While the full impact of the global pandemic is far from decided it’s a given now that many bright business minds underestimated both how deadly COVID-19 could be but also how deeply economies worldwide would be affected, and that includes Tesla’s Elon Musk, says his fellow PayPal co-founder Max Levchin.
The mercurial SpaceX head has done well to make up for his previous statements about COVID-19, where earlier in March Musk called concerns about the virus “dumb” and downplayed its potential harms by saying, even after having been declared a worldwide pandemic by the WHO, that COVID-19 wasn’t even “within the top 100 health risks in the United States.”
Since then, Musk has been at work buying ventilators, used to help COVID-19 patients breathe, from China and donating them to health authorities in California and New York.
Musk has also donated thousands of N95 face masks to authorities in Seattle and has said he is thinking about using resources at Tesla and SpaceX to produce more ventilators.
It’s that initiative that Levchin, co-founder of PayPal where Musk was CEO and now CEO of fintech company Affirm, says is perhaps how tech visionaries like Musk and Silicon Valley types in general can lend a hand in the current crisis, once they get over their own arrogance, at least.
“On the negative side you have a bunch of people that say, I’m no doctor or epidemiologist, but step aside, I'm smart, I can do better. I think that's hubris and probably mostly unjustified especially in situations like this virus,” said Levchin, speaking to Bloomberg TV on Monday.
“On the other hand, you do have this spirit in Silicon Valley where when given direction or given a good idea we know how to mobilize and inspire and just go through walls and build things,” he said. “And so, I think if Elon is committing to build ventilators, by God, he's going to build a lot of ventilators and they’re probably going to be quite good.”
“So in that sense, I think that's a wonderful thing … these efforts to support the country. I think that that's a good thing,” Levchin said.
Tesla’s share price has been on a yo-yo much like the rest of the market over the past month, but the stock’s growth since last October has been nothing short of remarkable.
For years, questions abounded not just about the electric car company’s real potential to disrupt the auto market but about Musk’s own ability to lead Tesla to profitability.
Some of those doubts were quelled last year with the release of better quarterly numbers, showing a clearer path forward and pumping TSLA out of the $200 – $400 range and up as high as $969 at its peak in early February.
Levchin said the tendency to underestimate COVID-19 was not unusual in its early days and extended well beyond Musk.
“Everyone who has made fun of this thing as just a tougher flu or a silly problem that’s going to go away with the first ray of sunshine is probably slightly embarrassed by those comments. And that excludes no one,” Levchin said.
“I think it's just a great illustration how it is really really hard for human beings to understand exponential growth, even if you've been in Silicon Valley your entire life and watched the viral spread of social media grow from nothing to everything,” he said.
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