Crisis and opportunity during coronavirus

by jacobjacob 4 min read12th Mar 20205 comments

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Note: please put on your own oxygen mask first. Don’t engage with this post if you haven’t taken appropriate measures to prepare yourself and your family; and plausibly don’t engage if you haven’t taken measures to ensure you can do so while staying stable and grounded.


We face a time of global crisis. But in spite of the unfolding tragedy – or perhaps because of it – this will also be a time of great opportunity. If you have the skills, slack, and willingness to act, it might make sense to start looking for ways to contribute (regardless of whether you’re seeking personal gain or altruistic benefit).

Why does this seem like a good opportunity?

There’s a question of whether the current situation should change your overall cause-prioritisation, in determining what’s most useful to work on over a >1 year time-scale.

This depends on where you started in your beliefs. To many readers, this likely does not provide any high-level updates, as we already believed that pandemics were a major risk for which the world was underprepared, and that the major institutions in charge were dysfunctional. (Nonetheless, I am learning a massive amount by living through a time of global crisis when I have the epistemic ability and agency to understand what’s happening and take action.)

Beyond that, there’s the question of whether this is a window of opportunity. Even if your long-term goals remain after this pandemic, are there actions which will have an extraordinarily high leverage now, compared to other times?

I think there are a few reasons for thinking so.

  • Underpreparation. The world wasn’t prepared. Everyone is scrambling to figure things out and there’s too much for anyone to do. Hundreds of millions of people are suddenly changing their lives. The same goes for hundreds of thousands of companies and hundreds of governments. Most of them have no routines or experience in handling situations like these, which means they’ll be facing problems they have never faced before.
  • Exponential growth. Each infected person can be responsible for thousands of downstream infections, so the impact of behaviour change has a large multiplier. (Though this is modulo some uncertainty about counterfactual infections which I’m unsure how to think about).
  • Scale. The pandemic might grow to directly affect hundreds of millions of people, and it will indirectly affect billions. It is also a memetic pandemic (it probably consumes >90% of my FB and Twitter feeds, and >70% of my conversations). People are actively trying to find information, products, and similar.
  • Direct exposure and quick feedback loops. Most startups die because no one wants what they’re building. A common warning sign is that the founders aren’t themselves users of the product. But in the coming months, you’ll have to solve lots of problems for yourself, and chances are high that others might benefit from your solution (e.g. many spreadsheets and documents that went viral were initially just a single person trying to figure out how they should prepare, when their company should work remotely, etc.) Even if you're solving problems for others, you'll quick learn if there's any demand.

How can you contribute?

I want to distinguish two kinds of windows of opportunities. For lack of a better term, I’ll call them “social” and “causal”.

Social windows of opportunity. Suddenly people are willing to listen to new advice, and consider different actions than they previously would. Hence there are attempts to get people to sign social pledges to self-quarantine and epidemiologists are signing open letters to tech giants. More nefariously, lawmakers are smuggling their pet policy proposal into things that look like corona response measures. When all is said and done, it seems plausible the overton window for biorisk policy will have shifted massively, and that might bring with it other surprising opportunities as well.

Causal windows of opportunity. There are also many new problems to be solved, where you can build a tool or other solution that actually changes the world in a mechanistic way, and which isn't primarily about convincing other people of things.

For example:

The Coronavirus Tech Handbook is an excellent resource summarising what people are building to fight the outbreak. Many projects are urgently looking for collaborators.

Even if you don't have tech skills, there are other ways of finding great opportunity in times of crisis.

Some of history’s most successful trades (1, 2) occurred during crises. There will likely be many financial opportunities during this crisis as well. (LessWronger user Wei Dai posted about how he successfully shorted the S&P500 a few weeks back, and saw 700% returns already before the crashes of the recent week.) (This is not financial advice and if you have no trading experience now might be a particularly bad time to start.)

We have also seen a massive failure of responsible institutions to respond appropriately and provide reliable information. This means there's a shortage and need for reliable research and advice. This situation requires thinking for ourselves.

Due to the existence of niche online communities doing this, I started seriously thinking and preparing when there were 2 cases in my home country. A week and a half later I went home to my family and helped them prepare, as the only mask-wearing person at an empty row in the back of an otherwise full plane. There were 20 confirmed cases. My mom initially yelled at me and felt embarrassed when none of her friends were taking action, and asked why the authorities didn't say much. I left 5 days later. The case count had grown exponentially to >400. A friend in med school told me to "wash my hands and don't panic". I left from an airport where staff wore neither gloves nor masks, and shorted the local stock market. As I'm writing this two days later the case count is almost 700.

The jury is still out, but sadly this seems to be a time where it's critically important to be able to take your beliefs seriously even when they go much further than official advice and mainstream behaviour . There will likely be many more opportunities over the coming months were good judgement and independent research can make an important difference. The LessWrong page of posts tagged coronavirus is one place to find and contribute to open questions.

Addendum on profiting from outbreaks

I strongly believe that that traders and entrepreneurs who try to gain profit during this crisis are not immoral. Rather, they are incredibly important. All this “flatten the curve” business is about smoothing out demand peaks over time. And financial markets (futures markets in particular) are one of the key technologies our society has for coordinating to efficiently allocate resources across time. For example, it might have been hugely beneficial if someone with foresight would have stockpiled massive amounts of medical ventilators months back and thereby caused suppliers to increase production (it seems plausible this might have been worth it even if they wouldn’t have sold those stockpiled ventilators at a massive markup). The actual stockpiling of masks that happened might also have been beneficial for this reason (but I am highly uncertain about this claim and wouldn't bet highly on it).

More generally, the coming year will present a massive wealth transfer, in various ways, to the prepared from the unprepared (or those unable to prepare, due to lack of money, knowledge, or some other key prerequisite). I don’t know what the implications of this will be. But once again, it might be worth a few hours of your time thinking about what opportunities it might generate.

tags: Coronavirus

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