Coronavirus is our own Y2K

Commentary, COVID-19, Government, Lee Harding

Twenty-one years ago, the world panicked over an invisible, media-hyped enemy. That enemy was Y2K, a problem whose shadow was much larger than its substance. Unfortunately, the “millennium bug” of that time may be the coronavirus of ours.

The Y2K problem was this: many computers had two digits for dates. If they went to “00,” the computer might think it was 1900 instead of 2000 and all hell would break loose. 

It sounds laughably silly now, but it wasn’t then. A steady stream of “experts” on mainstream media fed the fear from 1997 through 1999. Surely that many people couldn’t be wrong . . . right?

Capers Jones, author of the 1997 book The Year 2000 Software Problem, said it would take a $3.6 trillion effort to fix the bug.

In his January 1999 article, “The Y2K Nightmare,” Robert Sam Anson suggested in Vanity Fair that the year 2000 could “arrive in darkness and chaos.” As proof, “the ominous results of Y2K tests . . . lay bare the dimensions of a global ticking time bomb.” The electrical grid, communication networks, and water systems could fail, leading to food and medicine shortages, riots, and societal collapse. 

Anson said “folly, greed, and denial . . . [had] muffled two decades of warnings from technology experts,” and now “Y2K’s impact on the delivery of food, seed, and fertilizer could result in between 10 million and 300 million deaths.”

Bill Gates brushed off the apparent non-Y2K-compliance of his Windows programs. “There is no problem with programs,” Gates said. “There is no problem with P.C.’s and with packaged software.” He said the alarms came from people who “love to tell tales of fear” that might actually give his industry “a little bit of a windfall.”

Y2K consultant William Ulrich was incensed at Gates, the denier. “He’s not only slowed the whole effort down by a year, he’s also guilty of having the problem and downplaying it. Sin on top of sin.”

At last the millennium arrived. Surprise—the Y2K bug created very few problems. Some U.S. spy satellites worked incorrectly for three days due to a poor software patch designed to handle Y2K. Some bus ticket machines didn’t work in Australia, and computers spit out the wrong date in a few places around the world. One New Yorker was billed $91,250 for a movie rental supposedly 100 years overdue, but that was soon taken care of.

Many people had prepped with survival gear. They were stuck with portable generators, kerosene lamps, and superfluous supplies of food and water.

“I’m just totally stunned,” said Dennis Grabow, an investment banker who had predicted a millennial market meltdown. “Those of us who have been following this issue are quite shocked that we’ve had this seamless transition.”

Others never believed the hype in the first place. Ukraine, Italy, Vietnam, China, and South Korea lost little time, money, emotion or attention on the problem—and were little worse for it.

On January 6, 2000, the BBC asked readers about the $300 billion spent worldwide on the non-event: “Was the bug a triumph of careful preparation or was this all an overhyped plot designed by computer consultants?” 

Jon Medlin replied with powers of reason that were absent from governments and compromised experts. “In truth, few things are date dependent, yet claims were being made that central heating systems, fridges, cars, etc. would ‘fail’. One seminar that I attended . . . dismissed [this] as incorrect. I walked out as it was clear to me that the ‘presenters’ were promoting their services as ‘consultants’.”

Anson was just as alarmist. He said Y2K could make bank vaults and prison gates swing open, sewage flow freely, fire truck ladders stay stuck, trap people in elevators, and shut down hospitals with failed ventilators. Ships would stay docked, halting international trade; and “only the brave or foolhardy” would fly.

By now, COVID-19 has reduced trade and travel, let prisoners loose, reduced health care, inspired by its own doomsday predictions. Early projections suggested the virus would kill 100,000 people in Ontario alone. So far, only 5,499 have died of COVID-19 in all of Canada. And in the United States, hospitalizations are just one-fifth of what had been predicted.

Draconian responses in these places did more to kill the economic, social, spiritual, and educational lives of citizens than stop fatalities. By contrast, Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea provided masks and testing, and isolated the sick and those exposed to them. Infection rates remained low, and life and commerce continued with minimal changes.

If hindsight is 2020, we may look back at year’s end and wonder, “Why was an illness that killed so few treated like the Black Death or Spanish Flu?”

 

 

Lee Harding is a Research Fellow for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.