The emergence of a novel threat — particularly one like the COVID-19 coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China — has a way of bringing out some of the best and most inventive traits in people. That is observable in the medical workers who have put their health and lives on the line, rescue workers who have streamlined evacuations and researchers looking to run the virus through the best in computer modeling to get ahead of it.
As has historically been the case, human beings do some of their best work under pressure.
Unfortunately, the emergence of the COVID-19 coronavirus also demonstrates that this is only true for some of the population. For others, the emergence of a novel threat not only fails to bring out their best, but manages to bring out their worst. Some people become smarter, braver and more concerned with the general good; others become irrational, cowardly and concerned with themselves more than just about anyone or anything else.
Such is the situation emerging in New York City among taxi and ridesharing drivers — who, in an attempt to avoid the coronavirus, are avoiding Chinese passengers. Not Chinese nationals just in from China, but any consumer who looks Chinese, even if they happen to be an American who has never been closer to China than New York City’s Chinatown.
If one is looking for a taxi, Uber or Lyft ride, Chinatown is probably not the place to be, since drivers have also started to avoid the area. Chinatown is far from alone in getting the ridesharing cold shoulder, though. The fear of the coronavirus is turning into fear of areas with high populations of Chinese residents.
“If I drop off somebody in Flushing [the Queens neighborhood with a Chinese population of some 70,000], I deactivate the app [and drive to another area],” an Uber driver told the New York Post. “I don’t know who has it. ... I worry for myself, my family and my passengers.”
A different driver — this one an NYC taxi driver — noted that, as bad as they feel about it, when they see a Chinese consumer or one they assume is Chinese, they keep on driving because they don’t want to get the disease. While one might assume that ridesharing would be a balm for that problem (since riders aren’t reliant on having to hail down a cabbie who can pretend to not see them), that was not the experience of Ada Robinson, who tried and failed with two separate Lyft drivers in a row.
“I pointed to him, he looked at me and he left. Then he canceled the ride. A second driver came, looked at me and drove around the corner. He hesitated and drove off,” Robinson said.
Robinson is a mother of one who moved to New York from Hong Kong 10 years ago, and lives in the rather exclusive Upper East side. She wondered if perhaps she was being “snubbed” due to “coronavirus phobia.”
On its face, this reaction is irrational, and only gets more so when one considers that there have been only 15 cases of the coronavirus in the U.S. so far — none of which have been in New York state, let alone New York City. While COVID-19 is scary for its newness, it bears remembering that for 80 percent of those infected, the disease's symptoms are identical in seriousness to the common cold. The flu in 2020 has a higher lethality rate.
“We have no confirmed cases of the coronavirus in New York City,” said Allan Fromberg, deputy commissioner for public affairs of the Taxi & Limousine Commission. “Of greater concern would be any attempt to sow bigotry and fear in the name of safety, which will not be tolerated in New York City.”
However, tolerated or not, the problem is persisting and even spreading, while concern about the coronavirus and its global reach grows.
If the past is prelude, this could go on for a while. Human beings have a long and glorious history of acting irrationally in the face of exuberance or fear, often to a messy economic effect. In the early 1630s, roughly 80 years after their introduction to Europe from the Ottoman Empire, tulips became the continent’s status symbol of choice for its saturated colors, rarity and difficulty in cultivation. Prices hit an all-time high in 1636 and 1637 — such that, for a brief time, a tulip bulb was literally worth its weight in gold — before collapsing spectacularly overnight in mid-1637, wiping out entire fortunes.
Flash forward nearly 400 years to December 2017, when the price of a single bitcoin hit $20,000. The boosters were proudly proclaiming that bitcoin was destined to be worth $100,000 per unit, and regular people were cashing out their 401k plans to invest their money in the constantly doubling cryptocurrency. Six months into 2018, however, bitcoin had fallen to around $5,000. Though it has recovered to about $10,000 as of this writing, if one invested in bitcoin in December of 2017, then they’ve still lost about half their money.
While it is easy to pick on tulips for collapsing the Dutch economy and ending its golden age, or bitcoin for ruining a lot of retirements, at least they both have the benefit of actually existing. In 1825, the U.S. found itself in a bank panic (the old-timey term for a recession) due to a major collapse across the pond that nearly ended the Bank of England entirely. The collapse arose from out-of-control speculation in a Latin American nation called Poyais, when it was revealed that the investment portfolio built around the up-and-coming tropical economy had a major flaw.
The main problem with investing in Poyais? It didn’t exist.
Poyais was a country entirely made up from whole cloth and sold to investors, relying on the fact that — as of 1825 — the map of the world was not commonly known among people. It has the historical distinction of being the first “modern” financial crisis in that it was not induced by a war, famine, plague or other external event, but purely by human irrationality.
Lest it sound like we are coming down too hard on the species, it can be noted that the rapid and emotional about-faces have also had the occasional salutary effect. When ATM cards had existed for nearly two decades, banks large and small tried to push them to customers, who largely ignored them as poor substitutes for in-person interactions with tellers. Customers didn’t trust cash-dispensing machines, and were firmly convinced that they didn’t need them.
That was the case right until the day of the 1978 blizzard that buried New York City and shut down all the banks. Consumers in desperate need of cash suddenly saw the light about being able to access their bank accounts whether or not the bank was open — and became deeply concerned about their inability to do so without an ATM card.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Sadly, these days, the emotional reaction in New York to the latest crisis is not pushing any innovations forward. Instead, it is making life harder for many blameless people from a minor risk that doesn't actually exist locally. City officials and ridesharing leaders have both spoken out about the issue, noting its unacceptability, and that there will be severe consequences for drivers caught in discrimination against ride-seekers due to their perceived race.
“Any rider or driver found to have [discriminated based on national origin, among other qualities,] will lose access to the platform,” Uber wrote on its website. As for Lyft, an email from the press department stated: “Discrimination against riders or drivers can, and has led to, deactivation.”
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, however, offered the strongest condemnations thus far.
“This is outrageous,” the mayor tweeted over the weekend. “Let me be perfectly clear: There will be consequences for anyone caught taking part in this kind of cruel racial profiling.”
Whether those consequences will change the irrational behavior of scared drivers? That remains to be seen.