Apocalypse; Now

Everything has gone out of the rails, this blog’s schedule wasn’t going to be spared. I’m surviving lockdown well, but all I got done was this lousy reflection.

There’s a large section in Reignition (Tome I) about Apocalypses. It’s a favourite narrative structure of Land’s, and it pops in all imaginable guises in his writing. My personal darling is Bonfire of Vanities, which chronicles how High Modernist methods for forest fire management created a catastrophe, revealing how fragile the whole thing was all along.

The point is highly topical. Covid-19 (what a fucking lousy name, gee) pandemic is slowly revealing how fragile our own version of High Modernist forest fire management is. Everything carefully hidden is being exposed by the flames: the absolute fragility of a world economy in which saving for emergencies is either impossible or ridiculed; the widespread corruption and incompetence of basically all institutions and cultures; the feebleness of medicine despite centuries of accumulated knowledge; the gruesome hard end of politicizing everything. Nobody is coming out of this looking good. For better or worse, the 21st century has begun with a total overhaul.

After two months of endless time for thinking of nothing but the virus, I came to the conclusion that the primary revelation of all this is the absolute lack of fibre of contemporary societies, in at least three flavours: a lack of intellectual fibre; a lack of moral fibre; and underpinning it all, a lack of psychological fibre.

Intellectual fibre since, for all our hyper-specialization, and actually probably because of it, not a single specialist, not one institution, not one sovereign entity, no one really, predicted and prepared for a pandemic. Pandemics aren’t new, they’ve happened over and over and over during human existence, a few times per century no less. Epidemiology isn’t rocket science either. The mechanisms of viral infection and spread are well understood. Why, oh why, did no one see this coming and – what is actually more critical – made preparations for it? Oh, Bill Gates said something about "once in a century epidemics" fiver years ago, sure. Delivering a TED talk about something so historically familiar might feel good. But why hasn’t any of our tech tycoons and other billionaires been able to set at least part of their wealth aside to building impact readiness – they certainly aren’t grinning a lot lately. Elon Musk took to Twitter to complain about lockdowns, instead of making some brash move against it – say, creating virus-free land that could supply the rest of the country with some medical equipment.

Not only that, but when the storm actually hit, nobody in the high echelons of intellectuality (or anywhere below them) has been able to come up with quick adaptations. Sure, there are regulatory constraints, but those can be broken. No risk was taken at any margins, even at a high cost to basically everyone. Mask factories didn’t manufacture masks, much less now-idle factories have been able to burn through some fat to repurpose themselves. A few heroic 3D printers in different universities in the world managed to come up with some ventilator parts (kudos, honestly), but it got nowhere fast. Seriously, why all the passivity?

Part of the answer is the lack of moral fibre. Communities – you, your family, your neighbours, etc. – are now so used to leaving everything to governments that they weren’t able or willing to change habits and check behaviour unless they were explicitly told so by someone with guns. All of that is undoubtedly part of the centralization trend of the last hundred or more years. Heck, most people don’t even know their neighbours to actually organize anything on a local level. Not even religious, traditionalist conservatives did any of that – preferring much more to ignore the situation with one conspiracy or another. Bastions of morality, my ass.

This is a deeper rot than anybody on the right is ready to admit, mostly because it’s not about who you fuck. This is the rot of social fabric, of coordination. And, much to infuriate socialists and trads alike, it has to do mainly with a lack of individualism and decentralization. This is the inability of societies of internalizing costs and benefits. It has tragedy of the commons written all over it.

And it gets more ridiculous because obviously, you and I are both to blame as well. Something in the psyche of all living and adult generations has failed everyone. We grew up and lived as if "business as usual" was always going to be the order of the day, the decade, the century. Supposed "crises" followed each other (2001, 2003, 2008, 2011, 2016) but nothing really ever changed. Maybe some people got poorer on the margin, some violence in far lands, weird-ass wars without victory or defeat; but really, no radical change. Nothing even near the kind of eventful time that we learned about in history books.

In a sense, I imagine all Millenials and Gen Xers were kind of yearning for interesting times. We’ve been promised, as well, that it was right around the corner. People thought it was going to be nano-bot fueled total wars or something in that alley. Turns out it just took a viral infection of low lethality, but asymptomatic transmission, to really rock our world. It’s as ridiculous as it sounds.

There’s a little bit of an inability to deal with death, surely. Covid-19, if we had let it rip and collapse hospital systems around the world, would kill something around 40 million people around the world. Twice as bad as the Spanish Flu, but in a population four times greater than that of 1918. Not puny numbers, but humanity has seen much worse. Damn, we’ve seen much worse. AIDS anyone?

But no, fear of death isn’t really what’s our psychological feebleness is about. We’d face death gladly – if only it wasn’t so inconvenient. Really, dying in a battlefield, or in a city reduced to ashes by an H bomb, who cares? But staying in for six whole months, that’s the genuinely unbearable thing. The nuisance of changing routine, abstaining from a few leisures, watching the news about lots of death all day long. Can’t even go to the beach. What an absurd tyranny! What a mental burden! What boredom!

[A more extended intermission here might be necessary. I live in a poor country by Western standards. Brazil has seen famines time and again. It saw truly horrible diseases. It also has seen widespread violence, official and otherwise. Lockdown brings down the fear of unemployment, and what comes with it: hunger, murder, suicide. None of which are strangers down here. I imagine people are actually afraid of becoming more impoverished, and I don’t really think that is some kind of weakness. Much to the contrary, the flaw lies in the willingness of just lying down and dying. And I’ve seen that kind of attitude all around, much more than the fear of poverty. It definitely tells more about my social surroundings than about those actually facing the choice between going out to work and possibly dying from a virus, or staying in and starving.]

This is a truly comically, tragic situation. That we’ve been struck so hard, with our guards so low. It’s made worse because, unlike China or East Asia, we had a lot of warning. We knew, and instead of mobilizing and preparing, we rolled over and laughed.

So, I’ve talked about lack of fibre, but I really don’t think it’s a lack of stiffness that is being revealed right now. Irony is the law of the universe, and I think lack of fibre is precisely the opposite. It’s a lack of adaptability. This is the continuous theme running through my rant above. And adaptability is born of decentralization and experimentation. The main problem is that "We’re All Living In Amerika!" – and America is now just a ghost of its former self. It wasn’t made any greater.

Taiwan is the first clue that doing things independently of what international (read, American-guided) organs said was a great way to go. There are many details to the story, but when WHO was still saying that there was "no evidence" of human-to-human transmission, Taiwan had already reported it. WHO said travel bans don’t work, Taiwan closed its borders early on. WHO said keep masks for medical staff, Taiwan encouraged the already widespread use of face masks. Taiwan hasn’t seen any tragedy. WHO is a tragedy in and of itself.

Unsure the model would’ve worked anywhere else. But more experimentation on alternative pathways would undoubtedly allow for more learning. Right now, we have two groups of countries. Asian countries have their problem more or less under control but are increasingly paranoid about how to keep it that way. Everyone else is in partial lockdown, without much idea of what to do next. Having at least two or three more pathways would help a lot. Maybe fuck it all, quarantine forever, automate the delivery and go full digital economy? Is meeting people really all that important. Maybe let it rip, welcome death and reach herd immunity first? Wasn’t over-population a worry? Maybe variolation?

I’m a fatalist, so I’m not really hoping for anything. My prediction is that most everyone is going out of lockdown, one way or another, by the end of May. Herd immunity ensues. Mitigation was mostly a large scale failure. The virus will probably go endemic, and resurface every year, even with vaccination. Getting the flu will become a more significant problem. Possibly some treatment comes online later this year.

Whatever goes on, we need to work on our addiction to never deviating routines. More fibre means more flexibility.