Back in 2003, Nick Bostrom, a Swedish philosophy professor at Oxford University, warned us about what could happen were an Artificial Intelligence supercomputer – with virtually limitless brain power but without any moral sense at all – told to produce as many paperclips as possible. He predicted that after exhausting all the standard materials it would start making use of everything else within reach, including human beings, until it has transformed “first all of earth and then increasing portions of space into paperclip manufacturing facilities.”
Despite persistent rumours that it came from the Wuhan Institute of Virology laboratory, where scientists had been examining the coronavirus found in bats (according to The Washington Post, in 2018 alarmed US diplomats informed the US State Department that security at the place was dangerously lax), Covid-19 is not “artificial” and it is certainly not “intelligent” in the usual sense of the world. Neither has it shown any interest in paperclips. Nonetheless, its recent performance does bring to mind Bostrom’s cautionary tale about what can happen when something scientists find intriguing runs amok.
Like an AI-guided machine gone mad or one of those extragalactic invaders imagined by science-fiction writers, the out-of-control virus, which replicates itself at a fearsome rate, is already well on its way to taking over the planet. Governments everywhere do its bidding. Even the most libertarian are behaving in a manner which would surely have brought approving smiles to the faces of yesterday’s tyrants like Stalin, Hitler and Mao by ordering armed cops and on occasion the military to make people steer clear of one another. Thanks to it, the world is careening towards what even sober-minded economists expect to be a new Great Depression.
As viruses go, Covid-19 is relatively benign. This does not make things any easier. The really nasty ones, such as Ebola, quickly kill off most of those unlucky enough to be affected, so it is much harder for them to spread. By keeping a fairly low profile, the coronavirus can affect millions of men and women who, unaware that they have anything worse than a cold, help it on its way. Nobody has the faintest idea just how many have caught it in Argentina or any other country, which makes one suspect that, while certainly vicious enough, it is rather less dangerous than outfits like the World Health Organisation want us to believe.
This is where the concept of “herd immunity” comes in. Epidemiologists have long understood that, after a certain percentage of the overall population has either been infected by a virus or has been vaccinated against it, even the most vulnerable will enjoy a growing measure of protection. Unfortunately, relying entirely on “herd immunity” to stop the coronavirus would entail letting it wreak havoc for a period in which it would kill many people and, in all probability, overwhelm the available medical services. This is why almost all governments, including those of the United Kingdom, Japan and the Netherlands but not, as yet, Sweden, eventually changed track after expressing their willingness to let it run its natural course.
Does this mean that the proponents of mass quarantines had it right from the start, as most politicians, health experts and others who congratulate them for being quick off the mark insist is the case? Not necessarily. While locking up people may slow the spread of the virus, it does not eliminate it and, by weakening the economy, can make looking after all those who fall seriously ill after catching it increasingly difficult.
Unless an effective vaccine appears on the scene very soon and is immediately manufactured in immense quantities, just as many people could eventually be infected in the locked-down countries as would have been without the quarantine or “social distancing” measures which are now almost universal, while a similar proportion of the people afflicted could die. Most of those who have seen their days cut short – the UK Office for National Statistics says nine out of ten – were already suffering from a potentially lifethreatening illness. As many are fond of reminding us, every death is a tragedy but, regrettable as it may seem, nobody lives forever.
The death toll from the coronavirus is already approaching 200,000 – each year flu-linked illnesses cost over 600,000 lives – and it is bound to continue mounting, but if the looming economic depression is as grim as many now predict, it could kill many times more people, especially in poorer countries where most have always lived hand to mouth and will be unable to survive a famine or the shrivelling up of whatever income they had. Shrugging off the economic consequences by saying lives matter a great deal more than material considerations may make for good sound-bites and win applause; people who run the risk of dying of hunger because of a lockdown are unlikely to agree.
So far, the countries hardest hit by the virus have been the ones most closely connected to the globalised supply chains (traffic between Milan and Wuhan was constant, with routine direct flights and a still advertised roundtrip costing about U$583) but there is no reason to think that remoter regions will be left alone. For them, the onset of the coronavirus seems likely to be far more painful than it has already been in Italy, Spain, France, the UK and the US; even at the best of times they lack the basic resources needed to mitigate its effects.
In much of the developed world, thought is already being given to an “exit strategy,” to how to go about lifting the restrictions so the economy can get moving again before too many people have fallen into desperate poverty. Most governments are going about it carefully for fear that at any moment they could be up against a second wave of infections, and then a third, but it is generally appreciated that prolonging the shutdown could be counterproductive. Without a working economy, no society – no matter how kind-hearted its members and benevolent its leaders – will be able to care for those who fall sick, whether from the coronavirus or the many other ailments which, needless to say, are still with us even though many people who suffer from them and urgently need hospital treatment have been told to stay at home and wait until the coronavirus crisis is over.