Keeping the coronavirus pandemic - and our response - in perspective

Jim Blasingame

Perspective: The capacity to view things in terms of their true and relative importance.

Four stock market crashes, seven recessions, three wars, three pandemics, one global financial collapse, one Y2K – and 9-11. This scary list identifies the varied major crises which have taken place during my long career. In the aggregate, they've ground a perspective lens through which I view momentous moments, like the pandemic of COVID-19 disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Of all the things on my list, we're likely to agree that the two most frightening and destructive are the 9-11 attacks and the 2008 financial crisis. But you might be surprised to learn that the challenge providing me with the best perspective on the coronavirus pandemic is the Y2K event. Not for what happened, but because of what didn't happen.

Y2K was a 20th-century digital defect – think of it as a time bomb ticking inside computers and digital programs for decades. For those who weren't around then, or don't remember, just Google "Y2K causes." It won't take long to get the gist – I'll wait here.

By 1997, it was abundantly clear that we were headed for a date-certain digital explosion. It was believed that if we didn't remediate the six-should-be-eight-digit date defect – 123199 to 12311999 – before the turn of the millennium, the now-heavily-digitally-connected population of Earth would suffer devastating economic and societal implications. Sound familiar?

When the calendar ticked over to January 1, 2000 – I stayed up to watch – nothing bad happened. Zero. Non-event. Servers kept serving, banks kept banking, elevators didn't drop out from under us, planes flew when they were supposed to, and your new PC was just peachy. So, since the modern world rolled on as if there had never been a computer bomb, was the unprecedented effort, hundreds-of-billions in expense, and not a little Y2K hysteria an overreaction?

Well, that's the kernel of my coronavirus analogy: It turns out, we'll never know if we overreacted to Y2K.

So, now we have this ugly reality coming more into focus, and perhaps you're like me – torn between which to be most afraid of: the pandemic or our response to it. Medical experts think the only known defense to prevent the COVID-19 disease from becoming a redux of the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1917-18, when 20 million Earthlings died – including 700,000 Americans (100,000 in one month) – is to practice an unprecedented discipline called "social distancing." If we "flatten the curve" of the spread of the virus, they say, we have a better chance of defeating this thing. Sounds reasonable.

Then perspective kicks in when you consider that, as of this writing, less than 200 Americans have died from the coronavirus during the season when 16,000 have died from the common flu (68,000 in 2018). Overreacting? And don't we have a right to feel a Constitutional twinge when governors and mayors think they can order a small business owner to lock up for longer than they can afford, or tell customers they can't patronize that establishment? Unprecedented.

But then that pesky lens refocuses agnostically on the increasingly apparent fact that the Wuhan coronavirus is more virulent, more resilient, more transmissible and indeed deadlier than the flu. Almost as if it were weaponized. Consequently, it's becoming clearer that we should approach our next and future courses of action against this pandemic the way we assaulted Y2K. Solve this problem so utterly and urgently – time, energy and resources – that we never know if we overreacted.

This week we polled my online audience about their perspective on the leadership response to the coronavirus pandemic. The results came in at 57% for completely justified or mostly justified, and not a small minority leaning toward panic, overreaction, and hysteria.

Perspective: The capacity to view things in terms of their true and relative importance.

Write this on a rock ... Whose perspective is correct? If we do this right, we'll never know. And that isn't unprecedented.

Jim Blasingame is the author of The 3rd Ingredient, the Journey of Analog Ethics into the World of Digital Fear and Greed.


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