Remote, Day 33 - Traps

I’m going to point out some possible traps in our thinking. Not because I have a strong sense one way or another of what the truth is, but more in the hope that by being aware we can better reason our way through the questions. Each of the following paragraphs is a thread that outlines some of the traps we should be watching out for.

Thinking the pandemic hasn’t been as dangerous as forecasted when it’s only because we responded the way we did that the impact was lessened. After the year 2000, there were a lot of comments about how the Y2K bug turned out to not be a big deal. What these people didn’t see was the many thousands of programmers and IT specialists working for months and years to fix critical systems, all so it wouldn’t be a problem. Those that point to the current state as proof that we overreacted months ago are missing the point - taking action changes outcomes. That you can imagine a counterfactual reality where we didn’t take action and still had good outcomes is irrelevant optimism.

Assuming that there’s just this one difficult time frame to get through. That we’ll be able to go back to business as usual with no further impacts as it ripples back through our civilization. There might be multiple rounds of social distancing and partial countermeasures for the next several years. What happens when people get tired of all the repeated disruption with no apparent purpose and start being less careful? The full weight of the pandemic lands on everyone within weeks/months and we get more dead and all the economic damage. The worst of both worlds. We should probably try to avoid that in an intelligent fashion that balances risk and overall systemic function.

That we truly know what we are contending with. Given the scope of available testing, we don’t know how many people have it. We can’t say definitively at this time whether those that have had it are protected from getting it again or for how long that protection lasts. We keep hearing that a vaccine is 12-18 months away. As catastrophic as that sounds economically, it is fundamentally hopeful in the sense that we think we can counter the long term impact. Thus far, there’s no indication of that.

That flattening the curve is unquestionably the right course of action. Not because human life isn’t worth saving, but because we have no idea whether we can administer effective treatment. It could be that most people who survived on ventilators would have survived anyway. Again, there is no counterfactual reality where we can run the simulation differently. Obviously those that died on them would have died regardless (and that’s 80% of those ventilated). How would the calculus change if there was simply nothing we could do for the people that are most severely affected? I tend to believe that our treatments are effective, it’s simply a question of to what degree. If ventilators are a primary bottleneck but they are only 20% effective, what does that mean for our policies?

That other countries, specifically China, can be trusted. That probably sounds xenophobic. I have nothing against the Chinese people. Even so, the world has a China problem on account of the Chinese Communist Party. The WHO has lost credibility due to whatever complicated influence China has on it and the intentional misinformation China provided to it. Countries have their own agendas, but having a seat at the international table (especially as big a seat as China has) means you have certain responsibilities to the rest of the global system that you are benefitting from. Some affiliation with the truth on crucial matters like epidemics is one such responsibility.

That experts are always right. There is also a trap in thinking that experts are always wrong. Experts are human. Sometimes they will get it right and sometimes they won’t. This doesn’t mean that we should listen to non-experts for important decisions. We should listen to experts and those that challenge them with critical thinking skills. Sometimes experts have ulterior motives for what they say. They should be honest if they want us to believe them. And if they believe strongly that a lie is necessary for the greater good, then they need to resign once the duplicity comes to light. There’s no point in having an expert you can no longer trust.

That we can get the right outcomes with the wrong incentives. Hospitals are attempting to manage a public health crisis and a PR problem at the same time. So you hear stories about health care workers being disciplined or fired for speaking out or trying to wear masks to protect themselves and their patients. In theory, they don’t want patients to be afraid or fear running out of critical supplies. That only explains part of their reaction. I suspect part of the reason that NYC is doing better about this than other places is that a lot of their hospital funding is philanthropic and less motivated by profit.

That we have a choice between lives and the economy. At a certain point, it simply becomes a choice between lives and lives. The modern world is a set of multiple interconnected systems. One that cannot be indefinitely halted without irreversible damage. We will have to start things moving again before that happens. It’s just a matter of doing so in an effective and balanced fashion.

That we can get back to normal. Or that normal is even the proper target. This is one of those major events that future generations will read about in history books. The sort that changes things permanently. To the question of whether it’s for the better or for the worse, we don’t have a good answer. And the best one we can hope for is ‘both’. There are always tradeoffs and downsides. Is it possible to build a more resilient set of systems than we have now? That question assumes we are even capable of making the attempt.

I realize there are contradictions in these observations. That’s to be expected when trying to even lightly reason with levels of complexity on the order of global civilization. There’s going to be a good amount of change and struggle for everyone in the coming years. Which is why we should be thinking about the problems and solutions from multiple angles so that we can find the best outcome in a bad situation.