Pandemic Reader #7

Reopening fragility, recession playbook, the war for the narrative and more…

Curated articles; observed patterns ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Week 9 of UK lockdown
World: 4,628,903 confirmed cases, 312,009 confirmed deaths

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My weekly take — fragile optimism

As I step back from this week’s collection, what strikes me is how delicate everything is at the moment.

We are stepping towards slow reopening, some with more bravado than others, but news from countries who are ahead of us, show it’s not that straightforward. Some of those countries had better opening conditions as they started getting out of lockdown. It’s hard to know what’s ahead for worse hit countries.

Humanity is resilient and ingenious, but we shouldn’t underestimate the challenges ahead. Especially when some leaders out there are using both the strength of people as well as their longing for normality as a smokescreen — from fatal mistakes made. From ineptitude and negligence, probably even of the criminal kind. We should do our part in the social project of recovery, but it doesn’t mean we need to conform to their worldview or accept their narrative.

Last week, together with Firstlight PR, we brought together a small group of people, both agency and client-side for the first of our ‘Zoom out’ sessions. A campfire chat about dealing with change. We shared some of the patterns we see and talked about what we believe is changing and what stays the same, especially as we move into recovery, whatever shape it may take. Some of the insights we shared were captured in a PDF. Regular readers will identify some of the thoughts from previous weeks. It’s all very constructive.

A little tip before we move into this week’s patterns and links: some paywalled/limited articles can be read by pasting the link into an incognito tab.

This week’s taxonomy

Death Toll

I admit that starting with the death toll and the virus is a conscious decision. And that decision seems more significant the more political things get.

By now, most independent analysis says official figures are undercounted because they only use confirmed cases and do not take into account’ excess deaths’.

Interestingly after a long period where models had significant disparity, it seems by now there’s enough data and the models are converging.

If you want to interact with the numbers, the talents behind informationisbeautiful, gave everything their usual magical treatment.

There are some vaccine hopes again, but even if those breakthroughs hold, it’s months ahead at best. One promising direction is using a totally new vaccination method.

In the meantime, there’s a terrible, albeit rare, syndrome manifesting in children and teenagers.

Young people should not underestimate the virus.

In epicentres, even just honouring the dead becomes a challenge.

The fragility of reopening

Funny attempts at maintaining social distancing, harmless slips involving sports and the wrong kind of mannequin, aside…

People are tired of staying home, that’s only human. They want the new normal to be the old normal (See Kantar research in the early Readers)

But as some countries move to their third week of reopening and beyond, some have had to take steps back due to resurgence of the virus. It’s impossible not to compromise social distancing during this time.

The part contact tracing apps play in reopening might not be as meaningful as previously thought.

Even after testing, it is often unclear what to do.

Experts warn of second wave infections, and resurgence can get ugly pretty quickly.

According to this study, looking at the relatively harsh case of Spain, even herd immunity isn’t as close as previously thought.

And Sweden? The poster-country of the lockdown opposition seems to have paid a higher price than initially thought with little difference to the economic impact which was supposed to be the reason for some of its questionable choices.

It’s too soon to say if it’s going to be a back-and-forth process. We might have to get creative. Whatever works?

A class issue?

The groups who have been hurting more during lockdown will be more exposed to danger during reopening. For example, because they cannot work from home.

In the UK, it almost seems like the government is sending them a message.

This analysis talks about ‘zoomism’ and the class disparity. It’s a simple question of who goes back to work and how.

If this awakens class tensions, who will be their enemy? The government? The billionaires? Or simply those more fortunate?

In the US the schism between Wall St and Mainstreet deepens. Of course, some billionaires have been impatient all along.

Should we cancel poor countries debts? The alternative might be the most vulnerable people hurting — for example, refugees.

If the pandemic lowers inequality, it will come after a lot of pain.

Meanwhile, in Russia, alarming numbers of doctors dying.

In Brazil, which might still become the worst affected country, another narcissist leader fails his people. Zoom-in with this photo essay.

In the UK, COVID is delaying adoption for kids who need it. In the Ukraine surrogate babies are even more vulnerable.

Somehow, in one state in India, a leader acted fast enough to save many lives of her people.

A different recession

You wouldn’t be surprised that all that fragility doesn’t bode well for recovery speeds or patterns. In the US it is estimated impact will be felt to the end of next year.

Japan is officially in recession. Germany shrunk %2.2 in the first quarter. Imagine what’s this quarter is going to bring. And that’s Europe’s strongest economy. In Paris shops reopen, but what about customers?

Is the ‘Recession Playbook’ still valid?

Marketing and advertising are supposed to be the oil on wheels of recovery. Helping the supply of hurting businesses meet the demand of people hungry for normality, and stimulate that demand.

There’s a traditional ‘recession playbook’, which I mentioned in a nutshell last month. It’s well researched.

Mark Ritson is a passionate and articulate advocate of the playbook, especially against the torrent of ‘everything will change completely and forever’ pundits. He keeps building his case. I tend to agree with him that the fundamentals of human nature and consumer behaviour won’t change.

However, over the last few weeks, even people who usually would be on Ritson’s side and some of his often quoted researchers have started publishing new thoughts. This in an industry where people are not fond of changing their mind in public.

Even Les Binet says the recession playbook might not apply because this is a different recession. A social crisis. Like a war.

Big advertisers who could double down, like P&G did, are cutting back on media commitments. And the big newspapers are recalibrating their revenue models.

Some other changes around work may resound across sectors and professional services in particular. Twitter told their team they can work from home forever if they want to. This happens in tandem with eulogies to the modern office that make an interesting read even if they do not come true all the way.

Higher education trying to find its way, possibly on the way to cataclysm.

Very reluctantly, the industry is trying to find the right path, sometimes with uncharacteristic humility.

I think it is possible not to imagine a new and alien consumer while recalibrating strategies to fit with unprecedented factors. Maybe that’s a luxury I have as someone who works with a variety of clients in different sectors and can stay close to every case rather than commit to one dogma as a public speaker.

The silver lining? Examples of past work show the industry can be quite smart in a recession.

Maybe it’s even an opportunity to rebuild some of our lost gravitas with clients.

As long as we don’t let that distract us from things that should remain the same unless they are broken to begin with.

And while everyone is adapting, borg-like Amazon casually assimilates another chunk of its supply chain.

It’s the narrative, stupid.

The documentation of Trump’s pandemic clusterfuck is getting quite robust. ‘Lost the plot’. ‘Meltdown’. Etc. With details and dates and evidence.

There is even a whistle-blower.

But would this be enough? I’m not sure. Like an old-school internet troll Trump spams the channel. Will ‘Obamagate’ be this election’s ‘Benghazi’?

Trump still lives in his own version of reality, where he can randomly declare he’s using a questionable drug to treat himself. He can smokescreen the death-toll, and still own patriotism, even if it’s in the most convoluted way.

The current paradigm of Biden advisors is that the election is going to be a referendum on the pandemic.

I believe that’s a dangerous paradigm. It may hold for people who are experiencing the same narrative the advisors are.

But what happens when spins, humbugs and conspiracy theories abound and many Republicans think the media is exaggerating the danger of the pandemic, to begin with? By November, that ‘is’ becomes ‘was’ and the agenda shifts.

America’s affair with conspiracy theories plays into his hands. BTW I’d like to highlight that last link. Shadowland is a project from The Atlantic, which is both fascinating and terrifying and is worth your time. A Pulitzer candidate perhaps. Little comfort if he wins the next elections.

Silver linings

Give yourself a break; it’s the most messed up astrological week of the year.

Psychedelics continue their journey towards the mainstream of therapy. We’ll need that.

Will the pandemic make the radical notion of mutual aid go mainstream?

An excellent newsletter about culture, diplomacy and innovation from Jess Gosling with multiple ideas and opportunities.

Nostalgia candy — Josh Gad (the voice of Olaf in Frozen) uses the lockdown as an excuse to remotely bring together the stars of Back to the Future to discuss the legacy of the film.

The US version of The Office invites you to join the characters on Slack.

MIT is publishing Stanislaw Lem, one of Science-Fiction’s unsung heroes (in English. Anyway.)

Here’s how you have a party inside a google-docs spreadsheet.

I try to read broadly and deeply, but I’m only one sleep-deprived human. Send me anything good/important that I’ve missed or put it in the comments.

A short message to everyone, especially to those of you who have been with me from the beginning:
I want to put it out there — I’m no longer sure my work on the Pandemic Reader is sustainable.
So that you get an idea — I must have gone over about 100 articles to get to this week’s collection and I’m writing this after a 18+ hours marathon and another ‘skipped night’. As the sun rises, I wonder…
I’m getting increasingly busy and will need to pay more attention to my work to make sure recovery happens the right way, at least on a personal level.
I want to keep it alive, but it might have to be more focused and insight based and less of an overview. We’ll see. In the meantime — like, share and
subscribe to the email updates.

Strategist. Director of a boutique agency. Teaches the D&AD’s strategy masterclass and the SCA’s course in strategy. Writing between marketing and culture.

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