I had a testy conversation with a good friend of mine the other day, and you guessed it—the topic was Covid-19. My friend thinks our reaction to the pandemic has been way over the top. We risk turning our economy into a runaway train on a track leading to the edge of a cliff, he says. The steps we’ve taken to stabilize our economy will turn our workforce into a pack of foot-shuffling snivelers with their hands out to the government, and effectively mortgage our future to a crushing debt load for generations.
And for what?: an illness where the chances of exposure are low outside the hotspots like Italy, Iran, Spain and increasingly the United States. Even if you contract the disease, he says, your chances of dying from it are miniscule. Take me for example: as a non-smoking male in my late 60s, my chances of survival are about 96.4%. Pretty good odds even if we are betting against death.
My friend has a point. Everything he said is true. But the problem is, he’s still thinking about the problem from an individual’s perspective— not from the perspective of the herd. When we persist in risky behavior, our chances of avoiding adverse consequences are good, but we increase the overall risk to the herd. As time goes on, the health of the herd declines, and the risk for individual members rises. In other words, we need to think about how our actions affect everyone—not just ourselves. The healthier the herd, the better off we are as individual members.
The recent spate of panic buying provides a good illustration of how this works. Suppose you go to the store to buy some hand sanitizer, and when you get there, you find only two bottles on the shelf. You buy them both to protect yourself for a longer period of time. However, someone else in your herd now has no protection at all. Your chances of exposure actually increases because now there’s more potential to spread the disease within the herd.
I believe Covid-19 is coming at us at a key juncture in our social evolution. Like it or not, we’re living in Trump World right now. The herd is divided along many different fault lines: rich and poor, powerful and disenfranchised, young and old, black and white, winners and losers, and so on. But to survive the existential threats that we will soon be facing—climate change, natural and bioengineered pandemics, nuclear war, artificial intelligence, robotic military, and other things that we haven’t even thought of yet—we will need to work together. We will need to do what’s best for the herd.
Hopefully, we can learn something from this pandemic that will carry us forward to a more certain future. We need to see our world as a single integrated ecosystem, supporting one human species sharing one planet. If we can’t see our world that way, we are already doomed.