Eden Chen

COVID-19 Reflections

Eden Chen March 17, 2020

What better time is there to write than during a quarantine! 

If death isn’t on your mind after the start of 2020, you may never think about one of the most important events that you will ever go through. As depressing as a worldwide pandemic is, I’d like to look at the bright side: some of us who have the privilege to work from home, are being given opportunities to reflect on deeper things – things that we would never take the time to pause and reflect on. I’ve been fascinated (and disappointed) with how different countries are taking different approaches to attacking the virus, and also on the commentary that I hear all around me. 

Eastern countries (i.e. Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, even China after they let it get out of hand initially) have been much more effective at tracking, locking down, and stopping the virus, whereas western countries, refused to accept the math that was as clear as day from watching Hubei (and subsequent other countries like South Korea and Italy) but instead kept thinking about how “it’ll be different for us” – maybe our healthcare system is stronger, or we’ll do a better job testing, or people will unselfishly self distance.

Or maybe we just all felt that because we are privileged Americans that it wouldn’t play out the same for us. I had some of those same thoughts before I started digging into the numbers. I thought we’d find a cure any day now, or as soon as it became urgent enough, we’d take the necessary steps to stop the virus – we haven’t and we haven’t. 

My point here isn’t to say that easterners are better than westerners – I love my way of life and some of the stuff China did was flat out wrong and scary. But there were many corporate and individual choices that led us to the place that we’re at. One that we already know will lead to (in a best case scenario) tens of thousands of people getting the virus and thousands dying. 

My main takeaways from the virus / quarantine: 

  • We’re unable to objectively look at something that doesn’t line up with our beliefs. It’s why it’s so difficult to change anyone’s mind on anything that they have a deep rooted belief in. The belief in this case? That we’re immortal. That science can solve every problem. That it’s not going to play out the same for us. It turns out that a virus is quite objective and the growth charts of almost every country that took on a similar strategy look very similar. 
  • We’re unable to delay immediate gratification for either long term gain or for the benefit of others.  The reality seems to be that the major cities in the US that already have an overrun of cases are going to have to shut down for 2 weeks. Whether we shut down today or in 2 weeks determines on how many people die and how much damage is done.
  • We need community and physical interaction with each other (yes, even you introverts). I think for most of us, quarantine has reminded us how important it is for us to physically be with one another. Quarantine is almost the most extreme form of where our technology is taking us where we’re surrounded by screens and zoom. A virus can show us how much we need one another. 
  • Balance sheets don’t matter… until they do. The common denominator of stocks that have really gotten crushed are as follows: If you have a physical space, or you’re in the travel industry (hotels, airplanes, cruises, etc.), or you have a bad balance sheet (i.e. you have too much debt, not enough cash, or your cash burn is too high) then you’re stock has gotten hammered. The first two variables are based on your business model, but the companies that have gotten slammed by balance sheet issues are in all sorts of businesses. Losing money in good times is cool, but losing money in bad times is you’re bankrupt (see BA, FTCH, UBER, LYFT, TSLA, OXY, etc. all in mostly different industries). For what it’s worth PTON is my biggest position now (high margin business, with recurring revenue, gyms are all closed and rich people need to work out, and you can buy way under the IPO). 
  • Those at the bottom of income earners are always disproportionately affected by unforeseen disasters like this. This one is kind of obvious, but I think it’s always eye-opening how large that population is for people that are living paycheck to paycheck, until something like this happens. Most people rely on school for daycare, if they miss one paycheck (which most are because they work in physical retail) they aren’t able to cover their expenses. In this case they’ve lost their day care and their jobs. A lot of tech workers would rather get coronavirus than work from home with their kids. The privileged can hire nannies to compensate. We’ve had the blessing of having a displaced single mother and her two kids stay at our place. It’s not only been refreshing for us to spend time with other people (in light of a quarantine), but a revelation to understand how difficult life can be for most Americans especially during this time. 
  • The younger you are, the less you care about coronavirus. I asked the 7 year old staying at our place if he felt the heaviness from coronavirus. He didn’t really. He was concerned about what we were eating, if he could play video games, and when school was going to start again. I asked the 5 year old – she didn’t care at all. I asked my 1.5 year old daughter and she looked blankly at me. Ignorance is bliss. 

All to say – what a time to be alive. Keep your head up and take time to reflect on your life. We all could spend more time with loved ones, and think about God more. We will all meet God sooner than we think. 

I’ll leave you with a few relevant quotes that were inspiring to me:

This past year I was diagnosed with cancer and faced the possibility that my life would end sooner than I’d planned. Thankfully, it now looks as if I’ll be spared. But the experience has given me important insight into my life.

I have a pretty clear idea of how my ideas have generated enormous revenue for companies that have used my research; I know I’ve had a substantial impact. But as I’ve confronted this disease, it’s been interesting to see how unimportant that impact is to me now. I’ve concluded that the metric by which God will assess my life isn’t dollars but the individual people whose lives I’ve touched.

I think that’s the way it will work for us all. Don’t worry about the level of individual prominence you have achieved; worry about the individuals you have helped become better people. This is my final recommendation: Think about the metric by which your life will be judged, and make a resolution to live every day so that in the end, your life will be judged a success.

Professor Clay Christensen (passed away on 1/23/20)

In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

– CS Lewis

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