Corona as VaccineMarch 27, 2020
I interviewed Professor Jonathan Haidt yesterday on the Prof G podcast. Professor Haidt, as he does, made several interesting points on the state of play concerning what is going on with … us.
Bees, wasps, ants, the naked mole rat, and humans are thriving superspecies because of a remarkable attribute: cooperation. This superpower is never more evident than when under attack from a physical enemy. As Russell Crowe proclaimed in Gladiator, “Whatever comes out of these gates, we’ve got a better chance of survival if we work together. If we stay together, we survive.” Reagan also said our differences would disappear if aliens invaded.
So, cooperation in the face of a sentient enemy brings out the best in us — the good news. The bad news: a bigger threat can augur poorly. More people have died from pathogens than war and violence. As a result, disgust (what makes us want to puke) is an effective adaptive system for disease avoidance behavior. So if Spock were president, the budget for the CDC would be $727 billion (National Defense Budget) vs. $7.3 billion. However, fighting pathogens makes for boring half-time flyovers (vs. F-15s) and dull uniforms (think hazmat). Granted, Contagion was a decent film. However, I speculate the payoff for most of us was seeing Gwyneth Paltrow’s character die.
When confronted with a pathogen, vs. an Ork, we see the person next to us as a threat and not an ally. This leads to division and racism, as evidenced by the president calling corona “the Chinese virus” and the Chinese spinning rumors that the US Army started the virus. This, coupled with a political system and social media algos that garner votes and earnings via division, and our superspecies turns feral. Governors competing with each other for ventilators, because the government refuses to federalize the supply chain — chaos. Our lizard brain takes over. The Glock my college roommate just bought won’t help much. Fairly certain single-strand-RNA viruses are not intimidated by handguns.
Jon Haidt mentioned that the “demo” in “democracy” means people, and people, in isolation, make shitty short-term decisions — I want lower taxes and more payments transferred to (wait for it) me. A liberal democracy is meant to inject institutions that slow our thinking and look ahead. The stimulus package is an example of our institutions working. It would appear that threats to our economy inspire our collective humanity, but threats to our health inspire division. In sum, your Benjamins are safer than his descendants.
The Platinum Lining
Each year, a million people don’t die because of the measles vaccine. Vaccines are first-ballot Hall of Fame for things we’ve done right. It sounds obvious in hindsight, but take pause and wonder at the crazy genius notion that to prepare for an enemy, we introduce a small amount.
Could corona be the vaccine for our age?
If/when this pandemic ends, might we emerge with a stronger immune system: the ability to ramp hospital beds and ventilators, enhanced systems for learning and cooperation, and a generation that places more importance on cooperation, and less on borders, political ideology, or number of Instagram followers?
The millennial generation is accused of being expectant, and Gen Z is prone to depression due to a mix of social media and helicopter parenting. Might this move a generation from fragile to antifragile (robust)? Our music preference and worldview are imprinted between the ages of 13-19. Will a product of this crisis be a generation of leaders that, post-crisis, embrace innovation (vaccines, supply chain agility), empathy, and cooperation that better prepare us for the many challenges our growing world will face?
Will we learn and adapt? We have an opportunity to take something that kills .1% of us and have it make 99.9% of us stronger. Don’t waste it. A virus that kills millions, but serves as a wake-up call for billions? Is COVID-19 a vaccine?
Many of us are distilling the meaningful (economic security, political ideology, global competition) down to the profound — the well-being of people we love. I’d like to think the strongest, most fortunate among us are transitioning from our heels to our toes to ensure our legacy as parents, bosses, and citizens was to reduce the suffering of people we never met.
The Line Between Joy and Terror
Sheltering in place has made me more empathetic for the sick, people caring for the sick, and medical professionals on the front line of this battle. After 11 days 24/7 with my kids, I also have more empathy for mothers who drive their kids, and themselves, into a lake in a minivan. It’s always a minivan.
I have it relatively easy, and have convinced my family that I must stay focused on work as the world needs more cooperation, ventilators, and … podcasts. There are board games and ultimate frisbee during the day. But the official changing of the guard is the hour pre-bedtime, when my sons’ mother sneaks out and shelters in (any other) place with a bottle of rosé.
While Mom was socially distancing from us last night, my oldest screamed “Roach!” and both my boys (no joke) jumped up on the table. Where did they even learn to do that, a cartoon? We’re staying at a friends’ house. I found a leaf blower in the garage earlier this week. Each day, I strap the glorious hunk of machine on my back, gas it up, and it’s time to spread a little Scott around the backyard. I tour the property and bluster anything in my way. I’m a one-man tempest. The rival dads in the neighborhood must be impressed.
As I have a new sense of my own macho, I grabbed a shoe and turned the waterbug into juice with antennae. I then pretended to scoop it up and ran toward my kids with my hand extended as if pursuing them with a machete. The chase was on.
After several laps around the dining table they found sanctuary outside and attempted to barricade the door with outdoor furniture. I retreated to the kitchen, turned out the lights, exited through the garage, snuck up behind them, and screamed, with the hand of roach juice extended, “Roach MAN!” My oldest screamed, ran, and erupted in laughter. The kind of laughter every parent wants to remember in their last moments on earth. Nothing else, no other thought, just this singular sound that requires no interpretation.
My youngest, in contrast, screamed, collapsed, and began sobbing. It appears the line between joy and terror is around 11 years old. Youngest and oldest sons, terror and joy respectively. These conflicting emotions put me very much in the moment.
My youngest retreats to his room. I run after him. He’s in bed under the covers crying: “I told you not to do that.” He didn’t, but that’s besides the point. It’s a weird feeling, being “Scary” Dad. In that moment, you’ve failed. Your only real job is to protect, vs. threaten, your offspring. The solace is your mistake is fixable. After consoling him, we reattach to our father-son dynamic: pajamas, brushing teeth, reading, and adjusting his back. We’re good again.
Caregivers live longer, and are happier, than anyone. I had kids late in life and never really comforted anybody until I was in my late thirties, when my mom was dying. And now with kids. The species chooses prosperity, and its foundation is people irrationally passionate about the well-being of someone else.
The rewards of comforting others are primitive, and immense. For a moment, it all (specifically your role here) makes sense. Our healthcare workers are exposing themselves to substantial stress and risk. I’d imagine it’s also very rewarding as, simply put, they matter, a great deal.
Most of us are in a position to offer relief, help to another. To not comfort someone is to deny yourself something wonderful — connection and meaning. This is a stressful time. Put yourself in the moment and comfort someone. You deserve it.
This pic was taken in Morristown, NJ, this week:
Life is so rich,
P.S. Hear my whole conversation with Jonathan Haidt on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts.
For three years now, there has been a constant drumbeat from Trump and his minions that China is not to be trusted. Now, they are saying that China lied about Covid-19, and this presumably affected their response. So, let’s get this straight. For three plus years, the Trump Administration did not believe anything from the Chinese. But from the period December through February, they inexplicably did, and now they found out it’s a lie?
I see parenting books in your future…. or, at the very least, chicklit porn because single women everywhere want to marry a guy who turns out to be a great dad like you. Cheers!
West Nile, Spanish Flu, Ebola…all named for geographic areas. But Wuhan Virus is racist…got it. You’re too smart to fall for this Scott. Four new viruses have come out of Chinese wet markets in the last 20 years and the Chinese govt has promoted and encouraged their existence during this time. This virus didn’t just appear…it came from decisions made by the Chinese govt to prioritize their economy over the safety of their people and the rest of the world. Even now, in middle of the pandemic, the Chinese govt is promoting “bear bile” as a natural treatment of Corona virus. They deserve blame for this, and should be shamed into banning all wildlife trade, and all wet markets in the future. Otherwise we’ll have a new Coronavirus every 5 years. You correctly criticise western leaders for their response…how about criticising the cause as well?
Counter point: who gives a shit what we call it right now or who we blame for its outbreak? This virus is in our communities and it’s wreaking havok. Meanwhile, our president is more focused on being right, cutting deals, and blaming foreign leaders than procuring ventilators. There’s plenty of room for jingoistic finger pointing afterwards. Funny story about Spanish flu, there’s no proof it originated in Spain, it’s just where newspapers reported the most details about the epidemic.
1. I think they did make some mistake at the beginning of this virus spread, but not because they intend to do so, it’s due to the fact it’s a NEW virus, no one knows anything about it. But when they figure out the DNA sequence they immediately share it with the whole world. The problem is western politicians don’t pay attention to the severity of the virus, all they want is to be elected, they don’t care about your health at all. 2. You can’t blame the Chinese want to have a better life and prioritize the economy, because western countries are all having a good life already. You have already polluted the air and enjoying the life you have now. 3. We could read English and could visit all the websites (even this blog) around the world, but you guys could ONLY read English, you just don’t get some real news from China. Think about this, you guys are the ones with less information and be biased about the world.
Ebola was named after a river to avoid tarnishing a city’s name (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ebola_River). I’m guessing West Nile was similar. Meanwhile the Spanish Flu probably started in the US or France (oops) and N1H1, SARS, and HIV were not named after geography at all. If you want it to be called the Wuhan Virus you need to think of a better reason than (non-existent) precedent.
The last picture is so heart warming.
Bravo: “I’d like to think the strongest, most fortunate among us are transitioning from our heels to our toes to ensure our legacy as parents, bosses, and citizens was to reduce the suffering of people we never met.”
well written champ; quite touching
Been a big fan for a long time now and have to say, this is one of the most heart warming posts yet. Thank you Scott and you sound like a very loving papa. I’m a dad too and my babies are all grown up. Your story about the kids made me smile and actually shed a few tears remembering my days when they were younger. This crisis can have an amazing effect after all the destruction like so many other forces/events in nature. We are all one and i hope in my lifetime i will be able to see caring for each other and enlightenment valued more than ones assets and possessions. Peace
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Loved your minivan empathy! We’re only at 24hrs and can see how that could develop.
Thanks for sharing personal stuff Scott. Always a pleasure to read your NL, even more when emotions in it. Yes life is so rich.
The ability to make me laugh and ponder all at the same time is rare, but you have it. Keep on keeping on.
Well done, thorough, interesting, but . . . Orc, not Ork.
I cant tell you how weird it is that i know this, or that of all the things that folks have posted on this blog. But I choose this to be my first post on this blog. But ill defend the spelling… “Orc” refers to the fantasy based humanoid creature. In the works of JRR Tolkien, High Fantasy, or even Dungeons & Dragons Orc is a race that are terrestrial and not able to perform space travel. Although threatening/menacing not a likely space invader. “Orks” – in the Warhammer 40K universe are interstellar “orks”. I doubt that Prof G. knew the difference, but good on him for picking the correct “Ork” spelling to go along with his analogy in the previous segment.
Crying. So so good. Just what we need right now. Bravo.
Professor, while much of your letter describes potential growth from this crisis, you say, “Might this move a generation from fragile to antifragile (robust)?” In fact, antifragile is not equivalent robust. Nicholas Taleb, who coined the term, created precisely to go beyond robustness. Robust — resistant to disorder. Antifragile — grows/improves with disorder. I suggest becoming deeply acquainted with his work in the black swan and antifragile as I believe it could add much depth to certain of your analyses.
Great post YEAH —also happening is that monoclonal antibodies (Pharma) are going to be proven less effective and this will start the process of thinking of natural occurring polyclonal antibodies as being more efficacious another really positive outcome of COV-2 —thanks for all that you do. OnWard and UpWard AZ
More thoughts on the Carnival Cruise recommendation? Maybe a tad early? No Malice.
Your “Life is so rich” sign was never more appropriate than in this post – awesome stuff. Can you share how/when you decided to start using it? Cheers, Pat
You forgot about the largest cause of death of the 20th century: Communism/Socialism
Socialism is working great for big companies in USA. A 2 trillion bailout.
Ah yes, that fine line between fun dad and scary dad…poorly defined ex ante, clearly defined ex post, when it’s too late. And always a moving target: different with different kids, different with the same kid at different times. Reaching out and extending comfort, even if awkward at times, reaffirms our humanity. Thanks for the reminder. On a completely different topic, some of us are not podcast-centric. Is there any chance you could transcribe and post your podcasts? Even if done with AI and all its attendant inaccuracies, having the words in writing will allow access for a larger audience. Thanks for considering.
Thanks for that lovely post. It made my day.
Ok what do you have against Gwenyth Paltrow…
Tribe by Sebastian Junger articulates the craving for solidarity perfectly. Happiness levels increase during times of collective cause/tragedy.
This essay is fantastic. (And I used to live in Morristown…)
There’s definitely a silver/platinum lining to this all.
I love your podcast and blog. Should the WHO’s international naming convention of where the virus was isolated be changed because it offends the Communist party?
The WHO Is in China’s pocket. They refused to call pandemic for weeks, and declared there was no evidence of human to human transmission. Is it a weird that Tedros Adhanom (Director of WHO) tried to appoint Mugabe to WHO. The last 2 viruses were from China, and we totally forgot that all of them were from china, SARS, H1N1. Yet Ebola is named after the Ebola River in Zaire. Name is everything, it’s how we identify each other and who we are. WHO renaming, and forcing the the world is downright bad.
@Quoc Let’s break that down, when you throw in a bunch of allegations like that it looks like a conspiracy theory. The WHO All UN high level posts are political appointees, and follow the UN Regions so the best guy/gal doesn’t necessarily get the job. This time it was African Group who selected a man known for his health care programs in Ethiopia. WHO is run by the executive assembly and the WHO Member states assembly, not by one man. The DG of the WHO wanted to appoint Mugabe as a goodwill ambassador, in an effort to engage with all leaders not just the ones we like, it wasn’t a well received idea so he rescinded his decision. Pandemic Calling a pandemic is not an easy decision to make (not done by the DG of the WHO) and and to do so before real data is available could have serious repercussions. These guys aren’t chicken little. The WHO declared this novel virus a ‘Public Health Emergency’ on 20th of January. That made a lot of people sit up and take notice. On the 12th of March when the number of cases in Europe was rising rapidly, the WHO characterised COVID-19 as a pandemic. (http://www.euro.who.int/en/health-topics/health-emergencies/coronavirus-covid-19/news/news/2020/3/who-announces-covid-19-outbreak-a-pandemic) China misinformation China had setup a well designed reporting structure to identify and act on contagions after SARS but ti failed because of human failings inside the Communist Party in Wuhan. (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/29/world/asia/coronavirus-china.html) Under reported cases. Two lines of thought. Under report because it makes us look good -or- doctors were so busy during the crisis that people who died at home without diagnosis did not get added to the COVID statistics. I think both could be likely.