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Reflecting on 2 weeks of reading COVID 19 news articles on the Internet

The last week has seen a lot of turbulence in Canada and the United States. But no matter what your point of view, reality has set in. Face to face social interaction is slowly but surely shutting down to a minimum level on both sides of the border as schools, restaurants and all forms of public gathering become more and more restricted. The borders are shutting down to individual based travel, or at least being tightly controlled. Everyone is hoping that this will result in the ‘flattening of the curve’ that these measures. We will see.

But the response on the part of government and individuals is still largely driven by our human instinctive flight / fight / freeze response. Some people are hoarding. Government leaders state this is not necessary, since the food and goods supply chains are functioning well.

But nobody in government seems to address the issue that the people who work those supply chains are themselves a potential source of cross border social transmission. The truck drivers, the cargo plane pilots, the ships’ crews and the train crews are all people. These people can carry and transmit this virus, particularly when they are asymptomatic. But coordinated testing of these folks, and follow up of their transmission chains is not at all apparent.

The first signs that Round Two of Social Panic is Beginning

In the meantime, the tone of the media is changing. Sure, there are still ‘armchair quarterback’ commentators talking about what politicians ‘should have done’. But a new tone is also appearing. News stories are beginning to realize that social shut down means real economic loss, and potential economic disaster, for millions of small business owners. .Large organizations are being to talk about how they need economic assistance from the government. Hiring is stopping. Layoffs are beginning. This is wave one of the next round of social panic: the economic one The next flight / fight / freeze response will be focused on ‘how will my family and I survive economically’ in the face of the shutdown of normal social activity.

Politicians are not modeling the needed ‘AND” responses (See Jim Collins classic book “Good to Great” about AND responses to situations). How do we contain the spread of COVID 19 AND maintain the level of economic activity necessary to the well being, even the survival, of so many of our citizens?

North America has never experienced the need to do both. During the Second World War, we were largely isolated from the physical ravages of war. Although governments need to spend on the war effort, war did not create economic hardship the way it did in Europe. Europe and Asia has in some sense experienced this deep concurrent destruction of social normality on the physical, economic and health levels.  The resulting hardships were profound. The recovery long and difficult. Many people, young and old, suffered deeply. Many died as a result of the economic chaos, never mind the physical hubris of war. As a society, we in North America have little to no built up social experience that we can call on to address these this kind of social reality.

Round two of social panic is starting here though. We need to begin to address it as a society. Unlike war, our enemy is a virus, not other human beings. But we need to realize now that the economic impact of our COVID 19 response has a huge potential to devastate individuals economically in a long term way.

Words about payroll tax and extended sick leave miss the reality of what we are facing. Too many people in our society survive economically outside the web of employment with large organizations. Too many are carrying debt, partly the result of decades of little growth in average real income and the widening income gap between the best off and the average person in our societies.

The stock responses of reactive politicians, accustomed to past ways of doing things, will not get us through months of real economic slowdown, particularly if the current social distancing and border closures fail to ‘flatten the curve’ of COVID 19 transmission significantly.

The growing need for a longer term, proactive response

It is time to start talking about the longer term social picture. We need to provide reality based hope that looks ahead into the next 12 to 24 months in order to avoid the worse round two (and round three, and round four …. ) social panic

We now know some things about COVID 19

About global health dynamics

Most people who are exposed to COVID 19 will recover. Many will not get ‘sicker’ than what we associate with a cold or the flu.

A significant number of older people will not. The death rates for over 80’s is significantly higher than it was for below 60’s in China, even though the final statistics are still evolving. (The last numbers that I saw were about 15% as opposed to 2% to 3%). Regardless, the human toll in terms of loss and grief will be significant.

We will have an effective COVID 19 vaccine in about a year, perhaps even sooner. The needed production and distribution will take a number of months beyond that.

COVID 19 will not be the last such virus to spread globally. The next such virus may be more destructive in terms of death rates, or target the young as opposed to the old, who knows.

Our interlocked supply chains cannot be undone, not should they be. Going back to a world of isolated nations given the technology we have today, with its positive and negative possibilities, does not make any human sense.

About what the COVID 19 pandemic is teaching us about the way we organize socially

The economic and cross border understanding / collaboration benefits of maintaining, even enhancing global interconnections, are great. In the long run, the future is about the quality of life for all of the world’s children. We need those economic benefits, and the collaboration / understanding ties that come with them, to deal with things like global climate change and global health issues, including pandemics.

Our predominant economic form of economic organization – capitalism has huge strengths and great weaknesses. The form of capitalism practiced in the western world, driven by short term profit and loss calculations, supports short term economic growth, but is very poor at dealing with the unintended long-term social consequences of short term, locally optimal, rational decisions.

The form of capitalism practiced in China, state capitalism, creates a ruling elite that is prepared to suppress, even exploit, large numbers of its citizens in order to maintain itself.

Both forms are not doing a good job are redistributing the collective economic well being that is produced in a modern society in a way that increases the average quality of life / well being of all of its citizens consistently over decades.

Modern democratic 4 to 5 year election cycles and a ‘few large party’ electoral systems in societies with large social media / Internet based news media select for and empower political leaders who are skilled at:

    • using social funds to buy current votes,
    • reacting to polls and other short term trends,
    • and at creating political hubris rather than reasoned political debate.

They do not favor or select for political leaders who are skilled at long term social trend anticipation and the planning needed to deal with them.

They do not select for politicians who are skilled at encourage / inspiring consensus / compromise seeking social dialogue on issue.

They do not select for politicians who consistently think beyond what it takes to get re-elected beyond the next cycle.

Social dynamics, and the unintended long term, society wide consequences of local, short term, independent, rational decision-making take generations and decades to become clear. For example, climate change is the unintended consequence of such local, short term rational decision making around fossil fuel use and the short-term reasonable shift to the automobile as preferred means of personal transportation during the 20th century.

If we continue to engage in our current form of electoral dynamics, democracy as a societal system could potentially self destruct.

Politicians are the guardians of our social order. Politics is a moral profession in that the behaviour of politicians provides the models which define what behaviour is right and wrong in a society. Reactive politicians are very poor at doing both these roles well. We need to create a form of electoral dynamics that stresses the election of longer term thinking politicians.

Social panic – social behavior based on instinctive flight / fight / freeze reactions to a perceived threat – spreads rapidly through a social media / Internet using society. Unless the political leaders in that society either model more reasonable behaviour personally or use autocratic power / means to suppress peoples’ instinctive behaviour, these panics undermine social stability.

Politicians are human, and respond instinctively in flight / fight / freeze ways to perceived threats just like the rest of us. But currently many of them, and their ‘me too’ cadres, have the ego vanity to believe that they are somehow immune to this, and that their flight / fight/ freeze reactions result in responses are in some ways truer / righter / better than these reactions on the part of others in their society.

When this happens, politicians, and reactive politicians in particular, are poor social crisis managers, which adds fuel to the speed with which social panic spreads.

Profit oriented health care systems / organizations are very bad at responding to perceived and potential societal health threats. They have no short term (1 to 3 year) profit-based incentives to do so, so they don’t. They always favor those with money over those without, although the history of health care has made it clear that virus, germs, and disease don’t care about money,

The world needs to find a way to restructure the health care / drug manufacturing sector so that it is neither short term profit or government bureaucracy oriented. Both are dinosaurs when it comes to dealing with the challenges faced by modern societies’ health care and disease spread needs.

Health care and drug manufacturing is the prime place where where community and network oriented stratified hierarchies, which are transparently accountable to the societies around them, could form a new basis on which to reorganize them. The profits could be re-invested in drug research and in health care infrastructure, rather than flowing to investors.

Political leaders will always use the current monetary / banking systems to draw resources from the future in the form of government debt in order to deal with current social crisis.

They then transfer these costs to future voters when these politicians will no longer be around to deal with the tax or other social consequences of their current behaviours.

When this debt is held by private organizations and individuals rather than by state banks, the only way for government to eliminate this debt is eventually to socially inflate its way out of it, reducing the value of each nominal dollar in the total debt through this inflation.

When the debt is held by state owned banks, the government can eventually eliminate it, and reset the society, by simply ‘forgiving’ the debt – essentially writing it off the state bank’s books.

Profit and loss, or double entry, accounting is after all simply a way of tracking social activity. Money is after all simply a way of facilitating small independent transactions between individuals while integrating them into a what is now an international social framework.

Both are human social creations. Neither has any basis in material reality. They both only make sense, or have any social use utility, in the context of human contract using societies. There is no ‘natural’ need for government debt to be carried funded by private individuals or organizations.

Social interaction over the Internet provides a degree of resilience in the face of health based threat that is amazing and largely untapped. Open email, social media, and web-based conferencing are profound technologies that have the potential to re-shape and to democratize human life. Countries committed to democracy need to collaborate across national boundaries to ensure that the infrastructure needed to support these capabilities, especially in the face of global health threats, become the norm. Building and maintaining this infrastructure is too important to leave to the independent profit and loss oriented entrepreneurs. Governments must take on this challenge, just as providing roads was too important not to be funded by governments in past centuries.

What will help prevent round two social panic

Specifically, on the part of political leaders ….

  1. Stop blaming other politicians for the current situation. ‘PolyTalk’ – the kind of language uniquely practiced by politicians and by media based political commentators – is largely self indulgent and ignores the need of voters for dialogue that addresses how they and their families will cope with our current social problems – economic, health, and ecological. PolyTalk also ignores the one thing that brings us all together as human beings – the need to ensure a high quality of level for our children and their children, while having a decent quality of life for ourselves.
  2. A determination to address the COVID 19 crisis as another global issue needing global dialogue and local action, not anti-global dialogue and misplaced national action.
  3. An acceptance that element one of a real score card for politicians in democratic society is improvement in the well being of the average citizen over time – economically and health wise, in real terms. Element two is the potential improvement in the future quality of life anticipated for this generation’s children, and their children.
  4. The recognition that to choosing to be a politician is to choose to be a member of a morally oriented profession. Other individuals in the society will make judgements about the way that politicians lead their lives, once they choose to be politicians, will be made from this perspective., using standards that reflect the fact this politics is a moral profession.
  5. Most important of all, a two-year outlook in responding to COVID 19, not a reaction to last week’s events. The details of that outlook will change from month to month and week to week, but at least, it provides people with a reassurance that the politicians they depend on to lead their societies are not reacting out of personal in-the-moment flight / fight / freeze instinct when they deal with this pandemic threat.
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