Thoughts on Scenarios for the COVID-19 Future

By Arik Ben-Zvi, CEO and President

Two weeks ago, my colleague and mentor Steve Weber of UC Berkeley and I published this paper, in which we used Scenario Thinking techniques to imagine how the coming months might play out for the country. In it, we imagined four very distinct futures for America: 1) The Invisible Enemy Wins; 2) We Win; 3) Resilient America; and 4) Fractured America.

Over the coming weeks, as we hear more from experts and leaders about the world’s trajectory, we will be publishing a series of blog posts looking at which of these scenarios seems to be most aligned with where the world is heading. Are we headed toward a dystopia where the virus defeats all efforts to preserve public health and rebuild the economy? Is the combination of science and effective policy putting us on track to save lives and drive a V-ish economic shaped recovery? Is America simply adapting to the high rates of infection and death, and figuring out a path back to a new normal? Or are we going to become even more divided as a country, potentially reducing the death count, but suffering through an economy that cannot recover because coherent policy is impossible without some form of national common purpose?

These are the questions that keep us—and we suspect, many of you—up at night. Our message is this: don’t assume anyone knows for sure which way we are headed just yet. The crystal ball that holds America’s future remains incredibly cloudy. We will do our best in these posts to offer as much clarity as we can.

This past week offered a very mixed set of data points.

The most prominent stories in the mainstream media generally pointed toward the grimmest of outcomes.

  • The week started with Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell saying that, “The recovery may take some time to gather momentum, and the passage of time can turn liquidity problems into solvency problems.”
  • On Wednesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci testified before Congress about his concerns that states opening back up to soon could lead to, “spikes that might turn into outbreaks.” That was followed by Thursday’s testimony from the former head of the HHS’s biodefense agency who said that the U.S. could be facing “the darkest winter in modern history.”

As seriously as these expert views must be taken, there are some contrary signals out there that deserve attention.

  • On the economic front, despite all the tough news, the markets continue to remain calm with the S&P 500 poised to close the week down just about 2%, still well above its March lows.
  • And while images of angry protestors grabbed headlines, polling data shows that nearly three-quarters of all Americans agree that the country should continue to go slowly on reopening even if it means keeping businesses closed longer. 

Taken together, it seems very premature to make any all-in bets on where America is heading. Promising advances on the medical front continue to hold out the possibility of meaningful therapeutics by the fall and a possible vaccine by early next year. A combination of states reopening coupled with individuals making cautious decisions about what risk to expose themselves to may help keep outbreaks in check while slowly restoring freedom to Americans. And don’t sleep on simple creativity enabling the start of an economic recovery even in advance of any medical breakthroughs.

All in all, it’s clear that we have a long, difficult road ahead, but we don’t yet know where it will lead. In the meantime, we continue to focus our attention on the following issues, which we believe could become major national priorities regardless of where the pandemic and economic recovery go:

  • The Election: We remain deeply concerned about the possibility that the election’s legitimacy will be questioned. A friend in Florida who is running for County office reports to me that he is astonished by how many Republicans have concluded that mail-in voting is fundamentally fraudulent. If this system is widely embraced to protect public health, will the Trump base accept the outcome?
  • Needing a New Tech Covenant: The big tech companies continue to consolidate their position at the center of American life. But what do Americans think about it? Do we fixate on the possibility of Jeff Bezos becoming the world’s first trillionaire while millions of American’s suffer through economic devastation? Or the fact that Amazon is a beacon of job creation in an otherwise bleak job market? Do we celebrate the fact that Zoom happy hours allow us to see familiar faces and retain some sense of normalcy? Or do we fixate on the continued security lapses on that platform and its psychological pitfalls over face-to-face interaction? Tech companies will need to lean further forward in their messaging, because they’ve become even more essential to all aspects of life during this unprecedented time. [Literally as I was finalizing this post, news came down about the DOJ and a number of states pursuing an antitrust action against Google. The need for a reset between tech and society is urgent!]
  • Who’s Liable: America’s meat supply is starting to get tight as some processing plants shut down due to outbreaks. The Trump administration wants those plants open and consumers want affordable meat in their stores. But when outbreaks are the result, who owns that responsibility? These are devilishly hard problems that won’t be made any easier by partisan sniping.

What did we miss? What did we get wrong? We’d love to hear from you.