By Luigi Zingales
CHICAGO – If an evil mind were to engineer the perfect virus to wipe out an animal species, it would choose the optimal combination of transmissibility and infection fatality rate. But to eliminate humanity, the evil mind would have to develop a virus capable of neutralizing human responses to it – not just individual responses (which are insufficient to deal with a pandemic) but collective ones, too. A perfectly engineered killer virus thus would be able to exploit the inefficiencies in our collective decision-making. As it happens, that is what the SARS-CoV-2 virus appears to have achieved.
If we do not believe in intelligent design, we should not believe in evil design either. Still, Darwinian evolution tells us that survival pressure will eventually generate more effective viruses. Many new viruses have jumped from animals to humans, but none in the last 100 years was as devastating as SARS-CoV-2.
Yes, COVID-19 is less lethal than Ebola and less infectious than the common cold. When the more lethal Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) first appeared in 2012, it was contained and largely eliminated within the space of just a few months. Why, then, has COVID-19 proved so elusive? Because it plays to the weaknesses of our institutions. And in so doing, it provides a useful lesson in what we must fix in order to tackle future existential threats.
For starters, the coronavirus’s exponential progression challenges the reactive nature of democratic institutions. Just as it took the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor to drag the United States into World War II, it took the collapse of Lehman Brothers to prompt the US government to organize a response to the global financial crisis. “The Americans,” according to a quotation often misattributed to Winston Churchill, “can always be trusted to do the right thing, once all other possibilities have been exhausted.”
This strategy works well in a linear context, but it is extremely risky in an exponential one, where doing the “right thing” may be much more difficult when the response is delayed. Though all viruses tend to grow exponentially if left unchecked, the asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic spread of COVID-19 made it much more difficult to handle.
Difficult, but not impossible. Nowadays, we have the technology to track people’s movements and interactions, but liberal democracies generally do not want to use it. A Catholic media site was recently able to trace the sexual escapades of a high-ranking priest simply by using commercially available cell-phone data. Google and Facebook can do just about anything to target their ads. Yet, in a democracy, the same technologies seem to be not available to save lives.
The unequal effects of COVID-19 throughout the population also are very effective at weakening the political response to it. Mounting a collective response would have been easier if the mortality rate was similar across age groups; but it isn’t. Until the Delta variant emerged, a twenty-something was more likely to be struck by lightning than to die of COVID-19. By contrast, for an octogenarian, the COVID-19 fatality rate approaches that of smallpox.
An effective common response to the pandemic requires a shared sense of belonging. For example, Americans who benefited from New Deal welfare programs in the 1930s were more willing to enroll as volunteers in World War II. But many young people today feel increasingly marginalized in the economy, and hold older generations responsible for their plight. Should we be surprised that they are so unwilling to sacrifice the best years of their lives to protect the old?
Although Asia’s more collectivist societies did much better than many Western countries in combating the first phase of the pandemic, they fared less well in developing and securing enough doses of COVID-19 vaccines. This underscores the fact that vaccine development depends on scientific capabilities, not those of political institutions. Unsurprisingly, the most scientifically advanced countries, including the US, the United Kingdom, Germany, and China, were at the forefront of the vaccine research and development effort.
COVID-19’s asymptomatic spread and markedly varied lethality across demographic groups would have been bad enough on its own. But the problem has been compounded horribly with the West’s broken media system, resulting in maximal confusion.
In the US, a foreign enemy could not have done a better job of spreading false rumors and hysteria about the virus, especially in the early phases of the pandemic when a collective response would have been most effective. How many times did we hear the phrase “it’s just the flu,” and not only on social media? On February 26, 2020, a month after Wuhan had been locked down, the Journal of the American Medical Association was still comparing COVID-19 to the flu. As a recent interview with Dominic Cummings, the former chief adviser to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, revealed, this misinformation impaired decision-making at the highest level.
The coronavirus’s constant mutations could mean that the existing COVID-19 vaccines will be insufficient to eliminate the pandemic. The Indian government’s response (or lack thereof) to the virus greatly affected both that country and the rest of the world. If it is so difficult for the US to marshal a common response, developing one at the level of the United Nations seems impossible.
Commerce and communications may now be global, but governance is not. If we want to continue living in a global economy, we need to develop an effective system of global governance.
This is the biggest lesson from COVID-19. A global economy makes local problems global. Even if we can muddle through this pandemic, we cannot necessarily muddle through the next one – or through other problems like climate change, which also have an exponential and uneven impact and require global solutions. If we do not learn this lesson, our species deserves to become extinct.
Luigi Zingales is Professor of Finance at the University of Chicago and co-host of the podcast Capitalisn’t.