Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 29 November 2020

FUTURE

Why Elon Musk is wrong about Covid-19

Tesla chief Elon Musk on May 9, threatened to pull his electric car headquarters and plant out of California after local authorities kept him from resuming production due to the coronavirus pandemic. AFP
Tesla chief Elon Musk on May 9, threatened to pull his electric car headquarters and plant out of California after local authorities kept him from resuming production due to the coronavirus pandemic. AFP

If Elon Musk succeeds in fulfilling his vision, he will put a colony on Mars, lead our transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy and replace a piece of our skulls with artificial intelligence to make our brains perform better.

Many people smarter than me claim he will do all of the above – and even sooner than we can imagine.

Two decades ago, he was the chief executive of PayPal, one of the most enduring and workaday Internet companies of the early aughts. I wonder if the Elon of 2000 would recognise the 2020 model.

The bold pioneer has amassed a $39 billion fortune and 34 million Twitter followers. He runs a stable of some of the most world-changing companies of this century – Tesla, SpaceX and Neuralink – which means he has tens of thousands of some of the world’s best thinkers and doers in his employ.

And he has been an utter disappointment during this pandemic.

Last week, he and his partner, the singer Grimes, welcomed a son they named X Æ A-12 (possibly pronounced ‘Kyle’, according to some very good memes). This has nothing to do with anything, but would also somehow feel strange to leave out of the context.

Mr Musk tweeted last night that his Tesla factory in Fremont, California would re-open on Tuesday. It follows weeks of combative messaging from him on the subject of Covid-19 and personal freedoms, a theme that has become familiar to anyone tracking the US response to the ongoing pandemic.

“Tesla is restarting production today against Alameda county rules. I will be on the line with everyone else. If anyone is arrested, I ask that it only be me,” he tweeted on Monday.

The US is a nation in conflict, with individuals who dismiss science and distrust traditional media exercising their right to lawful assembly while putting lives at risk by flouting public health guidance to protest virus-containment measures.

Mr Musk has firmly cast his lot with them, despite his formidable reputation in the world of science and engineering. And now he is in desperate need of a fact-check as he spews misguided information about the pandemic for his own self-interest.

Mr Musk's two most persistent complaints have been that lockdowns in the US to manage a surge in Covid-19 cases have been unconstitutional, and that deaths related to the virus have been "over-counted" in order to purposely mislead.

On Tesla's April earnings call, he said stay-at-home orders were "undemocratic" and, last week on Joe Rogan's podcast, he called the measures "fascist".

Elon Musk spews misguided information about the pandemic for his own self-interest

"I would call it forcibly imprisoning people in their homes against all their constitutional rights. That's my opinion, and breaking people's freedoms in ways that are horrible and wrong and not why people came to America or built this country," he said.

But consensus based on scientific evidence gathered from China, Jordan, New Zealand, Spain, and numerous other places, suggests that lockdowns reduce the number of infections and help slow the spread of Covid-19. And the earlier they happen, the better.

Researchers in Italy looked at what could have happened if the country's restrictions had been relaxed in March or not put in place at all. The results indicated the lockdown prevented about 200,000 hospitalisations between when the country's first case was reported, on February 21, until March 25. They also concluded that the move reduced transmission rates between people by 42 to 49 per cent.

Without a vaccine, it has been challenging to gauge how and when governments should lift movement restrictions. But there is little doubt they have been effective.

Mr Musk has also claimed that "hospitals in California have been half empty this whole time" to support the idea that lockdowns were unnecessary. But empty hospitals could very well indicate the containment measures are working.

Musk has also suggested that US authorities were overstating Covid-19 deaths and misleading the public on the depth of the crisis. The US federal government classifies the death of any coronavirus patient as a Covid-19 death, regardless of underlying health issues that may have contributed.

The economic pain being felt in the US cannot be discounted, nor the civil liberties granted to citizens upon which the nation was founded. Both are worthy parts of the debate on how and when to re-open society. Unemployment is the highest it has been since the Great Depression, with analysts predicting that may persist into 2021. People are rightly afraid.

But for one of America's top entrepreneurs to manipulate messaging for his own gain and the health of his company in the face of scientific evidence, is deeply discouraging.

Much of what Elon Musk’s companies represent is our promising future – one in which our innovation and vision can overcome the damage and division we have wrought on the planet and realise something far greater. But Mr Musk as a person represents something more disturbing: our challenging, devastating present.

Kelsey Warner is the Future Editor at The National

Updated: May 13, 2020 11:39 AM

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