I am an author, futurist, systems architect, public speaker and pro blogger.
Everyone knows they need to act now to stop the coronavirus.
We don’t need to flatten the curve. We need to smash it.
Some of what we’re doing is working. Daily confirmed cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are leveling off in some of the worst hot zones. That’s great news, but it’s not even close to enough. It just means we’re no longer totally back on our heels.
The novel coronavirus demands novel solutions. I’ve spent the last few weeks huddled with think tanks and the smartest people I know all over the world to come up with fresh ideas. You’ll find them below and we’ll crank through them one by one.
But nobody can do this alone. We need more.
If you’re a societal-level decision maker, it’s time to think differently. It’s time to go beyond stimulus packages and social distancing. It’s time to rip up the playbook, reach across political aisles and borders to find a way out of this neverending nightmare.
We need new ideas desperately because we’re running out of time.
If quarantines, self-isolation and social distancing don’t work, the exponential curve of the virus will continue to rocket skywards, potentially killing millions or more.
Gigantic stimulus packages, rate cuts and closing borders are nothing but short term solutions. If we’re not careful the virus might just be the tipping point that leads to even worse disasters.
We’ve crashed the economy of the entire world.
Unemployment hit us all like a massive tsunami. Mortgages and businesses stand on the brink of historical collapse. Stocks have crashed harder and faster than at any time in history, including 1987.
We’re seeing a cascade of horrifying effects and the secondary effects could do even worse damage than the disease. If people aren’t going to restaurants, many of those restaurants won’t ever reopen. People will come back to boarded up buildings where a thriving restaurant scene once stood. With nobody hiring, people can’t pay their rent or mortgages. Lenders collapse. Unemployment gets worse and worse.
Pretty soon there won’t be a normal to go back to again.
The last time we saw this much unemployment and societal breakdown was the 1930s. It led the world to the most devastating war in the history of mankind, World War II. With angry men on the streets, unemployed, broken societies quickly turned into a breeding ground for fascism and authoritarianism, as people looked for someone to blame.
Make no mistake, it can happen again.
Either/or debates about stopping the virus or jump starting the economy need to stop now. We need to stop the virus and get the economy roaring again.
People seem to think we either crash the economy and save lives or save the economy and kill everyone. That’s a false choice. We can and should save both. If you can’t eat or pay your bills because you can’t work, it won’t much matter if you’re virus-free because you’ll starve.
If the crisis stretches on for months or years, governments won’t be able to withstand the crushing blows to their tax revenue and economies. They will collapse, fall into hyperinflation. Economic chaos will lead to famine and war, like beads on a string.
But are we really powerless to stop it? No. We can do a lot more than sit on our couches and watch helplessly as the world burns.
"When facing a disaster it’s easy to let yourself go, to collapse and be consumed in self-pity. But it is no use giving up or burying your head in the sand and hoping that this is a bad dream that will soon pass. It won’t, and with that kind of attitude it will rapidly become much worse. Only positive action can save you."
- Wiseman, John 'Lofty'. SAS Survival Handbook, Third Edition: The Ultimate Guide to Surviving Anywhere . HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
We don’t know which X factor will smash the curve, but we have the entire combined ingenuity of the human race to call to arms against this invisible enemy.
Vaccine research, drug re-purposing, AI assistance, open science, stimulus, social distancing, temperature machines, testing, ramping up ventilator and mask production, quarantine, isolation, border controls are just the tip of the iceberg.
To avoid doomsday scenarios, we need to become the X factor.
We’ve got to find a way to hold back the tide of economic and societal collapse.
Only bold and creative action will save the world now.
First, make no mistake: This is a threat to the entire human race.
Whether you're white, brown, black or green, young, old or middle aged, liberal or conservative, atheist, agnostic, spiritual or religious, we're all in this together. The virus doesn't care about borders, nationality, beliefs, religion, race, creed, age, or your petty political affiliation.
It’s out to kill us all.
People who don’t understand this are playing an outdated political game that’s not only foolish, it’s deadly. It’s putting millions of lives at risk. It must end now.
As governments race to close borders to stop transmission, we need to be more open to working across those borders than ever before.
We need everyone’s help.
Maybe you’re lucky enough to be in one of the few places that seems to have this under control? Maybe you don’t think we need other countries and you can do everything right within your own borders?
Let me ask you a question: Do you like that phone you’re reading this on?
Has it made it easier during this terrible time to connect with friends and loved ones over WhatsApp and Zoom and Telegram? Has it helped you get information that’s keeping you safe?
That phone you’re holding in your hands has components and compounds from all over the world, whether it’s an iPhone or an Android or something else. Apple works with 43 suppliers across six continents to make the iPhone. Deconstruct that supply chain further into mining and sourcing and it touches nearly every economy on Earth, weaving it all together into a magical little device that you can spread panic or good information on with the swipe of a finger.
Maybe you want to bring all that manufacturing home. Great. But where are you getting the resources from?
You can create a battery factory in your borders, hire local workers and pay them well, but if you can’t mine Lithium in your country it doesn’t matter all that much. Most of the world’s Lithium comes from Bolivia, Argentina and Chile. Lithium will not suddenly appear in the south of France or the sweeping plains of Kansas just because we want it to appear.
What about medicine?
Antibiotics are one of the greatest revolutions in modern medicine. It’s hard to believe now, but infections like bacterial pneumonia or diarrhea were once the leading cause of death in the world. Antibiotics killed off those pathogens and saved billions of lives.
98% of antibiotics come from China.
American pharmaceutical companies have created many of the most important medicines on the planet, combating diseases from heart disease to cancer, but manufacturing them depends on other countries. Up to 80% of the active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) come from India and China. Unless you have those ingredients in your own mines and forests, you can’t make those drugs without help from outside your borders.
Countries need to look closely at supply chains. They need to ramp up local production and direct future stimulus packages to support the local part of the chain. But nobody can do this alone. Every country needs ingredients and parts from around the world.
Now is a time to open up relations, drop tariffs across the board, and strengthen ties like never before.
There’s no way out of this except together.
We need masks.
The absolute number one thing we can do now is have every country crank out factories and masks at an unprecedented rate.
Billions of people around the world can’t just work from home. If you drive a bus or an Uber or a cab, work in a restaurant or bar, cut hair, or fly people all over the planet you are now at a standstill. Millions of small businesses shuttered overnight. Clothing stores, restaurants, electronics stores, home goods, friendly neighborhood flower shops, all of it shut down.
Many of those businesses will not survive if the shut down goes on for months and months or longer. People need masks to get back to work.
There are multiple types of masks. Even homemade masks are better than nothing but what we really need are N95 masks, also known as Respirators. They’re called N95 masks because they block out 95% of airborne particles from getting in your mouth and nose while still allowing you to breathe.
"They’re constructed from nonwoven materials—infinitesimal plastic strands blown together to form a random thicket that, under a microscope, ‘is going to look like pickup sticks,’ says Nikki McCullough, 3M’s global leader for occupational health and safety,” in this article in Bloomberg. “If you’re a submicron particle, it’s quite the journey through there.”
In other words, N95 respirators are a maze of plastic that a virus can’t navigate easily.
We need more of these masks now and we need to get them into everyone’s hands, not just medical personnel.
To get those masks on every face in the world, governments need to stop telling people masks don’t work. Western governments really screwed up here. Despite strong evidence that Asian countries, where people wear masks all the time, have a much lower transmission rates, the WHO and CDC kept telling people not to wear masks because they gave people a “false sense of confidence.”
But if masks don’t work then why do doctors and nurses wear them?
It’s basic common sense and the data backs it up.
A 2008 study, published in the Journal for Infectious Diseases, showed that “in an adjusted analysis of compliant subjects, masks as a group had protective efficacy in excess of 80% against clinical influenza-like illness.”
Other studies show the same story again and again. People who don’t bother wearing the masks or wear them haphazardly, get sick. People who wear them right have a significantly lower risk of getting the flu or SARS-COV-2, aka COVID-19.
A study from 2009, shared on the CDC’s own website no less, concludes "We found that adherence to mask use significantly reduced the risk for ILI-associated infection.”
The West’s mistake was thinking 95% effective means useless. We need to snap out of that mindset now. Nothing we do is 100% effective. Our hastily developed blood tests will only prove 90-95% accuracy, at best. At least 10% of our new ventilators will come off the presses as worthless junk.
That’s not a disaster, it’s just the way life works.
We need to drop all-or-nothing thinking.
We’re not going for 100% effective or bust: we’re trying to reduce transmission whenever and wherever we can.
Why did the CDC and WHO tell us masks don’t work?
Because they know the dark reality that in a pandemic masks are in short supply. Better to tell people they don’t work to prevent hoarding so they can get them in the hands of front line medical personnel. It’s right on the Center of Disease Controls’ own website playbook for pandemic planning:
"Supplies of N95 respirators can become depleted during an influenza pandemic or wide-spread outbreaks of other infectious respiratory illnesses. Existing CDC guidelines recommend a combination of approaches to conserve supplies while safeguarding health care workers in such circumstances."
They are wrong to lie to us but they are not wrong to prevent hoarding and to get masks into the hands of people who need them most. That’s why we need more of them. Lots of them.
We need billions more.
3M, who makes the Cadillac of masks, is ramping up production but governments need to step in and help them ramp up production. Governments need to do more than doll out money and war time production orders. They need to help these companies build factories and get equipment. Then every government needs to guarantee they’ll buy up the excess capacity if we get this virus under control and 3M, Honeywell and others have a lot of inventory they can’t sell anymore.
The amazingly good news is that unlike so many other modern marvels of medicine, we don’t need a vast global supply chain to make N95s. We can make them locally because they’re mostly made from plastic laid out in tiny lattices.
As we crank out more masks we need to move them to the people that need them first. Roll them out to medical personnel and support staff as fast as possible. Then they go to anyone working in grocery stores and restaurants. Mail carriers and delivery people and cab drivers are next up on the list. We move right on down the line to get people back to work and get the economy moving again.
We need to get those masks into the hands of not just medical personnel, but everyday workers, everywhere.
We need our doctors and nurses more than ever and they need our full support, not just clapping and calling them heroes, even though they are heroes. They need money, childcare, accommodation, food.
Any way we can make their lives smoother, we need to make it happen.
Several of the bills hitting legislatures across the globe include much-needed aid for medical professionals, but they don’t go far enough to support them in their time of greatest need.
And even as governments step up, some companies are considering cutting pay for the people we need the most. That’s not just disgusting, it’s suicidally short-sighted.
We need to make life essentially frictionless for these brave people on the front lines.
If we don’t keep our doctors, nurses and the operations people who support them on their feet, then it doesn’t matter how many ICU beds or ventilators we have.
Every country needs a bill on the table right now to make life effectively free for our medical support heroes:
Delete their school loans permanently.
Freeze their mortgage payments and rents for the duration of the crisis and in future pandemics.
Make their parking and transport free.
Arrange for them to have food and accommodation if they need to isolate from their families.
Give them special death and illness insurance.
This isn’t just about doctors and nurses either. The people manning the front desk, stocking supply shelves, delivering supplies, cleaning the floors, and triaging people all matter too. Without them a hospital doesn’t run. If doctors and nurses are answering the phones and scheduling people then they can’t treat patients. A hospital, like any organization, is a highly interdependent unit that functions as one. Any organization is only as good as its weakest part.
If any part of that system breaks down it has ripple effects throughout the whole system.
It’s time for governments to protect our medical soldiers on the frontline in this war against an invisible enemy.
One of the darkest secrets of the American medical industry and many medical industries around the world is that openness is punished and the same mistakes happen again and again.
We could avoid those mistakes through a well-designed system that incentivizes openness, information sharing and learning. To get there we need to change the rules and the incentives.
Every system has incentives. Some are explicit and some are hidden, but the effects are the same. People do what they’re incentivized to do.
In the American medical system failure is penalized. Doctors and nurses get sued for the slightest mistakes. Entire legal firms exist to go after medical personnel with class action suits that drive up the cost of the health care across the board.
Matthew Syed’s best-selling book on problem solving, Black Box Thinking, shows the stark contrast between how the medical industry fails to learn from its mistakes and how the airline industry learned from their tragedies to create one of the most astonishing safety records in history.
After a terrifying crash in 1973 that killed everyone onboard, the airline industry went back to the drawing board and dramatically changed airline safety forever. Before that crash, airlines had a horrible and sickening track record.
What did they change?
They started teaching pilots what happens when you’re in crisis. Pilots now prep for time dilation and stress when everything goes wrong.
They set up new rules. If people involved in a crash report everything perfectly accurately within two weeks of the crash, nothing can be used against them in a court of law. The same is true for the investigative crew.
When pilots make even minor mistakes, they file a report and then the reports are anonymized for analysis. As long as they do it within ten days they can’t be held liable. This ferrets out potential mistakes faster.
This stands in sharp contrast to the medical industry. A 2005 case tells a bitter tale of modern medical cover-ups and corruption, as Elaine Bromiley went in for a routine surgery that killed her.
An unexpected reaction to anesthesia, a rare genetic quirk, fear of liability and a failure in the chain of command turned a simple sinus operation into an unnecessary and entirely preventable death.
Afraid of the consequences, doctors reported vague reasons for her death like “unforeseen circumstances,” calling it a “one off.” No guidelines or training got updated and sent out to hospitals across the nation. Instead of sharing information, they have to bury it.
In the medical industry, reports like that are common because doctors can easily get sued for anything that goes wrong. Insurance punishes them and the hospital. The board cracks down.
Nobody learns from what happens. So it happens again and again. Instead of being incentivized to tell the truth, doctors are incentivized to cover their tracks and lie.
That’s the power of incentives.
With the right incentives people solve any problem, become smarter, stronger, faster. With the wrong incentives, the same horrible and avoidable mistakes happen over and over.
Doctors in the US are already reaching out to the tech industry to try and find ways to share information and ideas anonymously. They shouldn’t need to be afraid.
We can change this by passing the following template legislation:
Anyone who looks at data and numbers for a living knows something is terribly, terribly wrong with the coronavirus numbers.
"Numbers have a certain mystique,” writes John Allen Paulo, a professor of mathematics at Temple University and the author of A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper. "They seem precise, exact, sometimes even beyond doubt. But outside the field of pure mathematics, this reputation rarely is deserved. And when it comes to the coronavirus epidemic, buying into that can be downright dangerous."
We can’t wait for all the data before we take bold action, but we do need better data. Without it we just don’t know what we’re facing and we have no idea which solutions will deliver the biggest impact.
Should we make more ventilators? Should we roll out more ICU beds or do we need to focus on masks and gloves?
There’s an old saying: Garbage in, garbage out. In other words if you start with bad data you’re going to get bad analysis and make bad choices.
“Data do not always accurately reflect the state of the world,” writes Alexis C. Madrigal for the Atlantic. Right now the numbers don’t reflect reality and everyone knows it.
The biggest problem is not enough people are getting tested.
We can’t make enough tests. Because of that, officials are telling people in some countries to only get tested if they have the worst symptoms. Do you see the problem there? If only the sickest people get tested then they’re oversampled in the data and the death rate is too high.
That’s possibly why we’re seeing mortality rates all over the charts. We have a country like Italy with a sky high number of cases, overwhelmed health care systems, and army trucks carrying dead bodies by the thousands. In Germany, they’re doing 300,000 tests a week and yet they have very few people dying. People are rushing to understand why now.
One of the popular conclusions is that Germany just has a lot of younger people getting sick, and young people are statistically more likely to survive this deadly disease. Another is that because they’re actually testing people they’re getting a much more accurate mortality rate than the rest of the world.
We also don’t have any idea how widespread this thing already is right now. But is it off by a factor of 5, or 50, or 500? The sad truth is we have no idea.
In the absence of clear conclusions, people are guessing and creating enormous blowback and secondary effects. Bad data doesn’t just prevent us from estimating the true severity of this virus, it grinds all our economies as people self-isolate unnecessarily out of an abundance of caution.
The more tests we have available, the more dynamically we can respond to this ever evolving disaster. Essential workers don’t need to stay quarantined just because they fear they might have the virus. We can find out for sure, and make evidence-based decisions rather than just guessing.
All of this tells us that governments need to work hard to remove roadblocks to creating tests. They need to move swiftly to make sure tests are accurate and they need to crank out as many tests as possible for whoever wants them or whoever shows symptoms. The more people who get tested, the better we’ll start to understand what we’re really seeing.
If the virus is much more widespread than we imagined but the fatality rate is lower, then we can start to adapt policies, opening up the economy and getting people back to work. But if the mortality rate holds then we will need more powerful ways to keep people safe while getting the world in motion again.
Data is more valuable than gold right now.
And we need more of it to make the right choices. We’re flying blind and crashing because of it.
Governments are doling out trillions of dollars and cranking up the money printing presses in a desperate attempt to stop the virus.
But instead of handing it out to the usual suspects, they should get creative with billion-dollar prizes for advanced research that leads to anything that can slow or stop the spread of this monstrous disease.
We’ve already seen some firms point out drugs that could make a difference and doctors are trying them on the front lines. The early results are not good, but researchers will keep identifying compounds and doctors will test them because they don’t have anything else.
There are two key pathways here:
There are at least 220 companies using AI for drug discovery right now. It’s time to set the engines of capitalism in motion and see if competition really does make for better, more agile solutions when the market demands it.
Don’t look now, because the market definitely demands it.
In fact it’s the biggest market of all time: the entire human race.
Every government should band together right now and offer a fund of billions of dollars in prizes for anyone who can come up with answers, whether they’re startups, venture capital backed firms, giant corporations, advanced research teams, university researchers, lone-wolf data scientists, or just amateurs tinkering with a brilliant new idea. We can’t just leave this to the companies and organizations that have the most resources. We need every brilliant mind on the planet working on this thing. Open the data and spread it far and wide so that everyone has access to it.
Companies that are already using AI to try to repurpose existing drugs should share their algorithms openly to see if they can improve what they’re doing, instead of just working in silos to compete for the prize.
If they need to come up with a novel legal agreement to share the money then I’m sure there’s a law firm out there just waiting to write that agreement for everyone right now.
They should open source that agreement too, so that other companies can work from it without having to spend $100,000 in legal fees.
Firms that are looking for new drugs through novel approaches should get their own billion-dollar prize for advancing algorithms that find compounds we never imagined possible. The winner should have to open source that algorithm as a part of winning the prize, but let them keep the IP rights for the compound they discover as it goes to the biotech and pharma companies for trial.
We also need DARPA-style moonshot thinking and funding. The Defense Advanced Research Project Agency is the original gangster of long shot research and development. They fund research that might look like science fiction but that often turns into the next breakthrough technology that changes the world.
Here’s just a few of the technologies DARPA had a hand in helping bring to life:
Companies out there working on moonshot approaches, like immunotherapy, or studying the antibodies in recovered patients need funding and they need it now. Every government should look to copy the DARPA design and fund big, high-risk, high-reward solutions that look to the future.
A breakthrough like that could be what saves us in the long run, not just the short term.
Universal Basic Income (UBI) is one of those radical ideas that gets support across the political spectrum.
It’s a simple idea. Every citizen gets a check with no hoops to jump through or any requirement to work.
Former US presidential candidate, Andrew Yang, is one of UBI’s most vocal supporters, but with the virus rocking the world the idea has suddenly gone mainstream. It may seem like a new idea, but people have debated it for hundreds of years. The concept has a long and storied history, "with supporters as diverse as Martin Luther King Jr., Richard Nixon and the famous free-market economist Friedrich von Hayek,” writes Spencer Bokat-Lindell in an op-ed piece on UBI for the New York Times.
There are some psychological arguments against UBI that shouldn’t be ignored, like the fear it would discourage and devalue work. But those claims don’t stand up to much scrutiny, especially in our current situation where a lot of types of work are suddenly dangerous and actually should be temporarily discouraged. People are going to need the freedom and economic safety to retrain and reorganize as we come out of this crisis.
Of course the main argument against UBI is economic: There are 330 million people in the United States. If you gave every US citizen $12,000 a year, which amounts to $1,000 a month, that comes to roughly 4 trillion dollars a year, according to a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research and my calculator.
Make no mistake, it’s expensive to do this, very expensive.
But so is cobbling together trillion dollar business relief packages.
Everything governments do right now will end up as record-breakingly and eye-wateringly expensive. The simplicity of UBI gives it a huge edge over plans that need to work within mounds of red tape designed for more stable times.
Governments could fund this with new kinds of taxes, like carbon taxes, the way Yang proposed. But there is another, simpler way:
Eliminate almost every other government subsidy, other than unemployment insurance and food support for the most at-risk citizens in a population.
Everyone is free to do whatever they want with their UBI, which leaves it up to individual choice. If you wisely spend it on food and healthcare, you live. If you spend it on candy and a new iPhone, you’re in trouble.
Governments around the world have a hodge-podge of societal safeguards in place. Everything from food subsidies, to state-backed healthcare, to unemployment insurance, to farm subsidies, to grants. The list goes on and on, making up a massive balance sheet of hundreds of billions of dollars, or trillions of dollars in debt every year.
Governments can only fund that with taxes and printing money. If less people are working, then less money goes into the tax coffers. There are also multiple convoluted and conflicting requirements for getting that money and political infighting creates loopholes and backdoors that favor some people and punish others.
If we replace that tangled mess with a simple universal payment we can eliminate most political boundaries and incentivize people to make good choices in their daily lives.
As I wrote in my piece Coronavirus, a Reason for Hope, there are a lot of reasons to look beyond the Doomsday scenarios and see that open science, our hyper-interconnectedness and rapid information sharing may save us all in a time of great peril.
We all know to wash our hands and practice social distancing. In the past, that information couldn’t get out easily. We couldn’t coordinate a massive shelter in place rule without tremendous force and time. By then it would have been too late. We are seeing humans cooperate on an unprecedented scale.
In a time of great crisis, there’s a tendency to want to shut down and close off every border, but as Yuval Harari, author of Sapiens, said in a recent interview, you can’t stop an epidemic with closed borders. In Medieval times borders were incredibly hard to cross but Black Death still ravaged the world.
Closing off won’t save us now.
Only opening up can save us.
Sharing information. Sharing solutions. Working together. Taking chances on dynamic, cutting edge strategies.
With every crisis comes opportunity.
Ideas that would have taken decades of slow debate stand a real chance of happening fast now as we all face this invisible enemy together. In Germany, traditionally conservative and slow-moving authorities switched to digital immigration processing seemingly overnight after decades of demanding people print out paper and get a stamp for everything.
Crises spur us to think and come up with new and better ideas. They can also act as a breeding ground for our darkest and most insidious natures. We’re not just fighting the virus, we’re fighting a potential tide of economic collapse and authoritarianism as governments ramp up surveillance and control. We must hold back the tide of darkness.
Necessity is the mother of invention.
And that mother now has a name.
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