May 6, 2020

Axios Future

Welcome to Axios Future, where we like to pretend it's 1998 again while watching Michael Jordan crush it in "The Last Dance."

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Today's issue is 1,695 words, a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: Why the coronavirus is tearing us apart

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Far from being the unifying force other catastrophes have been, the COVID-19 pandemic is tearing a divided America — and world — further apart.

Why it matters: Thanks to preexisting political and economic divisions and tech and media bubbles that allow us to choose our own reality, we're not experiencing the same pandemic. That bodes ill for our ability to overcome this global disaster, and the ones that will follow.

Driving the news: On Saturday, former President George W. Bush released a video urging the nation to come together to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, saying, "Let us remember how small our differences are in the face of this shared threat." It was a sentiment increasingly at odds with the reality of the public reaction to COVID-19.

  • In an Axios-Ipsos poll released yesterday, most Americans surveyed reported they doubted one of the most fundamental facts of the pandemic: the death toll. But whether they believed the reported deaths were too low or too high depended on whether they were Democrats or Republicans.
  • A Pew survey published today found two-thirds of Republican-leaning respondents believe the media is at least slightly exaggerating the risks from COVID-19, compared to 3 in 10 Democratic-leaning respondents.
  • U.S. states are divided in their response, with Republican governors in the South and Midwest pushing to reopen as quickly as possible, while Democratic governors in the Northeast formed a separate consortium to source needed personal protective equipment.

Context: COVID-19 isn't being experienced the same way around the world or around the U.S.

  • While every U.S. state has had outbreaks and in recent weeks counts have been rising outside major cities, a handful of states are still responsible for the bulk of COVID-19 cases so far, with New York City alone making up more than 14% of confirmed U.S. cases and more than a quarter of confirmed deaths.
  • That uneven epidemiological experience contrasts with the economic toll of the pandemic and social distancing, which truly has been national.

The unique nature of the pandemic also makes its toll largely invisible and easier for the motivated to dismiss — or pervert.

What's next: Nothing good.

  • As anger on both sides of the coronavirus divide continues to grow, violence like the killing of a store security guard in Michigan over a mask dispute last Friday could worsen.
  • On the international stage, disputes over how to respond to the pandemic, how to create a vaccine and even how the outbreak began will further fracture the world.

My thought bubble: Over the weekend, my former boss Nancy Gibbs wrote in the Washington Post that the true coronavirus test we face won't involve nasal swabs or thermometers, but our character, whether we're able to balance self-interest and the public interest. Americans did well enough initially, but as COVID-19 weeks turn to months, the pressure could become unbearable.

The bottom line: COVID-19 provides us with a common enemy: a 120 nm band of genes wrapped in a lipid shell. Yet, increasingly, the enemy seems to be each other.

2. Coronavirus leads to new giving and volunteering

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The dramatic need caused by the pandemic and the accompanying economic devastation is being partially met by innovative approaches to philanthropy.

Why it matters: The COVID-19 pandemic could lead to human misery on a scale we haven't seen for decades. Smarter and more generous volunteering and giving could help prevent the worst outcome while demonstrating the unity that is desperately needed.

What's happening: According to the nonprofit Candid, nearly $10 billion in large charitable gifts around the world has so far been donated in response to the pandemic, with much of it originating in the U.S. That's far more than was given for catastrophes like Hurricane Sandy.

  • But as great as the giving has been, the need is even greater. More than 30 million Americans have filed unemployment claims, while globally, the number of starving people could double because of the pandemic.

Be smart: There will always be a limit in what even the most generous private philanthropy can do — the size of Washington's initial stimulus package was more than 200 times bigger than those large charitable gifts. But charity can make a difference at the margins, especially if ordinary people get involved helping their neighbors.

  • Mimi Aboubaker and Elle Wilson recently launched a philanthropic startup called Perfect Strangers that aims to use gig economy tech to seamlessly connect volunteers with people in need of grocery delivery and other services during the pandemic.
  • The NGO GiveDirectly, which offers money with no strings attached to those in need, has been giving out $1,000 in direct cash grants to American families who have been hard hit by COVID-19. They've reached more than 78,000 families so far, and last month the group received $3 million in funding from Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai, and Flourish Ventures.
"These are trying times, and any way you can get involved and help one another is important. We're attempting to make that easier."
— Mimi Aboubaker

The bottom line: We may be politically divided, but Americans can still be counted on to give their money and time to neighbors in need.

3. The personal medical diagnostics of the pandemic

Northwestern's COVID-19 diagnostic. Photo: Northwestern University

A new wearable device is capable of catching early signs and symptoms associated with COVID-19.

Why it matters: With tests still in too-short supply, any device that can clue doctors to an early COVID-19 case is welcome. And the combination of people staying home because of social distancing and the overwhelming threat of the disease makes home diagnostics even more important.

How it works: The experimental wearable device, which sits at the base of a patient's throat, was developed by researchers at Northwestern University and the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. It was initially meant to monitor speech patterns in stroke victims before it was reengineered for COVID-19, says Northwestern's John Rogers, who led the development.

  • Worn 24/7, the device detects coughing intensity and patterns, along with breathing sounds, heart rate and body temperature. The data is transmitted wirelessly to the cloud, where algorithms provide graphical representations that can be interpreted by physicians.
  • Rogers says about 25 people are currently wearing the devices, a mix of health care workers monitoring themselves for signs of COVID-19 and patients who have been sent home from hospitals and are being monitored remotely.

The new device joins an array of home diagnostics that have become suddenly popular during the pandemic, including pulse oximeters that can measure blood oxygenation levels — a vital sign for COVID-19 patients.

  • "The technology is here to take hospital ICU-grade diagnostics and deliver it to the home, to be worn on the skin for continuous health monitoring," says Rogers. "We think the pandemic will lead to a broader awareness of the value of this monitoring."
  • By one recent count, the market for connected medical diagnostics is expected to grow by an average of 25% a year between now and 2025. With companies like Amazon and Apple increasingly focusing on health diagnostics, "there is a huge opening for tech companies to do more of that work," futurist Amy Webb told me recently.

The bottom line: Health monitoring won't have to wait until your doctor is in.

4. A step back from commercializing space

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic will likely make the U.S. space industry even more focused on government money and funding —and potentially set back advancements toward commercializing the industry, Axios' Miriam Kramer writes.

What's happening: Many companies that are focusing on catering to commercial interests are young and rely on venture capital funding and other financing, which has largely dried up in the pandemic.

  • The U.S. Space Force Acquisition Council is now looking into what parts of the space industry will likely need the most support as the coronavirus pandemic continues.
  • The Small Business Association defines small businesses in a way that tends to exclude many venture-backed space startups from qualifying for pandemic relief loans, according to a report from SpaceNews.

What to watch: Government funds will help keep much of the space industry open for business, but that could also reorient the industry back toward government work just as the commercialization of space was starting to take hold.

Go deeper

5. Worthy of your time

Death of the office (Catherine Nixey — 1843 Magazine)

  • A long read about the future of the office and why they were never any good anyway.

The harsh future of American cities (Steve LeVine — Gen)

  • Axios Future's founder has very bad news about the fate of U.S. cities after the coronavirus.

A neuroscience startup uses helmets to measure brain activity (Ashlee Vance — Bloomberg)

COVID-19 and the great rehiring (D'Arcy Coolican and Jeff Jordan —

  • The Silicon Valley VCs at Andreessen Horowitz on how to rapidly bring Americans back to work post-pandemic. (Hint: it will involve technology.)
6. 1 quarantine thing: Amazon's "Upload"

Watching your livestreamed funeral from the digital afterlife. Photo: Amazon Studios

Since at least some of us are still at home — check your local listings to be sure — this newsletter is occasionally recommending pop culture that jells with the themes of Future.

  • This week's edition: the surprisingly dark digital afterlife sitcom "Upload."

Why you should watch it: "Upload" creator Greg Daniels helped bring you "The Office" and "Parks and Recreation," for which you owe him eternal gratitude. But "Upload" has smart things to say about class, death and the meaning of life in an increasingly digital world.

After Nathan Brown (Robbie Amell) suffers a mostly fatal car accident, his fiancee makes the decision to upload his mind to the cloud. There he is free to live out his digital afterlife in the luxury golf resort-like realm of Lakeview.

  • It initially seems like a great deal, as Brown's every whim is catered to by AI bellhops and on-call "angels." But as he explores Lakeview, Brown comes to realize that the digital afterlife is even more class-stratified than the living world.
  • Every action in Lakeview burns through data. That's fine if you're a tycoon on an unlimited data plan, but as Slate's Sam Adams writes, it feels more like an "eternal debtors' prison" if you're a budget customer who burns through their allotted data with a few vigorous thoughts.

Of note: "Upload" is brought to you by Amazon Studios, which is ironic, not least because if a real-life Lakeview existed, it would almost surely be hosted by Amazon Web Services.