Many people are wondering when we’ll get back to normal. Nobody really knows for sure, because this hasn’t happened before. Lately though, I have a model that I think may offer some insight into what could happen. I’m partially writing this down to get it out of my head, and partially so I can come back in a few months and see whether it panned out.
To do this, I want to explore:
- The self-reinforcing feedback loop
- How news participates
- What will change in the outside world to break the feedback loop
- What resolution looks like
- A Post COVID-19 frame of thinking
Self-Reinforcing Feedback Loop
I’ve written about behavioral loops several times before. In COVID-19, it seems that society is stuck in a feedback loop that is driving a lot of fear and social distancing. I’m not here to pass judgment on whether or not that’s justified, but it’s enough that the fear is a very real factor to contend with.
Whether governments re-open societies matters less, than whether people will trust enough to go out and re-engage in life. Things improve when people trust more – not when the government says that it’s OK. There is a connection between government judgments and the population’s trust, but they’re not the same thing.
So long as infection rates are high and rising, it does not really matter how high, or how quickly they are rising, it drives the fear loop. People don’t think in absolute numbers, this is a bit more primal.
How the News Participates
Broadcast news and Internet sites that report news focus on conflict and drama. This isn’t a criticism of them, it’s simply true. If it bleeds, it leads. News reports on things that are new; there needs to be conflict or change, otherwise it isn’t news. News reporting is a key part of the fear feedback loop, because the worse things get the more feverish the reporting gets. More conflict, more pain & death means more reporting.
What’s Going to Change
I don’t believe that any miracle treatment or vaccine is on its way. They are outside possibilities which are nice to have under development, but consider the common cold or flu; it’s more than possible that a virus will just be with us, indefinitely. Disease eradication, when it works, takes decades and massive investment. Not something to bank on.
What you can bank on is human adaptation. Humans are going to study this thing. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is going to get better and more targeted. Shops are going to learn whether 6 feet is an effective distance, or whether more or less is needed. New practices will go into place, and with time and testing, some will be proven effective.
In short, we’re going to get more information on what works, so that being together comes with risks you can understand. This is not the same thing as coming with no risks.
What Resolution Looks Like
These are my predictions, best as I can see.
- COVID-19 isn’t going away. More than a year from now, there will be a measurable amount of infections and ongoing deaths, worldwide.
- Society will adapt. To the point where ongoing infection rates are relatively consistent in number, and hopefully (but not certainly) lower than they currently are.
- Another crisis will arise. Whether it’s politics, or the price of oil, or a war, one never knows – but something will demand world attention, because history keeps moving and waits for no one. My best guess for what the next crisis will be is the severe recession and/or possible depression that we might be right on the cusp of now, but you can never rule out the random unforeseen shock.
- News will lose focus. A consistent number of infections means not going up or down – which means it isn’t news. A new crisis means that news will have other conflict to report on.
- People will learn to tolerate the new risk landscape. Much as we tolerate the risk of auto deaths, cancer, airplane crashes, death at the hands of violent crime, and many other factors (which include the host of other diseases which have always existed) we’ll learn to tolerate this one too by not focusing on it too much.
- Some permanent change will be for the better. If some distance, or the use of masks, is adopted as a result, that will benefit infection rates on all diseases, not just COVID-19.
- There will be electoral consequences. The consequences will be different in different places, but this is a gauntlet of leadership for politicians all over the world. Once things have calmed down, peoples will sort out who stood up from who folded. Rewards will be passed out and in other places, there will be hell to pay.
The New Frame of Thinking
Let’s go one step further. I basically believe that we will be living with COVID-19 indefinitely, and I think I can see a path to that actually being OK in the long run. But as a systematic cultural shock, it will cause global culture to have a new frame for thinking about things.
I can’t tell what that frame will be, but here are some evolving lessons I see society learning in real time.
Systems need slack capacity. Supply chains and 2000’s era innovations like “just in time inventory” made our society’s systems efficient, but without slack capacity. That’s created huge problems for us with a sudden shock. Perhaps our systems need a bit more waste & slack built in, to absorb shocks. This includes for individual households. Do you have extra groceries, or a bug out bag for your family? The time to think about these things are when times are good, not when they’re bad.
Healthcare systems and economies are two sides of the same coin. The economy is made of people who work, and you can’t simultaneously have a healthy economy and a lousy healthcare system.
Interconnectedness. A lesson that we’ve been learning since the 1990s with globalization is how interconnected the world is. This situation is a rude shock to force acknowledgment of that reality. Systems of thought which fail to recognize this (nationalism, protectionism, etc) are looking even worse than before.