World leaders pretend (21/03/20)

Coronavirus is in charge now
Niaz Alam, Dhaka Tribune op-ed March 2020

Forget the new normal. There is no normal anymore. Coronavirus is in charge now.

If as hoped by next year, Covid-19 eventually subsides as a pandemic, the world’s economic and political norms will still be turned upside down in 2021.

There is no going back. The opening two decades of the 21st century might eventually come to be seen for what they were, a wasted opportunity for global institutions and leaders to address the two biggest challenges — climate change and inequality — facing humanity.

No economic ideology or political model that fails to sufficiently address these issues can hope to sustainably educate, employ, and nurture the 9 billion people expected to be alive in 2040.

A century ago, when Spanish flu infected up to one in four people in the wake of the First World War, several tens of millions, somewhere around 2% of the world’s population, died. Unless scientists have made a major category error, and assuming countries like Bangladesh are able to adapt or are helped by warmer weather, while we still have many unknowns, this coronavirus is not yet predicted to kill as many people as Spanish Flu.

But even if it doesn’t, it has already decapitated the world’s economic system and set every possible domino falling for global depression and unemployment.

Inevitably, President Trump has already taken the opportunity to use the crisis as an excuse to demonstrate racism. Aung San Suu Kyi meanwhile has popped her head up from pariah status to assert Myanmar has no cases. Whether this is just another untruth from a defender of genocide or a desperate justification of the Burmese junta’s tendency towards North Korean style self-isolation, matters not.

No serious institution in any nation has any illusions left about the urgent need to learn lessons from the pro-active containment measures that are latterly showing signs of progress in both China and South Korea.

Last week London saw it all. While my local tube station and buses remained busy and certain shops were overcrowded, it has become clearer day by day that it won’t be long before the only commuters left venturing into central London will be truly essential workers and those wanting to take their own 28 Days Later-style selfie.

On Thursday, PM Boris Johnson made the pointlessly gung-ho suggestion that the UK could “break the back of the virus in just 12 weeks.” A day later the scientific advisers flanking him at press conferences briefed that social distancing measures will probably need to be applied in some form for more like 12 months.

Slightly chastened, Johnson ordered the closure of all pubs, entertainment venues, gyms, and non-take away restaurants not already shut in London. Friday also saw new Conservative Chancellor Rishi Sunak promise unprecedented state intervention with the government undertaking to pay 80% of salaries up to 2,500 pounds a month for individuals employed in private businesses.

While undoubtedly necessary and helpful, even the hundreds of billions of pounds now pledged will only serve to highlight other instances of unfairness and vulnerability. Those without jobs like the one million hospitality and entertainment workers laid off just last week, or people in the gig economy, the self-employed, and precariat on zero hours contracts, will get nothing, reliant instead on a benefits system ravaged by a decade of targeted cuts.

As the impact of panic buyers and foolish selfishness of those who ring talk shows to whine about lost deposits for Mediterranean holidays, becomes less socially unacceptable, we can expect more people to start appreciating those whose work in for example, hospitals, supply chains, and infrastructure,  is actually essential.

If like this op-ed writer, you are safe at home with time to grandstand on social media or share memes about the crisis, I suspect fans of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy  won’t need to Google to label you/us as “Ship B” people. (Douglas Adams arguably got one thing wrong however as he lumped telephone sanitizers in with management consultants.)

As more nations reach for command economy tools to weather the crisis, many Western politicians are clinging to the hope that all this is temporary and can be over by Christmas.

No doubt assuming global sport spectaculars all return in 2021, many voters are too.

But now that we’ve seen how interconnected and how vulnerable the world is, and the lengths to which politicians will co-operate when they feel compelled to, when the all clear is eventually sounded, it won’t be the end, it will be the beginning.

More people will demand fundamental change to help build resilience. More people will also notice that in less than a month, one “not as scary as we can imagine” virus, did more to reduce carbon emissions than COP has managed in decades.

If governments are going to get indebted to weather a pandemic, why not build a more productive and sustainable economy with a Green New Deal? Or look at taxing Silicon Valley leviathans, or trialling basic income schemes, the list is long, but clear.

A world with rules bent to favour short term greed and long-term accumulation for the few gives us a system that is not only dysfunctional for many but puts civilization itself in peril.

If this crisis and global responses to it are to have any silver lining, one can hope it proves a better more co-operative world is within reach.

Humanity should not and must not wait for another pandemic to get its act together.