Mar 11, 2020

Axios Future

By Bryan Walsh
Bryan Walsh

Welcome back to Axios Future, where some of us saw this whole pandemic thing coming.

Today's issue is 1,496 words, ~ a 5.5-minute read.

1 big thing: The two uncertainties of the coronavirus

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

When it comes to a major infectious disease outbreak, what you don't know very much can hurt you.

Why it matters: Right now, officials at every level of the U.S. government face agonizing choices about whether to cancel mass gatherings, require workers to telecommute or even close schools in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. These choices will have enormous social and economic ramifications.

  • It's difficult enough to make these decisions if officials have an ideal picture of the disease's spread.
  • But by failing to rapidly scale up testing, we've added an additional — and unnecessary — layer of uncertainty to the response to what WHO is now calling a pandemic.

Flashback: As recently as the 1918 influenza pandemic, scientists were largely in the dark about how a new outbreak spreads.

  • The inability to rapidly contact trace infected patients meant that containment — as countries including the U.S. are still trying to do with COVID-19 — was largely impossible.

Today, scientists can sequence a virus in days, develop rapid tests that can determine infection before obvious symptoms, and use complex mathematical models to predict future spread.

  • We still don't know the likely fatality rate of the virus.
  • We don't know exactly how contagious the virus is, or the precise role that children — who seem outwardly unaffected by the disease — may play in transmission.
  • We don't know whether the outbreak will naturally slow down when the weather warms, as tends to happen with influenza.

Be smart: It is these known unknowns that make COVID-19 so risky. It might turn out that COVID-19 kills no more people globally than the flu, but while we know how the flu spreads and how dangerous it is, we lack the same certainty about the novel coronavirus.

  • That's one reason why, as Harvard epidemiologist Michael Mina put it on a panel last week, this is "the most daunting virus that we’ve contended with in half a century or more."
  • Health officials are facing the epidemiological equivalent of the "fog of war." The faster scientists can get and process data from affected countries, the faster that picture will clarify.

That's why the apparent failure to ramp up testing in the U.S. for COVID-19 is so damaging.

  • It's not clear how many Americans have been tested for COVID-19, in part because a mix of federal, state and private labs are now carrying out those diagnostics. But reporting by The Atlantic estimates that as of the afternoon of March 9, fewer than 5,000 people in the U.S. had been tested.
  • Compare that to South Korea, which detected its first case around the same time as the U.S. and has reported the capacity to test 10,000 people a day.
  • Without widespread testing, our picture of the outbreak's spread in the U.S. is faulty.

The bottom line: We should be clearing the fog of war around COVID-19 — not contributing to it.

2. How female workers can manage automation

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Workers are set to have their futures upended by the effects of automation, but while the plight of men in manufacturing has received much of the attention, women will face unique challenges.

The big picture: Experts disagree about whether female workers will be more vulnerable to automation than men.

  • What's clear is that automation will accentuate existing gender gaps in the workforce and that without policies to assist the transition, older and less educated women in particular risk being left behind.

Background: The U.S. has already lost millions of jobs to automation, especially in the manufacturing sector. A 2015 study concluded 87% of the manufacturing job losses in the U.S. between 2000 and 2010 were due to automation.

  • Since women remain less likely to work in the manufacturing occupations that are particularly vulnerable to being replaced by robots, it might seem as if they would be shielded from the job-destroying effects of automation.

But from cashier-less stores to customer-service chatbots, AI and machine learning applications are disrupting new fields that have nothing to do with factories.

  • The more routine your job is, the greater the risk it will be automated — and according to a 2019 report from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), women perform more routine tasks than men across most occupations.
  • While women in developed countries are generally graduating at rates on par or exceeding men, globally they account for just 35% of STEM students and often occupy less than 20% of tech jobs — precisely the positions expected to benefit most from automation.

Between the lines: Just as important as the kinds of jobs women work may be the daily challenges they face as women in the workplace.

  • The IMF report found that being a manager or higher-level professional will help insulate you from automation, but women are less likely than men to be either. "The glass ceiling doesn't serve them well," said Era Dabla-Norris, a division chief in the IMF's Fiscal Affairs department.

Go deeper: How female workers can manage automation

3. China spins its coronavirus response

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

As China begins to get its coronavirus outbreak under control, authorities are going on the offensive to rewrite the narrative that the global epidemic is Beijing's fault, my Axios colleague Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian writes.

Why it matters: We're getting a glimpse of how China's formidable propaganda apparatus can obscure the truth and change narratives abroad, just as it can at home. The stakes are high — for the world and China's standing in it.

What's happening: Chinese diplomats are taking to Twitter and email, pushing talking points that deflect blame from Beijing and instead praise its response.

  • The efforts are getting a boost from Chinese state-run media.
  • "The CCP is masterful at rewriting history and we’re watching them do it in real time," Bill Bishop, author of the Sinocism newsletter, told Axios.

What's at stake: The world is facing a potential global economic recession that can trace its roots to specific decisions by Chinese authorities. Chinese President Xi Jinping wants to prevent that narrative from taking hold.

What to watch for: "The worse the coronavirus response in the foreign country, the more effective [Beijing's] narrative is going to be," said Bishop.

  • If the U.S. government bungles the response, it will be easier to believe that China actually got it right.

Go deeper: Beijing's coronavirus propaganda blitz goes global

4. A new player in alternative meat

Plant-based chicken skewers. Photo: LIVEKINDLY Co.

A group of food industry veterans formed a new platform company for plant-based meat.

Why it matters: Meat production remains a driver of deforestation and climate change. One promising way to blunt that effect is to provide plant-based meat alternatives that won't force consumers to sacrifice on taste.

The new platform company will go by the name LIVEKINDLY Co. It was launched on March 11 with a $200 million founders fund round of investment led by Roger Lienhard, an early player in the alternative meat space.

  • Its leaders include former Unilever executive Kees Kruythoff as chairman and CEO and former Nestle executive Aldo Uva as COO and chief R&D officer.
  • LIVEKINDLY has already acquired a pair of plant-based meat brands: South Africa's Fry Family Foods and Germany's LikeMeat. LIVEKINDLY also took an equity stake in the pea protein provider Puris, giving it an unusual degree of control over its chain of production.

Context: Alternative meat became a hot product in 2019, thanks to the rapid growth of companies like Beyond Meat that offered products explicitly mimicking the look and taste of animal meat.

  • Last year Barclays projected the alternative meat market could reach $140 billion by the end of the decade — 10% of the global meat industry.

The bottom line: What we think of as alternative meat is inching toward the mainstream.

5. Worthy of your time

Is it OK to have a child? (Meehan Crist — London Review of Books)

  • A sober examination of the decision about whether to have a child given the reality of climate change.

How old is too old to work? (Isaac Chotiner — New Yorker)

  • An interview with the geriatrician Louise Aronson about the life stage that lies in most of our futures: old age.

The end of pay-TV (Matthew Ball —

  • The preeminent bard of the streaming wars games out the inevitable collapse of cable and pay television.

How the coronavirus could change sportswriting forever (Bryan Curtis — The Ringer)

  • Curtis exposes the way major companies — sports leagues in this case — may seize on the virus as an excuse to institute changes that benefit them.
6. 1 feline thing: the deadly housecat

This cat undoubtedly has murder in its heart. Photo: Nico De Pasquale Photography

Ordinary house cats can have a major impact on local animal populations because they kill more prey than similar-sized wild predators, according to a new study.

Why it matters: Keeping your cat indoors can help relieve pressures on nearby wildlife who might otherwise fall beneath the claw of your ferocious feline.

In the study, published March 11 in Animal Conservation, researchers from North Carolina State University and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences collected GPS cat-tracking data and prey-capture reports from six countries, including the U.S. and U.K.

  • While pet cats kill fewer prey per day than wild predators, because their home range is so small, cats' hunting tends to be concentrated.
  • As a result, house cats can have a 2–10 times larger impact on local wildlife than wild predators.
  • The study found house cats killed an average of 14.2 to 38.9 prey per 100 acres per year.

What they're saying: "Humans find joy in biodiversity, but we have, by letting cats go outdoors, unwittingly engineered a world in which such joys are ever harder to experience," study co-author Rob Dunn said in a press release.

Bryan Walsh

Editor's note: The March 7 Future newsletter had a photo caption that incorrectly identified the location of a nuclear missile silo. It was in Arizona the state, not the USS Arizona.