Not Overthinking - Coronavirus Edition

Not Overthinking - Coronavirus Edition


Table of contents

This week we talk about the only thing there is to talk about right now — the Coronavirus crisis. We look back over the past few weeks to see how our thinking about the virus has changed, and we try and figure out how to get ourselves to emotionally care about things that are distant from us.

Some of the highlights from our discussion:

It can be difficult to appreciate the severity of something that you cannot see. The invisible nature of the virus makes it harder to appreciate how serious it can be until it affects someone close to you or provokes radical changes in the society in which you live. Ali talks about how he initially struggled to appreciate the exponential rate of increase and how deadly the virus could prove to be until it arrived in Europe. When the disease was in Wuhan, it felt very ‘other’, but when it began moving to Italy, it became a more relatable issue which could have very serious consequences for the UK.

The noise produced through the cacophony from media and social media sources makes distilling appropriate information difficult. The majority of rolling news is noise rather than signal and this is further complicated by the difficulty we have in appreciating the scale and severity of a situation. For instance, appreciating the difference between numbers such as 1 million vs 1 billion.

‘Common Enemies’, a blog post written by Morgan Housel, tries to understand the current situation in a historical context. The blog post argues that World War 2 is an accurate historical map for the cultural impact of the coronavirus. Below are some quotes that were particularly pertinent:

“Everyone wants a map, just a simple guide to what’s going to happen next. In search of a map, it’s become common to try to match our current situation to past crises – is this like 2008? Is this similar to 9/11? Is this like the 1918 flu pandemic or perhaps the Great Depression? But none of these fit today’s ordeal. Today’s halt in economic activity is worse than 2008, the enemy is more invisible than 9/11, our medical knowledge far exceeds that of 1918 and the policy response is now faster and deeper than in the Great Depression. None of these events offer a map of what might happen next – few historical events ever do – big events grow bigger because they are complex and complexity never repeats itself in its exact form. As Voltaire said “history never repeats itself, man always does”.
“WW2 is the right comparison – not the battle or the geopolitics but the way in which it united the world against a common enemy in a way that is incredibly rare. Cooperation within and between countries surged. The fight against COVID-19 is nearly identical in that respect – this might be the first time since the 1940s that so much of the world united so firmly against such a specific foe”.
“What unity did to people’s behaviour’s – their abilities, their outlooks, their incentives – surprised many during WW2 and, if history is any guide, we’re about to be surprised again”.


  1. "Common Enemies" — blog post by Morgan Housel comparing the Coronavirus crisis to World War II
  2. "Act today or people will die" — the Medium post we talked about, and perhaps the most widely read blog post/analysis about the crisis

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What is this? Not Overthinking is a podcast about happiness, creativity, and the human condition. We talk about things to help us think, do, and be better. Things like social interaction, lifestyle design, mental models...things that are hard to examine, but important to explore. And hopefully, things that make for a fun and interesting chat every week.

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Who are we?

Ali is a junior doctor and YouTuber working in Cambridge, UK. He makes videos about medicine, technology, productivity and lifestyle design. His links: YouTube, Blog, Newsletter, Instagram

Taimur is a data scientist and writer, working on his own startup Causal. He writes on his blog and as a columnist for Medium. His links: Blog, Twitter, Medium, Instagram

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