I saw myself on the beach in some idyllic location in the tropics, 2020 started off a new decade full of promise and opportunity.
It was a normal Wednesday night on 29 January, comfortably at home, family chatting about the day, and what was coming up. My son had been asking and was concerned about a virus he had heard about in China. We discussed that this was very far away and nothing to be worried about as it would not affect us.
I mentioned to him that I won’t see him in the morning as I was going on a business trip to Cape Town. Then he was even more worried as he had heard that virus had now surfaced at a hospital in Cape Town. Once again I assured him and explained this was not true, which it wasn’t. I said that there was nothing to worry about as these things are well controlled an not at all a problem for us.
It was a Problem
Two and a half months later and I haven’t left the house in 2 weeks, we are in our third week of lockdown with another 2 to come. We are living through a historic period that many of us still don’t fully understand and have no idea of how to get out.
Thinking back to that discussion with my son just a few months ago I realised how his view of the world differed from mine. He didn’t have the life lens that I was wearing. So he was able to see that this virus could be a problem. He is growing up in a fully connected world where you can buy anything from anywhere, shipped to you overnight, you can hop on a plane to anywhere to visit, live or work. Of course, I too know all these things but somehow I still have a more insular less connected view of the world. Well, his concern all those months ago could not have been more accurate. The interconnectedness of the world has allowed the virus to spread at an exponential pace.
We Are Interconnected
The effects of globalisation have slowly but surely been making their presence felt in both good and bad. There have been many benefits like accessing new markets to expand businesses, being able to order items from all over the world, travel to amazing destinations, access to new goods and services and benefits of foreign investment.
On the downside the increased business and travel lead to changing trade landscapes and international supply chains developing. Where suddenly you or your neighbour can lose their job because someone in a far-flung country can get it done faster at lower cost.
Global terrorism and the horrific events of 9-11 changed the world. An individual from a country and continent thousands of miles away across an ocean had the power to crash through your 93rd-floor office in the World Trade Centre in Manhattan. Affecting the lives of ordinary people minding their own business. The migrant crisis in Europe was another example of how people in their thousands on another continent in a faraway country would risk their lives to escape desperate conditions and simply arrive on your doorstep.
So, it should really come as no surprise that a novel and deadly virus that transitions from an animal to one human can spread to affect the whole world in a few months.
We are feeling the effects and speed of digital communication and access to information. Like the previous industrial revolutions of mechanisation, mass production, and electrification, the world has changed forever. Our problems become more common as we get more connected and we need to work together as countries and the world to solve them.
Actually We Did See it Coming
The occurrence of a pandemic like this was inevitable and has in fact been predicted as far as 9 years ago. The most recent and most popular warning came from Bill Gates in his March 2015 article in The New England Journal of medicine titled The Next Epidemic — Lessons from Ebola.
In the article he writes “There is a significant chance that an epidemic of a substantially more infectious disease will occur sometime in the next 20 years” and goes on to close by writing, “An epidemic is one of the few catastrophes that could set the world back drastically in the next few decades” He details how countries and the world need to learn from past virus outbreaks and have war like preparation in order to deal with a more deadly and infectious virus. He also went on to give a TED Talk on this topic titled The Next Outbreak – we’re not ready.
There were even earlier warnings and predictions as explained by Dr. Mark Smolinski who was the consultant on the script for the movie “Contagion” in 2011. So the concept of a pandemic like COVID-19 is not news to many epidemiologists like Dr Smolinski, president of the Ending Pandemics organisation and his colleagues.
The Denialists and the Confused
If we knew this all the way back then why did no one listen? Well, that’s a good question. If you look around and see those who are still in denial with excuses that it is no worse than the common flu and those saying it is caused by 5G, it’s not surprising that we didn’t pay attention.
Originating out of China with unclear information at first and a healthy dose of miss trust didn’t help either. The most worrying was the dismissive comments from a world leader like President Trump. This New York Times article captures the essence, “The president, though, was slow to absorb the scale of the risk and to act accordingly, focusing instead on controlling the message, protecting gains in the economy and batting away warnings from senior officials.”
On January 22, Trump received his first public question from a reporter regarding whether he was concerned about the coronavirus. Trump responded: “No, not at all. And we have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China…It’s going to be just fine.” “The U.S. was beset by denial and dysfunction as the coronavirus raged”, reported the washingtonpost.com on April 4, 2020. This video of Trump down playing the virus 33 times is alarming and symptomatic of what many uninformed were thinking.
So between the predictors and the denialists is where the most of us were. Somewhere in between trying to understand the scale of this problem and stay calm. The timeline of how this has unfolded shows how we got to where we have in a very short space of time. Making it very difficult for most of us to keep up with all the information and deal with this drastic set of changes.
Leave your comments and share how you experienced this time, did you see it coming?