Lockdowns, curfews. Troops on the streets. Governments handing out free cash. This utter madness was entirely avoidable
by Norman Lewis
What happens when governments confuse worst-case scenarios with reality? They transform a health crisis into a social crisis and an economic tsunami, with consequences more severe than the virus could produce in the first place.
As I write, hundreds of thousands of people across Europe and the world have already lost their jobs, in the leisure and entertainment sectors in particular. As sector after sector is impacted by global lockdowns, mass unemployment is not a possibility, it is definite. And the social costs are going to be severe. How severe no one really knows. But past experiences show that when people lose jobs, they can also lose homes, their marriages, their health – and our social fabric is pulled apart. However, we should be careful not to obsess with trying to second-guess what the huge costs to society will be of the panic. Otherwise there is a danger of one form of apocalyptic scaremongering being replaced by another.
There are two related problems. The first is that the global economy was already in the emergency ward before the impact of Covid-19. Whether the economic actions being taken across the world – from unprecedented interest-rate cuts through to eye-watering trillions of dollar state spending – will stem the flow or not remains to be seen. Perversely, it could help to shake out many non- or under-performing sections of the economy, which could be a good thing in the long-term.
The second problem, and the more important one in the short-term, is that economic rationale is not what is driving policy; apocalyptic doom-mongering is. Provoked by the media, governments have been forced into a macabre competition of being seen to be acting. The ‘do something… anything’ approach has resulted in new performative displays aimed at placating the doom mongers, rather than address the health problem rationally. Many governments have been driven less by a reasoned, evidence-based strategy of limiting both the spread of the disease and the disorganisation of economic life, than by an urge to be seen to be taking action.
This is the real problem. In Europe, we have seen an historically unprecedented peace time clampdown on everyday life and social engagement, particularly in Italy, Spain and France. It seems that the responsibility of behaving as true moral leaders who might galvanise the public in a collective mission against illness and a concerted effort to protect economic life, has been jettisoned in favour of being seen to act.
Normal life has been put into quarantine. Carrying signed and dated forms, declaring a reason for being outdoors, is now obligatory across much of the continent, with the threat of heavy fines being imposed if not completed. Even in the UK, where the government has attempted to act rationally and appeal to reason, rather than apply top-down enforcement, there is a move in the draft Coronavirus Bill to give the police and immigration officers powers to detain anyone suspected of carrying the virus and force them into quarantine. People are facing a fine of up to £10,000 or three months’ jail if they refuse to be tested or to remain in quarantine. This week’s first arrest of a man in Britain for failing to self-isolate is likely not to be the last.
This is disastrous on almost every level. The panicked lockdown in Italy, for example, led to a mass migration from Lombardy which ensured the virus spread faster throughout Italy. Now their once robust health system is on the verge of collapse. The economic fallout now threatens the entire social fabric, which, in turn, threatens to destroy the social solidarity and resilience we will need to effectively defeat this health threat.
The justification gaining ground and increasingly being wheeled out by governments is that this is a war, comparable to the kind of mobilisation and sacrifices necessary during the Second World War. But any high-school student of history knows that comparison is fatuous and demonstrates that we are not at war.
Yes, the virus is invisible and threatening. But let’s not lose sight of what it is: it’s a health emergency. One which is causing real hardship and threatens the lives of the elderly and those with underlying health problems, yes. But developing solutions to deal with this should have been relatively easy to accomplish.
The real problem is that governments have politicised a health crisis and transformed it into a social and economic crisis. A more measured approach, especially after understanding China’s experience, would have been to treat this as a medical emergency for the people most vulnerable, and to have taken appropriate measures to isolate and protect these groups. This would have disrupted things, for sure. But it would not have caused the global market meltdown and disastrous recession we now face.
If there is a declaration of war, it should be on the apocalyptic scaremongering which has transformed what was a challenging health crisis into an economic crisis that is already worse than the virus itself.
Norman Lewis is a writer, speaker and consultant on innovation and technology, was most recently a Director at PriceWaterhouseCoopers, where he set up and led their crowdsourced innovation service.
© Norman Lewis/RT.com 2020
KJM Today Opinion
Norman Lewis’s article above is just one of an increasing number that are now questioning the actions taken over the past few weeks by governments. Yet at the same time, there are also shrill demands from those like Piers Morgan on Twitter, demanding that everything is shut down immediately.
Like most things, the solution is probably found somewhere in between the two extremes of ‘do nothing and let it run its course’ promoted by some and the ‘close the world’ mentality of others. But there is another question over the apparently panic-stricken actions that have been taken.
Governments do not like the internet. They don’t like it because it provides the freedom for people to do and say things that they might otherwise not be able to. Granted there is some internet content that is highly undesirable and it is right that state enforcement should be directed towards that content – but who decides what is or is not desirable? What is anathema to one is not necessarily so to somebody else. But the internet also allows questions to be asked and opinions to be formed. The first choice of any government would thus be to do away with the internet entirely.
By its very nature action by any state tends towards the one-size-fits-all thinking. This is understandable, at least up to a point; one can’t have a law that allows one section of society leeway to do something that another section cannot. So laws tend to be applied across the board and everybody is subject to them. This has been the drawback to EU Commission thinking and action; naturally it wants all EU member countries to be able to do the same things and to do them equally. But all countries are not the same – the result of the EU’s one-size-fits-all doctrine is that across the 26 member states, thousands have lost their jobs due to the ending of state subsidies in certain areas of industry.
Even though the aim of equality is admirable, the method of enabling that equality has led to dissent and dissatisfaction. The result is a growing resentment against the EU and that is replicated across many countries around the world and for the same reasons – one size simply cannot fit all.
The side effect is that governments feel under threat – even recently elected ones such as that led by Boris Johnson in the UK. More established leaders, like President Macron of France feel even more threatened which is why Macron has been so ruthless in his pursuit of protesters in his country. Macron is of course, also a devotee of the EU, which is why criticism of his actions against protesters has been so muted in EU circles.
Which brings us to one possibility; what if the speed with which governments have imposed lockdowns is the start of a more permanent erosion of the freedoms ordinary citizens have enjoyed up to now? Whilst the actions taken may not have been part of a grand master plan to impose a specific way of thinking on western societies, the Covid-19 outbreak has provided an opportunity to indulge in such impositions.
Yet there have been major health scares before and many of them. But none has resulted in the mass shutdowns now being experienced, so what is different about this one? The answer to that is the internet… At no time previously have ordinary people had the opportunities to have their say as they do now. At the time of the SARS outbreak in 2002/2003, social media was still in its infancy. This time it’s a little different.
Consequently many governments see this as an opportunity to put in place restrictions that are supposed to be temporary but may yet turn out to be permanent. Granted this may not have been intentional as I have already said, at least not to begin with but nothing is more powerful than power. And once it has been tasted, few like to give it away.
© Kevan James 2020
Image - M D Beckwith