Time to think how to open up the economy and deal with missing links.
“No banner hung from the central balcony of St Peter’s Basilica. No bands played the Vatican anthem. No floral arrangements decorated St Peter’s Square. Nearby streets were empty and silent”- thus began a story in The Vatican News on Pope’s Easter message. “Inside the Basilica, surrounded only by his closest collaborators” Pope Francis sounded awfully somber and subdued. As Tornadoes lashed into Southern United States, many pastors scrambled to organize online or drive-thru capabilities, while some others chose to ignore dire warnings to risk lives of their wards. A few days earlier, Haggadha was recited on iPads to guide Seder meals during Passover. It was “clunky and emotional”, as some described their experience.
Messages of resurrection and escape from tyranny thread a shared quilt of emotions no matter what you choose to believe in (or not) this weekend. But that “Contagion of Hope”, as the Pope put it, will be nothing but an audacity, arrogance even, if it is not synchronized with a plan of action. As the country assesses the damage caused so far by COVID-19, a common understanding is emerging that the lockdown cannot last forever – it cannot even last till we develop a vaccine expected no sooner than the 1st quarter of 2021.
We need a Marshall Plan.
First, we need to take a good stock of where we are geographically, demographically and medically. As of the writing of this article, New York, San Francisco and the state of Washington seem to have scaled the peak, Los Angeles is waiting anxiously for the deluge to come, as are Detroit, New Orleans, Massachusetts, and Atlanta. Florida is some way off; rural counties will possibly never see a surge as in the bigger cities. Nation-wide, social distancing was much more effective than anticipated, despite many egregious instances of indiscretion, modeled outcomes are proving much more dire than reality. Blacks are impacted three to four times as much as the overall population, vindicating one more time a serious racial inequity we still have in healthcare. Women are faring better, younger generations are doing better than older, though it is no longer true that they are invincible. Even with 2.6 million tests performed, US is woefully short of tests, though the shortage of masks and PPE’s somewhat alleviated recently. There is a very good chance an antibody test will arrive in large numbers very shortly. Overall, we are at a much better place than we were a week back.
Second, we need to come up with a tiered, gradual, plan of return to action, graded upon a number of metrics. For example, it is very likely the State of Washington, having a good handle on the situation, will return to work much earlier than the State of Georgia, which is still weeks away from its peak. In any geography, people with antibodies should be allowed to return first, as they have very little chance of relapse. Dr. Anthony Fauci floated the idea of an “Immunity Card” for each individual, and I find that very likely. People who have no underlying conditions, and in general good health, might be allowed to return sooner, ditto women, and younger adults. In summary, there may not be a single “Opening Day” for the entire country, we can delegate the decision down to the county level where decision-makers are more likely to live through consequences; Federal guidelines need highly a matrix approach as guard-rails.
Third, normalcy does not necessarily mean “status quo ante”. Work from home made it obvious that much of the pompadour around “Office Life” is fluff and out of date. Faster Internet connections and plethora of apps made it possible for us to coordinate, plan and execute much of traditional white-collar office jobs. Even children got used to online learning, though it is certainly not the same for them. Most restaurants are operating their kitchen round the clock with higher margins as they count the same number of tickets with fewer staff for take-out only. Storefronts were ceding grounds to Amazon and their ilk, some have rebounded with better online presence. Not everything is good and dandy; tourism, air-travel, entertainment and sports have definitely been losers in the bargain, among others. On the positive side, reduced traffic and reduced activity level caused a marked improvement in nature’s small blessings around us – New Delhi air is cleaner than anybody can remember, Los Angeles looks almost bucolic from certain angles and so on. We do not have to return to the pretenses of busywork as we were so good at doing – a lot of which can be surrendered to a better quality of life without losing productivity.
Fourth, it is time to plan for the next pandemic. Quibbling about who to blame aside, writing was always on the wall that next existential threat was to come from pandemics, and it did. While prognosticators, including Bill Gates, were shouting over the bullhorn, we, as a society, chose to not pay attention. Nothing else can explain how were came so woefully short of life saving supplies and equipment, how lacked flexibility to ramp up development and roll-out of tests, how we delayed calling in the military for disciplined response, and, above all, we failed to deploy a nation-wide coordinated response, thus leaving individual states in a race to the bottom in search of panacea. Never again!! We need to create redundancies in our medical infrastructure just like an aircraft has multiple; failure to operate is many times as fatal for a country-wide healthcare network as it is for a widebody aircraft, even dozens. How much to cushion will be, and what it would look like in terms of facilities, human resources and supplies is a job best left to technocrats, not accountants. Not even elected leaders.
Fifth, we need global coordination. An invisible micro-organism traveled from China to all over the globe, even Amazonian tribes are affected it seems, over less than a quarter, stalled trillions of dollars of economic activity annualized, and made home-bound more than two-thirds of world’s population. In these days of interconnected world, any response to pandemic has to be coordinated worldwide. Much of that did happen with coordinated shutdowns. What did not happen was coordinated surveillance independent of local governments. Numerous post-mortem reports from previous pandemics highlighted need for clampdown on “wet-markets” across the globe. These exacerbate chances of animal-to-human transmission of novel viruses we are not equipped to deal with ex-ante. If WHO had monitors present in Wuhan who could report first cases without having to wait for Chinese government to own up, after almost months by some accounts, other nations might have been more proactive in shutting down international travel. As importantly, we need to give more credence to these hawks in public service, not less. Only an empowered bureaucracy functioning without fear of repercussion by local administration can credibly coordinate a global response to future pandemics.
We need a multi-pronged multi-local plan of attack based on science and pragmatism. We need to rethink a ravaged landscape and imagine what it can be, and work towards getting it done. We need resources, a loan from our future selves, and well-designed protocols of how to apply them. We need functionaries closer to the ground. Above all, the world needs US leadership in getting it done.
If that makes it sound like a Marshall Plan for COVID-19 ravaged world, even better.
[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]