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We Can Learn from Coronavirus

Entry 2034, on 2020-03-26 at 22:21:51 (Rating 2, Politics)

I usually read our local newspaper, and particularly enjoy the opinion pieces, usually because I disagree with them and find good material there to use as the starting point for a rant on this blog! But recently the opposite happened: I actually found an article which I thought made some good points, and it was all about this miserable COVID-19 lockdown New Zealand has just begun.

Basically, the article pointed out some possible consequences of the current lockdown when extended to the bigger picture of society overall. I don't necessarily totally agree with every point, but I think they are all worth thinking about, so without further preamble, let's have a look at them...

Point 1: The clean air in China since the lockdown there has saved 20 times as many lives as were lost to the coronavirus itself.

When China went into lockdown to prevent the spread of the virus a lot of industry was shut down which resulted in cleaner air to the extent that it was obvious on satellite photos. About 3250 people died from the virus there (that stat might be a few days out of date) since the problem began late last year. But every day far more than that die from conditions caused by air pollution, in fact, according to one study that number is 4400 people every day of the year!

In fact, even on the worst case, the virus hasn't really resulted in a lot of deaths compared with other causes, even in the worst places like Italy, China, and Spain. I'm not saying that we shouldn't take the coronavirus pandemic seriously, just that the numbers aren't really that bad.

Here's another example. In the USA there have been about 1000 deaths so far, but there are 33,000 deaths per year caused by road accidents. Again, if the virus spreads and affects people as badly as it could, things could get far worse than that, but it is quite possible that, so far, the number of lives saved through people travelling less could be greater than the number of lives lost to the virus.

Point 2: On-line shopping will become more popular when conventional retailers close, and people may never go back to them after the crisis is over.

I'm not making a value judgement on whether on-line shopping causing the demise of conventional businesses is a good or bad thing, just that this is a change which society might see accelerate after the lockdown is over.

Being a tech geek myself, I prefer to buy stuff on-line, although I also use conventional retailers if I need something quickly. But if on-line retailing became the norm then delivery times could be cut significantly, removing any existing disadvantages. Obviously this would have significant effects on employment and our general lifestyles, but when change is inevitable, why fight it?

Point 3: People will get more home deliveries and takeaways and spend less time at restaurants.

Most (maybe all) cafes and restaurants in New Zealand are now closed, and people are having to make do with other options. I'm not sure if this will continue after the restrictions end, because there is something about going to a hospitality business which is very enjoyable, but I think a lot will fail during the lockdown and many might fail even after we return to normality. Again, I'm not saying this is good, but maybe it is unavoidable.

Point 4: If working from home works quite well it might be worth considering as a permanent option.

Many people (including me) are working from home, and although that isn't an option for everyone, it might be quite viable for many. I know I could easily do at least half my work from home. In fact, the only situations where I need to be physically present are to install hardware like SSDs and memory; and to fix network problems, because the remote control programs I use (Zoom, TeamViewer, and LogMeIn) obviously all require a working network connection.

Working from home could result in huge efficiencies for everyone, including employers, and it should be a far more widely available option. This might be a chance to see how well it really does work, and maybe people might continue working that way at the end of the restrictions.

Point 5: A recession is inevitable, but government actions can minimise its effect and help with a rapid recovery.

Interventionist policies have become unpopular since the great neoliberal revolution of the 1970s and 80s, but when the market fails (as it very commonly does) business bail-outs seem to be quite acceptable, even to many people and companies which would reject them under other circumstances.

This time, the downturn is so significant and so universal that government action is an absolute requirement. This will make it hard to claim that free markets are the best way to achieve every economic and social goal in the future.

Of course, we have to be careful not to let this go too far, because excessive government intervention is as bad as none, but maybe we will at least see a bit more balance in the use of these policies.

Point 6: Adding extra money into the economy isn't a bad thing, since its major effect is inflation which is currently extremely low.

Like point 5 above, this is an option which has become very unpopular until the clear need for it is seen. And what could be clearer than the current need? Again, this should be used with caution and we don't want to swing too far into actions which cause excessive inflation and other economic problems.

Point 7: Austerity is a political choice, not an economic one, and in the past has often been counter-productive.

I have always been very suspicious of austerity measures when they are used to try to rescue a struggling economy. It seems that in any situation where austerity might be called for an equally good - or better - response might be the exact opposite. Whether austerity measures are used depends more on the political preferences of the government involved rather than the actual economic facts of the situation. In future maybe this will be viewed with greater suspicion.

Point 8. Government aid to the disadvantaged is being quite widely accepted now and might be viewed as normal in the future.

When the government hands out hundreds of millions of dollars (or billions in bigger economies) it is usually viewed with suspicion and hostility by many. And that is fair enough too, because it is the tax-payers money which is begin handed out, a point which might be overlooked when congratulating governments on their "generosity".

But this doesn't seem to have been quite so controversial during this emergency, and maybe it will be more accepted when it is over, too. Even floating the idea of universal basic income hasn't garnered quite as much criticism as it might normally, so maybe that path will be more viable in future.

Adopting a UBI (or some similar concept) seems like it will be essential in the future, and this might just speed it up a bit.

Finally, point 9: Taking action against big problems, like climate action, should be more possible in the future, because we are now learning that business as usual is not a necessity.

During the current period the economy is being sacrificed for the greater good. If things all return to an acceptable state in a year's time we will have proved that it is possible to virtually shut down the economy for a sufficiently consequential reason without causing "the end of life as we know it".

If it can be done to control a virus, could it also be done to control other problems, such as climate change? Surely that is a likely outcome. In fact, controlling climate change doesn't need to cause anywhere near as much damage to the economy as the coronavirus shutdown will, so there is hope.

Overall, it seems that the current emergency might result in interesting, and hopefully positive, changes to our society. Of course, the whole thing is very uncertain: we don't know how long the effects of the virus will last, how much economic damage might occur, and (most importantly) we don't even know if we will learn any lessons from this. We can only hope we will.


Comment 1 (5240) by Bronwen McNoe on 2020-03-27 at 04:59:50:

Hi Owen - hope life in your bubble is going well.

My colleague and I were just having this very discussion about how we are going to see less work related and road injuries and fatalities over this shut down period. Potentially there could be an increase in domestic incidents (although liquor shops are shut which might curtail these).

I think the other positive thing is that people don't actually have to be in the same place to work effectively - so there are other options to endless international air travel to conferences and the like (which I think often are of limited value) which would go some way to saving our atmosphere.


Comment 2 (5241) by OJB on 2020-03-27 at 09:59:58:

Hey, welcome to my blog, and thanks for the comment, and sure: after one whole day everything is going OK, so far. Best wishes for life in your bubble for the next few weeks too!

You seem to be thinking the same thing as many people are: that this period can show us that there are certain things we really don't need, and that the world might be a better place if we just toned down the international travel, etc.

My friend Fred (not his real name) reports that in the organisation he works for there is a senior person who is constantly virtue signalling his support for climate change mitigation measures yet goes on at least 10 overseas trips every year. It's completely unnecessary and very hypocritical, but there's a lot of that around!


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