We Need to Align With What’s Coming Next

We’ve seen a lot of changes in the world this week due to the coronavirus situation. I think what many people don’t yet realize is that the rate of change isn’t going to be linear. It’s going to accelerate.

Despite all the changes you’ve seen this week, next week’s changes will be bigger still… and the changes coming the week after that will be even bigger. So if your head is spinning now, it will spin twice as hard next week.

In the USA I see people making some adaptations, but they seem to be mentally making minimalist ones. By this I mean that they’re taking in what has occurred thus far, and they’re doing their best to make sense of it based on the events of the past few days. That isn’t going to be enough of an adaptation though. The mental models you’re most likely forming now will break within a week as the pace of change accelerates. You’re going to have to start thinking in terms of the bigger leaps that are coming.

This week in the USA we’ve seen lots of events being canceled. Disney’s parks are closed. Apple closed its U.S. stores. Other businesses will soon follow suit – in fact, most of them will. They just don’t realize it yet. If you’re still showing up at a job today, you probably won’t be by the end of the month.

The new fitness center that I joined in February sent an email earlier today, noting a reduced schedule starting on Monday as well as enhanced sanitization procedures between classes. This is a adaptation based on what’s already happened up to this point, but it’s not aligned with what’s about to happen next. I expect they’ll be closed by the end of the month, and I don’t think they see this yet.

I got a similar impression when I talked to my local guitar store to put my in-person lessons on hold till further notice. I told the employee that I talked to that I doubt the store will still be open two weeks from now. I don’t think he believed me.

These responses are understandable. People are basing their predictions on what they’ve just recently processed. They’re looking at what they see locally. But that isn’t where we should be looking to predict what the rest of this month will be like.

To date there are only 21 reported cases of coronavirus in the whole state of Nevada and zero deaths. The progression over the past several days has been something like 0, 1, 2, 4, 7, 11, 17, 21. It still looks small. But soon we’ll be in the hundreds, the thousands, and then the tens of thousands of infections. And unfortunately the deaths will follow.

The Mayor of Las Vegas has been furious at the media, as if it’s their fault for sabotaging the city, which of course depends heavily on tourism. She’s in an untenable position though, her job being akin to that of Baron Harkonnen in Dune – to keep the spice flowing at all costs. She must be under enormous pressure right now, and it’s only going to get worse for her in the days and weeks ahead.

The Vegas Strip is gradually becoming a ghost town, with so many events being canceled. Hotels are trying to adapt to what they think is the new and temporary reality. They’re closing buffets, restaurants, clubs, sports books, and shows… and offering major discounts for people still willing to book hotel rooms.

Given its huge reliance on tourism, Vegas is going to be hit way harder than most U.S. cities economically. People who work at the hotels and with the conventions can’t simply do their jobs from home, and now their work is drying up anyway. The layoffs on the Vegas Strip have already begun. The local economy is sure to crash and crash hard. That is inevitable at this point.

And yet the casinos are still trying to adapt. But by the end of the month, those adaptations aren’t really going to matter because the situation will be way beyond what it is now. They aren’t really going to have much choice other than surrendering to what’s unfolding.

As much as the stock market has been roller coastering this week, I expect it’s going to crash harder still, significantly lower than the lowest we’ve seen this week. You know who else thinks so? Michael Burry. You may remember him as the savvy hedge fund manager played by Christian Bale in the movie The Big Short – the guy who bet that the housing market would tank. He admits to presently wagering substantially against market indexes due to the unfolding coronavirus situation. Also consider that he’s not only an investor; he’s also a medical doctor. Although he doesn’t practice medicine, he’s kept his medical license active. He doesn’t believe that the “buy the dip” mentality (which causes rebounds) will endure what’s coming. I’m not invested in the stock market at all right now, but based on what I’m seeing, I think it’s going to be downhill for stocks even more.

Even people who are betting on Amazon Prime to pick up the slack should note that some are predicting that this service will come under heavy strain as more Amazon employees get sick and supply chains are further disrupted – and that it may not be as reliable as people expect. It still relies heavily on a large human workforce.

What about Netflix? Well, maybe that’s great for streaming from home, but also note that the company just announced that they’re halting production on all movies and series.

This situation affects us all. While many people are focusing on the economic fallout, we ought to look to saving lives first, especially since this is actionable at the individual level right now.

I know of one private school in Las Vegas that voluntarily closed this week, but the public schools here announced that they intend to remain open on Monday. Keeping the schools open will enable the infection to spread faster, and more deaths will result. It’s a big mistake.

To get a sense of what’s coming to the USA, we shouldn’t be looking around locally. We should be looking to parts of Europe that are a couple weeks ahead of us. Italy now has 21K+ reported cases and 1441 deaths, and the entire country has been on lockdown since Monday. Spain and France just announced that they’re following suit. And Ireland, Denmark, and the Netherlands are locked down as well.

The lockdowns are slightly different for each country, but they essentially mean that people must stay in their homes except for essential outings to get food or medicine. So grocery stores and pharmacies remain open, but schools, universities, hotels, retail stores, restaurants, bars, and non-essential businesses are shuttered.

Why is this being done at all? It’s to slow the rate of new infections.

The USA is lagging behind. Lockdowns seem extreme here still. I understand that impression. We must advance the story in our minds and hearts now though, not a week or two from now. Every day of delay means more infections and more deaths.

The main risk we face is that hospitals become overwhelmed by an increasingly rapid influx of new patients. That’s already happened in Northern Italy. Doctors there have to triage patients because there are too many critical ones to attend to. Meanwhile medical personnel themselves are getting sick too, even as they’re working to exhaustion to save lives. A few days ago, the President of the Medical Guild of Varese (a city in Northern Italy) died from respiratory failure due to coronavirus infection. More deaths of medical personnel will follow, which further strains an overstrained system.

Spain, France, Germany, and other parts of Europe are all about to enter similar phases, and the USA and UK won’t be far behind.

Some claim that the media are blowing this whole situation out of proportion. I think the opposite is true. As serious as this is now, it’s about to get a whole lot more serious. What you’re seeing reported in the media now will seem pretty tame a few weeks from now, and you may look back and wish they’d been louder and stronger in their voices.

We can’t just look at our local present realities to predict what’s coming. We must broaden our perspectives to pay attention to what’s happening elsewhere. And then we must continue to project forward still, not linearly but exponentially. I know this doesn’t come naturally. That doesn’t exempt us from the responsibility. Enough people are smart enough and observant enough to see what’s coming. We must sound the alarm, even at risk of being treated like Cassandra. This is too important not to do so.

The infections in many places are doubling roughly every week. In the beginning that seems small. It’s not a big deal to go from 10 to 20. It’s really going to look like a big deal when we’re going from 100K to 200K or from 1M to 2M in a week. We’re about to tax our medical system like never before.

It’s true that getting infected won’t be a big deal for most people health-wise. But this virus is way more deadly than the flu.

Of the 80K coronavirus cases that have ended so far, meaning that the people are no longer showing signs of infection, 93% concluded in recovery, and 7% concluded in death. And there are still 76K open cases that we know of… and still increasing rapidly each day.

But of course due to rampant under-testing, especially in the USA, the actual numbers are much higher, and they’re going to go much higher still. Many people are infected but aren’t symptomatic yet. Meanwhile they’re infecting others.

For people under 40, the mortality rate is about 0.2% (and virtually nil for children under 10). For people in their 40s like Rachelle and me, it’s double that (0.4%). For people in their 60s it’s 3.6%. For those in their 70s it’s 8%. And for those in the 80s or older, it’s 14.8%. So it’s a lot more dangerous for older people. It’s also significantly more dangerous for men than for women.

But these numbers depend heavily on whether people have access to good medical care. The risks go up substantially when hospitals get overloaded.

About 1 in 5 people who get infected will need to go to the hospital, and about 1 in 20 will need intensive care. On average, those who will die are averaging about 17 days from infection to death. Respiratory failure isn’t a pleasant way to go out (much like drowning).

The average person will infect 2.5 other people, and those people will infect more. So this isn’t just about you and your health and your personal risks. If you get infected, you’ll likely recover, and the experience will be much like having the flu, but there’s a good chance you’ll pass on the infection to other people, eventually contributing to a chain that sends people to the hospital and ends some people’s lives. Do you want to be responsible for that?

What we can do now is to take action to prevent becoming part of those chains. It’s too late to stop or fully prevent what’s coming because the infections have spread too far already, so there’s a sense of inevitability to what’s about to happen next. But we can still take personal action to slow it down. And we must in good conscience do that, starting immediately.

This means not going out unnecessarily and keeping in-person interactions to a minimum. As much as we may resist social distancing, we’ve got to do it, even before we feel it’s necessary. If it feels like you’re being too extreme, your timing is actually reasonable. The time to change your behavior is this very hour.

I know this isn’t pleasant, but get the picture in your mind of someone going through respiratory failure in a packed hospital hallway lined with critical patients who can’t get into the ICU. Imagine someone’s grandmother or grandfather painfully gasping for air, panicking and unable to even call for help as their lungs strain against the inevitable. No one is available to attend to them. No respirators are available. They’ve been triaged by an exhausted doctor or nurse, who’s also coughing while trying to save other people. Connect the dots between your actions and these consequences. Don’t languish in pretending.

If you don’t immediately remove yourself from this causal chain, you’re not just going to give some people the sniffles or a fever. You’re potentially going to snuff out some lives in a most painful way. You’ll be contributing to some serious misery.

Is this an over-the-top visualization? Is this extreme? No, this is what people are really dealing with in Italy right now. In Iran bodies are being dumped into mass graves visible from space. I wish this were a bad movie. But this is real. And we need to connect the dots between our actions and what we could very realistically cause and contribute to.

So many of us have been in denial of the causal chains of how our actions affect other lives. And here’s a huge wake-up call screaming at us to finally connect those dots.

Do you care? Does any of this make it through the objections of your mind?

I’m not willing to risk being the cause of someone else being unable to breathe. The very thought of that makes my own lungs tighten up, and I feel like I can barely breathe myself. Justifying some extra workouts at the fitness studio or squeezing in one more guitar lesson just isn’t rational. I cannot risk adding more bodies to those hospital hallways.

Rachelle and I are voluntarily isolating ourselves and have been doing so for several days already. We stopped going to the local fitness center earlier this week, and I canceled all in-person guitar lessons till further notice (my last lesson was a week ago). We canceled an in-person meetup with an out-of-town friend that we wanted to see this week as well. We’ll do our best to practice social distancing for as long as necessary.

I encourage and implore you to join us if COVID-19 has reached your city too, even if it seems extreme or early to take such actions.

Every day you continue going out is another day you could contribute to the chain of someone’s life being snuffed out early and most painfully. Regardless of what your local government is doing, we need to do what we can as individuals to slow this down.

The second thing you can do is to invite and encourage others to join you. I realize that many people will reject the idea and it may cause you some social strain to do this, but even if you only influence one extra person to take this step a day early, that can make a meaningful difference. Rachelle and I are doing this because other people made the effort to express the importance of this step, and for that I’m grateful.

It will be a challenge to get through this. It’s going to be a very different year than you were likely expecting. But this is what life is offering as our challenge for now. Think carefully about how you’d like to express your character during these difficult times, as you’re going to carry the memories of those decisions for the rest of your days.