Crisis and opportunity during coronavirus

Note: please put on your own oxy­gen mask first. Don’t en­gage with this post if you haven’t taken ap­pro­pri­ate mea­sures to pre­pare your­self and your fam­ily; and plau­si­bly don’t en­gage if you haven’t taken mea­sures to en­sure you can do so while stay­ing sta­ble and grounded.


We face a time of global crisis. But in spite of the un­fold­ing tragedy – or per­haps be­cause of it – this will also be a time of great op­por­tu­nity. If you have the skills, slack, and will­ing­ness to act, it might make sense to start look­ing for ways to con­tribute (re­gard­less of whether you’re seek­ing per­sonal gain or al­tru­is­tic benefit).

Why does this seem like a good op­por­tu­nity?

There’s a ques­tion of whether the cur­rent situ­a­tion should change your over­all cause-pri­ori­ti­sa­tion, in de­ter­min­ing what’s most use­ful to work on over a >1 year time-scale.

This de­pends on where you started in your be­liefs. To many read­ers, this likely does not provide any high-level up­dates, as we already be­lieved that pan­demics were a ma­jor risk for which the world was un­der­pre­pared, and that the ma­jor in­sti­tu­tions in charge were dys­func­tional. (Nonethe­less, I am learn­ing a mas­sive amount by liv­ing through a time of global crisis when I have the epistemic abil­ity and agency to un­der­stand what’s hap­pen­ing and take ac­tion.)

Beyond that, there’s the ques­tion of whether this is a win­dow of op­por­tu­nity. Even if your long-term goals re­main af­ter this pan­demic, are there ac­tions which will have an ex­traor­di­nar­ily high lev­er­age now, com­pared to other times?

I think there are a few rea­sons for think­ing so.

  • Un­der­prepa­ra­tion. The world wasn’t pre­pared. Every­one is scram­bling to figure things out and there’s too much for any­one to do. Hun­dreds of mil­lions of peo­ple are sud­denly chang­ing their lives. The same goes for hun­dreds of thou­sands of com­pa­nies and hun­dreds of gov­ern­ments. Most of them have no rou­tines or ex­pe­rience in han­dling situ­a­tions like these, which means they’ll be fac­ing prob­lems they have never faced be­fore.

  • Ex­po­nen­tial growth. Each in­fected per­son can be re­spon­si­ble for thou­sands of down­stream in­fec­tions, so the im­pact of be­havi­our change has a large mul­ti­plier. (Though this is mod­ulo some un­cer­tainty about coun­ter­fac­tual in­fec­tions which I’m un­sure how to think about).

  • Scale. The pan­demic might grow to di­rectly af­fect hun­dreds of mil­lions of peo­ple, and it will in­di­rectly af­fect billions. It is also a memetic pan­demic (it prob­a­bly con­sumes >90% of my FB and Twit­ter feeds, and >70% of my con­ver­sa­tions). Peo­ple are ac­tively try­ing to find in­for­ma­tion, prod­ucts, and similar.

  • Direct ex­po­sure and quick feed­back loops. Most star­tups die be­cause no one wants what they’re build­ing. A com­mon warn­ing sign is that the founders aren’t them­selves users of the product. But in the com­ing months, you’ll have to solve lots of prob­lems for your­self, and chances are high that oth­ers might benefit from your solu­tion (e.g. many spread­sheets and doc­u­ments that went viral were ini­tially just a sin­gle per­son try­ing to figure out how they should pre­pare, when their com­pany should work re­motely, etc.) Even if you’re solv­ing prob­lems for oth­ers, you’ll quick learn if there’s any de­mand.

How can you con­tribute?

I want to dis­t­in­guish two kinds of win­dows of op­por­tu­ni­ties. For lack of a bet­ter term, I’ll call them “so­cial” and “causal”.

So­cial win­dows of op­por­tu­nity. Sud­denly peo­ple are will­ing to listen to new ad­vice, and con­sider differ­ent ac­tions than they pre­vi­ously would. Hence there are at­tempts to get peo­ple to sign so­cial pledges to self-quaran­tine and epi­demiol­o­gists are sign­ing open let­ters to tech gi­ants. More ne­far­i­ously, law­mak­ers are smug­gling their pet policy pro­posal into things that look like corona re­sponse mea­sures. When all is said and done, it seems plau­si­ble the over­ton win­dow for biorisk policy will have shifted mas­sively, and that might bring with it other sur­pris­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties as well.

Causal win­dows of op­por­tu­nity. There are also many new prob­lems to be solved, where you can build a tool or other solu­tion that ac­tu­ally changes the world in a mechanis­tic way, and which isn’t pri­mar­ily about con­vinc­ing other peo­ple of things.

For ex­am­ple:

The Coron­avirus Tech Hand­book is an ex­cel­lent re­source sum­maris­ing what peo­ple are build­ing to fight the out­break. Many pro­jects are ur­gently look­ing for col­lab­o­ra­tors.

Even if you don’t have tech skills, there are other ways of find­ing great op­por­tu­nity in times of crisis.

Some of his­tory’s most suc­cess­ful trades (1, 2) oc­curred dur­ing crises. There will likely be many fi­nan­cial op­por­tu­ni­ties dur­ing this crisis as well. (LessWronger user Wei Dai posted about how he suc­cess­fully shorted the S&P500 a few weeks back, and saw 700% re­turns already be­fore the crashes of the re­cent week.) (This is not fi­nan­cial ad­vice and if you have no trad­ing ex­pe­rience now might be a par­tic­u­larly bad time to start.)

We have also seen a mas­sive failure of re­spon­si­ble in­sti­tu­tions to re­spond ap­pro­pri­ately and provide re­li­able in­for­ma­tion. This means there’s a short­age and need for re­li­able re­search and ad­vice. This situ­a­tion re­quires think­ing for our­selves.

Due to the ex­is­tence of niche on­line com­mu­ni­ties do­ing this, I started se­ri­ously think­ing and prepar­ing when there were 2 cases in my home coun­try. A week and a half later I went home to my fam­ily and helped them pre­pare, as the only mask-wear­ing per­son at an empty row in the back of an oth­er­wise full plane. There were 20 con­firmed cases. My mom ini­tially yel­led at me and felt em­bar­rassed when none of her friends were tak­ing ac­tion, and asked why the au­thor­i­ties didn’t say much. I left 5 days later. The case count had grown ex­po­nen­tially to >400. A friend in med school told me to “wash my hands and don’t panic”. I left from an air­port where staff wore nei­ther gloves nor masks, and shorted the lo­cal stock mar­ket. As I’m writ­ing this two days later the case count is al­most 700.

The jury is still out, but sadly this seems to be a time where it’s crit­i­cally im­por­tant to be able to take your be­liefs se­ri­ously even when they go much fur­ther than offi­cial ad­vice and main­stream be­havi­our . There will likely be many more op­por­tu­ni­ties over the com­ing months were good judge­ment and in­de­pen­dent re­search can make an im­por­tant differ­ence. The LessWrong page of posts tagged coro­n­avirus is one place to find and con­tribute to open ques­tions.

Ad­den­dum on prof­it­ing from outbreaks

I strongly be­lieve that that traders and en­trepreneurs who try to gain profit dur­ing this crisis are not im­moral. Rather, they are in­cred­ibly im­por­tant. All this “flat­ten the curve” busi­ness is about smooth­ing out de­mand peaks over time. And fi­nan­cial mar­kets (fu­tures mar­kets in par­tic­u­lar) are one of the key tech­nolo­gies our so­ciety has for co­or­di­nat­ing to effi­ciently al­lo­cate re­sources across time. For ex­am­ple, it might have been hugely benefi­cial if some­one with fore­sight would have stock­piled mas­sive amounts of med­i­cal ven­tila­tors months back and thereby caused sup­pli­ers to in­crease pro­duc­tion (it seems plau­si­ble this might have been worth it even if they wouldn’t have sold those stock­piled ven­tila­tors at a mas­sive markup). The ac­tual stock­piling of masks that hap­pened might also have been benefi­cial for this rea­son (but I am highly un­cer­tain about this claim and wouldn’t bet highly on it).

More gen­er­ally, the com­ing year will pre­sent a mas­sive wealth trans­fer, in var­i­ous ways, to the pre­pared from the un­pre­pared (or those un­able to pre­pare, due to lack of money, knowl­edge, or some other key pre­req­ui­site). I don’t know what the im­pli­ca­tions of this will be. But once again, it might be worth a few hours of your time think­ing about what op­por­tu­ni­ties it might gen­er­ate.

tags: Coronavirus