Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Life in Uncertain Times

I headed down to the break room yesterday to fill up my hot water kettle in order to make coffee. A couple guys from the plant were in there discussing the corona virus over their lunch boxes.

"Have you heard forty percent of people think that virus comes from drinking Corona beer?"

"Yeah. People will believe anything. They're all getting swept up in this panic when way more people have died from flu."

"I figure the people in charge just want everyone scared so they can tell us all what to do."

"A few months and it'll all be forgotten."

There you have it, the broad assumptions that things will probably keep on much as they've been, seasoned with the belief that "they" are someone manipulating everyone. Back at my desk, with coffee trickling through the cone filter into my mug, I could see the other side of the reaction to COVID-19: Our company put out a travel warning that there was to be no company travel to China, South Korea, or northern Italy. The stock market was down more than 10% for the week.

Through talking with the people in our company who actually deal with China, I know that the economic impact, at least, is very real. People in our Shanghai office have been staying home for the last month (and Shanghai is five hundred miles from Wuhan.) Customers aren't paying their bills and have stopped ordering. No one needs metal cutting tools if their factories are shutting down anyway. And even as people slowly go back to work, they're doing so only while wearing masks that are apparently in short supply. Manufacturing sales had already been slow for the last six months, if the disruption in China keeps up the slowdown could get a good deal worse as the world of manufacturing is all tied together these days.

And then, of course, there are the basic medical facts, to the extent that we know them: the disease seems to spread slightly better than the flu (though not nearly as well as old epidemics like smallpox) and yet the lethality is seven to twenty times higher, depending on which set of currently circulating figures you look at. The fact that it has a long incubation period (giving people to travel around for two weeks before they know they have it) and that many people get it fairly mildly (and thus might not even think they have anything other than a cold) seems like a recipe for a hard-to-contain disease that could circulate pretty widely.

My tendency when faced with these things is usually to assume that after an initial period of worry, everything will be fine. The news loves a good story of impending doom. A few weeks ago, it was that we were going to start World War III with Iran. Once upon a time it was that Ebola was going to sweep the country. This is not merely a modern phenomenon. I'm in the middle of re-reading Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose for a book club, and Eco's well-researched portrayal of the 14th century is suffused with a conviction that the world is teetering on the brink of the end times.

In our day, we're used to things working out well. Our wars tend to be limited and fought far from our shores. Medical science has made us safe from many of the diseases that used to take the lives of so many people. And yet, if only because we have so much to lose, the fear that it could all fall apart is forever gnawing at our public consciousness. And there is no law of nature that says we must remain safe from sudden reverses.

And so we have these two conflicting reactions, both of which seem to have a lot of plausibility: Everything is going to be fine. Everything could fall apart.

Across the span of history, both of these tend to be true. Things do fall apart, catastrophically, throughout our history. And yet, these catastrophes are not final. Human societies have repeatedly suffered massive shocks and yet continued on, often recovering surprisingly quickly. While our dramatic sense seems to look for finality: everything will be wonderful from here on out, or everything will fall apart and it will be The End, what we see through the decades and centuries is instead that everything is not okay and yet things keep going nonetheless. While from a story sense we're often over-interested in the world ending, the world keeps going, it's we individually that do not know the day or the hour.

So in the end, while we should engage in basic caution and preparedness, it's probably not the next big world defining catastrophe that we should be focused on most. Right now everyone reading this is alive. Eventually, none of us will be, and most of us will end in some way that does not appear in world headlines.

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