[ Question ]

What are the long-term outcomes of a catastrophic pandemic?

by Matthew Barnett2 min read1st Mar 20207 comments



Wei Dai now writes,

The world is probably going to lose 5 2.5-10% of its population (380 190-760 million, see here for the reason for my edit), worse than the Spanish flu even on a percentage basis.

I have some questions about this conclusion and I'm still unsure whether to treat this sort of argument very seriously. But suppose it does come out that between 2.5% to 10% of the world population will die. What are likely results?

I have speculated some of the following. Let me know whether anyone here would agree with my tentative reactions. If the death rate is towards the upper end of 10%, my reactions are probably conservative as I see worse things also happening. Individually I expect each to happen with >50% probability conditional on the above death rate:

  • Net negative GDP growth for 2020, with a 5% or more contraction, making this pandemic much worse than any financial crisis in recent memory (including the 2008 financial crisis).
  • Scientific progress is slowed down, and some technologies take a few more years to come out than they otherwise would have. These include artificial intelligence, plant based meats, anti-aging medicine. This is good if you think that the serial time for AI safety must be lengthened, but bad if
    • you thought that the longer we persisted in our current high-risk period of history, the lower chance we have of surviving
    • you worry about value drift from current norms about AI safety, or society more generally
    • you personally wanted to live until some technological achievement.
  • Life expectancy will drop into the mid 70s in developed countries.
  • Most people will know several people who died of the coronavirus, especially if you knew a lot of old people.
  • A global day of remembrance is declared, and the history books have an entire section on this year as being pivotal in some aspects of world history.
  • The funding for the CDC is multiplied by at least a factor of five.
  • Comprehensive bipartisan legislation is passed that employs tens of thousands of people to continuously monitor the threat of viruses of this magnitude in the future.
  • Lasting injury from the coronavirus is a major disability in the world, and is viewed somewhat akin to how people view polio victims even after polio leaves a community.
  • More young students (>100% increase) want to study epidemiology because they are told that it's a major way to help people in the future, similar to how people are currently being directed into environmental fields as a way to help with climate change.
  • Questions about whether we are taking a current outbreak "seriously" will be the main thoughts on the mind of nearly everyone, including TV anchors, continuing for decades after the event. Here I imagine if a virus sprang up again in some part of the world, world leaders would immediately declare emergency and say that they don't want it to "Turn into 2020" or something like that.
  • Lasting outcry from people who believed that regulation or poor leadership slowed the development of a vaccine or antiviral spawns a political movement to speed up such things in times of crisis.
  • By November, virtually all political discussion is about the coronavirus, and relatively little airtime is given to other causes. Biorisk remains a major issue in the next few presidential elections.
  • Intense criticism of the Chinese regime first for censoring people who spoke about the virus, and then for offering the world optimism when there was none, will be a critical issue, leading to riots and perhaps attempted revolutions.
  • A one time significant political realignment towards people who are young.

Can you come up with anything else?



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3 Answers

  • Significant political regime disruption in some places, Iran specifically (probably for the better there)
  • Depending on how much Chinese government fudges with the current numbers they will appear to a) have bungled at first b) actually efficiently handled the problem at an enormous scale and US will appear to do things in the opposite order. Which leads me to...
  • Trump is weakened and Bloomberg's position is going to look very strong: some actual history of crisis management, strong-man people feel comfortable with in times of uncertainty, plus he "owns" one of coutry's top med schools
  • Massive disruption in service sector as people cut down on non-necessities...
  • Nationalism and a return to domestic production.
  • Increase in the speed of the rise in conservatism.
  • A bump in the birth rate. Not enough to matter, given the birth rate crisis.
  • Civil, military, and financial discord are all possible. Everyone's freaking out and there are an increasing number of power differentials and other options opening up. There'll be a mix of circling the wagons and people taking big risks to capitalise on discord.
  • Prepping suddenly won't seem so stupid after this. Want to make some money starting a business? Now you know where.
  • China is facing multiple internal and external threats, and a shaky economy. Expect Trump to turn the thumbscrews and make the most of that.
  • If the EU doesn't control its borders (something it doesn't want to do) then it is going to take a massive hit. It will be interesting to see what the NGO people smugglers will be directed to do by their owners when the shit hits the fan.
  • By the same token, it will be interesting to see what the UK will do at the Irish border.

Given who dies from COVID-19, if the scenario suggested plays out, societies will old populations will be hit harder than those with younger populations.

In developed countries this will produce a wealth transfer to the younger via the inheritance they receive (larger than otherwise because less has been spent?)

Not sure that life expectancy really declines even if the numbers for the year blip down.

Probably some themes we could trace out based on both the change in average population age and per capita wealth based on assuming about impact to global trade dynamics.