Mar 22, 2020

How COVID-19 can change the world... for the better?

Everywhere I look, people are talking about COVID-19. Rightly so, it’s the most important event in years.

Highly contagious illness are not new, and it’s not a thing of the past. In 2002, an outbreak of another coronavirus (SARS-CoV) with its origins in China also shook the world.

At first, the rest of the world expected COVID-19 to stay contained, just like the previous SARS-CoV outbreak that remained largely out-of-mind for many people. The fact that COVID-19 is a much more efficient virus than SARS-CoV in its spread means that the measures taken to stop SARS-CoV were not sufficient this time around. Soon, Italy succumbed. Iran shook. Japan reeled. Europe spasmed.

In the beginning, people of Asian descent suffered from racism related to the virus – but now, we are at a point where any person one runs into could be a vector of transmission. European, American, Chinese – it matters little to a virus. The virus doesn’t care about our superficial nation borders or the borders we build out of skin colour and skull shape. It doesn’t care if one a man or woman, gay or straight, have dark skin or light, and it certainly doesn’t care about political beliefs.

It cares only about the fact that it can reproduce and exist. And the warm meat we carry around is the perfect place to do just that.

The virus is not a terrorist or a freedom fighter, whose image can be seen as a liberator to some or an oppressor to others. The virus does not play politics. The virus simply does not care about the heirarchies we’ve built. It doesn’t care that the United States has the largest military in the world or that Saudi Arabia can artificially drop the price of crude oil. It doesn’t care about Brexit or the state of Kurdistan, and it couldn’t care less about the current value of the Venezuelan bolívar vs. the US dollar.

And in this, it is the perfect enemy: it simply is not possible to blame COVID-19’s victims for bringing this on themselves – partially because we are all victims. That’s the darkly beautiful thing about it all – we might not all die from it or even contract it, but we are all going to suffer from the effects of it.

Travel restrictions. Economic decline and recession. Loss of work. Quarantines and self-isolation. Overburdened healthcare systems.

With the world’s nations scattered in the throes of various stages of infection by COVID-19, we can watch and reflect on those societies, and our greater meta-society of Earth as a whole.

In Europe and North America, citizens are stuck in the continuum of “it’s just like a flu, just forget about it” to “let’s buy as much toilet paper as we can before the world ends”. Like any other kind of impending disaster people can see approaching, the COVID-19 crisis elicits these responses because both are functions of worry. They are the age-old coping mechanisms of denial, panic and all the steps in between.

The world’s stock markets are no different, stuck in freefall.

When someone mentions “The Economy”, it’s usually about how good or bad things are. As an example, growing up in Canada, politicians often spoke about how important it is that the Canadian companies are protected from foreign competition. Because companies employ people and people need jobs. If those companies are butchered by a better mousetrap from the United States, for example, the thinking goes that this is “bad for the economy”. Many statements about “The Economy” are purely binary: “Thing 1 is good for the economy” or “Thing 2 is bad for the economy”. Simplistic slogans related to job creation or inflation are parroted endlessly for people to repeat around barbecues as conversation about sports runs out.

Thing 1, Thing 2

Thing 1, Thing 2

COVID-19 is a good moment to ask, is “The Economy” doing what it can to protect its participants from being chewed and spit out by the fallout of this virus?

“The Economy” is not just how we buy and sell. It’s how and why we buy and sell. It’s a philosophy, a set of beliefs that reflects what our society thinks is fair. It’s how we give value to something or someone. Economics is not just math, and it’s not just philosophy, it’s a mixture of the two. It’s a photo of our true selves, because it involves many micro-transactions on a daily basis which are each an expression of our beliefs and values. Buying a local product over one shipped from elsewhere is a statement of a person’s values for obvious reasons, but there are many decisions that are not so obvious. On a larger scale, how we structure the economics of health care is a great example of the philosophy of “The Economy”.

In Europe, the economics of health care are based on what’s known as the Beveridge Model, from a report put together by economist and politician William Beveridge during World War II, and which identified five giant issues which must be tackled by an effective system of social welfare: Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness. European systems try to address those issues.

The United States is much different. As former Princeton professor of economics Uwe Reinhardt puts it, the components of the US system are “forms of ‘social insurance’ coupled with a largely private health-care delivery system”.

So, if “The Economy” is a demonstration of how to structure things in a way people think is most fair, then the health care system’s economics can be used to guess the beliefs in its founders’ and maintainers’ hearts. How do the Beveridge and US models differ in what they tell us about a country’s underlying ideology?

In Beveridge countries like Denmark, health care services are almost entirely funded by taxation. Every citizen of the country is entitled to free essential medicine. By placing the burden of health care onto the tax payer and administering the system, these governments make a clear statement. They are saying that the health of the nation is every citizen’s responsibility, and that a vigilant and active hand is required to keep standards high.

In the United States, the health care system is largely run by the private sector. Citizens must buy private insurance and receive some public funds, but millions of people do not have any insurance at all, and for them the cost of medical care is entirely their burden. According to reform advocates Physicians for a National Health Program, this system results in 45000 preventable deaths a year – compare that to about 35000, who die each year in the US in motor vehicle accidents. The mostly private model came about when in 1942 as a consequence of inflation-controlling measures, employers could no longer offer salary raises and started offering other benefits to retain workers, such as health plans. This began the status quo, which was altered over the years but the message is once again clear: universal health care is not a priority to the US government, and a citizen’s health and well being is their own problem. In its quest for “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”, the ideology of the United States as expressed in its health care system economics is actually more akin to what Thomas Hobbes describes in Leviathan:

The state of men without civil society (which state we may properly call the state of nature) is nothing else but a mere war of all against all; and in that war all men have equal right unto all things.

COVID-19 is a reminder that we should strive to double down on civil society, on the socially supportive government and not “war of all against all”. A global pandemic has the ability to create within all our corners of the world a deficit of Beveridge’s 5 giants:

Want: the need for income.
Disease: the need for health care.
Ignorance: the need for education.
Squalor: the need for housing.
Idleness: the need for employment.

Prominent UK social policy academic Fiona Williams, in her analysis of Beveridge, added two more giants of her own:

Racism: the need for equality beyond race.
Sexism: the need for equality beyond gender.

So, the question is, what response does “The Economy” have for these horsemen of the Apocalypse?

Will you have income?
Will you have health care?
Will you have access to education?
Will you have a roof over your head?
Will you have a job?
Will you be safe from discrimination?

How we can be sure of this is by making sure we as citizens push for every citizen of not just our country but of the world is provided for.

The first thing to do is to admit that it is fair to redestribute wealth for the greater good.

Taxes, fairly distributed (and that includes corporate tax), is not theft, it’s a safety net that any one of us could need one day. And if you think you’re immune because you’re wealthy enough, think again. If you think government is wasteful, take a closer look at the politicians you elect. If you don’t trust government, good luck finding an entity to trust in its stead, unless you prefer a pure “war of all against all”, which is a sorry state for 7,1 billion people to live in.

This is our chance. COVID-19 is our chance to re-think everything.

COVID-19 spread because we relied on national borders to contain its spread. Let’s re-think how borders work. Let’s stop trying to divide up the world into patches that think only for themselves.

COVID-19 can infect us all equally. Let’s invest in health and social solutions that help us all instead of those who can pay to get ahead.

COVID-19 is a reminder we are all human, together. Let’s see how we can help those not exactly the same as us because of our common humanity.

COVID-19 is going to cause irreversible change to “The Economy”. Let’s make sure that change serves the many – push for what’s good for you, not what some pundit says is “good for the economy”.

I love you all. Please, let’s use this crisis and make it a positive in the end. Or else, all of this has been for nothing.