Today I got out of the house to change my bombona (bottle gas). Since today was also the first day in which kids were finally allowed to go out, with their parents (for the first time since the start of the lockdown), I saw a lot of new people on the streets. The vast majority were parents with kids.
This change alone made a huge difference in how the city I currently live in, Valencia, looked and felt. It was almost normal. With a little bit of imagination, today could have been considered just a normal valencian holiday, the kind that people chose to spend either at the beach, or in the country side, leaving the town almost empty, bathing in the unforgiving, mediterranean sun.
But it wasn’t a normal day and I knew it. We’re still in lockdown. For the last 6 weeks, we weren’t allowed to go out, unless for basic survival stuff. We’ve been confined in our houses, for no other sin than living at the same time with a virus provoking a new illness: the infamous Covid-19.
The Knee Jerk Response To The Unknown: Close And Isolate
This whole lockdown was basically the de facto answer all around the world to the coronavirus outbreak. The prevailing strategy, hastily chosen and implemented by almost all governments of the countries hit by the pandemic, was to close and isolate.
If you really think about it, this response is no different from the response of medieval cities in front of the plagues of that time. Close the gates. Don’t let anyone in. Isolate. Retract. Put distance between our precious bodies and the unknown, invisible threat. A response rooted in fear.
From this point of view, our world didn’t change at all in the last 500 years. We set foot on the Moon, we decoded the genome, we can circle around the Earth in airplanes just for fun and yet, when facing an unknown, invisible threat, we react exactly like 500 years ago.
We literally live in a high-tech medieval world.
Resource Allocation Gone Bad
The central problem, the main pain point of this crisis, is not at the medical level: the virus, as fast as it is, can actually be managed. Various demographics groups carry different risks, that’s true and should not be minimized, but by now everybody agrees that it’s less deadly than Ebola or HIV.
The main pain point is actually resource allocation.
Because this specific virus spreads really fast and because we don’t have yet a vaccine in place, the health system is overloaded. It’s almost like a DDoS attack, so many people get infected so fast, that, even if their problems are mild, just the sheer number of patients who need medical care is overwhelming.
If the current health system was flexible enough, we wouldn’t have had any problem scaling it up and accommodate these spikes. So any new threat would have been met with just the right amount of resources.
So why isn’t this happening? Why are we so advanced in so many areas, but at the health care system we seem to be in a state equal with the one we used to be in 500 years ago. How is this even possible?
An Outdated Social Model
Well, I think it’s not about tech here, it’s simply about rules. Society rules, to be more precise.
The ways our world function still favors slow responses in areas which should be, by now, faster and more flexible.
Let me explain.
First of all, the resource allocation timeframe is slow. In advanced democracies, resources are evaluated and allocated every 4 years, when a new leadership is chosen. We call this elections. Of course, there is a certain dynamic that makes the process more or less seamless, but the actual allocation is done really slow. A pandemic can grow and evolve in just a couple of months. Health care systems are designed, implemented and upgraded every few years (in the fortunate cases). So there is simply this inertia in the way resources can reach the places where they are actually needed.
Second, resource allocation is centralized. That’s how representative democracy works: we delegate other people to take care of some of our needs. These structures are by definition centralized. Which means they are slow and bloated. So, on top of the slow resource allocation generated by the election process, we also have this long communication line between the top level and local structures. When there is an emergency, these structures can be bypassed and in this case it happened via the “emergency state” shortcut – the army took over, basically. But this is still a centralized, slow process.
And third, we’re dealing with centuries long resource misplacement. I’m talking about war. Specifically, war between humans. Many honest historians will agree that war – or spending for the state armies – was, like it or not, at the root of some very precious technological advancements. The very system that allows you to read this – the internet – was once a military project. I’m not advocating for violence, far from me, and I strongly believe that war is totally useless, I’m just pointing out that simply from a pragmatical point of view, trying to mitigate potential threats from other humans resulted, eventually, in some useful stuff.
But we’re now entering a new type of war. One in which the enemy is not another community, but an all-in threat that is equal for every human. And we’re putting way less attention to this war than we should. We have military technology capable of destroying other humans in seconds, but we’re helpess in front of a few proteins linked together. The rise of this virus showed a surprising (and shocking) truth: we’re way more vulnerable, as a species, to an outbreak than to an old-fashioned war. Which makes the huge amount of resources we’re still allocating to military spending surreally useless.
Filling The Gap
I think there is a very clear gap between our current society rules and other parts of our civilization. The way we function in organized structures is obsolete. Something needs to change here and I think it will change fast.
Have no idea how this will happen and even less about how will this new society look like and function. But judging by the sheer difference in technological advancements between Middle Age and now, I think we’re in a for a wild ride.