There have been a handful of times in my life that have felt like historic moments, and this week has that feel so I’m going to ramble a bit, mainly for my own benefit as it is a useful exercise to be able to revisit one’s thought process later with the benefit of hindsight.
The reason that this week feels novel is obviously because if was the week where the threat from coronavirus became real. Government at the local, state and federal levels started taking action against the virus, all sports leagues shut down, colleges closed, school districts closed, museums shuttered, people are being told not to go to work, grocery stores are being mobbed by panic buyers cleaning out the shelves; it is reminiscent of the days and weeks following September 11, when no one was quite sure what was going on and people entered a weird state where everyone just put normal life on hold and waited to see what would happen next.
Sadly, one difference between 9/11 and this crisis is that the country came together after 9/11 with a common purpose. Say what you will about George W. Bush, but he provided clear and decisive leadership when the country needed it, and his approval ratings reflected that all Americans were with him, at least for that moment. Today the top-level leadership is very different, and half of the country seems to question whether this crisis is even real, or whether it’s a media-driven, left-wing assault on Donald Trump. In a few years, once we know how it plays out, I suspect that the differing views of this pandemic will begin to converge, although I worry that if the state and local response to this crisis is effective that we will learn the wrong lesson.
I haven’t lived through many major crises, but my experience has been that when they are handled well people assume that the danger itself was overblown. I started in technology in 1998, and at the time IT professionals the world over were focused on the Y2K bug, expected to hit older computer systems on January 1, 2000 with dire consequences. Billions of dollars were spent testing the systems that ran nuclear plants, transportation networks, banking systems and other critical infrastructure. Government issued warnings to make sure that everyone, everywhere was aware of the problem and looking closely at their systems. Then, at the start of the millennium when things were supposed to break, nothing happened. People scoffed and said it was much ado about nothing, but the opposite is true – testing in advance made it clear that there would have been massive disruption, and without huge amounts of work and a gigantic effort to make companies aware of the problem, the world would have been a very different place on January 1, 2000. It was only because so many people worked so hard that the response was so effective and none of the worst consequences came to pass, but instead of cheering the success, “Y2K” is instead today widely perceived as an example of fear-mongering and over-reaction.
Today, with the coronavirus, I hope that it can be another Y2K. Scientists estimate the range of deaths from coronavirus in the USA will be up to 1.7 million, but that scenario only occurs if we don’t take action to slow the spread; the reason schools are shutting down today is because that number is based on almost 200 million Americans contracting the disease, which only happens if there is no change in social behavior. Keeping people separated means infected people are less likely to pass the virus to others, slowing down the spread and potentially saving a lot of lives. However, if we avoid the worst-case scenarios I fear that instead of rewarding officials who took drastic action, people will instead say we overreacted, just as they did with Y2K, making the next crisis even harder to contain.