Wednesday, May 06, 2020

Imaginary Futures

If ever we have to live through one of these situations again, we should look to improve the balance between speculation and observation. 

Forecasting is of course valuable, in both epidemiology and economics, but we have become so fixated on the stuff that may or may not be happening (herd immunity, second wave etc.) that our ability to note what is happening appears to have been impaired. 

Put simply, we are all so keen to be right about the future that we are neglecting our responsibility to note what's going on right under our noses. 

In the case of Donald Trump, this has become official government policy. 

But in the US the problem goes deeper than the shit-show they call Federal Government. Speculation about a possible second wave in the Autumn has apparently blinded America to the fact that a second wave is possibly already under way — or at least that in modern nations structured a bit like the empires of old (Russia, Mexico and yes, the US of A), the first wave was never going to be experienced as a single event*. 

Official thinking and communications has rolled the epidemic in and around New York into the national narrative, but the outbreaks on the coasts — broadly speaking seeded separately by China and Europe and potentially featuring different strains of SARS-Cov-2 — should have been discounted in part from at least some of the analyses and forecasts, as they more properly belong to a macro view of the pandemic, and the fate of the nation as a whole would always depend on what subsequently happens in 'flyover' territory. **

So, here comes the Midwest...

The silver lining might be that, according to Trump's guidelines for re-opening after lockdown, the great state of Arkansas may soon be rejoining the global economy. 

Trump's advisors have clearly insisted that he transition the federal narrative from one of deadly plague (abject failure or let's all blame China) to economic rebirth (an American success story). 

Standing down the Coronavirus Task Force with its steady drip of unpleasant news and underachieved goals was the first step, but a backlash has already forced a rethink, or at least a new barrage of dishonesty.

* I’m grateful to Professor Niall Ferguson for the memorable observation (way back at the start of April) that empires tend to fare worse than city states during epidemics, perhaps a slightly counter-intuitive lesson from global history given the population densities involved. 

He singled out 'weak borders' as a problem that many empires face, and notes how modern city states like Singapore and Hong Kong remain better at excluding pathogens. 

I would also tend to add that disease has a more complex geographical dynamic built upon an interplay between human concentration and human mobility and that this tends to be why emperors always find themselves fighting more than one fire at any one time. 

I have a working hypothesis that covid-19 has failed to go exponential in Guatemala as much for its geographical peculiarities as for the policy decisions taken by its government. In effect Guatemala could be rather fancifully characterised as a city state with an extensive hinterland. 

** The present tapering off of the crisis in NYC has allowed the US President to declare a ‘past the peak’ status for the whole country, which is premature at best. 

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