Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Post-Pandemic, Expect a Swift Return to Status Quo Ante

This pandemic should be a wake-up call to decrease economic inequality. Instead it will exacerbate it.

If every country had locked down sooner, the spread of the virus could have been arrested.

If the Chinese had recognised its pandemic potential sooner and prevented people from travelling abroad, it could have been contained within China.

If China had caught it even earlier, it might even have been contained within Hubei, the province where it originated.

If factory farms and consumption of wild animals had been eliminated after previous pandemics, we’d have fewer zoonotic viruses to fight.

If the virus hadn’t struck near the time of the Chinese New Year festivities, when Chinese emigrants travel home to celebrate then fly back to the countries into which they have immigrated (e.g. northern Italy), then the spread would have been slower, with more time for countries to react.

If governments at all levels had learned from previous pandemics to have a plan in place in anticipation of the (inevitable) next one, it could have been activated in a dispassionate, nonpartisan manner without time-consuming bickering about the appropriate response.

If supplies of PPE had been stockpiled against future need, demand would be less likely to exceed supply in a crisis.

If people practiced social distancing, with or without government guidance, the number of infections would be considerably less.

If tests weren’t withheld to keep infection numbers artificially low, we’d have a better estimate of actual cases.

If death certificates weren’t fudged with other causes of death to hide COVID-19 fatalities, we’d have a much more accurate tally of how many deaths are attributable to this virus.

If, if, if. As the human and economic toll mounts daily, we are justifiably wracked with self-recrimination for not doing more, sooner, to contain the virus. Will ‘we’, speaking broadly for humanity, both citizens and government officials, learn from our COVID-19 mistakes and act with more alacrity the next time a novel virus is suspected in a patient? I doubt it. I’m finding it hard to be optimistic. Rather than “buck stops here” mea culpas from elected officials, we are getting blame-shifting and denial. Rather than increasing international coordination and cooperation, we are seeing a free-for-all fight for PPE and medical equipment, and a refusal to accept aid by countries that need it, such as Iran and North Korea, based on pride and propaganda rather than public health considerations. Many countries are limiting testing for COVID-19 to keep numbers low. Federal officials in some countries, such as Brazil, Mexico, and the United States, have been locked in often vitriolic opposition to state and local officials over the question of whether to shut down businesses, with citizens caught in the middle, sometimes taking it upon themselves to self-isolate and expressing frustration and disgust with their political leaders.

This depressing pattern does not hold true for every country. Some affluent European and Asian countries, such as Denmark and South Korea, managed to take steps to save both lives and businesses. But they are outliers, with smaller, and more homogeneous, populations who have higher levels of trust in their governments. The delayed and mixed response of most of the world is disheartening. Even when national and subnational governments get their act together to enforce social distancing, people resist and defy directives that have been issued solely to protect them. Except for totalitarian governments who exert control over citizens to preserve their own power and enforce their ideology, governments are now making a trade-off between public health and the economy that has the potential to get them booted from power. Electorates reward incumbents in good times and punish them in bad times, regardless of their actual responsibility for economic conditions, which don’t usually correspond to election cycles in any case. A government who saves its citizens lives but sends the country into a recession is setting itself up for electoral vengeance, however undeserved.

What will the “if only” self-recriminations, electoral punishments, and economic fallout mean for the future? Ed Yong, in his March 25 piece for The Atlantic, opines:
“Veterans of past epidemics have long warned that American society is trapped in a cycle of panic and neglect. After every crisis—anthrax, SARS, flu, Ebola—attention is paid and investments are made. But after short periods of peacetime, memories fade and budgets dwindle. This trend transcends red and blue administrations. When a new normal sets in, the abnormal once again becomes unimaginable. But there is reason to think that COVID-19 might be a disaster that leads to more radical and lasting change.”
I don’t agree; once social distancing directives are removed, I predict a swift return to status quo ante.  That is an empirical prediction, not a normative wish. We should use this as a learning opportunity, to address global health, economic inequality, authoritarian regimes, lack of education, the idiocy of religious belief. Last year a troubling statistic went viral in the United States: 40% of Americans could not scrounge up $400 in an emergency. The support for pseudo-populists like Trump and Johnson and Bolsonaro around the world, and genuine populists like Bernie Sanders, the anti-immigrant sentiments, the rise in racism and sexism, are a direct result of growing economic inequality. We are returning to a feudal society of a wealthy 1% and a peasant population dependent upon the crumbs the rich deign to bestow in wages, benefits, a social safety net. There has been an undercurrent of rage that has been simmering for years as the middle class has shrunk and younger generations are unable to achieve the standard of living of their elders. Between the financial insecurity of the gig economy and never-ending student loan payments, hallmarks of adulthood like savings and home ownership are increasingly out of reach for even college graduates, hence the alarming statistic about nearly half the population being unable to find $400 in a pinch.

The most compelling lesson of this pandemic has nothing to do with viruses, public health, political leadership, or culture. There are fascinating and important lessons to be gleaned from all those facets but they pale in comparison to the simple fact that most of the world’s population, even in the wealthiest developed countries, still lives hand to mouth and is one paycheque away from not being able to pay current bills. Measures to delay rent and mortgage payments, prevent utilities from being disconnected, temporarily pause student loan payments, and halt evictions are only necessary because so many people are unable to survive for even a week without pay. The wealthy have tried their usual avocado toast blame game, but no-one is buying it this time. It’s impossible to deny that the reason so many people don’t have even a month’s cushion in savings is not because of too many lattes but because they—we, I should say, as I am part of this cohort—are not earning enough to save. It’s not self-indulgence stopping us from saving and investing; it’s a lack of jobs that pay a living wage.

If nothing else changes, post-COVID-19, this glaring problem should be addressed. Imagine the situation today if every individual and business had 6 months of savings to draw on. The damage to the economy, the need for taxpayer-funded relief packages, the failure of businesses and looming homelessness and crushing debt for so many Americans would disappear.

But it won’t. Nothing will change. The wealthy will turn this crisis to their advantage, squeezing even more money out of the poor in interest and penalties for every bill paid late. I am sure the credit card companies are salivating at the prospect of all the interest and penalties they will be able to charge.  Expect creditors to raise interest rates. Expect employers to lower wages, cut benefits, and not hire back much of their laid-off workforce, using the shutdown as an excuse to retool their businesses to lower overhead and increase profits. We were living in a world that catered to the very rich at the expense of everyone else. That world hasn’t changed because a few hundred thousand mostly elderly people have died of a virus. The rich will continue to get richer and the poor will get poorer. This pandemic should be a wake-up call to decrease economic inequality. Instead it will exacerbate it.

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