Sitting quietly

Blaise Pascal – for how long can he sit quietly?

At this stage in the coronavirus crisis, many of us consider ourselves experts on pandemics and biology. The speed of the coronavirus through our world is paced by the speed at which our concern and curiosity is fuelling a quest for information.

One thread that has become evident to me, is that historically epidemics have not always been greeted with calm and grace. In periods when medical knowledge was not as well developed as it is now, and when democracy and public health education were fledgling, epidemics were often met with violence and disorder.

For example, in the early 1830’s cholera spread across Europe but efforts to contain it in countries as diverse as Scotland, Prussia and Russia were greeted with public attacks on doctors, nurses, and quarantine officers. At times, anyone in a white coat was a target. The general fear was that authorities were using the cholera epidemic to poison people so as to reduce the burden on the state or that doctors simply wanted cadavers for anatomy schools. We trust experts more today!

Compared to the nineteenth century, what is remarkable today is the degree to which populations – mostly in Asia and Europe so far – have followed the lockdown guidelines. In general, adherence to the lockdown has been highest in countries where trust in government (and perhaps fear in some cases) is greatest.

The next stage of the crisis, coming over the next two weeks, will severely test this trust. Whilst I am now tired of reading commentators quoting Blaise Pascal’s ‘All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone’, millions of people across the world will face severe stress in terms of how they sustain themselves. This much was made clear by last Thursday’s initial jobless claims figure in the USA. At the height of the economic pain of the global financial crisis (March 27, 2009) the jobless number hit 665,000. Last week’s figure was ten times that.

With the number of coronavirus deaths per capita, per day, in the US now higher than during the US Civil War, the pressure on the US economy and its healthcare system will grow. The same will be true of many other countries, and though part-time or partial work schemes in economies like France and Germany may lessen the economic uncertainty, it will still weigh heavily. For instance, the past week has already seen food shortages in Italy, mile long queues for food banks in Pennsylvania. In many cases, loans, compensation and government payouts in the US will not arrive in bank accounts for weeks.  

As this urgent, difficult stage of the coronavirus crisis develops, obligations on governments will grow. In Europe, there is an opportunity for what we might stereotypically call the ‘Northern’ countries to repair the diplomatic damage to the idea of EU solidarity of recent weeks (I am thinking of the Dutch in particular!) and undertake to ensure that food and basic staples can reach parts of the EU where they are needed.

In the USA, the past three years have seen a hollowing out of expertise in government. Consider that in 2017 and 2019 the Pentagon and White House economists respectively developed studies to plan for a coronavirus like pandemic, but the executive did very little to prepare for such an eventuality. In the longer-run, the state of healthcare and the fragility of the US labour market should become major political issues. In the meantime, I expect that both corporate America and the military will play a greater logistical role in meeting the needs of this next phase of the crisis in the US.

As this occurs, the debate on the marginal usefulness of the lockdown (in terms of its contribution to lives saved versus its economic impact) will grow. It has already been marked by what I call the ‘cure is worse than the problem itself’ brigade.

Two more weeks of lockdown in Europe will test the sanity of its citizens (though will I hope also show the value of this strategy) and business people. At very least, political leaders will have to outline some kind of roadmap to normalisation – the continued isolation of vulnerable members of society, wearing of masks, a gradual return to normal working patterns for example. Balancing this will be incredibly hard to do, and control. At this point, market volatility may give way to a pick-up in social and political volatility.

Have a great week ahead,

Mike

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