Life in lockdown | Pakistan Today

Life in lockdown

  • Waiting for the summer heat puts off the crisis, not solves it

AT PENPOINT

The coronavirus pandemic has created a new reality. And the most salient feature is that the world is heading for a depression. Some say it has arrived. That means it is worse for the economy than the Spanish flu, which is not listed as a cause of the Great Depression, which began with the Crash of 1929, which started the freefall in stock values that led to the reverse of growth: contraction. Apart from the wiping out of wealth, it also led to mass unemployment and the destruction of enterprises. Economic recovery was tried repeatedly, but it was not under World War II that the solution propounded by several economists, most notably John Maynard Keynes, was put into practice, and there was truly heavy spending by the state on anything.

One of the results of this was the post-War welfare state. Not only was there a need to spend, but there was a revulsion against the suffering that large masses of people underwent during the Depression. The world has suffered economic crises before, but governments have relied on Keynesian ideas to avoid recessions lasting too long.

One requirement was that the world went off the gold standard. That meant that a country did not require gold to back its currency, and there was no longer any restriction on the amount of money in circulation. Money could be printed. The dollar was the reserve currency of the world because of the strength of the US economy, the third currency in which two countries traded. Every country has to earn dollars by exporting, so as to pay for its imports. The USA is in the happy position of just printing dollars to pay for its imports.

However, it should be remembered that one reason for the apparent instability in global public health, is because of global warming and climate change. Virus populations had developed an equilibrium with various animal species, and remained confined to those animals’ habitats. However, climate change has destroyed many habitats, endangering the species, or making them extinct. The viruses infesting them have to go somewhere, and try their luck with human beings. Climate change deniers like US President Donald Trump are the loudest in claiming that the virus is Chinese, even though they have done their bit for COVID-19, as well as for any succeeding viral epidemics.

This has had its own disadvantages, like other countries holding vast amounts of dollars, giving them the potential to play with its value. The USA as well as its nearest economic rival, China, have been badly hit by the coronavirus, and the effect of their economies grinding to a halt may put the whole world into a depression. Europe has also been hit, tilting the world further towards depression.

One thing missing is a new economic theory. Governments’ economic solutions have been pretty much Keynesian orthodoxy. There has been little of Milton Friedman’s supply-side economics, which focused on not letting the printing of money cause too much inflation. At present, none of the solutions to the economic problem are going out of the Keynesian box.

If there is another depression, where instead of growth, there is contraction, where production falls, strikes, it will have horrendous consequences, particularly in terms of unemployment. A key factor is when the world begins to return to normal. That in turn depends on how effectively governments combat the epidemic. It will not really help if any government is efficient, because inefficiency by another will mean that its own gains are temporary, and limited to the duration for the virus to make a comeback.

There are already attempts by Western governments to attempt a return to normal. That would mean an end to quarantine and social distancing measures, so that people can go back to work. However, that might mean a resurgence of the infection. That will only mean another round of deaths and disruption, and strain on a healthcare system which would not have either recovered from the strain now being placed on it, nor adapted to the new circumstances.

There has been a lot of blame thrown at the healthcare system in the West for not being able to handle the epidemic, and there has been much maligning of the systems of the developing world, which are much more primitive. However, it must be remembered that if the epidemic is not the new normal, there was no reason to prepare for an epidemic. It is also an indication that the world is not ready for a really vicious epidemic, one which spreads faster, and kills many more, than COVID-19, which does not infect everyone, and which kills only a small proportion of those who do catch it.

At the same time, it should not be complained that this is new-fangled. The coronavirus is not an old disease, which is why it kills its host. However, viral diseases, once they starting causing illness among humans, have a nasty way of staying. True, they no longer kill, allowing their hosts to live, but only one, smallpox, has been actually eliminated, while many, all lumped together as the ‘common cold’, remain to infect Mankind repeatedly. Even now, the only reliable treatment for a viral disease is to let the infection run its course. As is the case with COVID-19, the disease is not always fatal, with people with healthy respiratory systems and with good general immunity, surviving. At the moment, not only are scientists working hard to find a vaccine, but are also working on finding an antiviral. While some antivirals are available, they are not as effective as antibiotics, which have answered bacterial infections so effectively that they no longer cause pandemics. Keeping in view that the bubonic plague was bacterial, causing the Black Death, which probably brought feudalism to an end, that was a big plus.

However, viruses haven’t been controlled, and there seem to have been an increasing number of attempts in recent decades, as viruses which infect animals attempt to transfer to humans. Apart from recent attempts by coronaviruses to make the transition, like MERS (which came from camels) and SARS (which is suspected as coming from civet cats) and now COVID-19 itself (which may have come from bats via pangolins), there have been such diseases as AIDS and Ebola fever, where viruses have made a transition to humans. These were diseases that did not easily cause infections, or were not easily caught, with the result that they were contained. However, victims continue to be snared, and very often die.

Those earlier epidemics were precursors of COVID-19, which gives rise to the disturbing thought that it might be merely an intermediate stage rather than the final epidemic. China and South Korea are supposed to have had their healthcare systems honed by the experience they had of MERS, so the world now has to brace itself for the next epidemic, which could actually come out of anywhere.

That means that what seems to be the government strategy, of waiting for the hot weather to kill off the virus, may work only temporarily. Some cold viruses remain in summer, and COVID-19 need be no exception. Not only will it be back in winter, but it will be joined sooner or later by other coronaviruses.

However, it should be remembered that one reason for the apparent instability in global public health, is because of global warming and climate change. Virus populations had developed an equilibrium with various animal species, and remained confined to those animals’ habitats. However, climate change has destroyed many habitats, endangering the species, or making them extinct. The viruses infesting them have to go somewhere, and try their luck with human beings. Climate change deniers like US President Donald Trump are the loudest in claiming that the virus is Chinese, even though they have done their bit for COVID-19, as well as for any succeeding viral epidemics.



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