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The Pandemic Endgame
Three Scenarios You Probably Haven't Thought of Yet
thanks to S.S. for the provocation
Imagination is Scarce
Imagination has been even scarcer during this pandemic than empathy, critical thought, or toilet paper.
When the Hollywood storyline failed to manifest— you know, the one in which the American heroes invent a vaccine that solves everything— most succumbed to believing that “the pandemic is as over as it’s gonna be.”
It’s possible to dig up more hopeful possibilities.
Maybe the pandemic will end with the widespread use of Far UV 22 lights. Or with the discovery of pan-variant sterilizing vaccines. Or when air quality monitors are installed as routinely as smoke alarms. But without representations of real, broad-based alternatives, it’s all too easy to fall into doomsday thinking.
The truth is we live in a complex and interconnected world.
The trouble is that the info-storm destroys our ability to think broadly, complexly, and imaginatively about the end of the pandemic. What I offer here isn’t prophecy or prediction. Rather, they’re exercises in imagination — a human faculty that is crucial to hope, action, and change.
So here are three positive pandemic endgame scenarios that are totally wild, yet totally plausible.
Wild Scenario #1: Artificial Intelligence for the Win
A.I. is all over the news for good reason: the rise of Large Language Models like GPT-4 are a watershed moment for humanity.
There’s already been promising applications of AI to the pandemic. For example, AI helped repurpose existing drug molecules for effective treatments for Covid. Multimodal medical applications of AI (as described by @Eric Topol) have even more potential. But they still set us up to consider illness through a biological lens, when we’ve seen that the trickiest part of the pandemic has to do with psychology and social behaviors. That’s the same domain where we’ll see the most mind-bogglingly widespread effects of AI. For example:
Education: AI is accelerating the trend toward personalized education, as with Khan Academy’s “Khanmigo” tutor. A.I. innovations will make homeschooling a pragmatic choice for more families, meaning less Covid school spread in the community. Plus, a homeschooled generation is a generation that won’t buy into the idea that infection is unavoidable.
Media: Corporate media is all over AI journalism and has been for a decade. As activists in the Covid Underground learn to use AI to create compelling articles, websites, bots, images, and memes, it will strengthen our side, amplifying our ability to build a movement for ending Covid.
Cultural norms: AI doesn’t care about social norms; often that’s dangerous or distressing. But human conformity has also been highly destructive during this pandemic. How might a rational, well-informed, non-conforming chatbot encourage humans to behave differently than most have so far?
The low-hanging fruit is A.I. applications that help humans do what we already do, faster. The real social changes will come with applications that exceed our current imagination.
Wild Scenario #2: Political Revolution
To many, it’s obvious that the failure to stop the spread of Covid-19 is symptomatic of a profound failure of our public institutions.
In the coming months or years, compounding crises — pandemic, war, economic collapse, not to mention plain old belly-aching hunger (thinking of the 40 millions who will lose food assistance when the emergency declaration ends on May 11) — might lead to a revamping of the existing political landscape. It’s scary, but historically plausible. For example,
The Great Plague in Bombay (now Mumbai) at the end of the 19th century helped solidify nationalist sentiment against the British.
The Spanish flu of 1918 is credited with helping reform labor rights and advance women’s power.
The failure to stop Covid-19 is symptomatic of a profound failure of our public institutions.
What kind of socio-political effect our 21st century plague will have is not foreordained. Pandemics have helped decrease religious sentiment (the plague of Athens in 430 BC) as well as increase it (Great Plague of London in 1665-1666). That means we should think strategically — and ambitiously — about the political change we want to effect.
What kind of socio-political effect our 21st century plague will have is not foreordained.
Wild Scenario #3: The Covid Underground Surfaces
Among the tech elite and political radicals, many believe we are already in the midst of a transition of authority.
God is dead and faith in the Nation-State is dying. What is next? Maybe “hyper-regionalism.” Maybe the network-state: a morally aligned population that is geographically decentralized but technologically connected. A population with solidarity, financial power and the capacity for collective action.
Could the Covid Underground become a network state?
Could the Covid Underground become a network state? We just need to connect the enclaves and communities forming (in NY, Minnesota, other safer states). Together, we’re growing our capacity for collective action, whether to demand the extension of masks mandates in medical facilities or to install Corsi-Rosenthal boxes in public libraries or build our own schools.
Like working solo? You can distribute free high quality masks the way bars hand out condoms or neighbors put up free library boxes.
In the next three years, the majority of the world population will be infected 6 or more times.
That leaves billions of survivors biologically aged, brain-fogged, bedbound, and betrayed by weakened immune systems. As in past pandemics, the millions of dead and disabled will create a labor shortage that empowers surviving workers.
Those who manage to minimize our Covid exposure will have the advantage in pushing for these changes.
We will start to see our numbers grow as more see the wisdom of avoiding reinfection. The underground communities, strategies, and rituals that we’re developing now will be positioned as a real alternative for those looking to exit the samsara of reinfection.
Dare to Dream
Like I said, these scenarios are an exercise in imagination— freedom-dreams, if you will.
When I look up at the night sky, I remember those weird balloons the government shot down and other unexplained aerial phenomena. I wonder how the confirmation of extraterrestrial intelligence would change our attitudes toward the virus, towards each other. Humans act more ethically when we know we are being watched. Would the presence of extraterrestrials inspire us to care for other humans?
Would the presence of extraterrestrials inspire us to care for other humans?
I’d love to know how you dream the future without Covid, too— or vote for your favorite.
Just reply to this email or leave a comment.
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