Blogging a dead horse

Is a barrel of naked monkeys more fun than a barrel of hairy ones?

What's your plan?

Lawrence Gray contemplates the post-virus world and asks people to use this time to think carefully about what they want in the future?
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It seems to be increasingly obvious that The Plague will be with us for a long time. Not only that, it will be very difficult for things to return to the normal that existed before it started.

I lived through various flu epidemics in Hong Kong, including the scary SARS. I lived at the epicentre on the Chinese University Campus where the medical school for the Prince of Wales Hospital was based. The Dean of Medicine spread the news of the bug and immediately called for quarantine because the news was somewhat grim. The government of course decided to protect the economy instead.

One thing he made clear to us on campus, a little concerned about the imminence of a deadly contagion, was that they reduced the spread of this disease at the hospital instantly by one measure: they made everyone in the hospital wear masks! So we all wore masks!

The message was clear and although a full scale lock down was not to be, the university sprayed and wiped all door handles, all lift buttons, and all surfaces in common use. The government began taking up the slack and they traced the movements of all the people infected and they quarantined those living in the apartment blocks connected with these individuals. They discovered the specifics of how the virus spread and maintained a strong proactive monitoring. Luckily this time, coughs and sneezes were not spreading diseases. Thus the government made the correct call.

Now Hong Kong always wipes down the escalators, lifts, doors and counter surfaces with sanitiser of some sort. In the face of Bird Flu viruses, they had slaughtered all Chicken in Hong Kong and closed down markets for live poultry. In the face of the Swine Flu, the rather smelly train full of pigs heading for the various slaughter yards in Hong Kong, was stopped from whizzing through the University Station. The alarming wet markets of old became if not exactly squeaky clean, a lot less raw and ready. The joy of seeing a man in his vest, with a fag dangling from his mouth, swinging a flapping goose around his head by its neck, became a thing of the past.

In short, Hong Kong changed. It has a history of such change. The first British settlement had to be moved because of malaria. Then cholera became an issue, so water supplies were cleaned up. Also the old-fashioned flea driven Plague proved a real problem for several years. Now there is a museum in Western District celebrating Hong Kong's expertise in these matters.

In short, Hong Kong learnt lessons and changed ways of living and moved money into infrastructure projects that helped reduce infections. None of this was done without opposition. Many resented the taxes required. Many resented the change in traditional life styles that was needed. But life changed.

This is why Hong Kong, despite being in the direct line of sight from the origins of the virus, has successfully adjusted to the present situation and is creating, as they say, a new normal.

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The history of Hong Kong is a history of a society that has made change part of its essential nature. The skyline constantly changes. The markets and shopping malls that people love, can at the drop of a hat, be ripped apart and repurposed. Not all change has been to the benefit of Hong Kong society. But change has become such an integral part of the culture of Hong Kong that, when all realise they have to change, they do it with passion. Change is a Hong Kong tradition.

The question for Hong Kong at the moment is whether the protests against the government is an atavistic outburst of nostalgia for Colonial Rule, or a revolution for a futuristic, smart phone, 5G, twitter and facebook fed world? Probably all the above.

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One thing is for certain the current Plague has shown us that the new technologies have allowed us to be safe and connected. It has spread both good and bad information. But whatever your opinion of the levels of stupidity that speak very loudly on the Internet, information and contact there has been! And we now know that much of what we thought were essential to our lives, is not. We now know that we can do all kinds of work without having to go to the office. We now know that we can have international conferences and meetings without having to travel. We now know that all manner of cultural activities can be consumed at home. And the general public can buy, deliver, and process all manner of goods and services via the Internet. We also have seen with our own eyes how quickly pollution subsides once the cars stop, and how quickly nature jumps back into niches that humans had driven them from. And we like what we see and it does give one hope that Climate Change can be managed!

But there will be losers. There are still plenty of businesses that require people on the spot, but many that have been operating on tight margins will not revive. Many large-scale industries such as airlines will not recover. If you lose your job or are living at the margins, life will not improve without government intervention.

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And given the extreme wealth of some individuals who have ridden the AI trend, if they do not want to face a guillotining by the sans culottes, they are going to have to start taking the initiative in spreading this wealth around.

A comparable situation is that facing the world after the Second World War. After that the UK cast off its Empire and became a welfare state, giving rise to a massive social shift towards a consumer society with more social mobility than ever. We can go through the entire world and find societies that jumped onto various bandwagons, some turning into welfare systems, some turning into tightly controlled planned economies, some into freewheeling robber baron states, and so on. The subsequent Cold War pitted the more freewheeling West against the authoritarian East, with the open economy winning out, more or less. So from 1989 onwards, further drastic change engulfed the world.

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So what is next? Will there be a Social Wage? It seems that some sort of social wage would cope with the fewer jobs that an AI controlled, automated manufacturing base requires. What will people do? Handcrafts, bespoke tailoring, backyard vegetable allotments? Homemade jams, fiddles and barn dances? Will there be more emphasis on family and friends rather than hankering after celebrity status? Will it all be nicer or a desperate cut-throat struggle for rare resources?

Will the increased access to information be free, or will we all have chips in our heads for constant monitoring? And who will control this information to ensure that it is correct?

There are an unlimited variety of scenarios to choose from and I am certain the future will be a messy mish mash of many “visions” but this is the turning point. From now on, the threat of climate catastrophe, social meltdown, and large scale international wars, filtered through a need to avert dangerous pandemics should focus the mind. So now is the time to think clearly what you will demand of your politicians.

So, what is your plan?