Eugene Linden
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Imagining a Post Pandemic World

How might a post-pandemic world look and feel? Let’s imagine a creative team at a New York City advertising agency pitching a campaign in 2050 for a new perfume (more than most products, perfumes are sold by attaching to the dreams and aspirations of their times).  The Big Apple, ...

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Deep Past
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Winds of Change
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Afterword to the softbound edition.


The Octopus and the Orangutan
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The Future In Plain Sight
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The Parrot's Lament
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Silent Partners
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Affluence and Discontent
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The Alms Race
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Apes, Men, & Language
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When Nixon Resigned...


Friday August 08, 2014

When Richard Nixon resigned forty years ago I was in Lesotho, a tiny, mountainous, eroded and overpopulated Kingdom that is entirely surrounded by South Africa. The project that brought me to Lesotho was my book, The Alms Race, which tried to answer the question of why attempts to help the developing world continually repeated the mistakes of the past [the answer is that many of the projects that were abject failures from the recipients point of view actually were successes in terms of the donor's objectives]. I was interviewing a couple of officials from the Ministry of Education when the news came through that Nixon had resigned. The bureaucrats were in the process of trying to devise a curriculum that would convey to bright-eyed students that Lesotho had a rational system of government, when in fact, at that time, the country was ruled by a strongman.

At one point the delicate question came up of how to discuss the fact that the Prime Minister, Chief Leabua Jonathan, had suspended the constitution a few years earlier and that nothing had replaced it. One of the officials, a glib, rising star in the Ministry, had a ready answer. Alluding to Nixon's misdeeds he said that the needs of a developing country are somewhat different than those of Great Britain or the United States, and that there were countries with law that were lawless, like the United States, and there were countries without constitutions that we're law abiding, e.g. Lesotho.

At this, another official, a decent, educated man, had had enough. Risking his career, he said, "Didn't Watergate show that the United States is not a lawless country, and, in fact, didn't Watergate show the strengths of a constitutional system?" I felt like applauding.

One other note on Nixon. If someone had told me back then that Richard Nixon would be our greatest President in terms of pushing through  environmental legislation protecting air, water and endangered species I would have laughed outright. Nor would I have believed it, if someone had predicted that no environmental law passed during the subsequent 40 years would be anywhere near as significant as the landmark acts of Nixon's administration. But it's true, and it's worth reflecting on what it means that this legislation, that materially changed the face of America for the better, came from a most unlikely champion.

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Short Take

Relaxing COVID-19 Restrictions will Kill, not Save, the Economy


 

[This is a more developed version of the previous Short Take}

Those who want to relax mandates on self-isolation and social distancing to save the economy have got it exactly backwards. Reopen society too soon, and we risk destroying the economy as well as public order and our shaky democratic institutions. The reason comes down to two words: supply lines.

 Supply lines for necessities such as food are already under stress. Those going to grocery stories encounter random instances of empty shelves and vegetable bins. Smithfield Farms shut down a South Dakota plant that supplies roughly 4% of the pork in the nation after over 500 of its workers tested positive for the coronavirus. Other giant meat processors such as Tyson have also shut down plants for similar reasons. Farmers in the West are having trouble finding workers to harvest the crops now reaching maturity in the fields. And even if they manage to get the crops picked, farmers are out of luck if the truckers fail to show up, or the flow of packaging for their products get interrupted. 

Right now, these disruptions are episodic, but that should be concerning because we haven’t even seen the end of the first wave. What we have seen is that vital front-line workers such as nurses, doctors, EMT’s, and other first responders have had trouble finding protective equipment and maintaining morale. Some have staged walkouts over the dangerous conditions, and these are workers with a sense of mission.

By contrast, for most of the hourly-paid workers who keep supplies made, distributed, and sold, their work is a job that pays the bills. It would be appropriate if society recognized that they played a vital role, but mostly these workers encounter demanding bosses, monotony, and surly customers. If sick, they are not going to work – nor would we want them too. And they are not likely to risk their lives if going to work exposes them to contagion.

Disruption of one link, e.g. the trucker that delivers food the last mile, could halt a supply chain. COVID-19 is a threat to every link. Should a second wave hit before there is a readily available, cheap and effective treatment, it’s a very high probability that many supply lines will be disrupted and filling the gaps could easily overwhelm the nation’s businesses. 

Even today, on the evening news, we see images of vast caravans of cars lined up to get supplies from food banks. Imagine two weeks of empty shelves in the stores that feed our cities. How likely is it that civil order could be maintained in that situation? Will people suffer in silence if they realize that they can’t buy food for their kids because our leaders reopened the economy before a treatment was available because they wanted to prop up the stock market (which is how it will be portrayed)? If we want to look analogues for what life is like once supply chains break down, they’re readily available today in cities like Mogadishu, Kinshasa, and Port au Prince. 

 Thus far, the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic seems to be a mélange of Boss Tweed, Don Corleone and Inspector Clouseau. For the next act, the administration has a choice: Churchill, who bolstered British morale during the London Blitz, or Pol Pot, who sacrificed millions of his countrymen for a bad idea. Let’s hope those around Trump can convince him that the cure for the disease is the cure for the economy.
 



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