Humans are not very good at dealing with uncertainty. Who can blame them? One day, you’re living your life, shopping for groceries, paying the bills, meeting friends, picking up the kids, … whatever it is you do on any normal day during the year, then suddenly, something happens. A big event, that nobody* saw coming that changes everything. It happens quickly.
* ok, not really “nobody”, it’s usually a very small number of experts who have been saying, “this is a thing that can and probably will happen” to people who ignore them for a really long time.
So this COVID-19 crisis that we currently find ourselves in has been reminding me of what happened way back at the turn of the millennium. Not the exact situation, of course, but the way we reacted to the threat of the unknown.
In December of 2019, we’d been hearing a lot about the impending Y2K crisis. Computer systems all over the world running legacy systems were going to collapse because they couldn’t handle the jump from a two digit year to a four digit year. That was the gist of the thing. We were a lot less automated then than we are today, but big legacy systems, like banks and airlines, manufacturing and assembly lines, were all still using AS400s and mainframes running millions of lines of COBOL or FORTRAN or whateverGOL to keep our money and machines moving around.
The news cycle of the day was focusing intently on it. Talking heads on CNN, CBC and all the major television networks were running non-stop, every day for weeks talking to people on the streets and reporting from their war rooms with charts and graphs about the imminent catastrophe we might, or might not, be victim to at the turn of the calendar. The Y2K Bug. A lot of it was couched in skepticism, and you’d get the odd funny piece talking to “an expert” who had clearly been spending too much time on Slashdot (the hackernews of the day) with the interviewer asking questions like, “but could it really happen? come on…” while smiling around at their co-presenters like they’d baited a fish.
Yes, we still received a lot of our news from television then. The Web was only about five years old and it was still mostly early adopters and tech enthusiasts at that point. Our cell phones were… phones, until the Handspring Treo and BlackBerry phones came out around 2002. BlackBerry devices were still “interactive pagers” in 1999. The internet was very different than the globe-spanning network of today. In fact, just searching The Wayback Machine for content around December 1999 turns up surprisingly little. The apparent distance between print media, which still existed as a thing, and the big media companies was painfully obvious. Newspapers were online, television studios were not. There’s a gap in the records from that period and my tentative searches this morning turned up very little about Y2K itself. It’s almost like it never happened.
Nevertheless, the ramp up to New Years Eve was palpably stressful, and people reacted to it, well, pretty much like they are right now facing down this virus, albeit in much lower concentrations of panic. People stocked up on bottled water, gasoline, bought generators (because the power system might fail, those are old computers too), and withdrew all the money they could from their banks. There was a very real fear that the world’s already shaky financial reserves could be knocked out as a result of the panicked bank withdrawals. This was the leadup to the first Dot-Com crash in 2002.
As for myself, I had a case of bottled water and a stack of canned goods in the basement, just in case. I was living in Ottawa then, and had seen first hand some of these legacy computer systems and the work that went into maintaining them. A lot of people had stocked up on non-perishables and had a couple weeks worth of supplies on hand, and in hindsight, I don’t think that was terribly unreasonable. I’ve always had an overactive threat model because I know too much about how computers work and read a lot of science fiction, so a global collapse due to a software bug didn’t seem terribly far fetched. Just really unlikely.
By the time New Years Eve rolled around, people were giddy. Dick Clark did his usual thing from Times Square and there was a wicked party. When the ball dropped, there was a pregnant pause when everybody waited to see if the lights went out. The party continued and everything was fine because the professionals had done their jobs and fixed all the major holes before the switch to the new epoch. People laughed about the temporary insanity that caused them to buy all the toilet paper off the shelves at their local Loblaws.
This is in stark contrast to the kind of situation we’re facing right now. This is real. This is not a party. The only gatherings are in airports where people are trying to get back home from ports abroad on limited flights, with skeleton airport staffing. Infection rates are doubling and we’re all faced with the very real possibility that we’re going to be in self-isolation for 2 weeks to a month to “flatten the curve”. Unfortunately, that’s the fix for this. Not “herd immunity” or toughing it out. This isn’t the flu. Isolation. Working from home, if possible. Keeping safe distance from people. Hand washing. Not touching faces. Hell, wear a mask if you have one (and can find them) and need to be out around people. It’s not about you, it’s about who you might be infecting. If you are experiencing symptoms, stay the fuck at home.
Stock up, but responsibly. Don’t be a dick. Don’t hoard. Don’t try to profit off this. Save something for someone else who might need it more.
I look forward to hearing people complain about how much we overreacted to this total non-threat in a couple of months from now because we did the hard things and weren’t selfish about it. I fear there will be many human examples for whom that isn’t true, sadly.
(featured image, CC 2.0, Rob Boudon on Flickr, uploaded to Wikipedia)