This was written on the April 12, 2020 and published here a few days later.
If you are the kind of person who likes to shoot the messenger that brings unpleasant news, I’d suggest you stop reading now. I am not going to pretend that I know the answer. I will try to create a back-of-the-envelope map of the territory we currently occupy and chart the possible routes ahead. You should make your own inferences.
Where are we?
These are unchartered territories. While this pandemic was predicted, politicians and policymakers around the world were too busy reaping rewards of privatising healthcare to listen.
Anyhow, the situation is rapidly evolving and we are overwhelmed by new and contradictory information. Most people can’t tell the cranky stuff from the good science. Presidents of countries can’t resist the temptation to peddle untested snake oil. Even credible scientists and economists can’t seem to agree on most things. A seemingly simple thing like the effects of wearing masks seems to be an endless debate and disagreement between WHO and CDC and other national and international bodies.
We don’t know where we are on the map. Nor do we know the direction in which we are heading. Who is to know where we will emerge.
So what are we to do?
If you don’t know where you are and where you are heading, the only option available is to survey the entire territory and explore all possible roads. And if you can you should try to plan for some or all of those contingencies.
Personally, I am a little bit of a stoic, and in volatile situations I prefer to examine worst-case scenarios. But I know that most people don’t have the appetite for it. So, I will let it pass. At least for now.
What are all the possible ways in which the covid-19 situation can evolve?
- An existing drug is repurposed as cure
- Virus mutates and goes away
- Herd immunity develops
- Inoculation is developed
- New drug is created
- Reliable antibody test is found
Till we get one or more of the above life will not return to normal. Right? I cannot see any other possibility. Please do let me know if I am missing something.
Note: All these possibilities have many nuances attached to them. For instance how expensive the drug, test or inoculation is? How quickly can they be manufactures and distributed? How easy or hard they are to distribute and administer and so on. While a comprehensive plotting of each trajectory would be useful, I think it might distract from the core idea of this post. Moreover, I don’t think I have the expertise and suspect most readers won’t have the time for it.]
What is the time-frame for life to return to what might be called normal (or somewhat normal-ish)?
There is a possibility that a cure can arrive very quickly in the form of an existing approved drug being repurposed to work on this virus. There is also a possibility that the virus mutates and walks away.
I am not a betting kind of person in normal times but in these uncertain times I would not bet on those outcomes. YMMV.
Options 3 through 6 are slow options.
Option 3: It takes time for herd immunity to develop. Very large numbers of people (there are statistical models for these kinds of things) have to be immune for the entire population to be immune. This will cost human lives, unless we get option 4, 5 or 6 first.
Option 4: Drug discovery, especially for a new virus is a time consuming process, to say the least. Even after the drug is discovered it needs to go through reviews and tests before it is approved for human use. And only after that can it be mass manufactured, distributed and administered.
Option 5: For new inoculation a 12 to 18 month time frame is generally considered excellent. This is a very special case and some of the best minds and labs around the world are racing to save lives. Even so, a projection of 12 months to approval is being considered excellent. Manufacturing them in scale and then distributing them to the entire world will also take time. Not to mention the cost and concerted global coordinated effort. Incidentally, some experts are also warning about the possible downsides of rushing through this – inoculating the entire planet with a something that is rushed through without it being reliably proven to be safe, can have consequences.
Option 6: Even after a reliable antibody test is found it will still take time and effort to regularly administer it on entire populations to separate out the immune one for the susceptible. This is perhaps the fastest of the all the slow options but it has significant limitations. It just tells that someone has been infected and cured and therefore not susceptible to the virus (for a period of time?) and they can go back to being ‘normal’. Not much changes for the rest of the population.
Of course we can bank on miracles, but as far as I can tell we are in this for the long haul. It will take many months, perhaps years, for us to get to a place where life seems somewhat normal-ish. To be fair, I think we cannot negate the possibility that we will never get back to the old ‘normal’.
That, I think, is a map drawn with a very broad brush. You could fine-tune the map depending on your specific situation. If you are an Inuit or a Bedouin your situation is likely to be different from someone living in New York or Dharavi. On top of all that your age, your gender and your wealth matters. Do not believe those who say that this pandemic is leveler, it is not. Well, maybe, just a little.
Some possible inferences assuming that the above is mostly correct
Like I said, even experts who have spent their entire lives studying pandemics seem to be at loss. So I am not about to make any stupid claims.
If options 1 or 2 materialise then awesome. We can quickly go back to once again dismantling and privatising the public health infrastructure and fawning over the super-wealthy instead of clapping for the workers in ‘essential services’.
However, if options 3 to 5 come into play most of us will have to adjust to living in a different kind of a world. And that new world will vary significantly depending on your location (which country, state, city, village, slum, gated complex) age, gender and wealth.
But here is my ‘opinionated’ wild generalisation of what I suspect will happen over the next six/twelve months (YMMV):
There will be widespread pain, suffering and loss of life that we (collectively or individually) will go through. While dealing that we will also have to get used to a new ‘normal’ that will include:
- Ongoing social-distancing, intermittent lockdowns, job losses, limited travel, likely shortages of some goods, possible social and political unrest…
- Older and/or imuno-compromised folks will have to hunker down for the long haul. Some form of semi-quarantine is going to be the new normal for them. If you live under the same roof, you will have to walk the tight rope between work, livelihood and their safety.
- Living with grief. And the specter of our own mortality. If you have not written a will, this might be good time. And if you have held some petty grudge against a loved one, this may also be a good time to get over it.
Please tell me I am wrong?
If you think I have made a logical error, or if I have missed some key element in this jigsaw please do let me know. I would very much like to be proved wrong. Honestly, I have never been keener to be told that I am wrong!
Thanks Karan for pointing out the possibility that it is possible that we will never get back to a ‘normal’ normal. And Manas for suggesting point #5.