The virus, the state, the market, and the people

WHO health Emergency Dashboard (20 March 2020)

COVID-19, the coronavirus that made its presence felt first in China a few months ago is currently laying siege on the whole world. Country after country impose restrictions on the movement of people to reduce the probability of infection, with the number of enforced lockdowns increasing fast. The resulting reduction in demand for goods and services, starting from transportation and tourism to the car and oil industry, restaurants, theatres and cinemas and all kinds of stores is shaking the foundations of the global economy, precipitating government intervention with huge stimulus packages.

The predictions are dire, both for the number of eventual victims of the virus and for its impact on the economy. World War II and the Great Depression that preceded it are often brought up as adequate points of comparison, with the current situation considered as potentially worse.

One could argue whether such heightened concerns and subsequent reactions are justified by the actual impact of the virus, which is presently less than 10.000 deaths, including those in China and Italy, the two countries hit the worst up to now (for detailed data see Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center). True, health systems, where they exist, are already getting overwhelmed by the need for emergency units and respiratory machines for the patients, as well as masks and protective gear for the medical personnel. But the actual number of deaths is less than those occurring from traffic accidents in one year in a country like Egypt or the Philippines, to put things in perspective.

If the infections multiply exponentially, as it is feared, things may get out of control with possibly hundreds of thousands if not millions of deaths worldwide, before a vaccine or cure can be found and deployed. Precaution is certainly in order and we trust that the competent medical and political authorities know what they are doing. The people who are hunkering down in their homes, initially enjoying the unexpected teleworking / time off but then worrying and wondering what is next, deserve nothing less.

It may be too early to draw lessons from the way the COVID-19 “war” has been fought but already there are some indications that we would like to share with you:

Early warning cannot come early enough: China should have heeded the indications about the existence of the new virus, should have taken measures and should have informed the world via the World Health Organisation (WHO) quite earlier, and the rest of the world should have started to prepare as soon as it was confirmed that an outbreak was happening.

You cannot ask your health system to respond to a new and unknown virus effectively when you have been underfunding and understaffing it: The public health systems, an achievement of modern states that recognise health as a public good, have de facto been undermined by austerity measures and an increasing reliance on the private sector both in terms of hospitals and research facilities. The private sector, though, operates on the basis of maximising profit and not the common good, thus one has to turn primarily to the public hospitals and labs again for large scale and/or new emergencies. Despite the constraints it operates under the public health system and those who work in it do respond, showing a heroism that only a deep sense of public service can cultivate, and we are deeply grateful for that.

– Political leaders and state machineries seem to have forgotten that they are not there just to collect taxes and issue broad policies but need to deliver in practice for their citizens, more so in difficult circumstances. Mounting successful civil defences against “enemies” like COVID-19 and climate change – in the latter case for the extreme weather events and other emergencies that it contributes to – requires advance planning with the involvement of all parts and all levels of the government and state machinery, including the security forces. It also requires a clear vision for the planning and subsequent action, which can only be the resilience of communities, so that they can withstand shocks, preserve the lives of people and ensure their well-being, with food, water, medicine, schools, transport and other good life elements included. Worth noting here is the importance of telecommunications, the press and social media, for resilience, both in terms of emergency communications for survival but also for networking and supporting each other even without direct contact, and for business continuity via teleworking too.

-Globalisation has concentrated production to a significant extent in China and a few other places where labour has been cheaper in recent years and the scale more massive. But in emergencies the usual trade routes may be blocked, or it is not clear who should benefit first from the one or few sources of a precious commodity. The interruption of supply chains can be lethal not only or primarily for the economy but for the people who need the end product but are isolated from it because of restrictions and border closures. Resilience again requires enough local production of food and other essentials so as to guarantee at least survival while the disruption lasts. We still remain to see how all this will be handled till the end of the COVID-19 emergency.

You cannot undermine the multilateral system and in an emergency ask it to be there and help you. Thankfully the WHO played and continues to play its role efficiently and effectively. It is part of the UN system of specialised agencies that brings together the experts of the world in specific fields. The tendency of nationalist leaders to go it alone in recent years, putting their countries first and ignoring the needs of the rest of the world has weakened the multilateral system but has mercifully not destroyed it. It should be again strengthened now, as it has proven its value.

You cannot just throw money at a problem and expect it to solve itself, if you don’t also do something about the causes. Printing new money to save failing mammoth companies like global airlines, which made no provisions for difficult days but enjoyed to the full the profits of the good days is not fair to the average taxpayer and is not even good economics for the long term. The disconnect between stock markets and the real economy, between business ownership / management and responsibility, has to be revisited with overall resilience and fairness in mind.

One could go on but let’s stick to this first instalment of lessons from the COVID-19 crisis. We are all still suffering from its impact and we have to be strong and mutually supportive to see it to its end, with as few fatalities as possible. We expect authorities at all levels to do what they need to do with the common good in mind and without abusing the extensive powers that they have been given during this abnormal period. We also expect all countries, especially those already in associations like the European Union, to stick together, exchange good practices and share supplies as necessary, in solidarity with each other and for the best possible result for all.

The editorial team of Katoikos

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