While our minds are preoccupied by Covid-19, other and equally important things are happening around us that we need to remain aware of. Political events, economics are changing the world behind the façade of the pandemic that some our leaders are using to their advantage. Brian Milne takes some profound – an disquieting – warnings from history. They are as relevant today as ever they were.
The SARS-CoV-2 virus pandemic occupies minds almost more than any other news at present. It is seriously distracting our attention away from other highly significant topics that already have an effect on our lives but may well have a lasting and highly detrimental outcome afterwards. This long read examines the crisis from its root by looking at history, from which much is still to be learned, to what it is revealing about the real business of politics that is a Hobbesian competition between the adaptability of democracy, its malleability in the hands of those who only feign to govern on ‘our’ behalf and autocratic callousness of politics that prioritise wealth and power for those who possess those advantages that they use as an asset with which to buy the politicians whose strings they pull. A pandemic of global dimensions is the perfect cover under which to accrue power to an extent never seen before whilst we are distracted by discussion of what are essentially losing making sectors such as transport and utilities that corporate owners know are beyond redemption so can be (re-) nationalised. Meanwhile, with so many businesses going ‘belly up’, manufacturing, services and finance can be concentrated into fewer and increasingly powerful hands. So let us start with a small English seaside town to introduce a long read into a world we are obscured from by a modern plague.
A disturbing history lesson for us all
In the popular English seaside town of Weymouth, a once major trading port alongside its one time rival port, Melcombe Regis, on the opposite bank of the Wey, there is a plaque recording a past pandemic that reads: ‘The Black Death entered England in 1348 through this port. It killed 30-50 per cent of the country’s total population’. That normally little regarded small plaque is unique in the world as the only marker of where one of many epidemics and pandemics is thought to have begun, in this case the British Isles. It had been known from about 1338 or 39 in Central Asia but reached Europe in 1346 or 47. It spread rapidly reaching its outermost limits in Scotland in 1350 across parts of what are now Germany, Poland and Russia by 1353 although generally subsiding from 1350. International epidemics are an ancient phenomenon which has often changed the course of history. The Black Death, bubonic plague, is believed to have originated in China, whereas others believe the Crimea. Chroniclers of that epoch tell us that the Tartars catapulted victims of the Black Death over the walls of the Black Sea port of Kaffa, now Feodosia, in what is regarded as the first recorded example of biological warfare. That, by definition, was weaponisation on victims of an illness, an act of war but also a political act, perhaps the first such far reaching political act ever. The disease invaded every part of continental Europe, killing without mercy or discrimination, thus caused devastation across Europe that brought social, economic and political turmoil in its wake. The plague killed an estimated 25 million people, almost a third of the continent’s population. On the Eurasian landmass estimates vary between 75 and 120 million victims, by the time it died out in Western Europe in about 1720 the total across Eurasian has been cited as being as many as 200 million deaths.
The plague was caused by a bacillus carried by fleas that were carried by the black rat (Rattus rattus). The fleas enjoyed the blood of humans as much as that of rats. Indeed, they were often fellow travellers on long sea voyages. Bubonic plague had been endemic in the Far East for centuries, gradually moving westwards across Eurasia. Its passage was made possible by important land and sea trading routes with dexterous black rats climbing on and off ships. The arrival of the Black Death had been awaited with dismay in Western Europe then France and Spain were hit in 1347, all other countries to follow rapidly.
The epidemic wiped out between 30% and 40% of Europe’s population. Paris is said to have lost 50% of 100,000 inhabitants in one outbreak, Florence was reduced from between 110,000 and 120,000 inhabitants in 1338 down to 50,000 in 1351 toward the end of the period of the Black Death, in London approximately 62,000 people or around 60% of just under 100,000 died between 1346 and 1353, the populations of Bremen and Hamburg suffered a similar proportion of loss of populations. Some areas were relatively untouched, some remoter areas not at all, whereas others suffered terribly. In France, Bordeaux and Perpignan lost some 80% of inhabitants. The English King Edward III’s daughter, Joan, fell victim in Bordeaux whilst travelling to marry Prince Pedro of Spain in 1348. As a rule the wealthiest people had the best chance of surviving; nothing changes to this day, it seems. The Black Death lost its grip by 1351 but never truly disappeared from Europe for several hundred years; in the mid-1600s it again became a devastating epidemic. It is said that William Shakespeare wrote King Lear during the plague of 1605. It most certainly is one of the most politically and psychoanalytically interpreted of his plays, perhaps implying he had time to think about such things during his isolation. In England, the Great Plague, lasting from 1665 to 1666, was the last major epidemic of the bubonic plague to occur in England. It came to an abrupt end when the Great Fire of London in 1666 obliterated the disease along with much else in the capital. It gradually declined throughout the rest of the British Isles. By the end of the 17 century the Black Death had more or less completely departed from the western side of Europe, pushed back to the east to make it the the only continent where the disease is not found among rodent populations. It reached the USA in about 1900 by sea, transmitted by black rats arriving with imported goods, but is not a death sentence in most cases with modern treatments. Similarly in Central and South America where there are controllable outbreaks. There are still spates of it in parts of Asia, indeed I was once in part of NE India where there was a localised epidemic of bubonic plague that I did not know about until after I had left the area.
Have plague, will travel
While the bacterium can remain active in a rotting corpse for many days, the fleas seek out new hosts once death has begun cooling the body. At the height of the plagues, victims normally succumbed after about six days following infection. Before the development of symptoms they might have travelled substantial distances, unintentionally carrying as yet unapparent disease with them. Once the first buboes appeared an agonising death was most likely. The buboes are rapidly blackening and painful necrotic pustules that taint the skin and lymph nodes swelled to the size of apples, mainly in the thighs, neck, groin or armpits. Then fever, delirium and unbearable headaches accompany the skin’s blackening patches and lumps with death certain for 60% of victims within ten days. To this day it is without a cure, but its effects can be effectively treated to reduce its worst effects, thus avoiding death in most cases.
A century and a half after the Black Death, European explorers carried new diseases around Africa and across the Atlantic that created epidemics which decimated indigenous populations in many parts of the world. Because coronavirus seems to have a mortality rate of around two per cent, it will never actually have any of the impact of history’s worst pandemics. Nonetheless, worst case scenarios are still worrying. A leaked UK government estimate outlined the extreme case in which 80% cent of the public could be infected, thus leading to as many as 500,000 deaths. In the USA, the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health’s Professor Marc Lipsitch predicted that between 40% and 70% of all people in the world are possibly going to be infected over the coming year. Many will suffer only mild symptoms whilst other will be infected but asymptomatic thus capable of transmitting infection on to others. Thus we have a worldwide public health emergency that is combined almost imperceptibly with global recession, thus has great potential to change politics around the world either way for better or worse. Right now focus is on China as the most obvious risk since that is where the pandemic started, so too the US presidential election with a president who appears insanely out of control but is nevertheless gaining support, then a significant rise in international tension, increased threat to the world’s poorest nations and a vast number of rootless refugees with also the potentially worst global recession ever about to happen but being kept out of general public view.
The war against the unseen enemy
So many leaders are referring to a state of war, their common reference certainly being WW2 which was the last such event with global impact. Harking back to that historic event and its impact is inevitable given how strongly influenced much of the world is is by an event that ended 75 years ago, however there are some significant differences. The main distinction is that between 1939 and 1945 the nations’ factories were going full tilt. Every country with any involvement whatsoever had thriving industries that were making money. The victors and vanquished alike may have used up vast amounts of public money, but for much of that period there was full employment; it had taken the fight against Germany, Italy, Japan and their respective allies to eradicate the high unemployment of the 1920s and 30s. The UK had full employment and would normally have experience rising inflation had had there not been rationing and price controls. If we compare that with the present, there are still only very rough estimates of the likely impact on the economy of any country from Covid-19 although the range is from very bad to catastrophic. One estimate is of at least 15% drop in output during the second quarter of 2020 although it could be as high as 20%. Another difference with WW2 is that production is not being scaled up, but instead scaled back. In sectors where activity and outputs are rising, for instance healthcare, food and basic commodities production, increases will be minor compared to lost output elsewhere. In the UK alone, around a third or working people are occupied in sectors most affected by the pandemic: retail and what are essentially leisure and tourism oriented sectors that include restaurants, pubs, clubs, hotels, cinemas and theatres, also leisure and fitness through gyms and all manner of sport that generates income. They are all closed for what could be months rather than weeks, albeit no actual schedule can be planned for their reopening. So, no this is not 1939 to 45 with factories working round the clock, perhaps more like a science fiction situation in which humanity is wiped out leaving Will Smith and perhaps a very few other survivors in a world where buildings are undamaged and nature is taking back what was stolen from it. In this case, unlike the UK facing invasion in 1940, there is no question of holding on until the USA gets involved, when it was never at threat of being invaded thus was able to put its vast economy to work to earn from its needy allies. This time they are facing something on the way to oblivion.
Thus looking for parallels with a war is only remotely to the point, when in fact politicians need to expand their perspectives. A means of looking at the world today is to go back in history to the 15 years leading up to the financial crisis of 2007-08 as comparable with the period leading up to WW1. Superficially it appears to be a peaceful, prosperous period, what the English often refer to as the long ‘Edwardian summer’ during which things were not quite as good natured and peaceful as they seemed. Worldwide the balance of power was changing, as for instance the first Russian revolution of 1905 so clearly illustrates, much more political unrest leading to the growth of independence movements, anti-royalist sentiments and growing class conflict that was giving birth to new political movements on the left and right. The first few years of this century are comparably illusory given how manifestly they have been shaped by debt fuelled growth and what amounts to financial market anarchy.
I recently saw an analogy with Thomas Mann’s seminal work The Magic Mountain, which is often referred to as one of the key literary artefacts of the 20 century. It is a metaphor for the the culture and politics of pre-WW1 Europe since Mann began to write the novel before the war but finished it after. In his 1965 book, The Accidental Century, the American socialist Michael Harrington observed that Mann’s characters who are patients a group of people in a sanatorium in Davos, Switzerland, just as WW1 is about to start were ‘sickened by history’. In a way it is a perfect book for people living out what Mann’s main character, Hans Castorp, describes as ‘horizontal lives’, whereby they are consistently wrapped up in blankets and put up with the daily ritual of a medical examination. The author was suggesting that the sanatorium residents suffer from spiritual and moral ‘palsy’, a kind of paralysis, paired with involuntary tremors that evolve into physical ailments. There seems to be something obsessive about coronavirus at present that is comparable. In Mann’s book, some of the patients seem to have been seduced by the ‘attractions’ of illness in that it breeds a disposition to introversion thus concern with their own thoughts, feelings and self-obsession which were characteristics of late 19 century bourgeois decadence. At present, people display collective fear of the virus yet there is a perverse obsession that shows in how people appear to challenge the virility of it, then are somehow extraordinarily interesting in catching it. It is very much like when there is an influenza epidemic and somehow it is a badge of brave suffering to have it. Thus, whenever there is such an outbreak, as one virologist said in an oblique reference to Covid-19, up to 85% of people who claim to have or have had influenza often have no more than a common cold. In a way one might compare the centres of governance, a White House, Downing Street or similar seats of political power with the sanatorium in which self-absorbed leaders are led by their own thoughts and feelings that neither reflect the world outside and around them nor present what is really happening to politics and economics at their hands. They indulge in the sickness, although generally not falling ill themselves (some have been infected, likewise members of their cabinets), without acknowledging that individuals fighting alone, as does Hans Castorp in the novel, are the solution to what is a vast global situation of more than one dimension, but concealed behind the disease is something else – an economic and social problem for the vast majority. If, thus, it is history and the politics that govern us that are going to make us sicker than the present virus, then it is neither noble nor reasonable to believe that a yet to be discovered vaccine will make all better again.
Thus, as the backdrop to the novel is based on societal sickness rather than a real illness, when a major financial crisis crushed the frame of mind of complacency just as the outbreak of WW1 did in 1914, Covid-19 may precipitate an absolute crisis earlier than expected, thus doubly traumatising people. Winning the struggle in both cases may well prove much harder than it would otherwise have been, in both cases an attempt to go back to business as usual once the virus is ‘defeated’ with such measures as balanced budgets and return to the gold standard that was the way it was done in the 1920s will not work with a background of debt driven growth and financial speculation during the 2010s that has walked into a second crisis at the beginning of this century. It is not only a matter of recuperating from a virus but also from a recession in which debts will need to be written off, thus dragging entire economic sectors further into difficulties. Trying to emulate the past, simply turning the clock back is impossible. What there may be in common is political discontent and anger growing as economies struggle, with what remained of trust in the democratic process totally undermined. At that time there was little international cooperation; that may be the one lifeline if nationalist forces do prevail and drive countries back into the tense coexistence of the past.
The neoliberal pratfall
Four major political changes happened during the 1930s and into 1940s, particularly in the immediate post war years. Firstly, in a number of countries the old economic system was abandoned. Many of them came off the gold standard and states began to move to pump priming, the action taken to stimulate an economy, usually during a recessionary period but in this case to convert a wartime economy back into a peacetime version through increased and accelerated government spending and interest rate and tax reductions to promote growth, albeit timidly in most cases. John Maynard Keynes’s general theory drove the message home, inspiring an entire generation of economists and policymakers, some of whom were to become household names which until then such people had never been before. Secondly, there was an attempt to instil equity into economies through the expansion or introduction of welfare states, more progressive taxation and enhanced power for trade unions. Thirdly, the UK taking the lead, work began during the war on developing and trying this progressive and in some ways revolutionary socio-political agenda. In the UK, the Beveridge Report in 1942, the Butler Education Act of 1944 and the wartime coalition’s publication of the White Paper, Employment Policy in 1944 in which the government accept one of their primary aims and responsibilities would be the maintenance of a high and stable level of employment after the war. Fourth and finally, there was an attempt to construct a new international structure through the creation of the United Nations (UN), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, set out as a plan to avoid the policy fragmentation of the 1930s.
Are we going to see a repeat of all or even any of this? At present, most governments are realising they have to support their citizens through the pandemic, be seen to be proactive in protecting economic and social structures as far as possible with the backdrop of a world in which welfarism, where it was adopted after WW2, has declined and in some cases been dropped. There are what are being presented as ‘new ideas’ such as universal basic income, although UBI has been championed by some economists and unions for many years already, also knowing that without multilateral cooperation there will be no victory against Covid-19. The recently appointed IMF managing director, Kristalina Georgieva, and her chief economist, Gita Gopinath, have both said that 2020 could see a recession worse than the global financial crisis of 2007-08. José Ángel Gurría, secretary general of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), has warned the global economy will take several if not many years to recover. The UK will pay up to 80% of employee’s wages for those prevented from working because of the pandemic; in the USA government officials are negotiation to set up a $1 trillion rescue plan; the European Central Bank (ECB) is preparing to launch €750 billion stimulus programme following Federal Reserve of the USA moving in the direction of cutting interest rates to nearly 0%. Because the economic impact is growing rapidly, G20 finance ministers and central bank governors held a conference call on 23 March to discuss how to address the emergency. Kristalina Georgieva issued a statement for IMF following the call, in which she outlined the outlook for global growth: “For 2020 it is negative – a recession at least as bad as during the global financial crisis or worse.”… “We expect recovery in 2021. To get there, it is paramount to prioritize containment and strengthen health systems – everywhere.” On the same day OECD secretary general Angel Gurría announced that the shock from the virus is already bigger than the global financial crisis and that many countries would fall into recession and countries would be dealing with the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic for years to come. He said: “Even if you don’t get a worldwide recession, you’re going to get either no growth or negative growth in many of the economies of the world, including some of the larger ones, and therefore you’re going to get not only low growth this year, but also it’s going to take longer to pick up in the in the future.” These words come after the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), warned of a slowdown of global growth to less that 2% during 2020, therewith potentially wiping $1 trillion off the value of the world economy. Whilst the international economics community is wrestling with the future, projecting a serious recession, predictably many countries will suffer hardships. However, it is not the countries per se that are worst effect but the ordinary ‘man and woman in the street’ whose income will be lower or devalued, will nonetheless watch prices escalate and have no reason to expect a revival of the measures taken by progressive nations during WW2 and immediately after.
Covid-19 and the crisis in the shadows
To return to the pandemic itself and how it will add the socio-political finishing touches to the crisis and how that will add to the pandemonium it will have economically brought forward by perhaps a year of two, an inevitability for which we now have a scapegoat. Politicians will not simply take it on the chin and admit that they reacted far too slowly. This pandemic is superbly placed to release conspiracy theories, accusations of biological warfare, theories, hypotheses and all manner of interpretations into the world. Whilst politicians will not be the progenitors of those versions of events, they will do nothing to restrain their propagation and acceptance. Thus, one can assume that China is first in line for accusations of creating SARS-CoV-2, then bringing about dispersion by ensuring transmission throughout the world. An economist would smile, if not laugh at that idea. Firstly, why begin a pandemic in a key region for the creation of wealth generated by manufacturing and trade? That would be counterproductive to begin with, as the effect of the dispersion worldwide is showing. China is suffering most economically. Secondly, biological warfare, which is what it would be, would never use a virus that is simply a mutation of a known one that belongs to the corona family of viruses that were recognised and began to be studied several years ago. As a weapon, new microorganisms would almost certainly be developed and there are enough of them potentially more virulent that would have been used.
Then there is media generated hysteria and panic notion. In fact, there was remarkably little at first. A few people fighting over toilet rolls in Australia was hardly mass hysteria that is ‘contagious’, indeed videos of that were circulating on social media and considered funny. The only contagion there was people laughing themselves silly over the absurdity of that event. Finally, states of emergency (SOE) have been declared in many countries, but very few people actually really understand SOEs. They are created to protect the structures that support society, so that where there are, for example, massive forest fires, the emergency services including civil and military fire and rescue services will be available for actual fire fighting and prevention, but supporting them will be medical people for the injured and sick, police for any number of control and guidance functions, community workers and counsellors for the people forced out of homes who need support, vets for animals, slaughterers and butchers to remove dead animals and many other measures that accompany the emergency situation. They are not part of a plot to impose dictatorship on people although they impose discipline and temporary control. A virus is unseen, therefore incomparable with the physical manifestation of forest fires, tsunamis, earthquakes and comparable natural and human generated disasters.
Because in my working life I found myself in developing countries that included places where earthquakes, avalanches and other phenomena were commonplace, I took advantage of community emergency and rescue training. First aid is all good and fine, but I felt that was not enough. We had classes on SOEs, whereby I learned they are only used in extremis because they are actually very complicated to organise and oversee. It is not just that a senior politician announces it will happen; a lot goes on before it happens within a very short period of time. To put that in some kind of conspiracy theory setting is actually absurd, the resources that need to be made available would be a lot of money thrown away when it would be many, many times cheaper to do nothing more than make proclamations about what people need to do, then let them sort it out themselves and then tough luck if they don’t, so begin to get ill and die. In the end, numbers of fatalities especially impress people into following the directives that come with an SOE although there are always those who know better, they think. However, there is political capital in SOEs where with minimal effort governments can give the impression of doing everything possible for and with their people. Politicians whose competence is clearly questionable are able to gain support, just as we are seeing in the USA with an election due in November.
Revisiting history is necessary
Where people should direct their energy is in examination of past pandemics. I did so briefly for an article here on Europe United when Covid-19 was still ‘young’ compared to what it has turned into. A point I was drawing attention to was that we have over a thousand years of documented knowledge, very well developed by bringing together the knowledge of people who recorded what happened in the 14 and 15 centuries with increasingly scientific and epidemiological analysis as we move toward the present. I have no kind of medical training above and beyond first aid, but I have a great deal of experience in examination of demography and migration, knowledge of which are used in the non-medical examination of epidemiology. What I see is a classic pandemic, the world was caught unawares and two particular forces are helping it. One is called ‘the president of the United States of America’ where not only it is the observably incompetent man in charge between denials and denunciations who has opened the door wide to the USA being hit severely, but has also been holding back the science that would help fight it because they have the resources and capital to afford to do so. The other negative force is media and their ability to allocate blame rather than help organise their readership acknowledge what is happening and make it clear that denial will not stops its advance. A lot of people are still in denial, many more creating unnecessary panic, media could contribute to balancing that.
With regard to what might have been done but now is too late, there are maps that look like some kind of octopus at first, which next look like spider webs before merging to become a mass. Because of what they tell us, I have said we should look at the H1N1 virus, better known as Spanish flu, in Europe, mapping its spread shows a radial spread from a hospital camp in Étaples in France that had already done something similar out of a military camp in Haskell County, Kansas that spread to 14 camps in 1917 but from which troops destined for France were sent out before it was classified an epidemic. American soldiers were hospitalised in Étaples which was the transit camp for the British Expeditionary Force, also the point to which the wounded were transported from the nearby front. An unknown number of well over 11,000 soldiers buried there are suspected of dying from the H1N1 virus outbreak rather than from their wounds. The dispersal of troops back to the front, then the radial pattern that emerged across Europe is comparable to the linear transmission in Italy observed at the beginning of the outbreak there. Now, as then, it should have been possible to isolate it. In 1917 it would have meant a ceasefire if not even a peace agreement and cessation of all fighting with troops in the field kept there, effectively quarantined, until the epidemic had abated. Instead it spread throughout Europe, the USA and elsewhere, now estimated that about 500 million people or a third of the world’s population at that time became infected. The number of deaths was estimated to be at least 50 million and probably more worldwide with an estimated 675,000 occurring in the USA. If we compare that to the total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I, which was less a bit over 40 million. There were approximately 20 million deaths and 21 million wounded. The total number of deaths included 9.7 million military personnel and around 10 million civilians. The USA came out of it comparatively ‘lightly’ as a late entry into the war with 116,516 recorded deaths and approximately 320,000 sick and wounded of the 4.7 million men who served. The USA lost more personnel to disease at 63,114 than to combat at 53,402, which largely due to the epidemic of in the early part of 1918.
What do we know?
So, can one conclude anything at this stage? Well, just about. What we know is that it has already been upgraded from epidemic to pandemic, which simply means it is no longer reasonably ‘localised’; more or less every country in the world is infected. We also now know that most people have only mild symptoms rather than become severely ill and in reality an unknown number that may be 50% or more of people are asymptomatic carriers who can still transmit it. The number of people dead is small in global terms; the majority already had a life threatening condition that a bout of conventional influenza or another illness may well have produced the same outcome. The difference here is this virus creates the conditions for a rather severe form of pneumonia. So, the emphasis needs to be on containing the transmission of the virus rather than worrying about its effect on most people. As things stand, the closely related viruses that cause the waves of influenza that strike periodically, usually during winter months, tend to kill many times more people. What is different in this case is the rate of transmission and dispersal as well as the means by which it is transmitted. Vaccinations might be available in a few weeks to start dealing with it, in a few more months a more effective preventative will probably be available. The more important message is one that is not being watched and heard as it should be which is to be very vigilant about any further viral mutations that may make this one look like the teddy bears’ picnic. Politicians are playing safe by not articulating but simply insinuating that it is the fault of the people, therefore let them suffer and perish, the leaders shall continue to lead at a safe distance whilst they do their duty by quietly accepting the fate of their population and offering occasional snippets of what they consider comforting words. That is politics, not curative or preventive medicine as they would have us almost believe.
Politics is at the heart of the pandemic. The UK is heading for disaster with its prime minister, health secretary, another cabinet member known and probably others, plus the chief medical officer all tested positive, thus in isolation. The root of the problem is a prime minister who has been described as nonchalant for his personal behaviour that saw him in close proximity to people, including shaking hands, after delivering speeches in which he included descriptions of what people should do that were almost the opposite to what he did. However, that root is deeper because he believes he is like one of his predecessors who is usually classified as great for one single monumental political task, albeit there were other things in the opposite direction to that the present incumbent is following. Winston Churchill was highly reliant on morale raising, thus his speeches such as the “…we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…” that was more of a history lesson than a sound political directive, used the dramatic words toward the end to create a crescendo before the sober ending. He conceded the UK could go down, thus relying on the ‘New World’, mainly the colonies, and ‘allies’ to save the world from Nazism. The present does not compare with 4 June 1940; the present PM has no leadership skills, no convincing rhetorical powers and little to offer. Churchill often relied on innuendo, his worshipper simply lies.
Meanwhile, across the ocean in the main allies’ camp, the man in office as president has none of the qualities Churchill’s contemporary, Franklin Roosevelt, possessed. He was also a competent speech maker, but his great talent was in organising organisers such as generals and being part of strategies. At present the USA is trapped in a mire of insanity, incompetence and avaricious ambition. Therefore to imagine an actual rescue may come out of the disarray to cross the Atlantic to create any meaningful support is an illusion.
Sweden is also acting out of character with itself. Stefan Löfven, the PM, has asked all Swedes to accept individual responsibility in stopping the rapid spread of the virus. That was immediately after news that the number of patients in intensive care in Stockholm is rising rapidly. In Sweden of the government’s approach to C-19 is being heavily criticised; experts are warning that the strategy of building up broad immunity, whilst only protecting at-risk groups, is similar to the ‘herd immunity’ approach suggested in the UK that is not entirely expunged despite expert advice, it is like ‘Russian roulette’, thus might well end in disaster.
Stumbling blindly into the plague pit
The UK’s actions were well described in an article in The Guardian by Giles Tremlett on 23 March, ‘The rest of Europe views the UK’s coronavirus plan with disbelief’ in which he wrote: ‘…watching the UK from a distance has felt like scrambling out of your car at the front of a multiple pile-up on the motorway, only to see other cars smashing into the rear 20 minutes later.’ The ‘plan’ has been a fragmented patchwork of actions that are coming in bursts, too late and never quite complete. The standard English notion of national greatness in the face of all adversity and some kind of national superiority, and I unapologetically said England since the other three parts of the UK are carried with the erroneous assumptions irrespective of devolution, are an enormous gamble, too late and too little cannot be stemmed. The author quite rightly compared the leadership with King Cnut, although one might cynically take that name to rearrange some of the letters into something more derogatory and wish there was still worse to describe him. For the observer who does not work on the basis of disconnection between political areas, this is also the perfect instrument for the completion of an imperfect Brexit that will pull the people of the UK down on two levels, taking the island nation to an historic low from which recovery is simply speculation but not something to assume will happen as it has in the past. Add the economic crisis that will be cruel to nations at most in trouble on a single level, let alone two, along with the gross incompetence of those in power and what we see is a fourfold collapse heading toward the nation like the proverbial pile-up in the moments the first vehicles lose control. The friends ‘over there’, led by a narcissist with a truly over inflated ego and a renegade mouth that is disengaged from what passes through the mass that serves as a brain, will predictably suffer from their discoordinated response and the enormous amount of social and racial division that make the impossible far less possible, thus we shall see C-19 grow like Topsy with a possibly vast number of deaths in its wake. Watching the slow suicide of those nations is painful for those of us born in any part of the UK, however we all have to deal with the situation where we are and can only observed passively in utter disbelief and shame that we are at all connected by our nationality, our origin but no longer our home. Brexiters may have signed their own death certificates in as yet unknown numbers. It is terrible to think that others will now have no choice but to go with them.
Meanwhile ‘across the pond’, Trump declared: “Our country was not built to be shut down,” “This is not a country that was built for this.” His approach to the emergency consistently confounds: he has far-reaching reserve powers to deal with the crisis, but given his swerving, direction changing public pronouncements, no one is confident about what he may or may not do. The USA is now top of the table for cases, deaths are mounting. When the first case was declared on 20 January, Trump more or less declared it false news, since then he has veered down a path that any person who seriously cared about their nation would never have chosen. In a televised press conference from the White House, he said he wants to get the USA’s economy going again as soon as possible and is not open to the idea of restrictive public health measures going on for months. Yet around the world, about one in five people, or an estimated 1.7 billion, are now living under some state of lockdown. The first 100,000 cases took 67 days to emerge; the latest 100,000 just two days, but “we are not helpless bystanders”, said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organisation (WHO), which is urging continued urgent global action.
The lockdown now in force means people in many countries may only leave home in a small range of limited circumstances. They include shopping for necessities; an exercise outing a day, such as running or cycling, alone or with household members but within a short distance of home such as a kilometre, observing perhaps one or two metres distance between individuals, limiting the number of people into any kind of shop at a time, wearing masks and gloves; going it out is primarily for medical reasons or, for example, to care for a vulnerable person; and going to work, if you cannot work from home, many people are now working online. Meeting friends, shopping for anything beyond essentials, and gatherings of more than two people have been banned in most countries. Police will be able to impose fines on people who do not abide by the rules. All shops selling non-essential goods, including hair dressers and nail salons, must close, along with all markets apart from food markets, and all venues such as libraries, playgrounds, churches, hotels, B&Bs, campsites and caravan parks (other than to permanent residents or key workers). Social events such as weddings and baptisms are off, but funerals, are permitted although some are being carried out at distance by internet mourners who cannot gather in cemeteries and crematoria.
Is democracy safe?
There are SOEs and ‘enabling laws’ appearing in many countries, a very dangerous proposition that holds the potential to undermine democracy and the rule of law here in Europe as a whole. To take one country as an example, in Poland the minister of justice presented a legal initiative, which would give prosecutors the ability to ‘imprison’ anybody at their home without the consent of a court. It would remain a legal measure after the end of the pandemic crisis. The Polish parliament also introduced distance voting which is not constitutional. To be constitutional would require declaring a SOE which would be time limited. Exactly what the limit might be is the problem. So to get round that the government introduced all sorts of emergency measures without declaring a SOE. No SOE allows the presidential elections on the 10 May to go ahead. These are elections the sitting president and candidate of the present governing party would win easily because it is impossible for the opposition to conduct an election campaign. In light of such actions, the EU justice commissioner, Didier Reynders, announced that he will check emergency measures in all EU member states, but only actually looking at the data protection aspect. The UK has put emergency powers in place for two years, although a demanded amendment that a six monthly review be carried out was accepted as a condition it was accepted by parliament. However, the UK has left the EU and is no longer in any formal union except within its own slowly crumbling union, thus there is nobody to check whether democracy is at all impinged and individual rights removed.
The backdrop to political actions is nearly always economic. It is the inequity between haves and have-nots that cause revolutions, particularly when those who have just had enough become cornered into becoming have-nots. Hence the strictness of some of the measures proposed in various countries that are not necessarily directly related to the pandemic and in several cases would be retained, with the potential for indefinite continuation, beyond the pandemic. Governments fear people as well as rely on a kind of naive herd instinct that makes people elect sometimes irrationally, giving us some of the most autocratic, incompetent or other type of inappropriate regime. The shock to the global economy from Covid-19 right now has been faster and more severe than the 2008 global financial crisis and even the Great Depression. In those two previous episodes, stock markets collapsed by 50% or more, credit markets froze, gigantic bankruptcies followed, unemployment rates went sky high to above 10% and GDP contracted at a yearly rate of 10% and higher. That happened over a period of three years whereas the current crisis is causing comparable disastrous macroeconomic and financial outcomes in a mere three weeks. Even during the Great Depression and WW2 was a large part of productive economic activity shut down bringing with it the risk of permanent closure as bankruptcies break the back of already struggling companies as we are seeing here in Europe, as too China, the USA and elsewhere. A downturn rather than total collapse that is more severe than a financial crisis but of shorter duration that would allow the return to positive growth by the end of 2020 that brings the beginning of a recovery when the pandemic survives may turn things back round. That, of course, depends on the goodwill of political leadership, however many of them appear to be hell bent on cutting themselves off in nationalist bubbles instead of the cooperation between struggling states that is necessary. It is the time for greater unity, not separations like Brexit. The pandemic should be a unifier, not a divider.
The need for European union is greater than ever before
To achieve that unity, here within the EU, the often made demand that the union and its institutions be heavily reformed is an essential first step. Although health systems may be very different in their range of state provided through to almost entirely private, the training, traditions and other qualities different, that is no justifiable reason for not having a joint health policy. At the same time to complement it the European Central Bank could be redesigned to change its main function from managing the euro, framing and implementing EU economic and monetary policy with the main aim of keeping prices stable to support economic growth and job creation. Within its function to ensure that financial markets and institutions such as central banks are well supervised by national authorities and that payment systems work well by defining and implementing monetary policy there is no reason why new responsibilities are not assumed. Those could include a fund for emergencies with certain priorities such as the present situation on condition the use of funds is a shared action by more than one member state or, if necessary, the entire EU. That is as much a matter of political will as economics. Some states and ‘experts’ may claim this is socialism by another route, however cooperation does not demand political unity, simply the ability to share and afford common tasks.
As it is, the EU, USA and other heavily affected economies need to implement widespread Covid-19 testing, with tracing, treatment, research to find vaccines, obligatory quarantines and full-scale lockdowns of the type that China has implemented. Those need to be common and shared tasks in Europe, not bargaining tools or excuses for not wanting to be dominated by particular countries whose science and medical system including research may be superior. Again, that can be overcome by political will rather than pointless arguments about culpability or who does best that simply waste time and opportunity. Regrettably, the public health response in advanced economies where the competence and capacity exists to cope with their own situation and provide guidance and direct intervention to help less able partners has fallen far short of what is required right now to contain the pandemic. The fiscal policy package being debated at present is neither large enough nor will it be available, if approved, to be in place to create the conditions for recovery. With that lack of rapid response the risk of a new Great Depression that will outstrip the original from 1929 until the world sank into war in 1939 and a new economic sprang up very quickly is growing by the day.
If the coronavirus pandemic is not stopped, economies and markets worldwide will continue to suffer freefall. Even if it is more or less contained, optimistically stopped entirely in its tracks with treatment available, taken as a whole growth still may not return by the end of 2020. It may be that another wave of the pandemic is very likely, perhaps even with new mutations, thus mass immunisation and remedial interventions that many are counting on may turn out to be less effective than hoped. It could take as long as 18 months for a vaccine to be developed and tested, then produced in the quantities necessary, with antiviral treatments and other therapeutic remedies available to be deployed globally. To do less would leave the door open to at the very least very damaging localised epidemics. However, time is not on the side of budgets, therefore we must assume that unless it disappears as quickly as it appeared, economies will contract all over again and markets will crash.
Furthermore, the fiscal response could become a disaster if monetisation of vast deficits begin to generate high inflation, especially if then a series of Covid-19 related negative supply shocks reduce potential growth. As it is, any number of countries are simply unable to undertake such the kind of borrowing required using their own currency. Politicians need to stop navel gazing whilst allowing policy makers in Brussels, Washington and other political centres to decide who will bail out governments, central banks, corporations, and the rest of the economy including households in emerging markets. The priority here is to reach political unanimity on our continent then reach out to developing nations now, later after massive collapses of their economies throwing money at them will be too little too late, but also to the detriment of advanced economies that often depend on resources bought from those states.
So, it is far more than just a pandemic that is threatening us all. It is an almost inevitable collapse into economic mayhem with the full potential for political upheaval from the grassroots of society who are angry about the way they have been led by their elected governments who are neither acting as representatives nor protectors of their constituents. Because politicians depend on economics but that depends at the same time on their decision making, we stand to see a global collapse in the wake of the pandemic from which recovery will be difficult if not close to impossible, perhaps indeed without a solution. That may happen when we are confronted with new waves of this virus or an entirely new one, entirely unprepared because decisions have not be negotiated, made and shared that compensate at least a little for ruined economies. Right now, such debates as whether the EU will survive or not should be shelved until later, serious attention turn to having policies and ready programmes to deal with a massive mess that requires cooperation instead of aggression or blaming neighbours.
We may now think again about the analogy with Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain in which the inmates of the sanatorium indulge in their sickness, looking at the further analogy with contemporary politicians, who although generally not falling ill themselves with notable exceptions, are not acknowledging that their populations are effectively fighting alone, as does Hans Castorp as an individual in the novel. Lack of resources, personnel, reductions of budgets and general unpreparedness are making the people they are talking down to and demanding isolate themselves in their homes as the solution to what is a vast global situation of more than one dimension. In reality, concealed behind the disease there is something equally unhealthy growing, an economic and social problem for the vast majority that is equally unprepared for by those who are elected to lead and protect the people for whom they govern.
Politicians would be well advised to look at history and see what everything between at least The Black Death and more recent pandemics such as Spanish flu can teach them. One thing they so frequently appear to overlook is that we are now in the 21 century in which we have the means to cooperate and act as never before during those events. If they cannot do that, then to use an old curse, we may wish them a plague on all their houses.