The narrow path we must take

To overcome the threat we are faced by the coronavirus pandemic we must reject both fatalistic pessimism and blind optimism.

aerial photography of mountain top
A path along a mountain, photo credit to Alexandre Chambon on Unsplash

After many weeks of blindly denying there was or could be a problem America recognized the need for extraordinary measures to combat the spread of coronavirus. And yet, just two weeks after this realization pundits and political leaders have already given in to a fatalistic pessimism. Some are pushing the idea that nothing can be done now and we must get on with our lives, even if that costs lives. This attempt to “return to normalcy” or “save the economy” is, in effect, an admission of defeat.

Pessimism like this asserts a trade-off: we either have a sick economy and a healthy population or a healthy economy and a sick population. This presumed trade-off is fundamentally untrue. If we don’t succumb to pessimism, or cloud our vision with optimism, we can have both. The narrow path between them is a difficult one that will require sacrifices, but it is one that is possible, and more fundamentally, one that we must take.

The experience of other countries is instructive. Several have been faced with serious outbreaks, but have managed to control them. How they did it is no secret, much of it is online for you and I to read today! For example, here is China’s protocol for diagnosing and treating Covid-19, the WHO-China Joint Missions’ report, the former Premier of Taiwan sharing lessons learned, and South Korea’s sitting Prime Minister doing the same. Of course, each nation had its own flavor of response, but the plans went roughly like this: deploy mass testing to identify who is infected, use data to track the where they’ve been and who they might have been in contact with, quarantine those people too, use digital tools to strengthen the response, and be vigilant about a resurgence of cases.

China, where the virus originated, had an outbreak far worse than its neighbors and took more drastic actions, placing millions of people on lockdown and shutting down large parts of their economy across the country. But after several weeks of these extreme measures, a level of normalcy is returning, albeit with a heightened level of surveillance. Moreover, the experience of China’s neighbors, where most restaurants and businesses remain open, shows that even wide spread lockdowns are not necessary if resources are mobilized decisively and effectively in the early stages of an outbreak.

Unfortunately, we have missed the window for that mobilization in America and much of Europe. Our actions will need to be proportionally drastic with the scale of our outbreak. But as China, South Korea, and Taiwan have shown, the actions we take now need not be the status quo forever. With mass testing, smart usage of data, contact tracing, and leveraging digital tools we can return to some sort of normalcy, and our economy will hum back to life too. Of course, there remains a real possibility of a second wave here and abroad, so this vigilance will need to continue until a vaccine is ready.

A sustained vigilance is what we need, but what we do not have the will to carry out. Weeks ago the dominant mood was one of blind optimism that coronavirus wouldn’t strike here, and if it did, it would certainly “go to zero quickly.” Now fatalistic pessimism is being pushed by those saying our reaction is too late and the virus is too strong for us to do anything about it. Though blind optimism and fatalistic pessimism are extreme opposites, they both end in apathy. If outcomes were predetermined then there would be no need to act, and we could abdicate any responsibility for what is to come.

Faced with certain disaster, or a complete lack of threat, there would be no reason to work hard. If your actions don’t matter anyway then why put in the extra effort? Why work around the clock to find a cure, create a better diagnostic test, build an emergency hospital, distribute food, or scale ventilator production? Great leaders of the past have understood this and sought the narrow path to organize and energize people to meet the challenges of their times. President John F Kennedy, in tasking America to put a man on the moon, delivered these famous words:

We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills…

Today we must do the same and pursue a middle way that rejects both blind optimism and fatalistic pessimism. It is only by pursuing this narrow path, one that will be hard but possible, that we will be able to overcome the immense challenges we face and thrive in a period of restoration.

I’d like to thank Peter Thiel for the original framing of “extreme optimism and fatalistic pessimism,” which I have relied on here. I’d also like to thank Nehali Anupriya and Evan Piepho for reviewing this piece and providing their feedback.