The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell over 350 points on Friday, February 28th, dropping more than 1 percent, as worsening fears of the impact of the Wuhan Coronavirus grew. During the week, the Dow dropped more than 12 percent, the biggest loss as a weekly percentage since the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis.
People are starting to panic, both about the disease and the possibility of economic contagion from the outbreak that might lead to a possible recession.
But aside from casualties and the possibility of the virus mutating to become even more deadly, the outbreak of the Coronavirus could leave behind some positive change.
As someone who was one of the first one hundred cases in the MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak, and violently coughed up blood in post-revolutionary Egypt, thinking I would die soon, I don't wish the Wuhan Coronavirus or any other serious illness upon anyone.
While the Wuhan Coronavirus is much more contagious than other coronaviruses like SARS or MERS, so far it seems to be much less deadly. But either way, this outbreak could help us prepare for and potentially prevent even worse events.
What's a "Black Swan" event, and why should you care?
The term "black swan" was created by Lebanese-American scholar, statistician, and former options trader, Nassim Taleb. Taleb wrote a popular book, The Black Swan, (not to be confused with the Natalie Portman movie about ballet), which described instances of extreme outlier events that destroyed predictive models.
Basically, black swans like the Coronavirus or the September 11th attacks are rare events that no one could have predicted which dramatically alter the course of history, society, and economies.
Black swans often create chaos in the short term, and are drivers of major change. While Taleb's writing often focuses on more negative black swans and their consequences, I have always preferred to think about their positive effects and the opportunities they create.
This could be the stock market correction that prevents a recession.
People always get uneasy when the stock market goes down, but the reality is that it can't keep going up forever. In fact, the market was already overpriced, given prolonged low interest rates, and special tax cuts that created temporary spikes in market prices from stock buybacks and other corporate financial engineering.
Like an overfilled balloon on the edge of popping, fears of the Coronavirus are causing the market to deflate, which might actually prevent a major recession from happening in America in the near future.
But normally corrections this big don't happen this fast.
So it's unclear if this will just be the correction we need to prevent a major recession in the near future or the start of a recession itself. Most likely the severity of the outbreak, how deadly it becomes, and how it's handled by the United States government will decide which way the markets go.
This may be a wakeup call for the American healthcare system.
The American healthcare system has been riddled with problems for at least a decade, but the Coronavirus is making politicians and the government start to reconsider them more seriously. One whistleblower reported health service workers visiting quarantined Americans, who had been evacuated from Wuhan, lacked proper protective gear. But many Americans can't afford health insurance. Even the ones who manage to pay the high fees still struggle to get covered under the Affordable Healthcare Act due to unfriendly user experiences and software bugs, both inside state platforms and with individual insurance providers.
I even found myself temporarily uncovered early this year due to serious database errors in HealthFirst of New York, which caused billing mistakes that took thousands of dollars from my bank account, but still failed to properly credit my account, saying I hadn't paid. After more than a dozen Kafkaesque phone calls with HealthFirst and some angry tweets, I was finally able to get the issue resolved (for now), but they informed me they wouldn't even try to begin fixing this database bug until April 2020.
And if I'm experiencing this, other people definitely are, too. But imagine what happens if they are elderly, don't speak English well, or are too sick to navigate through this confusing system. And Healthfirst isn't the only insurance company with database bugs like this. I experienced three similar major issues in the last four years with two different insurance providers as well.
The point is the current healthcare system is precarious, and insufficiently prepared to handle a widespread epidemic or pandemic.
David Quammen's book, Spillover, analyzes the spread of deadly contagious diseases such as Ebola, SARS, and the HIV virus, which were all spread from animals to humans. Quammen goes on to discuss the likelihood of a deadly animal-to-human caused epidemic or pandemic in our lifetime.
Hopefully, the Coronavirus will remain less deadly than the common flu, but it should still serve as an eyeopener for changes America needs to make now before we experience an even deadlier outbreak.
This is a reminder for everyone to be more prepared.
I got a phone call from my military veteran dad last week reminding me to make sure I have enough supplies, in case I have to barricade myself at home as many in Wuhan did following the outbreak.
While my dad tends to be overly cautious and errs on the side of over-preparing, I realized how many things I didn't have in my Manhattan apartment. While other big city dwellers like myself don't often have the luxury of having an apartment as big as a home in the countryside, you can still do little things to be prepared.
Having some canned or freeze-dried food, along with extra drinking water, basic medical supplies, and toilet paper can go a long way in a crisis situation. Not only can it help you prepare for the actual event, I personally find having the right plans and supplies makes the possible threat of actual crises much less stressful.