Prepare your annus horribilis
2020 may have been the dress rehearsal for your new life.
In early March, I moved from London back to Romania in a matter of a few days, packing up my house and getting on one of the last flights out. The virus transformed from remote internet anecdote to life and death situation almost overnight. This was our reality now - a silent killer stalked the land.
I still remember the initial calls to "flatten the curve" so as not to overwhelm the hospitals and "2 weeks to save the NHS", the only palatable deity still left in the UK. Videos of people collapsing on the street in Wuhan and exhausted, crying Italian doctors drove the point home - this is serious.
Now, almost a year later, I can't disagree. This has been the most serious year of my life. This was the first year I felt like I lived through history, though, I was admittedly in yoga pants and couch-bound throughout most of it.
Did I feel like this was historical because it was a global pandemic? No, pandemics have been a feature of our past, and they'll undoubtedly be a catastrophic staple in our future as well.
This year was historic because of the reaction to the pandemic. And, as far as I can see, the main issue was that two questions about the virus were blended into one:
How dangerous is it?
What should we do about it?
The reasonable answer to 1. is the one that was also usually given: "we can't know until more time passes and we have more data". This, most often, and, I believe, wrongly, was taken as an answer to question 2. as well:
"Stop everything until we figure this thing out."
These are separate questions. They deserve different answers that account for more than one variable - there is a new virus.
Whatever you may believe about the dangers of Covid-19 and its recent offshoots (I suspect numerous obscure mutations will occupy the press and our collective imaginations for years to come), you have to consider what the global response to this event means - carefully.
The executive powers unleashed by most governments and supranational organizations under the auspices of the pandemic are unprecedented in peaceful times. In no other event in my lifetime have the levers of power been so clumsily on display, and the pitfalls of leaving our lives in the hands of the managerial class have been so evident.
The trade of freedom for safety has an allure that doesn't escape me as an Eastern European, but, for the same reason, I can see that it also has traps that many seem to overlook.
Simply by judging the results (up to this point) no other event in recent history comes close to extracting as much wealth and autonomy from the rambunctious middle classes and distributing it to the essential tech (& other) giants who have already secured the rank of unaccountable empires. You don't need a tinfoil hat to deduce that uncertainty and chaos force consolidation and flush out those who don't have the resources to ride it out.
Enshrining uncertainty & chaos by decree, well, that's another matter entirely.
Having the state coordinate your safety, instead of leaving personal protection to the individual or the community, means falling into the trap of scale.
Scale is a nightmare for coordination. It misses crucial details, cannot adapt to local granularity and degenerates into precisely what we've seen this year: Haphazard, ineffective and humiliating measures the world over. For scale to work, you need a coherent framework that is understood, accepted, and complied with by all actors. This hasn't happened, and in fairly fundamental ways, it can't happen.
What has happened: neighbors turning against one another in Soviet levels of paranoia; a never-ending series of lockdowns that are either ongoing or still on the table everywhere; the overnight invention of tiers of lockdown with exotic stringencies; the classifications of industries as "essential" more by their political status rather than their relevance in people's lives and endless devastation of small and mid-sized businesses the world over.
The failure of draconian public policy doesn't even register as a speedbump in the procession towards our new normal. The powers that be bring their eternal and most effortless argument because it requires nothing else but fear of a counterfactual: "Who knows what would have happened if we didn't do X?" This often comes in combination with a scare story about a country with entirely different demographics who mismanaged the situation by not doing X, which resulted in (apparently) disastrous data point Y.
The unsafe truth is that safety can not be guaranteed. Because of the nature of "seeing like a state," sweeping, top-down, autonomy-eliminating measures are also one of the worst ways to go about trying to deliver it. Simple measures, like equipping sensitive populations with *measurably effective* N95 respirators and letting them decide on managing the risk, were not even attempted, because they weren't very state-like, too low-impact on autonomy.
An idea that frequently populates memes - that we simply have to ride out 2020, as if what we went through wasn't something corroding, cumulative, paradigm-shifting, that 2021 will somehow be more like 2019 seems pretty naive.
2020 feels more like a dress rehearsal for the future, when, for your safety, your data-driven, knowledge-powered betters will carefully engineer the conditions of your flourishing. If they fail, it’s no biggie, because who knows how bad it would be if they hadn’t even tried at all?
And it can all be yours now for the low, low price of sovereignty.
Though this post oozes ominous vibes - I know - I still want to thank you kindly for following my Substack and want to wish you and your family a Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year!
May my intuitions about our future be total hogwash! 🥂