Tuesday, August 4, 2020

2020 - The Lost Year

As 2019 drew to an end, we began learning about a weird, unknown virus hitting eastern China. At the time, like most, my family was more focused on the upcoming year. 

We were planning on growing our savings so we could buy a new home in 2021, we were preparing to visit some close friends in Florida, and we were looking forward to taking an international trip to celebrate my partner’s 33rd birthday.

Then the economy collapsed as that wired little virus turned into a monster. My partner was furloughed as Nashville shutdown, Florida became an epicenter of the pandemic in America, and thanks to rising case numbers, many countries won’t even let Americans visit anymore. And there’s still four months left to go in the year.

Individual years, decades, even whole generations have been referred to as “lost”.

During the American Civil War about 2% of the population was killed. By one estimate, over a fifth of all Southern men aged 20-24 died in the war. One hundred and fifty-five years later, the American south now seems to be bearing the brunt of COVID-19 as well.

World War I is said to have cost the “flower of European youth”, and World War II resulted in the worst carnage imaginable. But as bad as they are, wars are expected to cost lives and destroy families. Unfortunately, economies can too.

During the Great Recession, approximately 10,000 people took their own lives in the US and European Union, and countless millions had their worlds turned upside down from the hardship. Japan “lost” an entire decade from 1991 to 2001 as economic stagnation took over and the country couldn’t crawl its way back to the prosperity that had marked the second half of the twentieth century.

But, from Japan’s lost decade to the lost generation of Europe, one thing all of these examples share is that they’re local or regional. The American Civil War was, well, American. Even a global war like WWII didn’t actually rage across every inch of the planet. No battle was fought in Nigeria and the harbor of Rio De Janeiro was never a prime target of Hitler’s. COVID-19 on the other hand has swept every corner of the globe.

Unlike artillery shells whizzing by that you can hear (and even see), trillions of invisible viral bullets permeate our environment, waiting to take another victim. And in the battle against it, we have been forced to alter the lives of far more people than were ever affected by war.

From the gay couple living near Nashville, Tennessee trying to survive the entertainment industry shutdown of “Music City USA” to the citizens of Mumbai, India where upwards of half the population living in its sprawling slums may have contracted the virus, it seems no place has gone untouched.

With four months in the year left and 4.6 million US cases already, it’s not unreasonable to suspect the United States will have 9 million cases by Christmas, and that a million people will have died worldwide.

Economically, US GDP fell 32.9% (the worst quarterly drop ever) and that trend is being seen everywhere. The European Union has entered into a recession and the World Bank predicts that Russia’s economy will contract by 6% (deepening their economic crisis). In fact, the World Bank predicts that the global economy will shrink by a combined 5.2%, “with the largest fraction of economies experiencing declines in per capita output since 1870.”

COVID-19 has resulted in a lost year in more than just Brazil or Europe or in rich countries or poor countries. It has taken away an entire year of family plans and of people’s education and graduations, a year of savings and a year of vacations, it has placed millions at risk of eviction and caused emergencies throughout the medical community as routine screenings go unperformed and patients stay at home with their chronic illness rather than risk catching COVID-19 by seeing their doctor for regular care.

It has done this everywhere. On every continent, every country. Even in the few with no reported cases, the effects of COVID-19 have probably touched more individual lives in one way or another than any other pandemic in history.

The upshot is that while 2020 may be a lost year for many, it doesn’t have to be a genuinely lost year in terms of the lives of thousands and thousands of others. And COVID’s death and economic ruin doesn’t have to carry on into another lost year and beyond.

Managing economies made up of millions of businesses and billions of customers is complicated. Managing a pandemic is actually pretty simple. 

It may take a few years at a university to learn about things like “behavioral economics” but the blueprint for controlling infectious diseases has its foundations dating back to the Plague – the one that burned through Europe 667 years ago.

We know how to limit the damage of outbreaks without having a vaccine. It was done with polio, it is being done with HIV/AIDS, it has been done with each Ebola recurrence, and it can definitely be done with COVID-19. The specific rules may vary depending on the exact disease, but in each case those rules can fit onto a single note card. For the current pandemic that has stolen so much and is trying to steal so much more, the rules are basic:

1. Everyone sneezes or coughs on their hands, so wash yours

2. Don’t make it easy to spread, so socially distance yourself

3. Assume you have it, so wear a mask while around others

4. And don’t let false information stand in the way of keeping others safe

These are fundamental to stopping a disease like COVID-19, and that’s what makes them so effective. If we collectively can’t follow such simple tasks for the benefit of others, then 2020 won’t be the last lost year.

For my family, the jury is still out whether we will be able to safely see our friends (as Florida grapples with continual daily case records) or if a new house is coming next year, but we will keep looking out for each other the way all families are supposed to.

--Jacob Bogle, 8/4/2020

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