The Balance and the Pace
I think everyone now knows the wicked secret of coronavirus. It offers a choice between life and prosperity. You can’t have both. You can be poor and alive or wealthy and dead. You may think this is an exaggeration. It is true that more poor people will die from the virus. Rich people will have a better chance of survival. Individually this is the stark unfairness of the current situation. But societies don’t act like individuals.
A simple comparison between Sweden and Norway says it all. Norway, rich from its North Sea Oil bonus, put saving lives ahead of the economy. They could, after all, support their way of life for some time without earning. Sweden took the other view and realised that its determination not to shut the economy down would cost lives in the short run but might make for a more prosperous – and healthier – society later on.
Both approaches are about survival. Indeed, when you take into account the enormous cost of medical care in a pandemic and the difficulty of having all the medical resources you need to hand, both approaches stretch you to the limit. The Hippocratic Oath commits doctors to saving, not taking, life. That means now. Members of a Government take oaths too. Theirs includes, as a priority, the safety of their people. It doesn’t specify the timescale of that safety – if it did, no government could ever send a military to war. In both cases – doctors and politicians – there is some room for judgment.
It is not unreasonable to assume that any individuals asked to choose between their short term survival or the longer term prosperity of their society will choose personal survival. And a vote is a vote for now, not for doomsday. However, the devastating effect of an economy in ruins may bring far more suffering and death, than a short, sharp jolt to slow down the rate of infection and a fairly early return to something approaching normality. ‘Business as usual’ is a cry we all want to hear.
This pandemic can be viewed as a trial to see what is the best balance between early, tough measure and a more pragmatic response to the actual figures. I say ‘a trial’ because there will be pandemics to follow, whether in a hundred years or five we don’t know. We do need to learn from this one, to be more prepared for the next. The cause of the pandemic will not go away. We need to be more alert next time.
The issue of long term and short term will still have to be decided. Hopefully not like some kind of country competition, as they are at present. The death rate sweeping across the world obscures our concerns about job losses and factory and business closures. Judgment about both balance and pace is being determined by resources available to help the sick more than about what is sensible, an inevitable consequence of being underprepared. We need those resources reasonably in place at any time.
We also need the research and laboratory resources to respond to the virus itself, to find an antidote and nip the crisis in the bud. This third factor could dominate all other considerations. But laboratory work and the necessary testing are time consuming and cannot be rushed except at unacceptable risk to patients. The cost of having all these things in place all the time is prohibitive. Besides there are other plagues and threats to the planet that must also be addressed.
Living in densely packed urban societies, as we increasingly do, makes us vulnerable to contagious diseases and to other ills not so prevalent in the countryside with open air and automatic isolation. As we create our new lifestyles we need to ensure that the hygiene that makes them tenable extends to our supply chain too. We are paying the price of not doing so right now.
That applies not only to existing agricultural sources but to new urban farming as well. Those sources are imminently affected by the climate, something that is in danger of taking a back seat in the current crisis. It shouldn’t. The cause of climate disaster is very much the same as the cause of coronavirus. The two cannot be separated. So as we prepare to battle plagues we should equally earnestly seek to remove causes of them.
Hygiene is one of the main causes of longevity. As we approach a normal 100-year life on a planet getting increasingly crowded we must teach and insist on greater hygiene both for ourselves and for the planet.
It is, after all, just what we are trying to implement now.
To save us all from extinction.
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