“What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves.”
On Friday evening, March 13, 2020 I went out to dinner with my family. It was my birthday and we sat in a crowded restaurant but we knew something was coming. The stock markets had already started dropping, and with the first cases in the country; Seattle had already begun lock-downs as had many other places around the world. Little did we realize that week was the last one in which my oldest daughter, Class of 2020, would set foot in her High School as a student. Schools were closed starting that Monday, and restaurants and retail would shut down the following week. Like everyone else, I expected this to be a couple weeks, maybe a month. I don’t need to tell any of you that it has been much longer than a month. This marks the one-year anniversary of Covid becoming an actual event in all our lives – not just a weird disease that was affecting some people half a world away. It’s certainly not possible to fully process how much this past year will affect the rest of our lives. The changes in the way people live and work could have dramatic long-term effects on how we all do those things into the future – or maybe – things do go back to how they were before. We really don’t know. But I thought after a full year we would look at some positives and negatives that we have definitively learned since last March.
As for negatives, the most tragic stories I’ve heard have been about people who were sick and alone in hospitals, sometimes even dying alone. As if that wasn’t bad enough, many people were in the hospital without others knowing about it. Under the HIPPA guidelines, hospitals can’t notify people of a hospitalization without express consent. You can have a health care proxy which lets your spouse or kids make medical decisions for you if you cannot make them yourself and of course allows them to be notified of your situation, but that only covers the people on that document. What about the church, or social club, or friend group you have? Who lets them know you are in the hospital or god forbid, you passed away? Over this past year I have heard several instances where this type of thing has happened and it has caused me to change a piece of advice I’ve been giving for years. I have always advocated having a “Doomsday File” for your children. I realize the name is kind of tongue and cheek, but the idea was to have an easily accessible file, maybe somewhere obvious or a distinct color in your regular filing box or cabinet. In this file you have the documents and the contact information your children would need if you were hospitalized or passed away. So, your legal docs, plus how to contact your attorney, accountant, financial advisor, doctor and perhaps the funeral home where you may have already made arrangements or have paid for a service. This is still a good idea, but it needs to be updated, especially for those of you who retired to the Cape or other location that was not where your kids grew up. Because this is what happens; you pass away and the kids contact the attorneys and advisors and all that is working fine – but they put the obituary in the Hartford Courant or the Patriot Ledger – because to them you’re from Farmington, CT or Norwood, MA. They may not know about the life you’ve made for yourself in your retirement town and your friends who are reading the obits in the Cape Cod Times or Sandwich Enterprise may not find out about your passing for several months. Add to that Doomsday file all the people you want contacted if you are in the hospital or have passed, maybe even your Facebook password so your kids can alert everyone about what is happening. I know that nobody wants to think about passing away and this is an easy thing to put off for another day – but if this last year has taught us anything it’s that anything can happen so it’s best to be prepared.
When Genghis Khan’s Mongol army finished its advances, it ruled an empire that stretched from the Korean Peninsula to the Tigris River of modern Iraq in the South and parts of modern-day Poland in the north. With this territorial expansion came direct trade between China, India, Europe and the Middle East. This contact brought information about engineering, mathematics, and astronomy that ultimately lead to the Renaissance in Europe a few centuries later, but it also brought rats and fleas and the Bubonic Plague that may have killed more than half of Europe’s population. While Covid is thankfully nowhere near as deadly as past plagues, partially due to modern hygiene and medicine and partially because we got lucky, it came to us in a familiar way. Global trade networks allowed a disease that was isolated in literally the middle of China to spread to every corner of the world in a couple of months. Those same trade networks were also disrupted by the disease and we became acutely aware of how interconnected our manufacturing has become. From computer chips, to rare earth metals to pharmaceutical components to small auto parts, these disruptions led to shortages, which led to empty shelves. The amazing success of on-demand inventory, meaning a factory wouldn’t have more than a couple day’s components on hand, meant than when shipping was disrupted by a week and then a month, whole industries had to shut down – compounding the shutdowns for safety reasons. An interconnected world was supposed to be a more stable one, can’t get your parts from China, just shift to a place in Bangladesh, but in reality, it may be a more fragile one, as more and more there is no other supplier in another country. This may ultimately lead to some wonderous things in automation, 3-D printing, and the “on shoring” of more manufacturing in the United States, but in the meantime, it has shown us that our international trade networks, as well as many other aspects of our economic and political lives, may not be as robust as we expected.
But there are positives. The lock-downs have forced many of us personally and many companies to embrace technology that will make doing business easier going forward. I’ve had a lot of zoom meetings with some non-profit organizations I’m involved with over this past year. Early on all the jokes and parodies of bad zoom meetings were actually taking place; people muted without realizing it, people not being able to get their video to work, bad lighting, barking dogs – family members going to the bathroom in the background – all the worst stuff. But man have we learned, the last few I’ve been on have run like a top. While I know we all want to be around our friends and families in person, and give them hugs and slap them on the back – it’s nice to know we have this other way of staying in touch for the future. Nobody will ever miss a Wedding or a Graduation again, since now they can at least watch a live stream. On the corporate side it has forced the more luddite of organizations, especially Government entities and Insurance Companies, to accept virtual signatures and DocuSign forms. This is a real game changer and at least personally, will allow us to do business much more efficiently and easily no matter where our clients happen to be located. It also means, that we don’t have to restrict our marketing to new clients in the general Southeastern Massachusetts areas. So, if you know people you live near in Florida or you have family in another State that might need our services, let us know. We can meet through zoom, open accounts with DocuSign and be anywhere in the world for either of those things.
The most compelling positive is probably the speed of the rollout of these vaccines. Going from identifying a new disease to having a tested, authorized and effective vaccine in under a year is amazing. The mRNA technology that was used to produce many of the vaccine varieties seems like a huge game changer in controlling viral spread, not just because of how effective it is, but also because of the speed with which massive amounts can be produced. Smallpox killed over 500 Million people in the 20th Century, and a vaccine against the disease was available over that entire time. It took a concerted effort over more than 20 years, from the end of WWII until the last known case of Smallpox in 1967, to eradicate this horrible disease from the world. Covid is of course nowhere near as lethal as Smallpox, so there is probably no need to work toward total elimination, but going from disease to perhaps vaccine derived herd immunity in less than two years is the stuff of science fiction. There is now work being done using this same technology to produce a Malaria vaccine. The current Malaria vaccine, manufactured using more traditional techniques, is only about 30% effective and requires four shots. Scientists are very optimistic that this mRNA technology can overcome the unique qualities of Malaria that make it unresponsive to other vaccine types. Further, the relatively short-time line for producing vaccines using mRNA technology should make it viable to develop vaccines for rarer diseases, which don’t pose a world-wide pandemic threat, but nonetheless devastate certain areas of the world. After more than half a century without a serious disease to worry about, we had become complacent about the threat of disease – even as it is responsible for more deaths than any other thing in human history except maybe old age. Ironically, the response to Covid may actually make us safer from viral disease than we ever have been just as it becomes something, we all suddenly fear again.
I really hope everyone out there is doing okay. This is almost over. I should have had my first vaccine shot before this newsletter comes out, and get my second before the April edition hits your inbox. With all the understandable complaints about the vaccine rollouts, and the difficulty getting an appointment, as of this writing over 15% of the country has gotten at least one dose of a vaccine. And Massachusetts, which was 48th in the country in percentage of people vaccinated at the end of January, managed to move all the way up to 6th in the country by the end of February. Nate Silver at five-thirtyeight.com crunched the numbers at our current pace and thinks we could very well have 70% of the population completely vaccinated by the end of April – even with some supply bottlenecks we will almost certainly be there by June. That’s now only a few months away! So, stay safe, get your vaccine, and I very much hope to see all of you in person sometime in the next few months.