COVID19 Chronicles


Every once in a while, I find myself reading my old posts on this blog. Often, it feels like I'm reading something written by a completely different person. But each time, it takes me back to that phase of my life. In that sense, this blog has been a personal time capsule of sorts. So it's only natural that I especially want to document this extra-ordinary time that we are all living through with the COVID19 Pandemic. I wanted to write down what I'm feeling right now because I want to look back on this phase.

So, how am I feeling right now? Last few months have felt like I'm standing on a beach, along with every other person in US. In January, we heard the crack of an earthquake on a distant island far off our coast. We heard it alright, we wished well for the people on that island but we largely told ourselves we had nothing to worry about. The tsunami soon started building up, the waters on our shore started receding. Some people even warned us about it, but we mostly paid no heed. Then in March, the wave hit our shore. We STILL did not fully grasp what was about to come. And now, as I write this on March 28th, 2020, the wave has torn through vast swathes of our land. We don't know when the waters will recede again, we don't know what it will leave in its wake. We are all hoping we'll stay afloat and survive this. That's what I feel like.

Last few weeks have made me reflect a lot. First and foremost, I feel tremendously privileged. To be able to even look at all of this through an academic interest, without feeling any existential dread in my heart, is a huge privilege. I feel privileged my family is back home together, in a stable part of India, with resources and family close-by if they need help. I feel privileged to be able to watch this unfold from the comfortable confines of a cozy apartment, with a fridge full of food. I feel lucky to have a job that allows me to work from home. I feel lucky to have a job, Period. I feel lucky I don't have obligations or responsibilities that keep me awake at night, if things were to go south. I feel lucky I'm not in the vulnerable age bracket, and that if I do get sick, lack of medical insurance will not be one of my worries. Most people going through this don't have these privileges.

Next, I feel astounded. Astounded at just how fast this has unfolded. When March started, it felt like an ordinary month in every way. There were less than 100 confirmed cases in US, it looked like the authorities had things under control, the markets were climbing new heights and a virus was not on most people's minds. A week later, things were very different. I had never maintained a daily journal but on Monday, 9th March, I started one. In the first entry, I wrote "Times feel extra-ordinary". The case count in US was 647 then. By Friday that week, on 13th March, we were told to work from home indefinitely till things improved. By Monday, 16th March, Michigan announced that all public places like Restaurants, pubs, schools, universities would be closed. By 23rd March, all non essential businesses were ordered to be shut down for in-person work. It's as if each week was a different lifetime. As I write this, the number of cases in US exceeded 100000. At the start of March, layoffs were not even remotely on my mind. As of today, 3 people I know have lost their jobs, along with 3 million people who filed for unemployment insurance in US as of last week. The pace of change in our society, our businesses, and our lives has been nothing I ever thought possible.
US COVID19 Cases till march 27th 2020 (source: US CDC)
I also feel curious. I had only read about cataclysmic events before. Growing up in Goa, India,  with both parents in stable jobs, I had never really felt any direct impact from any of the defining moments in my lifetime like the dot com boom/bust, 9/11 or the Great Recession of 2008. Over the years, as I read about these events and how it changed people's lives, I asked myself what I would do were I to be impacted by such events. Now I get to find out. The curiosity is on two fronts- as an investor and as a curious observer of society.

As an investor, this COVID19 pandemic is a unique opportunity for me. I'm invested enough in the markets now that I feel the heat from the current market volatility, but have the comfort of knowing that I have the time and freedom to wait this phase out as. So this has been a unique opportunity to try out the various investment philosophies as well as learning more about my own internal thought processes, my risk tolerance and my judgement. It's too soon to tell whether I made the right calls in this drop. As an investor, this has been a heck of a ride. The markets touched record highs as recently as mid-February 2020. At its peak in feb, the S&P500 was up nearly 30% in the last year. Since then, it has dropped precipitously, going back to the level it was 3 years ago in 2017. March has been full of headlines about the market breaking new records both in terms of the falls and the recoveries. There is just so much unknown at this point- When will this end? Which companies will survive this? Will the consumer behavior go back to what it was before? Or will this change be more plastic? How low will the market go? When do I buy more stock? When will the market recover? Will it even recover? Which companies do I Invest in? I don't know the answers to any of this and there's so much learning to do about each of those answers.

I also feel curious about the societal response to all of this too. I have read often that as tribal creatures, humans crave authority figures. Most of us need to be told what to do. There's comfort in instruction, in not having to make life-or-death decisions. Consequently, most do what their leaders tell them to do, without putting too much thought into what's right for their own good. The govts. of different countries have reacted very differently to this crisis and yet, for the most part, the citizenry of each country has mostly complied with the instructions given by their specific govt, and not what's necessarily best for them. They locked down when their govts told them it was harmful to go out, not before. They believe the WHO and CDC when it tells them they don't need a mask. They take the 6ft distance guideline for social distancing as an article of faith because that's the number the experts told them to abide by. It's a remarkable exhibit of how we perceive authority and expertise. We want to believe our leaders are competent, that they know what needs to be done.

Much ink has been spilled writing about how true leadership shines in moments of crisis. This one is the mother of all crisis. This crisis has revealed both the best and the worst of our leaders. I'm in awe of the enormity of decisions this crisis will force upon various leaders. As Aaron Levie tweeted below, this is a tremendous test of leadership for all institutions, large and small, as well as their leaders. Many won't make it through this. 

This experience has also made me think, really think, about how fragile our modern society is. We take it as an article of faith that our society just works. We don't think much behind the elaborate choreography of our world that makes possible our modern lifestyles and what happens when the music stops. This collective pause in our societies has brought this choreography into stark relief. As I write this, my hometown in India is under a complete lockdown, with people struggling to get their daily supplies, because so much of it comes from other states. Migrant workers in India's cities are walking hundreds of Kilometers to their villages because their survival in the city was precariously contingent on them having daily work. Hospitals in US are struggling with masks and PPEs because the country long ago 'optimized' their production capabilities out of this country. It all worked in good times, till it didn't.

I admit, I feel concerned. The health effects of this crisis are no doubt lethal. But I feel a lot more concerned about the economic effects of this crisis, as I expect that to be far more pervasive. We have never paused our societies for long periods before, certainly not over most of the world all at once. Economists are already expecting the unemployment and GDP hit from this event to far exceed anything most of us have lived through. For now, most also expect this to be short lived. But will it? Will the recovery lift all countries equally? Many are also predicting this will be the death knell of globalization, of unrestricted movements of goods and people across at least some borders. The 2008 crisis and the lack of punitive actions then had greatly fueled latent resentment amongst the general public in US. Will the fallout of this pandemic push them over the brink? The Indian economy was also on the verge of an economic slowdown even before this crisis. What will this do to that slowdown? 

I want to believe we will come out of this a better society. I'm seeing increasingly large number of people understanding, truly, viscerally understanding why healthcare insurance should not be tied to one's job. I hope this sparks discussions about the need for a better safety net for the less fortunate amongst us. I hope we will be more deliberate about our supply chains, about the importance of the 'unskilled' workers in our lives. To the more fortunate amongst us, this pause feels like a welcome breather; a chance to slow down, reflect, and put in perspective what matters. I hope this will inspire us to make lasting changes to our lives. I'm hoping our workplaces learn some lessons too. And I can't wait for the wealth of research to come out of this period, owing to the incredible opportunity it has afforded the researchers to see a slowed down world.

March 2020 has been extraordinary, to say the least, for a huge number of people around the world. If you ask anyone in the US who's old enough to remember 9/11, they will tell you exactly where they were on that day and how their lives changed after. This feels like it will be another such event, this time for all of us, around the world. Something we'll tell our grandchildren about. If you're reading this in 2020, what are you going through right now? Write it down in the comments below. This crisis is far from over. I have no clue what awaits us in the days to come. This may be a useful chronicling of this moment in time, if only for catharsis. Someday, hopefully in a brighter time, we will look back on this moment with awe.

And to our Medical workers, grocery shop workers, govt officials, law enforcement officers, delivery professionals, medical equipment makers and all those helping our society fight this battle, thank you!

Comments

  1. Indeed a very beautiful read Sagar. Very nicely put up. A lot of people in the world are either going through or will be going through the same phase soon. We have never seen something like this in our life time; economic slowdowns, health care infra falling apart, mass exodus, all of the nation's funds, primary and auxiliary forces diverted to damage control the ongoing pandemic. The world will be a changed place by the time this this threat has disappeared. Keep documenting and archiving these moments. It will serve as a grave reminder of a catastrophe in the times to come. Hoping you are all well and stay put where you are. Take care of yourself and stay strong, stay healthy.

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  2. Very well written Sagar. Looking forward to more of your chronicles. and hoping this prompts me to write some of my own.
    Been struggling hard to keep some semblance of a schedule only for it to be thrown awry by the whims of the world around every few days.
    Keeping fingers crossed in the hope that we emerge a better people. Like Arundhati Roy wrote, "The pandemic is a portal". Let us a hope it takes us to a better place.

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