Crypto Under Corona: From Venezuela to Switzerland

For nearly two years I traveled around the world and wrote about the subcultures of blockchain – from Bali to Budapest, from Serbia to Switzerland. I planned to continue the journey. I imagined I’d be traveling to far-flung places this summer, reporting on global blockchain projects for CoinDesk.

Then came COVID-19. Since the word “travel” is now a glum anachronism – maybe our grandkids will be able to experience this thing they call “travel” – like everyone else I’m holed up in an apartment, staring at screens. But I was curious. How is the global crypto community, or at least the community that I know, handling the pandemic? How has the coronavirus impacted their daily lives, their projects, their outlook on blockchain? So I checked in with a few of my old crypto friends to get a bit of a pulse. 

Of course, this is not meant to be an exhaustive, scientific survey of global themes – (good luck with that) – but it does give a window into some voices that are rarely heard, and a glimpse of everyday life from the wider blockchain world. A few themes emerge. The biggest: In many ways blockchain projects are faring better during CV19, and are more optimistic, than the non-blockchain world. Many people in the space are simply wired for this kind of thing. “Crypto has a bunch of semi-Asperger-ey people,” said one blockchain entrepreneur. “They’re loving this. They’re loving the excuse to not leave the house.”

Or to be more charitable, the blockchain space is a mix of idealists, dreamers, builders, risk takers and many who were already expecting the collapse of civilization. Blockchain has already survived scare after scare, crash after crash. So who’s afraid of a global pandemic? 

Budapest, Hungary 

When I first met Barnabás Debreczeni at a Hungarian blockchain conference in the summer of 2018, he told me that his journey to crypto began with zombies. When he and his buddies prepared for a “zombie invasion” – he uses the word zombie, jokingly, as shorthand for any kind of apocalyptic event – they realized that if civilization broke down, they would need some kind of peer-to-peer form of currency, and that led them to Bitcoin

Now, Debreczeni seems prophetic: The zombies have arrived in the form of COVID-19. Debreczeni is tall, trim, wears long hair in a ponytail, and runs a Bitcoin exchange and ATM company called Mr. Coin. In our Zoom call, he tells me he closely followed the virus as early as January, and in February he stockpiled food, sanitizer, gas and a generator. “I got myself a katana,” he says with a smile, “So I can fight inside the building.” In February, people said he was crazy. In March, they begged him for sugar and flour.

At the Budapest blockchain conference, many in the space told me their interest was driven, in part, by concerns over Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s anti-democratic regime. “Crypto gives power to the people,” one Hungarian blockchain entrepreneur told me then. “Orbán said that he wants to lead Hungary towards an illiberal democracy. That includes non-transparent management of funds, or funds that are not being used properly. Bitcoin has the potential to bring some transparency to this.”

Crypto has a bunch of semi-Asperger-ey people,” said one blockchain entrepreneur. “They’re loving this. They’re loving the excuse to not leave the house.

COVID-19 seems to have heightened those concerns, as Orbán has leveraged the emergency to assume quasi-dictator power. “There’s no Parliament, no voting, it’s the rule of the dictator,” says Debreczeni. As for the day-to-day impact? Happily, it’s less dystopian sci-fi than you might imagine. Debreczeni explains that the Hungarian army and police are “on the streets, but they’re friendly,” and you can still go to the grocery store and still walk your dog. They even find some humor in the lockdown. Debreczeni’s crypto buddies were amused by an official video from Orbán’s dictator government, which attempted to show that they’re in control. “It looks like a scene from a shitty action movie,” says Debreczeni. (He’s not wrong. The video is only 54 seconds and worth a click.) 

The blockchain community in Hungary takes the lockdown seriously, explains Debreczeni, and still conducts their meet-ups over Zoom, with drinks, at what they call the Zoom Pub. In fact he’s running late for a Zoom Pub right now – it’s 6 p.m. Budapest time – and he’s happily drinking a Hungarian “cherry beer” that was brewed in a wine casket.

The pandemic’s impact on the business? The lockdown has forced Mr. Coin’s Bitcoin ATMs out of commission, but that drop has been more than offset, says Debreczeni, by an uptick from people buying crypto on the online exchange. He was surprised by a new pattern in the buying and selling. Typically when the price of Bitcoin plunges, he sees institutional investors swoop in to BTFD. But soon after the price drop on March 12,…

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