Corona thoughts – on fake alternatives

A repeated trope, since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, at least in the Australian media that I read, has been the presumed tension between ‘saving lives and saving the economy’. We should never trust a journalist to promote clear thinking by default. Even less a politician. This quite illustrates the fact. For is there really such an alternative, or is this framing just another symptom of panic mode, the abandonment of reason or – for the more cynical – deliberate collective manipulation?

The more you look, the less it makes sense. For isn’t ‘the economy’ the set of coordinated activities we engage in, daily, weekly, yearly, for food, shelter, and the goods and services we need and enjoy? And don’t ‘lives’ depend on this, in the short and long-term? Let’s not even talk about the global supply chains involved in face-masks, ventilators and hospital beds. A futurist friend circulated a short post a few days ago, looking at second order consequences in California. Fewer migrant workers are going out to the fields, fewer crops are planted – and so we may look forward to September scarcity. Repeat this a few times, and that’s a global food shortage. That’s the economy, and it kills. Mainly the poor – from direct starvation, or a weakened immune system through malnourishment, before we can hope to find a vaccine.

Should we then, rather, see tension between saving lives now or in the future? If we take into consideration second, third, fourth order consequences and beyond, certainly. For who knows what those will be. Food shortages, quite probably. With it, crime and violence. And I wonder, what about other killers closer to places of protected abundance that I inhabit? Increased mortality and morbidity across the population? Suicide rates among young people who see their lifetime dreams crushed? Owners of collapsed businesses? Women abused by a partner driven over the edge by the loss of job, money, and a sense of identity? Decreased level of care for the elderly? But of course, urgency focuses the brain, and we forget about those consequences.

Or is it just a matter of urgency? Today, we learn that the British Prime Minister was admitted in intensive care. Covid-19 is a new virus, it has not yet learned much about our systems of class prejudice. It attacks indiscriminately, though not quite: young people have died, but older people suffer disproportionately. The restrictions on civil liberty that a majority of the planet are now experiencing will have, as their primary consequence – not exclusive, but primary – saving the lives of older citizens, irrespective of class. This is a global feat of intergenerational solidarity. That’s ‘saving lives’.

Question is, what happens after, and will the survivors reciprocate? Can we expect an equal feat of global solidarity towards the young and generations to come, where wealthy boomers refuse franking credits and other tax relief to fund better welfare systems, and divest their allocated nest egg from cruise-ships towards poverty relief, tropical diseases and renewable energy? Or more, can we hope for a radical reshaping of ‘the economy’, around fundamental principles of solidarity, beyond the borders of the nation state, with police backing if need be? Is this the slight hum of fear we can discern, then, in political and media discourse, under the fake alternative ‘saving lives vs the economy’ – that maybe, just maybe, saving lives may change the narrative, and the status quo? So that the only just consequence of saving lives today, is a complete overhaul of ‘the economy’ as we know it? And anything else may lead to a global uprising?

Corona thoughts – uncertainty

Last year, I joined some sort of day-long leadership retreat. First stop: the St Kilda botanical gardens. After an initial yoga session and nut-heavy breakfast, we formed a circle, and were invited to write about our ‘biggest fear for the future’. After four years working on global catastrophic risk, this is a question I had been reflecting on quite a bit. I realised then that I no longer feared the material collapse of civilisation itself, nor the deaths of billions, nor resource exhaustion. Writing about ecosystem collapse and asteroid impacts is a good vaccine against that. No, but my fear had gone deeper: what I was afraid of, was the moral and spiritual consequences of civilisation collapse.

The fear remains, amplifies even, as the pandemic sweeps across the planet. Oh, by global catastrophic risks standards, Covid-19 is a gentle caress – for it is highly unlikely that more than 2-3% of humanity will die, most likely far fewer people. That’s an order of magnitude smaller than the risks I have grown used to considering. But ethical and moral consequences – yes, I am concerned about.

For one, will we maintain a rational approach to solidarity, or fall for the national fallacy? A friend of mine was circulating a photograph of starving children on Facebook, a reminder that famine is a far greater killer than Covid-19 – but as older white people suffer far less from it, the media pays less attention. Will we, then, continue giving to charities assisting the poorest and most vulnerable on the planet? Will we direct our sanitary efforts where they might have the most impact, and save the most lives? Or as borders close, will we forget about the wider world, and let our concern extend no further than the limits of the state we live in?

Beyond this, I wonder – what do the current patterns of action and spending tell us about our priorities, and what will be the future consequences? Because we were able to – willing to – put the nation on hold to protect our health system and, with it, some of the weakest among us (disproportionately, that is the older part of the population), will we learn that we can demonstrate such solidarity, and will we rally with similar enthusiasm for the sake of the young and  generations yet to be born, ensuring we protect our environment and their future? Or is our current collective behaviour, rallying as one to primarily save the lives of the older among us – not a form of generous solidarity, but another, deeper manifestation of short-termism? For now, we simply do not know.