What happened?

Six months since I last wrote here, and the world is now upside down. It is not like it was not already messed up before, but this is a whole new level of mess… There are so many things going on, and so many things crossing my mind, that I find it hard to make sense and organize it all. So forgive me if this text is all over the place.

A bit of context if you are reading this too far in the future. The world is now 5 or 6 months in the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. This is a highly contagious virus that causes a respiratory disease named COVID-19. For more on the topic, you can google it. There is, of course, a wikipedia page about it. The story told in the future about this depends on how we deal with it now. Only you, future person, can know what came out of it, but I must say that, for some of us people of the present, things are not looking good.

I started checking the news again since I am working from home and things are calmer on my side. Big mistake. It feels surreal. I end up asking myself “whaaat??!!” way too often. Here are a few recent headlines, just FYI:

In hindsight, we can hardly blame the virus alone for this chaos. We have put ourselves in this situation, it was a long time coming, and the health crisis is only making our problems more evident.

What happened to knowledge?

For starters, there was a *lot* of skepticism about the seriousness of this illness. In spite of all the warnings of the WHO, scientists, and epidemiologists, decision makers were still dismissive, thinking the studies were alarmists, and these scientists were an “opposition” of sorts. Maybe because mortality rate is not at 50%, and people are not visually sick, it was easy to look to the other side. Then, when things started to look bad, many decision makers put their faith in untested drugs, irresponsibly advertising them and encouraging distribution in hospitals. Even with no evidence that it would work, and a lot of evidence that it had serious side effects.

In my opinion, this is a result of two things: (1) a general distrust in science (e.g. climate change deniers, anti-vaccine movement, flat-earthers); and (2) an enhanced sense of entitlement for an opinion on each and every subject. Obviously these two things are not completely independent, but I think it is interesting to understand how this has come about, and ways to alleviate it. It seems people are unable to critically analyse information, and discern trustworthy sources. I don’t blame them. We can find literally everything on the internet nowadays disguised as reliable information. In a world where everything is true, each person picks their own truth. But you see, science doesn’t really work like that.

what happened to social security?

This reluctance to accept the studies was not a mere opposition to science. There is a very real and practical reason behind it: the economy. You see, all the studies indicated that, in order to curb the spread of the disease and prevent the collapse of health care systems, we needed to reduce gatherings, be more isolated and avoid contact with others. Now, people won’t stay at home because we politely ask them… Governments needed to take action. First thing to close are schools, then shops, then public spaces, and so on. Or at least that was the recommendation. The thing is, some people can move their business to home office, but a big number of people cannot. And with people at home, they don’t buy, they don’t travel, they don’t spend. And that means a lot of business lose income, which means they cannot pay their employees, which results in bankruptcy and unemployment. No government wants to deal with this problem, this is all very familiar, so why would they force business to close and the economy to slow down?

When have our lives become so dependent on an economy running and business working properly? Are we willing to continue this way? I mean, it is quite fragile as we can see now. Peoples’ subsistence depend on them having a job, but not all people have jobs all the time. So what happens when they don’t? That is what a social security system is for. We can compare the social impact of this pandemic in countries with high and low social security to see what a difference this makes. Of course this is hard given all the other factors, but it might be educational in any case. What cannot happen is for decision makers to look away so much because supporting the citizens in a time of need is just not possible (or not a problem they want to handle).

what will happen to us?

A(n optimistic) part of me wants this to be a lesson, that we look at it critically, find our weak points as a society, and fix them for the next emergency (let’s face it, another one is bound to happen sooner or later). The two topics above are simply things that worry me more, but I am sure there are all sorts of other problems that have become really obvious (like international collaborations, access to health care, inequality, to mention a few). A (realistic) part of me is hopeless that this will happen, specially when I see people so eager for things to “get back to normal”. Once again, we fall prey to our urgency and move forward in leaps and bounds (or as we say in Portuguese, aos trancos e barrancos).