this might also be an experience that drives people, out of fear, to be more insular and more suspicious. International tensions may increase, and globalization may decline. The consensus from the group was that we should seek ways to continue the conversation and identify potential beneficial changes that may be developing in the social and cultural response to COVID-19.

Long Now Boston Charter Members Zoom call May 11, 02020

Future – Disruption and Innovation from COVID-19

The May conversation, among Charter Members of Long Now Boston, sought to build an understanding of how we are responding to the current disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic. Can we identify social and cultural innovations that are contributing in a positive way towards our future?  The expectation is that some of the creative inspirations we are seeing today will take root and last for decades, helping to reshape the 21st century.

The conversation was wide ranging, and participants raised questions about impacts on work practices, social interactions, music and performance, as well as cultural trends and geopolitical influence. A key observation is that different countries and regions have responded quite differently, and some of been much more successful in controlling the pandemic than others. The US response has been one of the least effective, which is quite distressing given our global leadership in biomedical science and institutions. It was observed that nations considered less free socially could more easily impose severe societal limitations than western democracies. It was also observed that countries with more active recent pandemic experiences with MERS and SARS-COV-1 had a more robust collective memory than much of the West. That experience increased the sensitivity of those countries to a new potential threat. For much of the West, the last major highly infectious respiratory epidemic was the Spanish Flu.

Collective memory is an important factor in enabling a quick and effective response to infrequent but significant threats like pandemics. We are living in a culture, however, that generally seems to favor novelty and change over tradition. How do we inculcate collective memory in this environment?  Maybe we should be looking for physical objects that can serve as markers and reminders of our COVID-19 experience for future generations.

An observation was made that the impacts of the pandemic are not evenly shared, and that the segments of our population that tend to fall into the “un” category are again the worst hit – the unheard, the unfree, the unemployed, the unhoused, the underprivileged, the unempowered, the uninsured. Those with economic resources and influence over how the rules of the game are set can protect themselves from the pandemic in ways that the “uns” cannot. An issue that is being discussed in the media is that the pandemic has exposed and exacerbated the negative consequences of those disparities. This suggests that we, as a society, have a choice of whether and how to address these disparities.

It was observed that those with portable, and therefore virtual, job skills are doing fine during the pandemic  Businesses and institutions are responding by moving as many jobs online as possible. This has enabled tech savvy employees to enjoy the benefits of working from home and avoiding long commutes – a trend that may have long term benefits. Travel has also been substantially curtailed, causing economic distress to the airline and tourism industries, but vastly reducing the time and expense devoted to business travel. These changes have been less favorable to those who depend on face-to-face contact for their careers, including groups such as sales professionals. [NB:  The day after this conversation, on May 12, Twitter’s chief executive officer Jack Dorsey announced that it would will allow its employees to work from home “forever”.]

The work disruptions have also been more profound to many in the gig economy. Delivery drivers have been in extremely high demand, but hairdressers, nail salons, Uber and Lyft drivers and others in similar professions have been badly hit. One observation is that labor trends in the late 20th century have increasingly led to reduced labor stability in many occupations. Guaranteed employment became contract work and then migrated to the gig economy. How will any of these people survive with no work, limited benefits and a lean social safety net?  

Among the badly affected are those in performance and entertainment industries where the crowds in bars, theatres and concert halls provide much of the income. Some performers have innovated by moving online, but the income streams to support these endeavors have yet to move beyond donations and patronage. A healthy arts and music culture may have to wait until a vaccine allows live performance to resume.

Image of Rock Concert, somewhere, sometime.

Conclusion

Long Now Boston is committed to a better understanding of historic and present trends in order to help shape a better future for humanity – a future in which our ancestors will benefit from the ideas and actions we implement in our lifetime. The COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity to reflect in real time on the past, the present and the future with a Long Now lens, and to experiment with opportunities to guide our future trajectory. For the immediate future, these reflections will have to be done virtually – but that too is a part of the experimental landscape. We also acknowledge the benefit of being located within the community of greater Boston – an historically fertile ground for creativity, technological excellence and social innovation.

The journey has begun. Thanks for being part of that journey with us.

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