Covid-19 and the return of state intervention

As countries around the world go on lockdown or other partial measures of containment, numbers about who stays at home and who goes to work are highly variable.

Here in Denmark, where I live, it feels like a third of us are at home, home schooling, or home working. Another third, many in essential public services such as health care, water supply, essential transport and the like, are still working. The final third comprising pensioners, the self-employed, unemployed, and those in the black or criminal economy are largely confined to their homes.

Workers providing key services, such as nurses and bus drivers are most at risk of contracting the Covid virus. The nature of their jobs involves contact with others, and contact is how the virus is spread. Having recently spent months sailing across the Atlantic and back, I would guess that those probably least at risk are those few brave souls sailing non-stop around the world on voyages that would have started before January and will likely finish many months later this year or next. For them, a radically changed world is certain on their return.

The majority of us though, face some of risk of infection, especially if we still must work and travel, or live in the crowded environments of some cities. To avert this risk, many of us are having to adapt daily, if not hourly, to changing circumstances.

In the midst of this rapidly evolving global social, economic, and health crisis both good things and bad things seem to be happening, which means that the situation can be – and often is – compared to a world war.

At this time, people are realizing the importance of good public health and robust and comprehensive welfare systems. Public health was after all introduced when richer groups in society understood that they were not immune to infectious diseases spread by human contact and lack of hygiene, including access to clean water. This spurred efforts to improve the health, hygiene and living conditions of those less well off in society.

Similarly, to those of us fortunate enough to be brought up in countries with good public education systems, we need to appreciate the efforts of past generations in ensuring quality education for all, no matter what their income. No less important in this crisis is universal provision for those who are unemployed, sick, or otherwise unable to fend for themselves and their families.

We are currently witnessing governments of countries lacking or having dismantled such provision (and often mocking those that do) scramble with emergency, and probably ultimately inadequate handouts to those who fall through any fragmentary safety net that may still exist.

An unfortunate example is the US, held by many to be the richest country on earth, where a lack of public health provision, education and adequate welfare benefits is allowing Covid-19 to wreak havoc and cause untold suffering on society. Another coming a close second is the UK, which is in the hands of a government that does not believe in adequate welfare support and is suspiciously fond of both private health care and private education. But many other countries, such as Brazil, are in a similar situation because of powerful interests and related ideology, while the rest, trapped in unequal global trade relations, are simply too poor to be able to afford such things.

Ideology is the problem, and people need to sit up and recognize this. The Thatcher-Reagan years, and their shared attachment to Austrian economist and philosopher Friedrich Hayek and his followers in the neoliberal schools, are surely as much to blame for the global war we are now engaged in as the virus itself. In this period, the interests of the wealthy in society have triumphed over the interests of poorer groups.

Now of course, the coronavirus outbreak and the consequent hit on the national and global economies is seeing those governments supported by wealthy interests, and who apparently believed in the new ideology, quickly abandoning neoliberalism as far as they can. This is the case in the US and UK, where public debt is likely to soar far higher than during the financial crash of the 2000s.

Ultimately, they will be forced to disavow the market doctrine as the state is obliged to re-enter the economic activities they abandoned so recklessly after the 1970s. The first examples will no doubt be banks, which will again need to be bailed out due to rising and unsustainable private debt.

What is different this time, is that the public services that had been handed over to private capital will follow. These will include sectors such as public transport, telecommunications (now more of an essential public service than ever), housing, and portions of health and education. Only governments can act legitimately and decisively in times of war, and we are now in a war.

Despite the adversities, all is not bad. New technology does not in and of itself change the world, and maybe some are too optimistic that it will. But what we suddenly see within a few months, is that the same new technology is enabling a massive scale of home working and distance education, quite inconceivable in other circumstances. Commuting and air travel has, in many countries leading the fight against the virus, slowed almost to a halt. Those like me who are lucky enough are working from home in a rural area and able to effectively self-isolate, take outdoor exercise by walking or cycling, and do more gardening even in a window-box or allotment.  

There has been a dramatic reduction in air pollution – now revealed to be a major cause of ill-health in many cities, and among people most vulnerable to the virus. People are suddenly shopping for – or otherwise helping – their vulnerable neighbours, and looking at local suppliers of food and other necessities, of which there often turn out to be quite a few! New forms of association – online coffee meetings, meals, cocktails, birthdays and so on – are emerging.

Everything is not of course good. While some good things are happening, the current crisis is also leading to death, permanent lung damage, and difficulties for elderly, sick, handicapped, self-employed, and unemployed. Some forms of crime, such as fraud on elderly people by plausible types wearing masks and health gear, appear to be expanding. There is a black market for protective equipment and other goods, even if some illegal activities are thankfully hampered by restrictions on movement and association.  As in wartime, there will be some who seek to profit from the misfortune of others.

What will be the outcome? Will the world become a better or a worse place?  Will the good things that we see become the new norm, or will the bad days return or intensify?

All we can say with fair certainty at this point is that this global war will lead to some radical changes, and we may hope that most of these are for the better. We certainly have much to think about, and reflect on, as we move through the war, and attend to the immediate pressure to contain the outbreaks to reduce as much as possible the loss of human lives.

John Marshall Bryden is a political economist and human geographer. He is Emeritus Professor at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, and a member of the Human Economy Group. John specialises in local development and rural policy. He has worked in UK, Norway, US, Canada, Chile, the Caribbean, Africa and India, and published widely in several languages.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Corona Times' editorial stance, or the position of any institution.

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