I saw the future and it did not kill me. I could imagine the imaginable because it’s the only option. And because it’s easy if you try.
Last night I got a curious 3 AM call. As these 3 AM calls go, a lot of what transpired is hazy, but I do remember the voice on the other side of the line was…myself!! And that Avatar sounded coherent when he said these words – “Reports of my death are highly exaggerated”. That left me even more confused as to why the future me would have to call ahead to let me know I would not die after all.
In context, however, it makes all the sense in the world.
My social media feeds for the last few days are full of unthinkable, and ridiculous. There was a mock picture of kids bound, and gagged, lying on the floor while their mom works on some spreadsheet. There are a million pictures of empty shelves at your nearest grocery store. Social distancing gave rise to a new proverb – “Divided we stand, united we fall”. Shelter in place orders are in force in multiple counties, schools are closed, sporting events are canceled till further notice, near-riots are reported at big box stores while restaurants are forced to serve only take-outs, and, bars/theaters/shows have downed shutters. Countries have closed borders, including, in effect, US. Even the Treasury Secretary is quoted saying today that “it is worse than 9/11”. In his daily Press Briefings, a visibly somber President Trump lets his experts take the podium even when he, still, gives himself a perfect score on how the Feds handled the crisis.
The biggest lesson out of the many dislocations of society, trade, and commerce – pretty much every single thing we do – is that how unprepared we were even when technologically, and economically, the US is at the most fortunate position it has ever been. In a thought-provoking piece in The Atlantic, Anne Applebaum observes that the Coronavirus called America’s bluff. Applebaum attributes a month-long delay in ramping up testing in the US, thereby spreading the virus potentially to tens of thousands, if not millions, to two things. “The problem is that American bureaucracies, and the antiquated, hidebound, unloved federal government of which they are part, are no longer up to the job of coping with the kinds of challenges that face us in the 21st century”, she writes, giving many examples of an ossified monolith. The second problem is contemporary but as fatal – sycophancy, or more bluntly, a cult of the individual at the very top. “Within a loyalty cult, no one will tell the president that starting widespread emergency testing would be prudent, because anyone who does is at risk of losing the president’s favor, even of being fired. Not that it matters,
because Trump has very few truth-tellers around him anymore.” Fear of offending the President, or his minions, have led those left behind to hesitate in their push for more aggressive testing when it all started. A demand for instinctive obeisance at the top has surely stunted our response.
Till death makes us learn.
It seems that we are slowly picking up our pencils. There seems to be a refreshing urge to announce corrective measures for a hollowed-out economy, by all governments! I applaud these temporary assistance efforts – be they a one-time grant to every household or a one-time loan availability to every small business. Contrary to my premonitions, people are willingly subjecting themselves to diktats of social distancing, lockdown even – violators, few as they are, are getting slammed, shamed, and prosecuted up and down the county lines. After initial bouts of panic buying, big box stores have developed a combination of better supply chain and temporary rationing so that it is possible to go out and buy a box of tissue paper when you want to. Entertainment-hospitality-dining triumvirate is still sinking fast, and no quick elixir can bring them back till the bigger picture stabilizes. Even the perennially quibbling US Congress passed relief bills aimed at massaging after-shocks of the deadly outbreak.
“You can always count on Americans to do the right thing after they’ve tried everything else”, said Winston Churchill at the onset of World War 2. In the days ahead the Spirit of the World War may not be too much to ask. A call to arms, a sense of civic duty, a sense of paying heed to the call of the nation before self, a penny for what you can do for your country, and not the other way around.
And, above all, a confidence that this too shall pass. Imagine the Greatest Generation leaping in the line of fire from dreaded, and battle-hardened, SS stormtroopers. Imagine fighters and bombers laden with barely teen gunslingers exposed to the weather and protected from incoming bullets by barely a sheet of metal, and, the event of mechanical failure by nothing more than a prayer over their wings. Imagine Generals and Admirals weighing chances of success with costs in terms of life and materiel. Imagine consequences, imagine costs and limits, imagine trade-offs, imagine learning to separate the staples from the discretionary. Imagine there’s no defeat.
When you imagine the very imaginable, you will get a 3 AM call just as I did. The future self will thank you for putting up a brave face, for not losing your marbles, for being careful, for keeping calm.
Imagine. Because It’s easy if you try. And because it’s the only option you have.
[Partha Chakraborty, Ph.D., CFA is an entrepreneur in Water technologies, Blockchain and Wealth Management in US and India. All opinions are of the Author alone, and do not necessarily represent that of any organization he may be part of. The author alone is responsible for any error or omission]