They say history is written by the victors, this is partially correct, it is written by the survivors. One must live to tell the tale if their story is to be told. The exceptions to this rule are notable and powerful, the diary of Anne Frank is a prime example. What is interesting for this 2020 global pandemic, and pandemics in general, is that everyone who lives through it can declare themselves a survivor. For those who actually contract the virus, it will be a strong feeling of survivorship, especially if hospitalized. Everyone else will be a survivor of the lockdowns and shutdowns; the feeling of isolation and imprisonment in one own’s home, often socially isolated or ‘distanced’ from friends and family. Many have even experienced acute economic stress due to job and business loss; at the time of writing, it appears many small businesses especially food and drinking establishments may close permanently.
Being a survivor comes with swagger, it makes one a victor of sorts. Health care workers will be the frontline in the trench warriors analogous to soldiers returning from a foreign war. Those working in delivery, logistics, and other ‘essential industries’ will be the state-side heroes who kept the war machine running while our ‘boys’ were out fighting on the front lines. The war metaphor cannot be understated in its accuracy, the US has at times felt to be in a wartime posture. Most Americans have no experience of living in a warzone, something millions of people around the world do every day; this is not a fitting experience, but the psychology will be similar. The truer analogy is that of a natural disaster like a hurricane or earthquake; but those events happen and pass and are generally not impacted by the individual efforts (or lack thereof) of the citizens. That is why the wartime analogy fits so well, this is an ongoing effort and everyone’s collective effort will determine how soon it ends and even how deadly it ultimately is.
That has major implications for those who survive, their feeling of survivorship could be off the charts. They actually contributed to the “war” effort, they sacrificed, they fought the battle (yes, many by staying home watching Tiger King on Netflix…), and thus will rightly feel they get to share in glow of victory. In truth, most will have just survived; the medical and logistical professionals will desire the ribbons and ticker tape parades, the mass of the citizenry should just be thankful, but they won’t. They will experience the Survivorship Effect.
The Survivorship Effect
There is an old saying that goes ‘that which does not kill us, makes us stronger.’ Any properly trained economist or other data scientist will quickly object to this statement; generally, with a protestation about ignoring ‘Survivorship Bias’. The Survivorship Bias is a very real empirical research error and cognitive bias that humans fall victim to all the time. In summary, the Survivorship Bias is failing to properly account for firms or people who ‘die’ either literally or metaphorically as a result of the effect or treatment being studied. This can be a big issue with examining historical stock market data; when a firm goes bankrupt or otherwise stops trading, it is removed from the data series, and failing to control for this can skew results upward depending on what is being studied. From an empirical standpoint, if you want to ascertain how “deadly” a virus is, asking a room full of people after a pandemic is over “how many of you died of the virus” will clearly yield you an inaccurate result. Alas, this entire blog project is about those who survive, as their responses and future actions is all that matters. In reality, the fact that they are survivors is very interesting and important, a virus (like most of the actual items in Black Swans) is not what will change the world, it is the survivors who get that honor.
What is the Survivorship Effect then? It is the feeling and mental impact of the opening quote amended to the personal, ‘that which does not kill ME, makes ME stronger.’ To rephrase, ‘if I survived, I must be stronger!’ Will those who think this be falling into a cognitive bias trap? Of course! But human irrationality hasn’t ended in the face of extreme events, and I am not willing to predict it is about to happen. Fear can be irrational as well, yet fear is the actual weapon that kept people indoors and followed other mitigation techniques (in fairness, social and even regulatory compliance may have become more dominant motivators as time as passed). How will all these so-called irrational ‘survivors’ act when allowed to freely leave their homes, get on airplanes, or just go to an indoor restaurant? It is truly impossible to know with certainty, but while viruses are not ‘predictable’, human beings have a way of not disappointing.
I vividly remember my first time becoming a ‘survivor’, in fact, I know the date by memory. August 24th, 1992, the date Hurricane Andrew made landfall in South Florida where I lived. I was in elementary school and Andrew was my first hurricane, all Floridians remember their first, and Andrew was one to remember. A major hurricane had not hit South Florida for decades and thus it was not part of common memory; as a hurricane hitting Florida, clearly not a Black Swan, felt like one for many residents. The analogy of a pandemic to hurricanes is not lost of many Floridians, at least as I am told via my social media which is heavily loaded with Florida based posts. The runs on the grocery stores is perhaps the starkest linkage; however, in hurricanes it is bottled water and canned food that disappears, not toilet paper.
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to rage at the time of writing, the “post-pandemic” world is only a theory, but one getting ever closer at hand with active distribution of a vaccine. I intend to dive deeper into this subject at a later time. For now, consider your own experiences with “extreme events”, be they natural disasters, events like 9/11, or even the 2008 Global Financial Crisis; there are many lessons to be extrapolated to the events of 2020.