Dinosaur Extinction and the Coronavirus



Alan Wm. Wolff, Deputy Director General | World Trade Organization

This virtual talk produced for the members of the Washington International Trade Association is designed to pull together in one place the highlights of official trade policy pronouncements and proposals made in the last three weeks as governments, business groups and trade experts react to the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The Extinction of Dinosaurs and the Coronavirus

            Some 65 million years ago, the dinosaurs that had populated the earth became extinct.  One theory is that a huge asteroid hit the earth and a dust cloud filled the atmosphere, choking the dinosaurs to death.[1]  The facts are a bit more complicated.  The dinosaurs lacked several key attributes that might have helped them survive.  They were not known for their forward planning.  In fact, their thought processes appear to have been generally very narrow and slow.  Their social organization was characterized by a seeming lack of care for other species of dinosaurs.  In short, their ability to create an effective collective response to their predicament was nil.

            Untold thousands of millennia later, humans are facing a serious crisis.  If not collectively existential, it is nevertheless  extremely serious.  As a society, our cycle times – getting ideas, agreeing to a plan of action, and acting – are too slow.  The mega-challenges faced are actually two-fold: the threat to human health, and, following hard on the heels of that challenge, the threat to the world economy, and at a personal level, the loss of jobs and savings.

Trade measures in a time of pandemic

Central bankers and finance ministers are used to taking emergency coordinated action to lower interest rates and provide fiscal stimulus when there is a sharp economic downturn.  This has not been generally true of trade ministers.  Trade ministers have not been called upon to act together to counter a world economic downturn since the Financial Crisis in 2008.  The multilateral trading system responded very well then, holding the line against protectionist measures.  All that was called for at the time was inaction – not imposing new restrictions.  This time, the challenge is much greater.  While it includes not taking measures that may cause harm to one’s own population as well as to peoples living outside a country’s borders, it goes beyond that, to consider what might be done as components of a sensible positive response.

Cycle time and the acceleration of events.  It is said that if a brontosaurus was bitten on its tail, it would take a long time for the signal that that had happened to reach its brain.  Sapiens operating as part of societal organizations are better than that. The cycle time does not equal that of instant messaging, but the fact is that around the planet, health professionals,  researchers in laboratories, mechanical engineers in textile mills and automobile plants, software engineers working on 3D printing and a vast array of innovators are working on what is and will become the global response to the coronavirus.

Final April 1 2020 Dinosaur Extinction and the Coronavirus 31 March