What a virus teaches us about ourselves.

One definition of intelligence is the ability to predict the future and the results of our actions. If an outside observed was to examine how are prepared for the late 2019 — 2020 coronavirus pandemic, one may not find it to resonate well with the definition of intelligence.

But if you look closer, we did not fail to prepare or build. Rather we failed to observe, react and scale.

We have the science and knowledge to make vaccines, to make ventilators and medical equipment. We had teams of experts that know what to do and how to react. We had the laboratories to make a lot fo test and create new test, and also the personnel to run them. And yes, we can build hospitals, and yes we can make millions and millions of masks and medical gowns.

And we “built” all that — just not at scale. Why?

We have been unprepared because as humans, we adapt to quickly to abundance, and we used and abused, but did not save enough, we did not create enough safety buffers. A good safety net is saving part of your income for “rainy days”. We should consider saving what we need for at least 1 year, not just 1 week! Yet the majority of people are pushed to consumption beyond their means, forced by the idea of “a dream life” which today often equals “cannot afford”.

The epidemic and the isolation gives us a chance to see the world we “built” in a new perspective.

During self-isolation, many of us are not able to continue the previous habits of consumption. We are not dining out 2–3 times a week, as we used to. We used to drive parks 1h away when there are many as close as a short walk. Drive to restaurants 1h away just because we could. It is also an opportunity for us to reflect on our style of life, and realize that some things we are used to are a construct of societal pressure, and may not need to continue to be our way of life.

A life of value

Stuck at home, we also found out that much of what we consumed is not as important. We have created a trizillion products that we can order and receive at our footsteps in a few days. Many of these products we will never need. We “built” too much plastic and devices and tools, many of which we really do not need and can easily do without. Why did we “build” all that? Because we are

constantly being pushed to “more”

… more products, more salary, more devices, more updates, more roads, more buildings. We are consumed by the idea that economic growth is always the best way to achieve better living standards —

not the case, as we found out today!

“Building more” needs to be tied to utility = satisfying the needs of as many people as possible. This creates utility in what we do every day, and gives a meaning to our lives.

build value to improve the live of many

not just the life of a few selected ones. And as such, we need to ask ourselves every day: am I building something of value for my fellow humans? Do my products cause happiness? This is what we need to build, not some ivory tower that is based on false promises of reaching the sky. We live and produce not just for our happiness, but it should be we live to maximize the intersection of our happiness and that of the maximum possible number of people. This isolation can also make us think more about this and what our role on this Earth really is.

Disasters of our own making

In the last few decades we did not experience World wars, or major disasters beside the ones we created for ourselves in greed: oil shortages, bubbles, toxic investment derivatives, or just over-promising on this “up” trend.

Yet in our exuberance to grow our economy, we have left much behind:

  • we have eroded safety nets
  • have let trickle-down economics provide little salary to the majority of workers
  • we have excessively over-optimized our healthcare to razor-thin emergency over-capacity

Not to mention also:

  • we are depleting natural resources
  • we cut down so many trees and burned so much fossil fuel we are even changing the entire world’s weather patterns

And as a result our Earth is suffering, and our children will live with much less of the natural earth’s products we have taken for granted. But this is another longer battle. Or is it? After all the virus is a reminder of how close humans are encroaching the natual habitat of other species. Species we were not in contact before, that carry virus we have not seen before.

And at the end of all this, we found out that

economic growth really did not translate to better living standards

as we are all stuck at home because we cannot fight a virus — or better: we can fight it, but we did not plan to do so.

Which brings us to another problem: that of resources. Healthcare requires resources we may have saved for “rainy days”. Hospitals are build to cure a nominal number of patients per unit time, and to go beyond requires prevention more than cure, or in this case building enough extra capacity to serve a surge of health issues, like the coronavirus pandemic. Nobody likes to save money when you can spend it to buy more things that improve your status quo and your image. But our intelligence should push us to save nevertheless, because we have seen before that “rainy days” every now and then re-surface periodically. Nevertheless although we rarely like to talk about it in these terms, even healthcare is resource constrained, meaning that each life saved equals a certain amount of money that we collectively saved — or like in case of the coronavirus — did not save. In order to improve healthcare, building additional capacity is the solution, but finding the courage to save for it, is the challenge.

We have talked for years about giving every citizen an universal income. Today we find ourselves having to rush implementing in some form to help those in needs. And those in needs are those that did not and could not save for rainy days. But again safety nets require resources and planning, and sacrifice, because the whole society needs to agree how far to go to support the less fortunate. After all society is like a chain: only as strong as its weakest link. And neglecting one link will have repercussions on all of us.

Another interesting result of the pandemic is the closure of all schools. For a long time many of us have been proposing online version of education. Yes now those “experiments” have to become the norm and prove successful. This will create a larger educational gap, between the ones that have a support network for learning, be that parents, siblings, relative, online tutors, and the less fortunate that cannot rely on anyone but themselves. More educational divide and thus less fture opportunities is the last thing we need as a society. Rather we need all to advance and learn at the same pace.

Before we build

Before we build, we will have to learn how to:

  • properly distribute resources, so the less fortunate the same opportunity as the more fortunate — be that in health, in learning, in careers
  • save for those times where we are all less fortunate, so we can quickly recover from adversities like a pandemic
  • learn new businesses that can support a new norm in social interaction
  • design new online learning tools that are designed to stimulate all students

So instead of “time to build” it is time to pay attention, to re-distribute our wealth and access to a better life, to teach, to plan, to scale, and then yes also to build us a better future.

After all the only way is up.

Stay healthy and positive everyone!



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