In mid-March, 2020, a large consignment of crates arrived in Italy, addressed to the country's Civil Protection Department, from the consumer electronics giant, Xiaomi. Inside were tens of thousands of FFP3 face masks for Italy's healthcare workers, a “token of gratitude to the Italian people” for making their workers feel so welcome when the Chinese company opened its first European offices in 2018. Stapled to the side of each of the crates was a quote, in both Italian and English, attributed to the Roman philosopher, Seneca.
"We are waves of the same sea, leaves of the same tree, flowers of the same garden."
Amidst the panic, the donations keep on coming. At the height of the outbreak in Wuhan the EU donated 50 tons of equipment to China. Two days ago China returned the favour, sending the embattled continent 2 million surgical masks, 200,000 N95 masks and 50,000 testing kits. In the Phillipines, Manny Pacquaoi just donated 600,000 masks to frontline healthworkers. Jack Ma, founder of the world's largest e-commerce platform, is shipping 1 million masks and 500,000 testing kits to the United States. That’s on top of the 1.8 million masks and 100,000 test kits he’s already sent to Italy and Spain. Trip.com is delivering a million surgical mask supplies to Japan, Korea, Canada and France, among others. They also put a quote on the sides of their containers, reading “Many ways, to join one journey. Many origins, to reach one destiny. Many friends, to form one family. Many endeavours, to win one victory.”
Masks are a good symbol for this current moment in time. They arrive via planes and container ships, making their way to the frontlines via a global trade network that seemed inevitable, until it wasn’t. News organisations use them as symbols of fear and uncertainty, giving us images of masked figures hurrying across abandoned streets, or swarming around hospital beds. The stories are accompanied by a dizzying storm of numbers, figures, casualties and infection rates, which inevitably include some aspect of the national interest. ‘Our’ casualties prioritised over ‘theirs,’ ‘our’ people stranded overseas, ‘here’ being infected by a traveller from ‘there’ something ‘their’ society does that ‘our’ society would not. This is what our media organisations know best, and so these kinds of stories dominate our screens.
Alongside the anxiety and narrow-mindedness however, the mask also represents a world all in action at once, waves of the same sea, united against a common threat. When you put on a mask your features disappear, erasing the differences of skin colour or face shape that trigger so many of our socially conditioned responses to the news. The masks work just as well whether you’re black, brown or white, Chinese, Italian, or Nigerian. What we are seeing now is something truly global in scale. In Singapore, gaming company Razer is repurposing its production lines to make masks, in France, luxury cosmetics manufacturer LVMH is now making hand sanitiser, in the United States, General Motors and Tesla are offering to retool to make ventilators and in the UK, the government has begun delivering ventilator blueprints to more than 60 military engineers and car manufacturers, including Rolls-Royce, Airbus, Jaguar Land Rover and Unipart.
As writer and historian Rebecca Solnit has documented, in times of real crisis, people tend to come together. In New York, a network of thousands of volunteers created by two 20-somethings is delivering groceries and medicine to older residents and other vulnerable people. In the United Kingdom a network of over a thousand mutual aid groups has sprung up overnight, creating platforms for people to help others locally. In Canada, what started as a way to help vulnerable people in metropolitan cities has now become a widespread ‘caremongering’ movement across the country. In China, the hard-hit town of Caohe, near the centre of the coronavirus outbreak, received a gift of tens of thousands of dollars worth of medical equipment from a Taoist nunnery 1000 kilometres away. Ireland, the Netherlands and Denmark are paying their citizens, essentially, a basic income. In cities across the world restaurants are closing and being converted to community kitchens so that people who need food can eat.
The point here is not whether humans are good or bad in a crisis - the point is that we should beware of journalists trying to come up with an angle. As Venkatesh Rao points out, we’re dealing with a state of narrative collapse. Humanity has quite literally, lost the plot. “Global narrative collapse events tend to have a very surreal glued-to-screens quality surrounding them. Everybody is tracking the rawest information they have access to, rather than the narrative that most efficiently sustains their reality (…) During narrative collapse, everyone temporarily abandons attempts to reach narrative consensus even within their smallest default groups, such as family. Even people who normally avoid math start to do math with raw, noisy facts. Pantry stocks math. Alcohol percentage math. Infection risk math. Toilet paper math. The average human only goes data-driven when narratives fail.”
Narrative collapse is an uncomfortable place for us to sit in. Here in the West, we’ve gotten used to a cliched set of plotlines that emerged after the 2008 financial crisis - the loss of faith in elites, the decline of expertise, the rise of populism, increasing polarisation between the left and right. Instead of debating policy, we’ve been arguing over who gets to frame the debate. “The Republican Party has lost its mind,” or “Labour supporters are anti-Semitic,” or “carbon is good for society.” The best example of this is the reality television presidency in the United States, where the semblance of governing has been replaced by an endless succession of episodes about which side got more owned by the other.
Now though, we’re dealing with a real crisis.
Our carefully constructed narratives no longer apply. The usual “he-said, she-said” of political debate isn’t as important any more. The electoral horse races, the sports rorts, the outrage over unfair dismissals, the secret affairs, they’re all revealed for what they are: plot devices in a story built to entertain rather than inform. When exposed to harsh reality, narrative tends to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions.
One of the big stories we’ve been telling ourselves for the past few decades for example, is that globalisation is inevitable, and that we can continue with business as usual. We’ve gotten so used to it that it seems like a fact of nature, like air and wind. However, in the process of opening borders to free trade and financial flows we’ve dramatically increased global complexity, added some bite with the geopolitical changeover from a unipolar to a multipolar world, and then poured on rocket fuel in the form of the digital revolution. A globalizing society is, as the German sociologist Ulrich Beck has long argued, a risk society. It’s anti-fragile, meaning that the risk is a feature, not a bug. Something like this was inevitable, and now signals a radical transformation, of the kind that occurs once in a century, shattering previous assumptions. It doesn’t matter if you call it a Black Swan or a Grey Rhino or a known or unknown unknown. The truth is that nobody really saw this one coming: a tiny bundle of protein, 120 nanometres in diameter, carrying just eight kilobytes of genetic code.
The countries from what might be called the Confucian cosmopolis did have a taste in the form of SARS in 2003 and then MERS in 2012, which is why they’ve dealt with the pandemic so much better than anywhere else. Taiwan has millions of visitors from China a year, and yet has only reported just over 100 cases. Singapore immediately created an app that could physically track everyone who was quarantined, Vietnam has shown a remarkable ability to contain the spread, and South Korea, a democratic republic, created the most expansive and well-organised testing program in the world, combined with extensive efforts to isolate infected people and trace and quarantine their contacts. The rest of the world though, and in particular Europe and the United States, has been shockingly ill-prepared. Political leaders in these places still think we’re living in a linear and predictable system. They’re used to waiting for the signal of a huge systemic shock before they take action, which is why insufficient preparations have been made along the way. In the immortal words of Upton Sinclair:
It’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.
We’re still seeing that now, as some governments, most noticeably here in Australia, continue to treat the pandemic as if it’s an external force on the system that we must respond to proportionally. The language of these interventions is reminiscent of a military conflict – this is “a war” against the spread of the virus and economic collapse. As it gets worse we slowly ramp up defensive measures in response. But coronavirus is not an external force, it is an endogenously generated one, and because we grow this force through our behaviour, the slow ramping of mitigation guarantees the expenditure of many more resources across a much longer cycle. Intensive care demand lags new infections by about three weeks because it takes that long for a newly infected person to get critically ill. Acting before the crisis hits — as was done in some Chinese cities outside Wuhan, and in some of the small towns in Northern Italy — is essential to prevent a health system overload. If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times: we need to flatten the curve, and the best way to do that is to overreact.
You should really watch this Kurzgesagt video, it’s one of the best explanations anywhere on the internet.
If you live in a developed country, chances are you’ve never experienced anything like this, and even in developing countries the situation is unprecedented. What’s going to happen? Will our parents be alright, will the hospital system be overwhelmed, what happens if I get sick? Is there going to be an economic downturn, will my favourite restaurant go out of business, how many people are going to die, and when can we start having post-work drinks on Friday evenings again? For many of us, it’s hard to sit in this space of not knowing. We’re used to having answers and so we’re striving for some kind of certainty. We spend hours scrolling through our feeds, trying to find someone who can tell us when it will end, when life will go back to normal and when we can get back to the way things used to be.
Not since the financial crisis of 2008, when there were fewer smartphones in the world by a factor of ten, has the world faced an emergency like this. And while the financial crisis affected countries differently, the coronavirus affects countries in pretty much the same way. The supply chains are slowly breaking, airlines are slashing their flights, country after country is closing its borders and the stock exchanges convulse with fear. The gains of a 12 year bull market have been wiped out in a matter of weeks. Trillions of dollars of infusions into the financial markets haven’t halted the plunge and the central banks are running out of levers to pull. We are living in extraordinary times, and as the weeks stretch into months, we’re going to start realising there is no going back.
There is an upside to all of this. Like someone who has a heart attack and realises their lifestyle might be killing them, we are being forced to take a long hard look at how we’re operating as a global society. Some of the most striking stories to come out of the crisis for example, have been the environmental wins. Dolphins are returning to harbours on the coastlines of Sardinia, in Venice the canals are clearing up, and across Europe the skies are suddenly free of planes. Wet markets have been banned across Asian countries, and air pollution has dropped dramatically. According to some back of the envelope calculations, the reduction in ground-based concentrations of PM2.5 in China has likely saved the lives of 1,400 children under the age of 5 and 50,000 adults over the age of 70. That’s roughly 20 times the number of lives that have been directly lost to the virus in China.
This is not to say COVID-19 is a good thing. Instead, it’s acting as a mirror, forcing us to carefully examine our way of life. Earthquakes destroy much, but they also reveal valuable information about the deepest layers of the earth. Similarly, pandemics cause immense pain and suffering but teach us a great deal. They show us that the industrial economy we’ve always taken for granted is killing us. They force us to sit up and acknowledge that we’re sharing a planet with other species. They reveal who society’s real key workers are. Not the bankers. Not the politicians. Not the elite hedge fund managers. It’s the nurses. The doctors. The delivery drivers. The carers. The porters. The teachers. The shelf stackers. The check out staff.
Volunteers thank members of a medical assistance team at a ceremony marking their departure after helping with the coronavirus recovery effort, in Wuhan, China, on March 19, 2020. Stringer/AFP via Getty Images
The virus also shows us that our elected officials are way out of their depth. In a pandemic, narrative doesn’t matter. A crisis like this strips away the bombast and reveals who’s wearing clothes, and who’s standing around naked. In the United States, the current occupant of the White House is furiously trying to rebrand himself as a wartime president, but viruses pay no heed to names and titles. It doesn’t matter how many dead Chinese Virus cats you throw on the table - testing shortages are testing shortages, there’s only so many hospital beds to go around and if you spend three years systematically stripping your civil service of anyone with a semblance of expertise, the country that elected you is going to pay a heavy price.
On a broader level, we’re seeing that our antiquated, hidebound, unloved governments are no longer up to the job of coping with the kinds of challenges that face us in the 21st century. Global pandemics, climate change, cyberwarfare, biological warfare, ecosystem collapse — these are threats that require younger leaders with better ideas, safety nets and protection for working people in societies with rising inequality, national health-care systems that cover the entire population; public schools that train students to think both deeply and flexibly; and much more.
For us though, the most encouraging thing is that perhaps we might finally start taking scientists seriously again. For the past decade, populists have hammered the experts who contradict their public claims and interests. But those experts, whose budgets and capabilities have so often been eroded by the leaders who despise them, are now our main line of defence. Isn’t it interesting that when the shit really hits the fan, scientists are suddenly back in vogue? New York Times journalist Farhard Mahoo says it better than we ever could:
Let us pray, now, for science. Pray for empiricism and for epidemiology and for vaccines. Pray for peer review and controlled double-blinds. For flu shots, herd immunity and washing your hands. Pray for reason, rigour and expertise. Pray for the precautionary principle. Pray for the NIH and the CDC. Pray for the WHO. And pray not just for science, but for scientists, too, as well as their colleagues in the application of science — the tireless health care workers, the whistle-blowing first responders, the rumpled, righteous public servants whose long-ignored warnings we will learn about only when the 12-part coronavirus docu-disaster series drops on Netflix. Wish them all well in the fights ahead. Their weapons, the weapons of science, are all we have left — perhaps the only true weapons our kind has ever marshalled against encroaching oblivion.
Don’t forget the scientists. There are more of them alive today than have ever existed, and right now as you’re reading this, they’re all pulling in the same direction. Medical research is faster and of higher quality than at any other time in history. It only took two weeks after Chinese health officials reported the virus to the WHO for geneticists to isolate it and figure out the full sequence. During the SARS outbreak in 2002 it was months before the viral genome was sequenced and longer still before it was remade in the lab. Back then, it cost $10 to create a synthetic copy of one single nucleotide, the building block of genetic material. Now, it’s under 10 cents.
Dozens of biotech companies and public labs around the world have created those synthetic copies, and are now working around the clock. In the last 72 hours, three companies that specialise in messenger RNA therapeutics, BioNTech, CureVac and Moderna, have announced they have candidates. Animal testing has shown promise, and human trials are now just weeks away, with a vaccine expected to be ready for public use within the next 12 to 18 months. That means that a vaccine could become available within two years of the virus’s emergence. By comparison, it took 48 years to create a successful vaccine for the polio virus, and decades for most other vaccines, including Ebola.
It was scientists who discovered the threat, sequenced the genome, gave us the graphs to flatten the curve and the internet protocols that allow information about the virus to travel faster than the virus itself. When bad science happened, as it did with the herd immunity strategy in the United Kingdom, it got called out, and changed course. Thanks to science, we already have a number of potential treatments under evaluation, such as the flu drug favipiravir, repurposed HIV-fighting drugs, such as lopinavir and ritonavir, and chloroquine phosphate, which is normally used to treat malaria and liver infections.
Most importantly, science shows us that it’s possible to beat this thing. When Bill Gates, one of the few people who did see it coming, was asked on Reddit two days ago about how long the pandemic will last, he responded, “If a country does a good job with testing and shut down then within 6-10 weeks they should see very few cases and be able to open back up.” Places like Taiwan, Vietnam and Singapore show us the way. The last infections have been cleared out of Hubei. And the next time you hear that China did a better job containing COVID-19 because it’s authoritarian, remember South Korea. The issue is competence, not democracy. Trust and transparency motivates people better than coercion.
Don’t let the media superimpose narrative. It’s still too early. Instead, as you sit at home, keep that Seneca quote in mind. "We are waves of the same sea, leaves of the same tree, flowers of the same garden." That’s the only story right now, and we’d all do well to remember it. There are billions of human beings having a similar experience to you in this moment, frustrated teenagers in Turin, grandmothers complaining and cooking meals for their families in Lagos, fathers trying to home school their kids in Mexico City, office workers trying to figure out how to use the mute button on Zoom. Like you, they’re feeling worried, anxious about their finances, and worried about what the future holds. Eventually though, six months, a year from now, the coronavirus will recede in our consciousness and become a part of history. We’ll rebuild, move on, and try as hard as we can to return to normal.
We can do better. This time around, let’s not let a good crisis go to waste.
Future Crunch’s resident scientist and zoologist, Shasta Claire, has some important coronavirus public announcements, plus a list of great resources if you’re looking…
Good news you probably didn’t hear about
Global carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector fell by 2% last year, the biggest fall since at least 1990. Reuters
Over 60% of global coal plants are now generating electricity at a higher cost than building new wind and solar. By 2030, it’ll be 100%. Money talks…
Tesla has just produced its one millionth electric car — the first company to achieve this milestone. It is now the world’s largest electric car maker. Electrek
Doctors in the DRC are celebrating as the last Ebola patient was sent home this month, marking the end of the most recent outbreak. CNN
Terrorist incidents in Pakistan decreased by 13% in 2019, and deaths from terrorism fell by 40% compared to 2018. Dawn
A new report by UNESCO shows that since 2000, the world has reached gender parity (equal numbers of boys and girls) for primary and secondary education, as well as youth literacy. Only adult literacy now remains.
Malawi has decriminalised cannabis for medicinal and industrial purposes, following in the footsteps of Zimbabwe, Zambia and Lesotho. Guardian
New Zealand has legalised abortion, treating the practice as a health matter rather than a criminal one. People will now be able to access abortions from a health practitioner in the first 20 weeks of pregnancy. Stuff
In a first for the Arab world, an LGBTQI+ advocacy group has been granted legal protection by Tunisian courts. Al-Monitor
After a decades-long campaign by civil society groups, China has abolished a rule that allowed police to detain sex workers without trial. The Diplomat
Spain is changing its laws to prioritise consent in cases of violence against women. It’s being called the "only yes means yes" law. BBC
Pakistan’s Supreme Court has passed a law declaring that a husband has no right over his wife’s property without her consent. Tribune
In a major victory for press freedom, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has ruled against Ecuador for illegally prosecuting a newspaper. Knight Centre
Peru’s recent crackdown on illegal mining has been a big success, cutting deforestation by 92% since kicking off in February 2019. MAAP
A grassroots effort to restore Appalachia’s mountaintops has seen 187 million trees planted on over 1,000 km² of former mining sites. Seattle Times
Madagascar, one of the planet’s most biodiverse places, has launched a drive to plant 60 million trees to mark 60 years of independence. North Africa Post
In one of the largest reforestation projects in the world, Senegal has planted 152 million mangrove buds in the Casamance Delta in the past decade. BBC
Afghanistan has created its second largest national park, the Bamyan Plateau, home to the ibex, urial and the Persian leopard. Mongabay
Indistinguishable from magic
Scientists have discovered a protein on an asteroid, the first time ever a key ingredient for life has been found on an extraterrestrial object. Vice
Honeywell, a US industrial company, has built the world’s most powerful quantum computer, thanks to their expertise in vacuums and cryogenics. MIT
A Belgian company has successfully 3D-printed a complex part from different metals (stainless steel + copper chromium zirconium). 3dprint
Google just rolled out real-time language translation in eight languages, allowing your phone to transcribe as someone is speaking.
For the first time, scientists in Portland have used CRISPR to edit a gene while the DNA is still inside a person's body. NPR
Medical researchers have developed the most sophisticated lab model of the human body ever created, tiny organ replicas of the liver, heart, lungs, blood vessels, testes, colon, and brain on a computer chip. Popular Mechanics
Off the beaten track on the information superhighway
Extraordinary essay by climate journalist Meehan Crist on why she chose to have a child. “It means giving up claims to moral purity, not because nothing matters, but because things do.” LRB
Speaking of having a child, Professor Emily Oster’s free newsletter on pregnancy and parenting data is essential. Substack
SpaceX is operating on a totally different planet to the rest of us. Their plans to scale up Starship production are so insane they might actually work. Ars Technica
career guide from the clever cookies at 80,000 hours, based on solving the world’s most pressing problems. “Pandemics” is in there somewhere…
Apparently our childhoods were built on lies. Quicksand can be a mucky nuisance, but it’s basically impossible to for it to kill you. Brittanica
Easily the best new GIF resource on the internet: the emotional range of thousands of celebrities (there’s one for every occasion). Pudding
This guy, Mente Organica, from Colombia, is amazing. Dreamy beats with obscure Latin American samples to keep you going while you WFH.
We would love to hear how everyone else is going out there, and how you're planning to get through the next few months. Feel free to comment on the thread below. One of the most difficult things about the current crisis is having to cope with uncertainty and the feeling of jamais vu (déjà vu’s opposite). Knowing that others are in the same boat can really help. We don't know how this is all going to play out, but if we can at least admit that to each other, we can stand in that space of uncertainty together.
We're all waves on the same sea.
The Future Crunch team