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What will be the big-picture implications of the coronavirus, assuming it eventually infects >10% of the world?

by Daniel Kokotajlo1 min read26th Feb 202090 comments

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Brainstorming some possibilities, not taking myself too seriously:

--2020 will be remembered as a year of death and disruption; the economy will suffer massively, perhaps enough to count as a recession.

--Many old people will die (something like 10%?) this is a big higher than the current fatality rates but I predict they will rise once hospital systems are overwhelmed. This will have a few knock-on effects: 1. Health care expenditures will drop for the next few years, since old and sick people are the biggest source of such expenditures and the population of old and sick people will be substantially smaller. 2. There will be a noticeable increase in average spending money available to younger people due to inheritances. 3. Politics in the USA at least will shift noticeably (though not dramatically) to the left, since the dead people will be disproportionately right-leaning. 4. Politics worldwide will generally shift in a more radical direction, since the proportion of young people to old people will increase. 5. One of the contenders for the US presidency might die before the election. (This is unlikely even if 50% of the world gets infected, but it is likely enough to deserve mention I think.)

--China's dramatic and draconian measures to contain the virus will come to be seen as a success story, something that would have worked if only other nations had behaved similarly (and perhaps, if China keeps its border closed, it actually will work for China at least?). This leads to an increase in authoritarianism in general around the world, made substantially stronger by the general tendency of authoritarianism to rise during crises.

--The world will, in general, take pandemic risks much more seriously from now on, making it substantially harder for something like this (or worse) to happen again.

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6 Answers

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 didn't realize this until now (or rather, these facts didn't become salient until now), but the current CFR estimates for COVID-19 are based on hospitals not being overwhelmed, whereas Spanish flu CFR was based on hospitals being overwhelmed (plus they didn't have the life-saving technology we have today anyway, like oxygen concentrator and mechanical ventilator). If hospitals are overwhelmed, which seems very likely at this point, most of the people needing to be hospitalized (10-20% of infected, which will themselves be ~50% of world population according to epidemiologists) will probably die. See Forget about mortality rate, this is why you should be worried about coronavirus for more details but I actually arrived at this conclusion myself shortly before coming across that. My own realization was triggered by reading this post.

  • Trump will be blamed (fairly or unfairly, probably fairly judging from his performance so far) for mishandling the US response, and it seems like there's a good chance that he'll lose the election over this.
  • The current health care system will be blamed (fairly or unfairly) making big reforms more likely.
  • The Right as a whole (especially Trump supporters) will be blamed and they'll lose more ground in our epistemic institutions (journalism, academia, K-12 education). With even fewer checks on the Left's power within those institutions, they'll become purer forms of propaganda/indoctrination machines for the Left.
  • It will be easier to convince people that humanity won't prepare for or handle x-risks correctly by default, even with plenty of "warning shots".

Depends on if immunity is long-lasting, since cold-causing coronaviruses produce immunity with a tendency to fade over 3 years or so, and if vaccines are an option given that 10 years of SARS vaccine development has generally crashed and burned at the animal testing phase. A highly contagious disease with a 10% hospitalization rate and 2% death rate breathing down your neck for multiple flu seasons sounds rather problematic.

Increased investment in supply chain automation to lessen any future impacts.

A breakdown of the existing global economy and increase in closed and regional trading blocks.

More xenophobia, perhaps leading both genocide in some locations.

Increased investment in work place sanitation and sterilization (not of people) technologies that might become part of national/regional building codes for public buildings and areas.

Recognition that China has been grossly lying about the event and what the CPC knew about the timing and infection rates leading to further isolation in global politics, possible ending its belt and road, string of pearls plans.

End of Xi Jinping's rule? I think it less likely that it would produce the demise of the CPC but that is likely more about the impact to the rank and file, and lower level officers experience the infections -- thought could as easily go the other way and lead to a stronger hand in direct governance by the PLA.

Increased medical evaluation for vacations on cruse ships and pre-boarding checks for potential risks

Assuming that the outbreak is really just getting started outside China and the infection such that identifying the infected spotty (I've seen statements to the effect only 30 to 50 percent of the infected or currently being identified) the current global production structure will largely halt. This will produce a depression scenario that is likely worse than that of the housing crisis of 2009. Such an even will likely move production in two directions -- one more generalize production when a number of the currently outsourced activities are brought in house, the other to seek production options that can be efficiently executed at smaller scales but geographically diversified. In cases were economies of scale can not be avoided increased monopolization but that monopolist will diversity geographically.

Last, nothing -- in 3 years everyone will be acting exactly the same as they were in November 2019.

I would actually put the highest probability on the last possible result.

Decline of the custom of hand-shaking in western countries

Dramatic growth of robotization of the outside work – cars, delivery, field work, – and even more investments in related AI areas.

Changes in fashion - more "closed" closes, similar to biohazard suites.

Baby boom to "repopulate" the Earth.

More investment in medicine. Hygiene will be new religion.

Higher interest in global catastrophic risks and their prevention.

Decline of tourism, cruise ships, airlines, hotels, restaurants, churches, mass sport, prostitution. Boom of VR.

Decline of public transport and boom of private cars (likely electric and self-driving).

Decline of mega consumption and oil consumption - lower oil prices, less emissions.

Decline of large cities, growth of prepping and small self-sufficient country houses.