If I knew the pandemic was coming would I have gone somewhere else?
ASTORIA, New York- I recently went on Andy Graham’s daily live YouTube show where he’s interviewing people around the world about their experiences with the SARS-2 pandemic. Along with explaining how things are out in the locked-down streets of NYC and what I’m up to here, he asked an interesting question:
If I knew this pandemic was going to happen three months in advance would I have done everything how I did it?
To recap: I set up a base of operations in New York City in mid-summer last year. The reasons for this move were as such:
1) I’ve moved more into project work / speaking engagements that are almost randomly scattered all over the world. The days of me traveling in smooth, sequential paths across the world have been put on pause. I can make way more money, do more interesting projects, and accomplish way more if I use a global “spokes of the wheel” travel strategy. The spokes of the wheel travel strategy means that you set up a central base of operations in a well-connected hub and use it to access an entire region — traveling out and coming back again like moving up and down the spokes of an old wooden wagon wheel. As my interests have become truly worldwide, I no longer need a regional hub but a global one. There is only one place in the world that qualifies for this title: New York City. So I got an apartment that’s 10 minutes away from LaGuardia, 50 minutes from JFK, and a little over an hour from Newark — i.e. ground zero for global air travel.
2) My kids have been traveling all over the world since they were born. They want friends. They want to go to school. So instead of setting them up in a place where they only experience one culture why not give them a place that’s truly a cross section of the world? When you walk out of our Astoria apartment you will hear at least five or six different languages, there’s the Colombian section down the street, around the corner is Little Egypt, and a block or two to the north is the Greek district, a short subway ride to the east is Flushing, the real Chinatown, a 20 minute subway ride to the west is Midtown Manhattan. NYC is technically in the USA, but it isn’t really America — it’s global. (My kids’ school is also pretty good — my youngest daughter now speaks Mandarin too).
So there’s benefits to being here. But is this the best place to be during the coronavirus pandemic?
If I could choose a place to be to weather this storm, where would I go? Where would I choose to be stuck for three to six months?
Truthfully, there probably isn’t a good place to be during this, but there are bad places. The Philippines — where the president just declared that the police and military have been authorized to shoot people who violate quarantine — doesn’t sound like a very good place to be. Spain, where people aren’t permitted to leave their homes, even to exercise, doesn’t sound too good either. China, an authoritarian state where foreigners have become the scorn of the nation and are subjected to ever-increasing xenophobia and racism, no, that’s not a place where I would want to be.
If I knew how exactly this pandemic would play out I would have moved to Sweden. Hands down, in my opinion, Sweden is the best place to be right now. Why? Because they didn’t shut down — they didn’t sacrifice individual liberties for a virus that we have no defense against.
The second part of this statement is the most important. We can’t hide from virus and expect it to go away. When we come out of quarantine SARS-2 will be there waiting for us. The world is global; even if a virus is defeated in one place people from other places will just reintroduce it. This pandemic isn’t over until A) There’s a cure, B) There’s a vaccine, or C) Enough people get it and develop immunity that we have a “golden ring” of viral shields — i.e. herd immunity. Options A and B are probably not happening anytime soon. Researchers all over the world have been working on coronavirus vaccines since the first SARS outbreak in 2002 and haven’t come up with anything yet. We can’t maintain quarantine this long, so option C is the only real choice, regardless of what national strategy is used.
Social distancing doesn’t mean a lower number of infections; it means spreading the number of infections out over a longer frame of time to not overwhelm our unprepared medical institutions. Sweden said that it will not “take draconian measures that have a limited impact on the epidemic but knock out the functions of society” and initiated a strategy that was very similar to Trump’s and Britain’s Boris Johnson’s initial stances. The only difference was that they were for real about it. And it’s not as if SARS-2 hasn’t been impacting Sweden — the country actually has the fifth highest per capita death rate on the planet.
While I feel that Sweden is the best place to be, actually going there before the pandemic would have necessitated way too much foresight to be a proper response to Andy’s question. Nobody could have guessed that Sweden would be one of the only nations on the planet to remain rationale in the face of a crisis that country after country have wantonly turned into a much worse disaster.
(Think for a moment about where funding for hospitals comes from.)
So barring the option of being smart enough to have hunkered down in Sweden, I would have to say that a low-industrialized, agrarian society would be the best place to be — a place that produces its own food that has a lot of outdoor space that’s fairly removed from the world. A place like Lake Atilan in Guatemala, where Andy is, or rural Mexico, or Andean South America.
However, you would need to commit fully to being in a place like this for the duration of the pandemic — there would be no going back. If by some chance you did contract COVID-19 and needed medical attention in such a remote location … you’re basically f’cked. While you could surely out-compete most of the locals in terms of being able to pay for medical care, the availability and quality of that medical care would more than likely be questionable.
Being in a foreign country also puts you in a compromised position in a time of crisis. As we’re seeing in China, foreigners are being scapegoated as vectors for the disease (ironic, no?) and hotels have refused to house them and many restaurants have refused to serve them. Some people are actually having difficulty maintaining access to the homes where they’ve been living for years. The media there has stoked up the flames of anti-foreign sentiment, diverted blamed for the outbreak on the USA, and there’s no telling what will happen next. Foreigners in China also no longer have the choice to leave, as the country shut down most flights coming in and out. They are stuck in hostile territory.
While the political climate in China is a little different than in most other lands, this scenario can be played out in unexpected ways pretty much anywhere. National fear is a very dangerous thing for an outsider.
Being in a foreign land at a time like this also raises some other fundamental questions: What do you do if you can’t renew your visa because the immigration offices are closed due to quarantine? What do you do if a country that rounds up all the foreigners and orders them to leave but there’s nowhere for you to go? What do you do if the country you’re in cancels all flights (as most have pretty much done at this point)? Do you think your government is going to swoop in and save you? Think again: right now there are tens of thousands of travelers stuck in places all around the world.
So there is a definite advantage of being in the place whose name matches that of your passport. At the very least, you can’t be kicked out.
When looking at all of this I’d have to conclude that being in NYC isn’t so bad after all. Sure, it’s currently the global epicenter of the pandemic. Sure, almost everything is closed. But I can still go outside, jog in the sunshine, walk around and look at the blooming flowers on what are otherwise five early spring days. The supermarkets are still stocked — nobody fought over toilet paper here. My freezer and pantry have enough food for two weeks. My apartment is comfortable. I have a book to finish writing and a couple documentaries to finish editing. I’m with my wife and kids. Nobody has any work or school to go to.
The situation here is bad, but, relatively speaking, it’s not that bad.
So to answer Andy’s question, if I knew what was going to happen would I have come to NYC?
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