COVID-19 and the learning curve of pandemic preparedness

The informed citizen is an ideal but not the reality

Welcome to chapter one of the end of the world as we know it. Is today the tomorrow you should have prepared for yesterday?

On March 4th we published the preface to this current storm, suggesting you stock up on essentials, as we did not believe that containment would work, and we’re concerned with the consequences of an uninformed public and media. The lack of dedicated science reporters and the modest communication skills of scientists created conditions by which disinformation and general confusion would flourish.

In particular, not enough people understood or yet understand the exponential effect that we’re seeing unfold. That each day of inaction or ineffective action substantially impacts how long and how bad this pandemic will be.

Here we are 11 days later and already the world has changed substantially, evoking the sense that history is unfolding before us. Friday March 13th 2020 had little in common with Friday March 6th 2020.

In North America, Friday the 6th was as typical as any other, albeit with a mood of unease among those who consume news. Friday the 13th began with empty store shelves, a crashed stock market, travel chaos, and closing borders. It ended with most public institutions in Canada closing to the public: schools, government services, libraries, community centres, and even hockey rinks.

Now the world watches to see what the US will do. This will be the week that either the US Government is forced to take more drastic action or is able to get away with projecting calm and confidence in the face of a growing global (political and economic) crisis. YOLO!?

One of the key lessons we can learn at this early point in the crisis, is that pandemics demonstrate why Internet access should be free and unfiltered. Whether you’re like myself and have been curious to learn as much as you can, or maybe you’re like most people in the industrialized world, and you’ve been advised to practice social distance and stay/work at home, what is indisputable, is the indispensability of the Internet.

Tragically but unsurprisingly, the driving force in this current pandemic is ignorance. The mistake that government and public health officials are making is the assumption that everyone is a news consumer, or that there is such a thing as the informed citizen. The reality is quite the opposite.

As a news consumer, you may make this mistake as well. In a world of echo chambers and filter bubbles the default position is to assume that everyone is like you. That other people make similar efforts to stay informed and learn what they can do.

It’s also easy for me to assume that you’re a news consumer because you’re reading this newsletter. However the actions of the last week, even the last 72 hours, suggest that we can assume that news consumers are a minority of the population. That most people are for the large part uninformed, scared, and at least a few weeks behind the rest of us.

Part of what we’re witnessing is the Facebook effect applied to a crisis. The crisis itself is not a result of or by-product of Facebook, but it is made dramatically worse by the platform’s monopoly on information. A significant number of people only receive information about the world around them, and in this case the pandemic, via Facebook (and Instagram).

Which is why a lot of people found themselves entirely unprepared for the chaos that began to emerge at the end of this past week. Many people thought and probably still think that this isn’t a big deal, it’s just like the flu, and there’s no need to overreact.

When they saw images of long line ups, empty store shelves, and shopping carts full of toilet paper, they probably remained ignorant of what was going on, but felt compelled to do the same. The pandemic of panic that follows in the wake of the primary pandemic.

Perhaps this run on toilet paper and non-perishable foods was triggered by the profiteering that began earlier in the week. As more people realized the likelihood of chaos, they exercised their Costco business memberships to buy up what they could to turn around and sell at a massive markup on Amazon, Kijii, and elsewhere.

Even a slight advantage on the learning curve of pandemic preparedness can be profitable. Yet also an example of why these platforms need to be regulated to prevent such manipulative price gouging.

Or do we want to reward those who are willing to pay attention when everyone else is determined to remain dumb? Are there incentives that should be in place to encourage people to engage in the kind of research and forecasting that could and should predict this type of social and economic breakdown?

We’re now entering a phase of our society where Internet literacy will have an even greater role than it already has. Where one’s ability to use and navigate the Internet could literally translate into the difference between life and death. Between work and unemployment. Between social interaction and social isolation. Never before has your ability to connect with other smart and engaged people been so important.

What is encouraging about this moment is the unprecedented scientific collaboration and participation. Done on a scale that would be unimaginable a decade ago.

However it’s not just the authorities or the experts who are doing this. We all are.

I’m presently part of almost half a dozen, relatively spontaneous, collaborative intelligence networks seeking to understand and effectively respond to this current pandemic. The smallest is comprised of my immediate family, and the largest is a network of strangers all committed to sober analysis of what’s happening as it is happening.

These are all Internet based communities that are attempting to leverage available tools and information in a collaborative learning environment. If we assume that an effective means of addressing this pandemic is via relative self-isolation and social distance via working from home, then we’re all going to be part of collaborative intelligence networks whether for personal or professional purposes.

This is why the Internet is more important than ever. This is also why the Internet should be free, delivered by fibre optics, and without restriction. Our economy depends on it.

And fast, because our economy is in free fall. I’m calling this chapter one, as this is where the story begins. Chapter two is when the massive layoffs begin, and when the economy as we know it changes dramatically.

I think chapter two will begin this week. The key variable is going to be the United States. In the coming days we will get a sense of just how bad the situation is, whether the US health care system begins to strain, and what could still be done to slow it down.

That should give us a sense as to how long the pandemic may last before we can get it under relative control. How many months we’ll all have to be self-isolating, and whether more extreme measures will be warranted.

In the past couple of days I’ve had a similar conversation with a number of close friends and family members about travel. All assume that the international travel industry will continue to operate as they know it. It won’t.

I think the window for international travel is about to close. The airline industry as we know it will not survive. What emerges after the pandemic will probably be quite different. My advice has been, either move now, or prepare to remain where you are for the next few months, if not longer.

Pandemics like this are exponential, because the infection rate is so high, that what appears as normal and controllable, can quickly spiral out of control, unleashing chaos.

In moments like this public policy is crucial. Government response and leadership is essential. Given the current state of dysfunctional communication, an uninformed public, and a polarized society where government actions are rarely popular, I’m skeptical that we’ll get the public policies we need.

There are two key political questions we need to be discussing, in our homes, in our (online) communities, and on our social media (and that will be addressed in future issues of this newsletter):

What kind of society do we need during this transition? (Free housing, free health care, free Internet, free online education.)

What kind of society do we want when this is over?

Make no mistake, democracy is on the line here. Historically the rights of citizens and their ability to participate in the decision making of a crisis are limited and often ignored. Today we’re expected to self-isolate. Tomorrow we may need to expect a stricter lock down.

The credibility and viability of government is at stake, and we need mechanisms to not only ensure the citizenry is informed, but more importantly engaged, mobilized, and on side.

This newsletter is about the intersection of technology and democracy. Our Future Tools series delves into tools that encourage and enable participation, and our Future Fibre series looks at how communities create solutions that solve their Internet connectivity needs. As this pandemic continues to unfold, we’ll continue this work with an eye towards helping our readers get through this crisis and find productivity while working from home.

Like other media publications, our posts specifically about the pandemic, like this one, will be available publicly. The rest will be available via subscription, which we now need more than ever, given the economic hard times we’re entering. (As always, if you can’t afford a subscription, let us know, and we’ll work something out.)

We used to publish this newsletter every weekday morning at 7am. Given that the world and the work day are in transition, we will be as well. Newsletters will now be sent out immediately, without delay. Their frequency will depend upon events, needs, and our own health and well being.

2019 was the year of the prepper, only it wasn’t evident until 2020. Thankfully our subconscious was at least partially aware, and many of the pieces are in place to make it easier to survive this potentially sprawling pandemic. With that in mind, we recommend you subscribe to our partner newsletter, Herrleklaren, which showcases some of the initiatives we have underway on our rural property.

There are a lot of excellent resources circulating online, and a number of our members are actively sharing knowledge and analysis. Ken Chase and Corvin Russell are two Metaviews members who have been actively researching and sharing on Facebook. Add them if like me you’re a prisoner of FB. Circle Ghost has been sharing stuff for those of you on Mastodon.

Jeanette shared this Google Doc that was compiled by an anonymous person who attempted to translate the medical speak of a Doctor in Seattle.

If you’re a Metaviews member actively researching and sharing on this topic let me know or post a comment so I can share it back with our network.

Finally, here’s a relevant answer from the latest WHO press briefing from this past Friday regarding the necessary response speed required by Governments to properly address this pandemic (should start at the 30:37 mark):