The Future of Coronavirus: A Modest Proposal

George Friedman’s thoughts in and around geopolitics.

By: George Friedman

When the coronavirus became a significant threat in the United States, I posited a model comprising three parts – the medical, the economic and the social – overseen by a political component. The problem as I saw it then was that the medical solution would take time to implement, before which there would be economic dislocation followed by a recession and then a depression. The longer it lasted, the worst things would get, the government stimulus and relief packages notwithstanding.

The key problem was the social, because the only medical solution available was that the entire structure of social life be redesigned to limit the spread of the virus. Social distancing and lockdowns struck hard at social life, from shutting down schools to prohibiting social interaction among youths and forbidding gatherings among adults.

However necessary, it has transformed society into a dangerous place. Every person we encounter is a threat, your best friend may carry, unknown to him, the thing that may kill you.

These disruptions in ordinary human intercourse impose a price on society and on institutions.

Socialization was dangerous, but there are also dangers in giving up these things.

Consider a child of five or six. Among the most important things the child learns at school is that the world he has entered outside his home is far less impressed by him, and capable of being aggressive. Learning to live in a world like this takes a lifetime for some, but the most important thing in early education is learning how to deal with others like you.

That cannot be learned over Zoom. Learning to carve out your place among first graders is the first chapter that leads you to learning your place in later life. It teaches you how to exist and flourish in society.

By the time you are, say, 12, you have learned many lessons, some to your joy and others to your sorrow. I learned in the second grade that crying in public is not something boys do. It was my first lesson in courage.

And I also learned that a girl called Evelyn was wonderful, although it took me many years to learn why this was so. Going to school, year after year, teaches you about life, brick by brick.

Yes, I learned to read and count, but the most important thing I learned was that my parents' love did not extend to others, and that some were friends and others enemies and others competitors.

The lessons can be delivered over Zoom, but the sound and smells of an alien world cannot.

Some of this can be skipped, and homeschooling can provide socialization in other ways, but children must be with children and must be with them a long time. What school teaches is how to live in the world; a child who is raised in isolation in a home will not learn that.

A family is not the world, and growing up with only that as a point of reference will leave you either a lost soul or an egomaniac – or both. A year probably doesn’t hurt much, but with all the uncertainty surrounding the delivery of a potential vaccine, and with the continued insistence that social isolation is the safest path, a year can grow into several.

Emerging into the world filled with other children who have never been in a crowd of children opens the door to massive social dysfunction. Over time the cost of this can be staggering.

As expected, the social system is rebelling. The opening of a bar was the opening of a universe that had been closed. The crowds on a Florida beach certainly knew what they were risking. What brought them there was not only the desire for the water but an uncontrollable need to be in a crowd, and hear yelling and music and feel the sense of bumping into some.

Avoiding disease spread is of course vital. But humans are social animals, so when avoiding disease collides with social necessity, a vast cost is incurred on all sides. There are those who make no compromise in fighting disease, and others who are entirely opposed to abandoning a robust social life. Over time, neither of them can win.

But we might be able to approach the matter differently than we have. Death is rare to uncommon in those below the age of 70, after which death is a possibility if far from a certainty.

For those below the age of 70, the cost of contracting an unpleasant disease but regaining a social life may well be worth it.

This is particularly true of school-aged systems. Those over the age of 70, therefore, should quarantine themselves rather than having all society quarantine.

Given the trillions already spent, the government can be generous in providing them with a graceful retreat. And of course anyone of any age may choose to quarantine.

But quarantine is not for the entire society but rather those that must be protected because of the increased risk of death.

While this is my suggestion, my prediction is that social distancing will break down because it creates a life that is untenable. Social distancing would be fine if it had a reasonable terminal date, but it doesn’t. It would hold if there were confidence that a medical solution would soon come.

Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. But if it doesn’t, then the only safety will be in an unprecedented and enormously difficult way of life. Humans are not designed to live this way and will refuse to do so into a potentially vast or endless future. Life is the minimization of risks, and risks are coming now in multiple directions.

Society is already starting to break down. It can break down in a disorderly fashion, as has been the case, or in an orderly one. The current situation cannot be the permanent condition of our lives, and right now there is every reason to think it will be very long.

I am not a medical expert by any means. My expertise is in being human. I’ve done it for a long time. Watching my grandchildren grow up living life through Zoom makes me more afraid for their well-being than the coronavirus.

This disease is not going to go away soon, but the current treatment regime must be redefined.

It increases medical risk but will reduce social risk. Social risk cannot be dismissed or postponed.

It is here and will grow.

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