“I think I always expected the end of the world; I just didn’t expect it to happen in a single month.” I hear these words coming out of my mouth in a discussion of current events with my father.

Just in case you’ve been fortunate to be cryogenically frozen and have just been awoken; so far, the planet is on fire in a very literal sense, causing multiple mass crises in South America and Australia; the Stock Market plummeted in the past week, wiping out all gains since 2017; and now we have an epidemic that’s locked down Europe, Asia, and large parts of North America. I don’t know what the current situation is in Africa and Antarctica, but I assume it’s not significantly better. We are only 78 days into 2020. Strap in folks, it looks like this is going to be a bumpy decade.

As a cancer survivor; you would expect me to be familiar — almost comfortable, even — with catastrophic situations that go from “really bad” to “terminal” within the space of a week. I mean, that’s summarized my entire adult life, and it’s a common thread in the cancer survival community. It’s still a shocker when it happens to you. Even when these things habitually happen to you and only you, you still expect them to happen to other people. Which, I think, is why the world went from, “Oh, Australia’s on fire” to, “Grandma’s dying because there aren’t enough ventilators to go around” in the space of 30 days. I am, as always, more surprised at my capacity for stupidity and inability to learn than I am the events themselves. “It can’t happen to us,” is the defining refrain of our species. I should know; I’ve heard the words, “You have a brain tumor” on three separate occasions, and it surprised me every single time just as much as the first time. As the immortal Bill Watterson once wrote;

This is one of those things you always figure will happen to someone else… unfortunately, we’re all “someone else” to someone else.

To paraphrase Dan Carlin, we’ve been on a pretty continuous rise, technologically and culturally, since the Renaissance, which has given us a dramatically inaccurate view of civil and technological progress, whereas, previous to Leonardo Da Vinci, it was not an uncommon occurrence for a plague, natural disaster, or invading army to wipe out a society and set its development back decades or centuries. I don’t know if anyone expected all three to happen in the same quarter, but we’re probably in uncharted territory. I was watching Ken Burns’ documentary series a few weeks ago, when the planet wasn’t ending, and I wondered if people in the US, seeing the first combat troops arrive at China Beach in 1965, if audiences were aware that they were seeing a pivotal moment in history. We are seeing the definitive end of the 20th century right now, and I hope most of us are taking notes, because this will be a movie one day. To address that particular concept, I cede the floor to the philosopher, Stewart:

This, “Where am I, how do I survive, how do I learn all this on the fly” aspect of things I am absolutely expert at, though (see that bit about me surviving three brain tumors — this is a naturally selective process).

For you fighter-pilot jocks and military history buffs, let’s talk about the OODA Loop. I’ve written (briefly) about it before; but it’s a concept that was developed to train combat pilots, after an officer figured out that whoever successfully completes the loop first inevitably wins. And it’s so applicable to most decision-making processes that it’s widely used in the corporate world:

Source: The Art of Manliness, but you can find it on any data analysis firm’s website

This would seem fairly self-explanatory, except it’s not. “Orient,” for instance, doesn’t mean “which way is up,” it refers more to the concept of “what’s the best model/data to use in the decision-making phase.” Which is dependent upon information available to us; which is decidedly error-prone at the moment, thanks to governments’ vested interest in keeping face, faulty Covid 19 test kits, and not enough test kits. And we’re still seeing global warming (which makes the planet more-habitable for microorganisms than us) unfold faster than we can quantify. Ditto the recession.

The first, most-critical part of cancer survival — and global survival at the moment — is not to worsen an already-deteriorating situation. Which means, “Stop panicking, stop buying toilet paper, take a deep breath and be silent for a minute.” I’ve noticed that healthy people seem almost allergic to this part of crisis-control. They tend to get caught in the “Decide” and “Act” parts of the loop, because it comes very naturally to us (go to any kindergarten playground you want; very few children will just sit on the sidelines and take careful note of what’s happening). Cancer survivors who get trapped in that (and we’re all now in a survival situation, make no mistake) don’t last long. I’m afraid our leadership is now addicted to those two steps, and it will kill everyone before we can catch our breath. However, going to the first “O” (Observe); I think we have three problems:

  1. Inadequate response to global warming and consequences thereof;
  2. Woefully inadequate response measures in place in the event of pandemic;
  3. Gambling addiction/overdependence upon investment banking as an industry

As far as “orienting” ourselves, this one is critical; we don’t have time or the budget to reinvent the wheel. Which means just stealing the solution if it’s already been developed (as The Donald allegedly tried to do by getting a German pharmaceutical research team to come to the US). What we’re seeing with the environment, lack of innovation (which then leads us to look to banking as a growth industry), and lack of public health could be solved by investments in healthcare, education, and infrastructure (we’re the only industrialized society without universal healthcare, and if we had a light rail system, we’d be able to shrug and snicker when airline companies asked for bailouts). The Netherlands should be our model for climate crisis; Japan our model for healthcare solutions; and Revolutionary France the model for economic restructuring (the inconvenience of bankers and stock brokers and their families will be compensated by an increased job demand for executioners and guillotine-makers). Of course, I’m not an economist, and, as someone with a preexisting condition, I’m not wild about the current for-profit healthcare system (I’m not wild about pandemics, either). It’s important to note; I’m not advocating this societal investment as a way to solve the current crisis (it’s too late for that), but to lessen or prevent the next crisis. The major take-away from cancer survival that society should take to heart is that the critical aspects of survival are, not worsening the current crisis by impotently flailing around and/or skipping infusions; then overcoming the current catastrophe, whilst simultaneously and intelligently preparing for the inevitable next catastrophe.

Written by

Science journalist, cancer survivor, biomedical consultant, the “Wednesday Addams of travel writers.”

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