Open Letter To Family
I wrote this to my family back in New Zealand.
I wanted to share it with your readers, hoping it may help them understand what’s happening. In ordinary times, I wouldn’t dare. However, these are no longer such times.
I feel a responsibility to write to you because my circumstances mean I am a little closer to the eye of the storm than some.
Right now I am simply around people whose thinking is contributing to America's actions.
From what I’ve seen, I’m concerned about a coming surge of infections. We can see that in the global numbers.
This surge could overwhelm existing capacities if we all don’t observe very strict distancing rules. You should be prepared physically, mentally and emotionally for major changes in your lives.
This surge is the result of policies being implemented by governments around the world.
The following is my rough attempt to explain where we are at and why as a result of implementing these policies. There is a rigorous logic to our current circumstances.
It is an oft-heard saying at Harvard’s Kennedy School that, with such a concentration of supposedly great thinkers, all the world’s problems end up here.
My observation from historical antecedents is that “Ivy League” thinkers are often accused of causing at least as many problems as they have purported to solve.
In addition, personally I thought I didn’t need any more of the world’s problems. Had enough already thanks.
However, the problems attendant on coronavirus are perhaps more significant than we have seen in our lifetimes. One professor here this week has said that it may turn out to be the greatest disaster we’ve faced since World War 2.
Decisions are Coming –
I want to share what little I know from being here at a fulcrum point.
As always, please draw your own conclusions.
Please actively seek out the facts in a deluge of opinion, hype and lack of media accountability.
Whether it’s now or in a few weeks, the facts will require you to make decisions.
What happens will depend on the decisions you make and how these individual decisions aggregate to create collective consequences.
For now, I’m staying in America.
Although I’m reviewing my own decision on a daily basis. This morning I cancelled my graduation gown order.
This is a novel virus. It is much more contagious than the flu.
Humankind has no known immunity to it.
The death rate appears to be averaging about 3% based on more than 245,000 people known to be infected around the world right now.
We do not know the real rate of infection. Information on coronavirus is politicized and has been withheld in some countries.
Some population segments are more exposed than others. However, infection rates appear to be climbing amongst younger people who are not observing social distancing practices.
There are other unknowns.
It appears we cannot as yet guarantee that recovery delivers immunity.
We cannot know whether coronavirus will mutate as it progresses through our diverse populations.
The virus is already well established in many of the world’s nations. But we don't know its extent because of insufficient testing.
Further spread will depend on the extent of human use of isolation measures. These are related to: a) understanding b) commitment c) enforcement.
The effects of coronavirus represent an economic shock that is unprecedented in rapid impact and breadth.
It is impacting both the supply/production as well as the demand sides of our economies.
Traditional fiscal policy tools enabling direct government intervention, and what monetary policy tools we have available to us, have less effect where supply is reduced by restricting human production activity.
In 2020 this is made worse because interest rates were low anyway, we have high consumer debt loads and workers have less personal financial savings to absorb job losses and other negative impacts of an economic downturn.
Today a published Goldman Sachs report is forecasting Australia will suffer the sharpest annual GDP contraction since the Great Depression of the 1920s. New Zealand will not be far behind. This will be driven by a collapse in public consumption and discretionary spending.
“Third Wave” Risks –
In addition, there are many developing countries, including Pacific nations, who do not have the fiscal strength to borrow and offset the costs they will incur in fighting the effects of the virus. For them, flattening the curve will be more costly.
They may be faced with not fighting the virus so hard.
You cannot put off for long the decision between certain starvation and possible infection.
These countries will need special support. Otherwise, their lack of economic strength may mean we see regional pockets of coronavirus with much higher infection and death rates. This could, from a self-interest standpoint, create subsequent flow-on imported waves back to wealthier neighbors. We’re in this together.
The same is true for a “third wave” of vulnerable groups such as refugees, migrants and those in zones of crisis already facing war and famine.
Coronavirus is moving fast.
Confirmed cases around the world are up by some 23,000 (or almost 10%) in the last 12 hours.
A week ago I was happily completing lectures and preparing for a much-anticipated Spring semester holiday. 8 days later New Zealand has sealed its border for the first time in its history, financial markets are crashing, countries around the world are putting their economies on life support and implementing lockdowns of their citizens.
This stuff fills the news. It is relentless and constantly growing in impact.
In Massachusetts, as in 47 other States of America, a state of emergency has been declared.
This gives the State government wide-ranging powers that may yet lead to restricting all activity outside the home as has occurred in Italy and China.
As I write, California’s governor has just ordered his state’s 40 million residents to stay at home except for essential activities.
In just 8 days I have seen all universities, libraries, schools, churches, museums, restaurants, bars, gyms, pools, cinemas, theatres and public entertainment shut down for a minimum of 3 weeks.
What shops are open are operating on shortened hours, apart from supermarkets and pharmacies. Yesterday I was shouted at for not being 6 feet away from the customer in front of me.
As back home, panic-buying has led to empty aisles. Now I visit the supermarket daily.
If these things have not happened where you are, be prepared as they are likely to occur.
They can happen very fast. They are life-changing. You will need to adapt.
But in response, please avoid panic hoarding.
It hits the poor hardest and has resulted here, as elsewhere, in a hollowing out of choices for those who may need help most. Everything extra you buy today is something someone else may need far more than you.
How We’re Responding –
We’ve seen South Korea and China appearing to reduce their infection rates.
This has been achieved by a number of measures, including lockdowns and social distancing, intended to “flatten the curve”.
This is what the US and New Zealand are pursuing now.
The aim is to avoid the terrible consequences being suffered by Italy, which now has the highest death rate in the world.
The logic of this flattening is to ensure there are fewer cases at any one time.
It prevents health systems being overwhelmed, allows for more testing, creates a window to build up medical supplies and increases the chance of better treatment.
It also means that many infections can be delayed, in the hope that by the time these subsequent infections occur a vaccine will be available.
Current estimates suggest 12 – 18 months for a viable vaccine.
Many of our best scientific minds are hard at work to reduce this timeframe. However, until we know better, we should project a minimum 18-month impact.
We also need to be realistic. The shape and duration of the curve will depend on capacity in our health systems. Chronic shortages and longstanding underfunding will add to the pressure.
We have moved online. But a word of warning. The vast increase in content flows in the last several weeks is stress-testing the Internet, and particularly the “last mile” connections to your house, on a scale never before attempted.
The Internet was not built for this. However, we also have the capacity to fix on the fly as never before.
What Our Response Means –
Flattening the curve by cancelling economic activity and restricting human activity through social distancing and home isolation creates risks.
Flattening the curve does not guarantee that less people will be infected.
It will not of itself end coronavirus. Not unless we develop a herd immunity. Social distancing will not achieve this.
Rather, flattening the curve delays the infection peak and extends the infection curve over a longer period.
It has significant economic consequences which are amplified by layoffs, loan defaults and declining demand in certain sectors.
We may expect that this flattening could encourage waves of infection as people regroup after periods of time apart.
We will need to be prepared for disruption to our lives over an extended period.
We must be prepared for a gradual restarting of the economy. Certain sectors that are more people-intensive or crowd dependent may be delayed.
We must also be prepared for the reappearance of inflation. Toilet paper, ventilators and face masks are initial examples of excess demand driving up pricing.
Silver Linings –
These are emerging already.
We are finding creative and often very funny ways to cope, repair and restart.
We won’t starve. Creative sharing over the Internet is soaring.
This is becoming an amazing time to learn and experiment. Many fresh insights into how we can live and work will emerge.
Schools are out and exams are being cancelled. I used to dream this would happen.
The crisis is revealing vulnerabilities in the way our society works. These vulnerabilities carry fresh costs we are being asked to bear.
But it is likely that our world order will eventually be reorganized, once the emergency is over, in new and exciting ways.
The vulnerabilities will have to be addressed, the costs offset and better support provided to smaller nations and the “third wave” vulnerables.
Self-interest will drive greater regional cooperation. It is adjusting the political balance here in the US.
Pollution levels caused by economic activity are falling away in some of the most congested environments on earth. We will be challenged to sustain these reductions.
We will certainly have to find a renewed sense of community and social responsibility. It will be needed if we are to flatten the curve.
Economic responses may provide moral, if not economic justifications, for revisiting our social security safety net and considering more universalized wage support for those most in need.
Our children and grandchildren and young relatives will see there are new ways to live that they can pursue in their lives.
Take responsibility for yourself, your families and your communities.
Take this virus and its impacts very seriously.
Don’t become complacent just because borders are now closed. We are in a new world.
Current strategies pursued by the world’s leading governments mean this crisis will not be over quickly and will have significant economic impacts. It will destroy a lot of wealth and put all our livelihoods at risk.
Make the effort to know the facts. Follow expert advice. Balance optimism and realism.
Know we’ve been here before. Believe we will emerge stronger.
I would be failing in my duty as a student of leadership and government unless I shared what I knew and practiced what I am learning. Thank you. And Godspeed. See you at virtual happy hour.
Martin is a current Master of Public Administration student at Harvard Kennedy School of Government and the recipient of a NZ Churchill Fellowship.