Now that we are in it, do we realize what “it” is? Can we tell the historic nature or implications of this once-in-a-century health crisis coupled with a once-in-a-century economic crisis that is happening in our present?
For those of us that believe that there is both a trends and forces and a “great” human component to history, the intersection of COVID-19, the economic quarantine, and the rise of Trumpism is certain to have ramifications that will define this period of history. However, for those of us in my age cohort, the idea of living in history is a novel concept and, even this, has a new spin in the modern world.
Such epochal shifts in modern history — the dissolution of gentlemen’s war and governance for the total war and rise of totalitarianism of WWI and WWII or the global rise of science and information in the modern exponentiation of progress ever since — set our cultural, governmental, technological, and even mythological direction for ages to come. One example, the victory in WWII by the Allied forces was only total for the United States, each of France, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union suffered serious losses at home for the duration of the war, clearing a path for hegemonic rule by the United States that lasted — militaristically and economically — to the present day.
Exacerbating Trends and Forces
Thanks to the inefficiencies sewn into government by the Tea Party and their President, a man convinced that government should work for him and his cronies alone, America’s federal response to a global pandemic is uncharacteristically ineffective and lacking in collaboration with private and public entities at global, state, and local levels. This loss in American hegemonic stature is just a continuation in the reduction of soft-power that the American Republican Party is gladly relinquishing on the world stage for increased corporate libertarianism and ethnocentrism at home. Trump’s desire to capitulate accountability to state and corporate interests in order to — in his mind — avoid taking accountability on himself will undoubtably be a bluff more partner nations will call. Countries like South Korea, Singapore, and Germany will find more in common with China’s strong-armed but ultimately empirical and strategic approaches to this health crisis and will start to find partnerships that promote reason over past mythologized bonds. As countries start to make scientific decisions to open their economies thanks to foresight in testing, contact tracing, and preventative measures like social distancing, the American piecemeal approach will further diminish the extrinsic and relative power of the American response.
The early summer return of most large economies except the United States to viability should spell the end to the rise of Trump in America, but too late for the consequences of long-term governmental stalemates to save the system from collapse. America’s “winner take all” approach and unitary executive is more akin to Roman dictatorial rule (meant as a rare bug into republican source code) than the parliamentary democracies most other capitalistic libertarian democracies run on and has stagnated past the point of repair by well-meaning government professionals and the best efforts of a free — but bought — fourth estate, the press. Without a constitutional convention to update electoral and parliamentary policies, America’s executive will become more powerful and integrated with the corporate and computational interests, and the legislature will continue to give Article I rights to the Article II power of the Presidency.
On the one hand, the rise of the unitary executive in the United States, and across the liberal democratic world, is a frightening reversal of the humanistic trends of the last five hundred years, but the ascension of the national CEO is a trend that is, if anything, seeing its time come to pass. Whether it is the progressive ‘why’ of Elizabeth Warren, the revolutionary ‘culture’ of Bernie Sanders, or the MAGA ‘what’ of President Trump, the majority of Americans understand functional organizational vectors on a go-forward basis in their incorporated realities. Further development of public sector actionable data, business analysis of constitutional mandates, subsequent monetary outputs, and the outcomes to citizen well-being, like what Steven Ballmer, the former CEO of Microsoft, has created at usafacts.org, will inform savvy executives on how to right the ship of state. Utilizing some of the best practices of leading and lagging indicators on a dashboard to show where improvements can be made and where budgets are allotted is a necessary step in the use of data technology to create transparency and align government to an equity of opportunity never realized in our history.
The particulars of the unraveling of America’s Republic are being forced by both the our response to the current crisis compared to the rest of developed economies and the ongoing dissolution of the United States’ global economic power as compared to China as seen in the plot of the world’s economic center of gravity since 1 C.E. By 2025, America will no longer be the single global power and the trends and forces that have guided the world in fits and starts toward liberty, democracy, and capitalism will be challenged by a nation that has newly minted partnerships in Africa and the Far East, a government that can still centralize planning, and a proven track record of enabling science when it is needed to protect its population.
Social Distancing as Species Saving Science
The reality of an existential threat, one that threatens the survival of the species, was brought into consciousness by COVID-19. For all the loss of life, an enduring global economic downtturn, and the apocalyptic vision of grocers without essentials, this was a dress rehearsal for how we would handle a more virulent pandemic. Some countries were laboratories where scientific thinking was implemented by consistent leadership and infection was slowed to managable amounts that allowed schools and businesses to reopen. As a species, it will be important that we learn from these countries and implement centralized efforts at social distancing and total population testing.
The rise and scientific deceleration of COVID-19. Source:Visual Capitalistand European CDC
The exemplary flattening of the curve especially in South Korea offers a teachable moment of government management, scientific problem solving, and the rise of dataism in understanding and controlling the problem. First, the systematic testing, quarantining, and instigation of social distancing measures quickly enabled decision makers to apply personnel and resources where they were needed most. In testing, more than in any component of the South Korean response, is their the greatest lesson to be learned. Online and phone screening was immediately followed by information on drive-through testing locations where quick and reliable test results would trigger, in the case of a positive result, both quarantine requirements for the patient and contact tracing to inform unknowing carriers to get tested.
According to a recent Brookings Institute study, the contact tracing capabilities of South Korea are thanks to the prevalence of cell phone and credit card usage and the data these items exchange about the location and activities of individuals. On the one hand, the ongoing loss of privacy to the internet of things and the onerous sale of individual data by companies like Facebook and Google portends that data like that used in contact tracing will not always be used for our benefit. However, the speed of the South Korean reaction thanks to their transparent use of users’ activity data may one day be required to save the species. The root of the problem is not that the state or the advertiser has access to individual data but that the user does not own his or her data in the first place and there are no rules for when — like in a move to save the species or make some large number of deaths avoidable — the user can be compelled to release their metadata.
With high rates of testing and contact tracing, South Korea was able to quickly understand who had the virus, treat them, and maintain manageable numbers in hospitalization. Furthermore, their scientific data offers the cleanest dataset to the scary but altogether reasonable hypothesis that the antibodies for the coronavirus built up in individuals that have had the virus are not 100% in eliminating the disease. While this may be the result of a highly sensitive test picking up RNA from no longer viable virus, it is this sort of scientific information that will be required if we are to study and develop a viable vaccine even while the pandemic continues to infect individuals anew.
Any flattening of the curve in the United States is thanks to the piecemeal social distancing largely coordinated by corporations and municipalities and only temporarily promoted at the federal level. Because most people aren’t able to run a legitimate counterfactual in their heads, social distancing will not be credited with even the modest “success” of losing only60,000 American lives, and is instead being touted as an overreaction. This unsubstantiated idea that we have done nothing to reduce the infection or mortality rate of this virus is further leading the mostly right-wing factions of the citizenry to claim that the demonstrably impactful and largely voluntary quarantining of the economy should be reversed without sufficient data as to who might still be infectious. While the measured reopening of the economy is as essential as the eradication of the virus, both things can be done scientifically. The recipe for success is clear:
Increased testing and contact tracing to determine who is at risk and who can return to work.
Meter the return of the economy in proportion to the number of individuals that have antibodies built against Coronavirus. In parallel, ensure surge capacity is available at local hospitals for PPE and ventilators.
Parallel to the metered reopening of the economy, the United States government must fund research into the vaccine and partner with domestic and international organizations that are advancing this important scientific invention.
There is no doubt that this once in a century economic and health crisis will alter the course of history. The most durable solution to the problem of COVID-19 and a global recession will involve rigorous adherence to the scientific method and empirical uses of data science.