More than a year ago already I posted a fictional COVID19 retrospective, reading it back today it is pretty eerie to see how many of the predictions made in it have come true or are about to become true.
Because I didn’t actually dare to write it down as predictive I figured I should improve on this, after all, what use is it to predict stuff without attaching the label prediction to it? It’s a bit cowardish. So, this time, I am affixing the label prediction to this post.
Warning: what follows is not going to be happy stuff, if you want to stay optimistic and/or are easily perturbed then please skip this post. There is some good news too but it is definitely in the minority.
The past year has given us many reasons to reflect on the way that we have - with very few exceptions - dealt with this pandemic so far. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the richer democracies in the world have on average done an absolutely piss poor job of dealing with this challenge. Based on the performance so far I’ve attempted to extrapolate the next phase of the pandemic. How many of these things will happen in the coming year I do not know, but I strongly believe that the bulk of them will happen and relatively soon.
This will take many years
To start off with one that definitely won’t happen in 2021: COVID19 isn’t going away from one day to the next in the next couple of months, like many people - also around me - seem to believe. People are already planning their holiday destinations and can’t wait to go ‘back to normal’. Sorry to rain on your parade: normal is what you are living in right now, and likely will be ‘normal’ for the foreseeable future. If you don’t like that: vote for better politicians. The people in charge have on the whole been plagued by short term thinking which has resulted in a much longer track for this pandemic than what it could have been. So far none of them have owed up to this, in fact the bulk are still claiming that they are doing fine. And as long as people believe that COVID19 is here to stay.
The lives of everybody alive today and our societies as a whole will be permanently changed
Some of the changes to our society will not be temporary, they will be permanent. The degree to which people can safely join in mass rallies, demonstrations, parties and so on will diminish, to the point that it likely will be socially unacceptable to invite more than a few people to any kind of gathering. Social distancing as we call it now will become ‘best practice’ for most of the human race, which will dramatically alter some societies and strongly influence the remainder. Each and every one of us will be personally affected, either because we are directly affected due to COVID19 and its effects on our bodies or because someone in our direct vicinity will be. Pretending it doesn’t exist is going to be impossible for all but a very lucky few, who will soon be relegated to the fringes of society (if they aren’t already there).
If you haven’t been affected yet, that’s a matter of time
Given the numbers so far and the average number of contacts that people tend to have if you or yours haven’t been affected yet then you are simply lucky. But that luck will run out and in time you too will be joining the crowds of the people that have been directly affected by COVID19, either personally because you get ill or indirectly because someone you love or care for will get ill.
Solving this will require a radically different playbook than the one followed so far
Governments the world over (with a few exceptions) have so far been following a fairly predictable path in their attemts at controlling COVID19: they have tried to turn it into a numbers game and have given the economy priority over the people that make up our societies. The end result of that is that we have now lost several million people, that our economies have suffered anyway and that COVID19 is still here and raging uncontrollably in many places on the planet. We’ve given the virus time to mutate and mutate it has. One new strain after another is hitting us and it is a matter of time before we end up with a variety that is either going to be harder to test for or that does not respond as well to the treatments and vaccines available today. Solving this will require a radically different plan of attack, one that recognizes that this is a global problem rather than a number of disconnected local problems and that as long as there is a single country in the world where COVID19 can roam freely that we are all at risk. The EU (which is where I live, so it is a bit easier to see this effect in practice for me) is a perfect example of how not to do this: every country has its own rules and regulations resulting in regions right next to each other attempting to combat COVID19 with widely disparate rule sets resulting in sub-optimal outcomes for both regions due to the interwoveness of our societies. On paper these solutions all look good but in practice they simply can not work: the virus does not recognize our artificial and imaginary constructs such as borders and regions of governmental control.
We won’t go back to ‘how things were’
As much as I would like to go back to November 2019 when life was still normal (and I didn’t have a nice case of long COVID which robs me of quite a bit of my energy on a daily basis) I’m sorry to say that it isn’t going to happen. Yes, that’s really bad news. The reason why we won’t be going back is because (1) as long as we haven’t solved it for real there is no option to go back and (2) once we do solve it we will realize how exposed we have been for all these years that we were simply very lucky. Zoonotic events (the point in time where a pathogen jumps the species barrier, where a virus or other thing than can make us ill for instance jumps from an animal into the much larger target pool of humanity) happen with some regularity. There have been quite a few of these over the last couple of years and every time it was controlled relatively quickly. But this time around we have been shown that that was mostly luck, rather than planning and good practice. Our societies will eventually - somewhere in the next couple of years - figure out how to combat this virus effectively. But the price will be astronomical and we will realize that we will not be able to do this again soon, or possibly at all. As a result we will change how we live, permanently. The number of people on the planet is now so large that if we do not curb our enthusiasm for leisure travel and mass events that we are essentially inviting the next COVID like pandemic. So our practices will change, and our lives will change right along with that.
This pandemic will make us stronger
Finally, a bit of good news. Yes, this pandemic will make us stronger, much stronger. If beating it requires cooperation on a world-wide level (or at a minimum at the level of all directly connected land masses) then we will do so. If it requires the rich and the poor countries to work together, with the realization that as long as a single country is not able to control the virus that we will see periodical resurgences, (which I expect will happen until that realization will set in) then eventually we will do so too. As a result we will put the tools in place to deal with other problems as well: corruption, mass poverty and so on. Humanity will emerge much stronger, COVID19 is our common enemy, the one that will unite us. And on a personal level, just like the survivors of wars tend to be much less focused on their own personal affairs but tend to be focused on rebuilding their societies we too will emerge as stronger people. Of course in the intermediate we will have to deal with the egoists and the short term thinkers who can’t look further than their next consumption or holiday in the sun. But that will pass as one-by-one they too will be personally affected by COVID19. At some point we will reach a critical mass when we will collectively say ‘enough’. Some of us are already there (and have been for a while), for others it will be a much longer journey. But eventually nobody will be able to avoid coming to that realization. And a certain mr. Darwin will have a word or two to say to those that plan to continue to ignore reality. In that sense COVID19 is a pretty harsh teacher, if you can’t change your ways through cognition then it will likely be an evolutionary correction.
Many more people will get ill
and Many more people will die
I wished I could sugarcoat this one, but I am afraid that this is simply what we will have to expect. For every resurgence of the virus you have to count a 6 to 9 month response time if everything goes the way it should. Each COVID ‘wave’ to date has been higher than the last. Depending on how you count we are now in the third or the fourth wave, and the official death toll is already in the millions (3 million+ as of this writing). Unofficcialy the numbers are much higher, two times as high does not seem exaggerated, quite possibly higher than that. And that’s before we get into the number of people who have had a serious bout of the disease and who are quite probably even today struggling with the aftermath. This group of people, the ones that didn’t die but are significantly diminished in their capacity to partake in society is growing rapidly and will be one of the most costly components in the final bill of COVID when it is eventually presented.
There will always be some who are in denial
Their numbers will gradually dwindle, but statistically speaking there will always be people who deny that COVID is real, who will attach other delusions to COVID, and who will in general be unhelpful and will disturb reasonable discourse on the subject as well as who will try to subvert any concrete plans on how to deal with this. Democracy being what it is these people will likely find a way to be represented. How much of this we can accept without giving up elements of that democracy I do not know, but just looking at my own country and seeing how COVID deniers have seats in parliament and are using the crisis to stir up their ugly little schemes is bothering me considerably. We will have to find a way to deal with this without harming our democratic institutions beyond repair.
Rich and poor will be further apart than ever before
The wealthy people - individually, and as wealthy countries - will find themselves set much further apart from the rest of the world or their societies than before. This will create friction and envy and if not addressed in a direct and satisfactory manner will have a very negative effect in the short term. Rich countries will have to help poor countries, if only because if they do not those poor countries will end up as the sources of endless waves of new COVID strains. At the same time, the rich countries will have to do so without taking advantage of the poor, a temptation that they will find hard to resist. The same goes on a more personal level, people with means will have to step up and help carry the load for those in their society who are less fortunate. If only because if they do not there eventually won’t be enough of a society left. COVID19 has the potential to utterly wreck us as long as we remain focused on our own problems without seeing the problems of our neighbors. Looking away will no longer be an option that we can afford.
Everybody will find out what their personal borders are
Sooner or later each of us, those reading this and everybody else will find that they too have a border where they will say ‘enough’. When - and for now still if - that happens and this reaches critical mass is when we can finally tackle this problem for real. Until then we are in a holding pattern trying to limit the damage but we will not be able to solve anything in a permanent matter. One for all and all for one is the only way out of this swamp, keep in mind that this whole disaster started with a single person being infected with the virus.
Failing politicians and their henchmen will be held accountable
With every new wave it is clear that our politicians and the various institutions at their disposal are utterly failing in their first obligation to us all: to keep us safe. The economy - as harsh as it may sound - will have to take a backseat to healthcare. If that means that we will have to forego leisure travel, dining out, wars and other luxuries then so be it. It is a price worth paying and only those politicians that will have their priorities straight will survive this crisis in the longer term. Jacinda Ardern will not be seen as unique, but as the first of many, who will replace the ones that failed their populations and who will be held personally accountable for the messes they made.
Our medical knowledge will improve
We will vastly improve our medical knowledge on how to deal with (novel) viruses, the first improvements will mostly affect those groups of viruses that have much in common with the Coronavirus responsible for COVID19,after that we will find more ways to deal with other viruses and there will be more general improvements as well. Cures will be found for diseases that are at the moment incurable. We will develop new insights into how viruses attack our bodies and what we can do to help our immune systems to deal with them.
The big question for me - and I hope I’m not alone in this - is when is it going to be enough? How many people will have to die before we realize that our current approach isn’t working and that it is now COVID-19:3 Humanity:0, and that all of the countermeasures so far have been a rearguard fight but that no real solution is in sight? In 2022? In 2023? In 2030? The sooner the better. The fewer people that will get ill, will end up with long term effects (so called ‘long COVID’) and quite possibly die.
A pandemic requires a global approach with local coordination, to ensure that the effects in one spot don’t end up annihilating progress in another. This will have a huge effect on the concept of sovereignity. For Europe for instance it translates into fitting in into some worldwid plan and to get everybody to implement countermeasures in lock-step, something that will find a lot of resistance. But I strongly believe it is the only way forward. As long as we do not do that countries will turn more and more into little islands, with as direct result that our larger structures will fall apart, the opposite of what is required to really deal with this.
We are at the end of the ago of ‘I’ and at the beginning of the age of ‘we’. This is a tough wake-up call for many, who have been told their whole life long that the individual is the thing that matters most even if that is at the expense of the rest. Now we suddenly have to do a full 180, realize that without ‘we’ there is no ‘I’ to begin with. It will be a difficult thing for a large number of individuals. But over time I expect the numbers to shift to the point where being egoistic about this will be socially unacceptable, and where societies that don’t want to see it that way will become unacceptable to the rest of the world. The only way out is with each other, and for each other.