If COVID 19 had been COVID 99

Imagining the carnage of an earlier pandemic

December 1999. As anticipation about Y2K celebrations (and possible tech meltdowns) capture headlines, a local viral infection in Wuhan, China, attracts little attention. Provincial officials aren’t notified until late January. Chinese Communist Party officials in Beijing cover up the existence of the epidemic, which has spread throughout Hubei Province, fanning east toward Shanghai, south toward Shenzen and Hong Kong, and north toward Beijing.

Residents learn of the virus via cell phone messages but remain quiet, fearing reprisals from party operatives. Some provincial officials panic as hospitals overflow with sick and dying patients. But CCP news channels ignore and censor reports of the growing catastrophe. The disease becomes a global pandemic as international tourists, unaware of the risks, cruise the Yangtze River, contract the virus, and return home, infected.

I’ve changed details of the early 21st century virus, the date of outbreak, and its point of origin, but China dealt with a SARS epidemic from 2002-03. SARS-CoV1 was discovered in Guangdong Province, southern China. It was far less lethal than SARS-CoV2, for reasons we understand. A little. 

Speculation abounds COVID-19 was the product of gain-of-function research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. An intentional effort to make a dangerous virus more lethal, perhaps helping researchers learn to combat deadlier strains of an existing virus. Perhaps for more nefarious reasons. Maybe it was nothing more than an accident — a potent SARS virus that morphed into a killing machine without human intervention.

Until the CCP allows thorough independent inspection of the Wuhan lab and its records, COVID-19’s origins and outbreak will remain a mystery.

But we may not appreciate how lucky we were that SARS-CoV2 struck in 2019 rather than 1999.* Recent technologies enabled remote employment, virtual schooling, interpersonal global communication, contactless food delivery and distribution, and mostly functional supply chains — not to mention the heretofore impossible development and distribution of vaccinations using methods that might have tested sci fi writers’ imaginations.

There were plenty of mistakes and missteps. There’s also a book here — a nonfiction novel, maybe. A manuscript may already be at a publishing house. 

Since I don’t plan to write that book, instead let me offer a few ideas about how COVID-99 might have looked. If someone decides to base a long-form narrative on any of these, I’d appreciate at least a shoutout when you sell the film rights.

Alternative history

Work. Teleconferencing by landline was around. AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger, and MSN Messenger were tech babies. But internet service was slow, expensive, and not a visual medium. The idea of shutting down 60%-70% of in-person work to prevent human transmission of the virus: unthinkable. 

Some tech-heavy industries limped along. People protected themselves as much as possible with masks and sanitation and social distancing. Working from home, though, was a luxury few could afford or access. Businesses expected employees to show up, hoping they were healthy enough to work without infecting colleagues.

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Education. Distance learning? Nope. Purely a guess, but the low transmission rates between pre-teens let more kids attend school. Teachers and staff faced daily risks of infection; turnover rates soared. Homeschooling and schooling pods surged. School districts distributed lesson plans via fax or email and hoped for the best. Regions moved classes outdoors when possible. Mobile schoolhouses, like bookmobiles with teachers, moved from place to place, teaching kids outside when conditions allowed.

College and university campuses closed indefinitely, adopting a correspondence model.

Commerce and transportation. Amazon evolved years earlier from online book and CD seller into mega merchant. But that transformation took months, with plenty of errors during trials. Amazon had to line up third-party sellers to deal with the vagaries of the era’s e-commerce. (I was covering venture capital and startups as a reporter for the Los Angeles Business Journal in late 1999; we wondered when a market for business-to-business tech companies would blossom. Perhaps it would have then.) 

Remember: Inferior smart phones. No apps.

Much industrial manufacturing ground to a halt. Robots weren’t as prevalent then; people staffing factories … yikes. The turnover from death and infection is hard to comprehend. And that’s in the U.S. and other advanced nations. Places with fewer traditions of protecting basic life and property? Whew.

Large-scale textiles, automaking, and food processing were devastated. Food shortages emerged. Field workers, packaging and processing facilities, and distributors lost countless employees to the pandemic.

“Shop local” took on a completely different flavor, as local farmers who could get their crops and flocks ready for sale would deal directly with consumers. Where retail outlets could offer fuel, family- or neighborhood-size deliveries of food from the farm became routine.

Public transit’s a gamble, but many took it. Jitneys and unlicensed van services sprung up where fuel was available, but drivers and passengers gambled with their lives, too.

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Public safety. Ugly. Self-defense was the priority. Modest subdivisions erected gates and residents guarded entrances. Vigilantism got out of hand, at least in the early weeks. Local police abandoned low-income, minority neighborhoods. National Guard units were deployed to maintain order.

Health care. President Clinton invoked the Defense Production Act early in the pandemic to commandeer production of PPE, therapeutics, and vaccine development. Even so, hospitals would be overwhelmed. The carnage of Bill DeBlasio’s New York City in April 2020 was the norm nationally. Between 10 million and 20 million Americans died. Millions more suffered lingering effects of “long COVID.”

Close to 1 billion died worldwide, as other health systems were even less capable of containing the pandemic.

Politics. Lame-duck Clinton picked Al Gore to oversee the federal project. Gore picked Anthony Fauci, who was working miracles stemming the spread of AIDS and developing treatments, as “COVID czar.” The presidential campaign would be conducted on TV. Gore chose Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, a physician and former Democratic National Committee chair, as his running mate. George W. Bush picked Gen. Colin Powell, whose experience at the Pentagon made sense to handle the logistics of pandemic response. The Clinton/Gore hesitance to ease FDA drug approval delayed development of treatments. Gore was seen as testy; a failure under pressure. Bush won easily. 

The 9/11 attacks didn’t happen. Commercial air service was grounded in March and ran infrequently through summer and fall. The hijackers didn’t get flight training. The World Trade Center wasn’t a target for al-Qaeda. It stood largely empty, as it hosted financial service companies which could operate with limited in-person staffs.

The U.S. emerged from the pandemic in mid-2002. Recovery was slow, as families deal with unthinkable losses, businesses rebuild supply chains, and schools retool to handle socially distanced classrooms if annual COVID variants strike. Millions of “long COVID” sufferers never fully return to work, requiring new safety net programs to help them survive. Fortunately, the budget surpluses built up during the divided government of Clinton’s second term ease part of the fiscal burden.

Other democratic nations initially fare better. More insular societies figure out more quickly how to survive. 

Dr. Genavee Brown, a Northumbria University researcher who compares social media usage among different cultures, told me social networks in France tend to be small and intimate. Those in the U.S. are widespread and shallow. Makes sense. European life tends to emphasize the local; Americans are scattered everywhere on this huge continent.

To be sure, a pandemic at the turn of the century also could have empowered autocratic regimes — demagogues who promised to fix things if given the power. 

I don’t know enough about geopolitics to say. I’ll leave that speculation for those with expertise.

The death toll: several hundred million.

How’d I do?

Is this guesswork credible? It’s my alternative history, and I’m not a fiction writer. Fill in your own blanks.

That said, undergoing this mental exercise made me appreciate again how lucky we were COVID hit when it did. We — not just Americans — could respond because of the technological dynamism of the past few decades, backed by our desire to figure things out and just plain survive.

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*I won’t minimize the suffering and setbacks that occurred over the past 18 months. I hope this bit of daydreaming highlights the good fortune we had.