You only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out. Well, the tide went out. Most of our civilization was swimming naked. No wonder we are depressed.
Lots of us are depressed these days. Our mental health is challenged during COVID-19. I feel it, too. So, I thought I would try to get to the bottom of what drives my anxiety, and perhaps some of yours, too.
Our pandemic and lock-down provides many drivers for personal unease. Worry or fear of the disease, for ourselves and loved ones. Limitations on our normal activities. Continuous, in your face political rhetoric and news coverage. And the largely unknown path back to some sort of normality, economic and otherwise. Some or all of these things are hard to ignore. We find it difficult to put on a happy face.
But for me, I keep thinking of the title of Michael Moore’s latest movie, Planet of the Humans. COVID-19 has unveiled the true state of our human race and civilization.
Recently, journalist Thomas Friedman drew my attention to something Warren Buffet said in his February 2002 newsletter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders. Speaking about exposure faced during a catastrophe, Buffet said: “After all, you only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out.” That’s what I am seeing these days at the leadership level of our civilizations – lots of folks swimming naked in a sea of confusion.
Why are we swimming naked? Because we failed to prepare for the risks of an entirely predictable global pandemic. COVID-19 is not a black swan event. One of the characteristics of Taleb’s black swan theory is that the probability of occurrence is unknown. But after the fact, we explain in hindsight as if it were actually predictable. I disagree completely. A global pandemic of this nature was truly predictable with a non-trivial probability. We just chose to ignore it.
Swimming Naked a Perfect Storm
A perfect storm is an event in which a rare combination of circumstances drastically aggravates the event. So, what are these circumstances? First, while over the past century we have experienced many global virus threats, including the seminal Spanish Flu in 1918, we did not take them seriously. Most countries have done pandemic planning as a theoretical exercise only. Everyone was overconfident. (Some Asian countries were better prepared following their 2003 SARS scare.)
Second, when COVID-19 broke out, we turned down the alarms. Sort of like an airline pilot muting the Master Caution and hoping the problem solves itself. Taiwan knew the Chinese Communist Government would initially deny and cover up any serious problems, and acted quickly to save itself. Our western intelligence agencies knew this too, but unfortunately neither this Whitehouse nor 10 Downing Street has embraced intelligence.
Third, when we did slowly react, we stared myopically towards China while the virus raced to penetrate civilizations across Europe and the Atlantic. Everyone knew that we live in an age of fast, global transportation but did not connect the dots. Our failure of imagination was worse than in 9/11.
Fourth, our public health community is narrowly focused on public health not public good. It has never been full of strong communicators, Fauci excepted. Most political leaders never took the time (or were not able) to understand the deep theory contained in epidemiology, and acted on the surface. Sweden perhaps the exception.
Our result was a perfect storm of weak institutions and understandings that have left the Planet of the Humans in a real mess. So, as the tides rise again, will our civilization put on some bathing suits? Time will tell. Humans are resilient. I have hope.