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The Long Tunnel

Like you, I’m saddened and appalled at the damage we’re experiencing in this pandemic—the lost lives (and some people treating them as mere statistics), the disruption of our lives, the collateral damage to our economy, the potential demise of many small businesses that have had to retreat to the sidelines, the lost school year for millions of children—do I need to go on?  I feel lucky to have a home to quarantine in, a super-cool wife and a yard I can walk around in, and I feel huge empathy for the people who are not so fortunate.  It weighs on me.

I know it does the same with you.  And of course, you are also consoling and guiding your clients through this unprecedented time, which adds an additional burden not felt by most of the rest of us.

As you can imagine, I’ve been spending a lot of time online, trying to figure out when our lives will return to normal.  What I’ve discovered is that no expert and no research facility wants to put out discouraging reports.  But between and behind the rote optimism, I’ve noticed some facts which I think probably ought to be more widely understood.

There seems to be a common assumption that the medical community is well on the way to developing a vaccine.  But how likely is that, really?  As you know, the COVID-19 virus is a cousin of the common cold.  In all the years of medical research, have we managed to develop a vaccine for the common cold?  For that matter, has anybody developed a vaccine for MERS and SARS, which are closer cousins to the current pandemic?

The answer is no.  Moreover, traditional vaccines are designed to teach the human immune system to recognize a disease and kill it whenever it reappears.  (The medical term is “adaptive immunity.”)  But anybody who has had a cold will tell you that getting a cold once did not confer immunity against ever getting one again.  There is apparently strong evidence that people can get SARS and MERS more than once, which means that any vaccine for COVID-19 might either work imperfectly, or we would have to get vaccinated every couple of years.  This would be especially true if the winning vaccine formula turned out to be a “subunit” variety, where the injection floods the body (temporarily) with immune cells.

The COVID-19 virus also seems to trigger dangerous autoimmune responses, and one article I read talked about a disastrous effort to inoculate people in the Philippines against the dengue virus.  That experience is one reason why the medical community is being so careful to test the new RNA vaccines on animal and human subjects, and why it could take longer than you might expect to get that vaccine into the hands of the public. 

Ramping up production is another challenge.  The estimate I read recently suggests that the entire pharmaceutical industry might be able to produce a few million vaccines (whenever one is developed and tested) per month in the first year.  There are more than 7.8 billion people currently living on our planet.  After we vaccinate healthcare and front-line workers, how will we apportion the rest?

And, of course, unlike diseases caused by bacteria, the medical community has very limited options to treat a person infected by an aggressive virus.

Why am I bringing all of this up?  Because I believe one of the most important skills of a financial professional is to help clients avoid panic or despair when adverse conditions last longer than they expected.  You remember doing this in the 2008-9 crisis, which was purely financial and economic.  I think you’re soon going to be called on to handle this difficult chore once again.

How are your clients going to react if (as I suspect may be likely) they discover that what they imagined to be a temporary social distancing regime becomes the norm for many months, and that we will be wearing masks in public for a year or more?  Their lives are disrupted now, but we can all put up with temporary inconveniences.  When the temporary suddenly starts to look long-term—that’s when the fear hits.  The difference between pain and suffering is that with suffering, you are mentally projecting the pain out indefinitely; you are uncomfortable now, and you don’t see that light at the end of the tunnel.

I may be wrong about all this.  But recently, I’ve been finding ways, not just to temporarily self-quarantine, but to adapt to a change in lifestyle for as long as it takes.  I’m learning about video and doing video chats with my children and grandchildren, in lieu of the trips I had been taking.  And I’m discovering, to my pleasant surprise, that these more frequent face-to-screen interactions actually bring me closer than the less-often in-person visits.  Recently, my wife Jean and I participated in a group Zoom card game, where two other couples could view us and each other remotely, using an online gaming platform called Trickster. 

My kids who have children are getting a much better handle on their educational attainment, finding weak points and utilizing online resources.  I suspect (but don’t know) that the pandemic is going to disrupt next year’s school year, but it has also created more online educational resources and taught teachers how to teach remotely. 

Meanwhile, as you know, people are learning how to work from home, and companies (including yours) are providing the necessary resources.  What was originally supposed to be a one-month adventure in tele-commuting could become much longer—and preparing now means minimizing the damage.

My point here is that I think that one of the most valuable services you can provide is to check out ways that people can get together without physically getting together, and to gently help your clients accommodate to the idea that the tunnel is longer and deeper than they were expecting.  I’m genuinely encouraged that more than 80% of Americans are voluntarily participating in the social distancing effort; this is an extraordinary commitment to the health and recovery of our nation. 

Most people know there is light at the end of the tunnel, but I fear it’s not going to be visible as quickly as they expect.  The faster you can prepare yourself, and your clients, for that potentially grim reality, the less damage we are likely to experience—to lives, portfolios and our states of mind.