Someday a future Monty Python comedy troupe will reprise the plague scene from the Holy Grail in which a character pushes a cart through a street shouting “Bring out your dead!” only to discover one who isn’t dead yet.
What will be funny about our era? Perhaps it will have something to do with overreacting to the situation by reordering society, as some have suggested. Those suggestions include, but are not limited to, ending tradeshows, scrapping office cubicles, installing industrial strength HVAC systems to sterilize office air, and imposing untold additional torture on those who still agree to sit in airline seats. I am not so sure.
Humans have a habit of straight-line thinking, which is the tendency to think that one thing follows another like a military drill or an assembly line. Nothing could be further from the truth.
We project straight-line thinking because when we look back all we see are straight lines. Our parents produced us, their parents produced them, and on and on. It’s a straight line, right?
Twists and Turns
Such thinking omits any consideration of dating and what a difficult and uncertain thing the mating dance is. Not long ago I discovered that my wife’s grandmother turned down a marriage proposal from a major movie actor back in the day. If she’d said yes, the family genealogy would still look like a straight line, but it would be completely different.
The point is that every life event is a decision point, and if you wanted to you could put a probability on each one, but you might not know the outcome for years. We don’t do that except in forecasting hurricanes.
Consider what a hurricane forecast map looks like. It’s a succession of probability cones, each widening over time until it is replaced by more current data. Early in the cone we’re really certain where the storm will be, but that confidence declines rapidly with time and the cone widens to make that point.
In our social lives, especially the communal one, it’s impossible to get away from economics. In addition to straight-line thinking, we humans like to go for the less expensive option, expecting that it will be just as good as the higher-priced one, and sometimes it is.
Think of cloud computing, though. It was not good for a long time — or it certainly was not ready for prime time outside of a small application area. Yet it persisted because it was less expensive, and it created a commoditization imperative in all of IT. Today it dominates.
So, what should we take away from our coronavirus experience so far? First, vaccinations are far less expensive to the society as a whole than reordering it by closing shopping malls, fast food franchises, and lots of other stuff. Therefore, a first order, root cause approach to public health in a time of viruses, is to look there.
Case in point: The NIH and CDC have mandates to find viruses each year, particularly variants of the flu virus, and to develop vaccines against the ones most probabilistically destined to cause flu outbreaks the next year. A perfect system? Far from it.
Sometimes the selection of viruses that go into the vaccine is off. Also, you can’t make people get a flu shot. Still, a vaccination program inoculates enough people to make it hard for the virus to spread, thus providing partial societal immunity. It’s enough to turn something that could be much more deadly into something that is manageable.
We might be entering a situation where we need an annual coronavirus shot too, but it’s not clear yet. The U.S. government had people and programs in place to scout for possible pandemic viruses, but that effort was dismissed. It was widely reported in the news.
The University of Texas medical center also had a researcher developing a vaccine for — wait for it — coronavirus back in 2016. That research was curtailed because the researchers couldn’t raise US$3 million for clinical trials.
There’s no telling if the virus involved in that vaccine work and the virus of current interest were the same, or even close enough to offer cross-reactive immunity. However, the situation points out the disjointed and uncoordinated effort we see in vaccine development today. We could do better for cheap, and it wouldn’t involve the economic disruption of closing things.
So, what’s the probable scenario for the world post-corona? It’s hard to say, but if probabilities are applied properly, we won’t see the large-scale demolition of shopping malls unless it’s due to increased shopping online. More likely we’ll reach a saddle point with both coexisting.
The same is true of offices. Don’t expect to work from home every day unless you work for yourself, as I do. People are more productive working together in teams. That’s not only true of offices — it is one of the logical reasons that cities exist.
Forget about going back to nature. There are 7.5 billion of us on the planet, and if we all did that we’d starve.
The most likely and cost-effective approach will be to leave our societal structures and habits alone, and to invent programs that develop vaccines routinely. A routine shot might never be mandatory, but as with the polio vaccine craze of my childhood, you’d be crazy not to get it.