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  • Ben

Contagion Observation

Updated: Apr 6, 2020

A mini-blog-series exploring the Coronavirus fallout (part 1 of 3).

Isn’t it ironic - our relentless pursuit of scale, thwarted by something invisible to the naked eye.

The Covid-19 virus is several hundred times smaller than the width of a human hair, but it’s managed to wreak havoc on our complex systems and mighty civilisations. In doing so, this pandemic has revealed weaknesses which stretch well beyond our immune system.

Unlike the 2008 financial crash, this crisis is very human.  It will cause suffering and loss of life on a grand scale, but I'm unable to predict the final outcome, and  pointing fingers at individuals and nations is not useful.. This virus will play out the way nature intends, and we should leave judgement about our response for another day.  What seems fairly clear is that normal won't be back anytime soon, if at all. It's not obvious what this will mean, but remobilising the economy will require us to restructure society too. 

As we build towards that moment, we must recognise the problems Covid-19 illuminates. There we will find bankrupt ideas, system failures, a glimpse into the future, but also a realisation of what’s possible in a time of emergency.   

How have we managed to create the perfect environment for Covid-19 to run riot?

Ignoring pandemic warnings 

Experts have increasingly been warning governments about the potential for pandemics. In 2018 the UK’s biological security strategy was published but not implemented, according to advisor Professor Ian Boyd.  He cited a lack of resources, but also a gap between planning and action. As many experts are predicting, Covid-19 is a dry run for something far worse.

Thinking failures

Our brain moulds our environment, which moulds our brain in a continuous feedback loop.  Are these complex systems and man-made environments impacting our cognitive functions? We are seemingly unaware of the consequences of categorising, sorting, and discarding people, or viewing nature as a pile of resources to manipulate and extract.

We spend an inordinate amount of time planning, forecasting, and modelling which only give us an illusory sense of control and power.  We lap up economists views, look to past trends, and guide our actions by finger-in-the-air-metrics. 

We have an alarmingly mechanistic way of framing of the world, one which only values efficiency, predictability, and utility.  We prioritise bureaucracy, obsess over rules and procedures, and bury ourselves in detail. Our attention is a finite resource and this means we lose sight of the big picture; the problems we're solving, unintended consequences of our actions, and how everything fits together in a system.

In a world so complex and uncertain, I think it’s fair to ask - why do we not practice and embed simplicity, resilience, robustness, and flexibility in our classrooms, workplaces, and systems?

Capitalism goes missing again

Our god-like system is inadequate and incapable of responding to crises in its current guise. Capitalism has to expand, but the paradox here is that infinite growth lays the foundation for a sparring match between humanity and the environment.  Let us not be fooled - it will destroy us both. With this pandemic playing out in real-time, it provides us with a daily and stark glimpse of the future we're creating.

Populations have never been better connected with ideas, people, goods and capital travelling effortlessly across borders. As we race towards 9 billion on earth, according to the UN 68% - an additional 2.5 billion - of the population will live in cities by 2050. The emergence of mega cities offer economic potential, but scale always trade-offs.  As temperatures, sea levels, and air borne viruses rise, these will put the health of hundreds-of-millions at risk.  

We have never been more mobile with 405 million people expected to live outside their country of birth by 2050. The combination of expansion and mobility pushes us up against nature’s limits and drives us towards ever greater industrial farming,genetic modification, and domestication of animals.  

With SARS, MERS, Covid-19, Avian Flu and Swine Flu emerging recently, what role does population density, frequency of contact with animals, and connectivity pose to global health concerns?  

The 2008 crash aftermath

Speculation, greed, and recklessness fuelled a bubble in the subprime mortgage market which triggered a global financial crash.  Whilst this crisis is deeper, and hopefully shorter, what can we learn from how we dealt with the banking crisis and what followed?  

Deeply divided and insecure, the systems that allowed the banking and real estate bubbles remain intact.  Losses were absorbed by governments and passed on to the public during 10 years of austerity. This was more than economics, however, with the impact cascading throughout society and our politics.  

Our politics became tribal, and traditional media and algorithms amplified fear and outrage about the ‘others’.  Many towns, regions and people got left behind, inequality rose, and work became fragmented and insecure.  

The state ruthlessly pulled away safety nets and replaced them with acts of punishment.  According to a report by the DWP, 14.5 million in the UK live in poverty. It begs the question, why in such a rich country, is it acceptable for so many to live like this?  

In the west we promote individual choice and freedoms.  Responding to any crisis requires an element of personal accountability and action, but this alone is not enough to fight off a pandemic.  We need collective and community perspective too, but systemic insecurity, and division is the enemy to this.

Erosion of trust - Trust is difficult to measure but holds every facet of society together.  Increasingly leaders, media outlets, and institutions have been willing to disregard it in the battle over Brexit.  At a time of crisis, if we want people to respond appropriately, trust, facts, and honesty are essentials. We should note a paradox of our time here - we have never had more information, yet we become increasingly less able to use it wisely.  

Decimated public services - Underinvestment in frontline services will always have human consequences, and far too often it’s the vulnerable and disadvantaged that pay the price.  What we’re seeing today is that well funded and well-run services are an essential pillar of society.  

A culture of loneliness - Apple launched the iPhone a year before the crash, and this innovation fuelled another trend.  The average UK adult spends up to 10 hours staring at a screen. There’s another paradox here, because our digital world has allowed us to be better connected than ever before, but despite this we have never felt more isolated. Before we introduced social distancing measures, a tragic 1 in 6 of us felt lonely most of the time.  Human beings are innately social creatures, but we’re getting worse at relating to others in the real world. We shouldn't be surprised that the health impact of neglecting this is akin to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.  

Debt and zombies - There have been economic consequences too.  Capitalism has a need to grow, but with governments tightening their belts, central banks have printed money, whilst corporates and households have dined out on this cheap, abundant debt. 

With global debt growing at 5% per annum, but GDP at only 3%, should we ask - for what means?  Have we used it wisely by investing it in sustainable models, new technology, or the up-skilling of our workforces?   Here, the UK lags behind many of the G7 nations, and this lack of investment is a sign of structural issues.

A 2019 report by KPMG estimated that 8% of UK businesses were displaying Zombie symptoms, meaning they were generating just enough money each month to repay the interest on loans.  The economic conditions are far less favourable today, but what about the future? Asking this question reveals a problem - we rarely think about where we are headed. This in parts explains our collective blind spots, our fixation with the short term, as well as our slow response to events.  

Final thoughts

The people that hold our communities together aren’t the superstar CEOs, those working in Westminster, or the celebrities on YouTube.  The real stars of today were once invisible. Now is the time for us to appreciate our friends, neighbours, and strangers; the healthcare workers, shelf stackers, checkout staff, couriers, bin collectors, carers, and coaches. 

We've become complacent and distracted and not noticed the modern world is a bit mad.  There is a silver lining to crises - they present an opportunity to reset and think critically about the future. With the threat posed by the climate crisis, smart machines, bio-engineering, and poverty not going away, at least we know governments are perfectly able to rip up their playbook, when the time demands it

Next up - Part 2 of 3 - My take on isolation, mental health, and remote working

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