During our Covid-19 lockdown, my wife and I have been working on cleaning out more than 4 decades of stuff. (Debra and I just celebrated our 40th wedding anniversary, so we had accumulated a lot of stuff.) As I open drawers, closets and boxes, and I unearth stuff that has not been touched in quite some time, I am generally finding things that make me wonder “why was I keeping that?” I am also digging up mementos, memory-jogging photos, papers and would-be keepsakes. Among these, I found numerous newspapers from over the years and around the world, obviously intended to remind me of some past adventure or notable event. Frankly, there are too many to read. But I have taken the time to read a few.
Reading what was yesterday’s news through the lens of history can be an enlightening and thought-provoking activity. There are some relevant lessons from this exercise as we confront fears about Covid-19 and worries about what comes next. Take some comfort in reflecting on how much change actually occurs in a relatively short period of time. Change is the only thing that is certain.
Here are just a couple of examples.
I am not sure why, but I had the Money section of a USA TODAY from Thursday, July 22, 1999. The Dow Jones Industrial average was at 11,003 and the Nasdaq was at 2761. It was the dawn of the internet age and e-business was just gaining momentum. (Think about that for a moment. It was only twenty-one years ago.) I was particularly fascinated by this headline:
“AOL, Amazon Run Net Gamut; Both Healthy but AOL earns big, retailer’s in the red”.
At the time, AOL was the big player. What? Yep. Amazon was still losing money, and AOL was the driving force in getting consumers connected online. The article stated:
“America Online cemented its standing Wednesday as the Internet’s blue-chip company while the leading Web retailer, Amazon.com, saw losses widen despite soaring sales.”
Less than 6 months later, in January 2000, AOL had a valuation of $163 billion and announced a merger with Time Warner to form a business valued at $350 billion. It was the biggest merger in history. The combined enterprise predicted 33% annual growth for the next few years. They were on a roll. And the business press lauded the strategy and the combination. But that was not to last. The merger was finalized in 2001 after an exhaustive regulatory review. Meanwhile, the post Y2K dot-com crash brought high-flying tech company valuations down to earth. Many did not survive. The AOL Time Warner merger, once hailed as genius, was a colossal failure. The combined entity lost billions of dollars in shareholder value, as the AOL portion of the business was failing. In September, the board of directors approved the removal of AOL from the name, and the business became simply Time Warner. Fast forward to 2015. AOL was acquired by Verizon for only $4.4 billion, losing over 97% of its value since the merger with Time Warner.
On the other hand, over the same period, Amazon had a different trajectory. I don’t need to tell you where Amazon is today. In September 2018, Amazon’s market valuation crossed $1 trillion. It is around $1.2 trillion as I write this blog. Of course, Amazon’s path wasn’t straight up. Indeed, during the dot-com bust, Amazon saw its stock price tumble month after month through late 2001. Amazon lost 90% if its market value in 2 years. But no worries for those early investors who held on. What is the value today of a $1000 invested in Amazon at the time of its IPO in May 1997? Who wants to be a millionaire?
Studying the paths and contrasting the results of AOL and Amazon highlight how much things have changed in such a short period of time. Remember, it really wasn’t that long ago when high speed internet access and WiFi did not exist. But twenty years ago, who knew that Amazon would grow to be one of the largest businesses that ever existed, while AOL would basically disappear (except for its email application)?
What will change as a result of our collective experience with Covid-19 and shelter-in-place living? The future belongs to people who prepare for it today.
Back to my old newspapers:
I did some consulting work in Japan in the winter of 1998. It was my first visit there, and it seems I saved some mementos. Among them were a few English-language, Japanese newspapers. The February 24, 1998 edition of The Japan Times had an article of curious relevance to the coronavirus dominated world we find ourselves in today. There was a fascinating article about a flu epidemic in Japan. The headline read:
EXPERTS SHARPLY DISAGREE Flu epidemic spurs vaccine debate
Mass vaccination of school children was begun in Japan back in 1962. From 1976 to 1994, influenza was covered in the Japanese Preventive Vaccination Law, which stated that all children aged 7–15 years had to be vaccinated against the disease. (Japan is the only country to have ever based a policy for controlling influenza on a strategy of vaccinating schoolchildren rather than elderly persons.) After years of lawsuits and some doctors opposing flu shots, the Japanese government changed its policy in 1994, removing the flu shot from the list of compulsory inoculations. Just 4 years later, a type-A Hong Kong virus was “raging fiercely through the county.” It was the worst outbreak in 10 years, with the number of cases among school-aged children topping 1 million. Parents became desperate for flu shots for their children.
“Clinic lobbies have been packed with patients, elementary and junior high schools have been forced to close, and fatalities have been reported. As of Friday [February 20, 1998], at least 23 children and seven adults nationwide had died of flu complications …”.
The problem was that the vaccine supply had become scarce. Before the heated debate about the efficacy of the flu vaccine, its makers had produced more than 20 million doses each year. Production then dropped sharply. By 1994, only 300,000 doses were produced and 2 of the 7 produced had stopped completely.
“The ministry and vaccine makers are afraid that they won’t be able to supply enough products in the event of the outbreak of a new lethal virus.”
The debate about vaccinations is a perplexing one. It brings public health policy up against individual considerations. The Japanese experience back in 1998 appears to present prima facie evidence for the public health benefit of flu vaccination, and the risk to society of not being prepared for viral outbreaks. But then as now, some critics of vaccination come forth with conspiracy theories and what science oriented people view as unsubstantiated claims. History repeats itself. The last twenty years is ripe with debates and shifting policies regarding preventive medical interventions. I will not wade any deeper into this area, nor will I comment on the pros and cons of various countries’ policies. I will simply share my belief that anti-vaccination crusaders have done much harm to otherwise modern societies.
The Japanese epidemic in 1998 caused me to think about where we are today. What do we hear regularly from infectious disease experts? Societies will need to enforce precautionary measures, like social distancing and use of masks in public places, until we have a vaccine to prevent or limit Covid-19. Count me among those rooting for the vaccine researchers and manufacturers.
Where we will be in a year? How about 2 or 3 years? None of us has a crystal ball that can accurately predict exactly what will happen when. But we can be certain that things will change. And when we look back on today’s news through the lens of history, we can be sure things will look different. A cautionary note: don’t get overly consumed by 24X7 news and commentary. Much of it will be proven to have been wrong when viewed through the lens of history.
We will be best served by adopting a perspective that seeks to identify and understand the forces of change. This is always true, but even more so today. I know what you’re thinking. As the baseball player-philosopher Yogi Berra is quoted as saying: “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” In fact, we can anticipate certain types of change. We can, if we look closely, see the trajectory of change. Getting the timing exactly right is the harder part. (I wonder if Jeff Bezos ever considered how a global pandemic would affect his business?)
Be among those who accept the challenges of the time. The past is the past, and we can never go back. But can we learn from history. And we can and should prepare for the future. Anticipate. Afterall, the future is where we will spend the rest of our lives.