How we made the Pandemic?
Last spring, people who could not understand, or could not accept, the difference between a Computer virus and a naturally occurring one, were pushing hard the idea that the Novel Corona Virus - which was raging through Europe and the Eastern Seaboard of North America at the time - was made in a Chinese lab and then sent out to the world.
Whether or not one believed it then, come Winter 2021, there is no doubt that we have made this pandemic our own.
Then, I believed that the simpler explanation - that the Pandemic occurred from Bats and through Pangolins - was more plausible; a price we paid for careless exploitation of the natural world. China was guilty, of delayed action, of obfuscation and of - at another level - allowing potentially dangerous practice of eating exotic meat, but not of making the Virus which would affect and kill a lot of their own citizens and dent its global prestige.
Now, as the contagion shows no signs of slowing down and the virus is creating new, potentially vaccine-eluding, mutations, I believe that we have made this pandemic. The details of the tragedy are too well-known for me to go over them again. The common themes - denial, misinformation, confused communication, half-hearted action and lack of global cooperation - are all too apparent, as is this new binary of economy versus public health. While the development and deployment of the vaccine within a few months was a stellar achievement and a demonstration of what modern science is capable of (when money is thrown in its way), the pandemic has exposed that we are on the wrong path as far as our social and political arrangements are concerned. It's worth starting to talk about it.
Here, I shall depart from my fondness of easy explanations and indulge in looking deeper. The apparent explanation - that we are in the midst of a fools' rule - fails to explain why, barring the most extreme examples of denial and conspiracy theory making, there was a general consensus about the approaches and policies across the political spectrum.
For example, the idea that the needs of public health are contrary to the needs of the economy - the latter viewed through the prism of GDP - has been generally accepted. The support for travel suspension across national borders is popular but there has been little discussion about global, or even regionally, coordinated action. There was a rather indecent competition for PPEs and Ventilators between countries at an early stage (which led to a lot of fraud, price gauging and waste of public money) and vaccine nationalism later on. Naming the virus variants after countries, as of now we have a 'UK' variant (more contagious) and 'South African' or 'Brazilian' variants (more deadly), though we really don't know where and how these variants emerged, is making it harder to establish some sort of global coordinated action. Selfish leadership is part of the explanation - arm-twisting by President Xi and President Trump rendered the main arbitrator of global action, the World Health Organisation, useless - but the public policy failures are far more widespread to be explained by actions of individuals.
Britain, perhaps, did it best, mixing all the elements of the failure of imagination. We did not go out and deny the virus outright, but treated it like an enemy to be fought just like in the War. We talked science and did elaborate press conferences with scientists flanking the politicians (a spectacle that is, in my mind, an implicit admission that politicians can't be relied upon to tell the truth), but could never stick to the message, make up our mind or delivered what we were meant to do. We mistook the 'economy' as corporate profits and stock market and ended up subsidising the virus (as in the Summer's very popular Eat Out to Help Out, only that we helped the virus). Our failure was at a different level. We denied that the school children can spread the virus, despite knowing they can. We thought an emergency Universal Basic Income will make people idle, though the precise point was to make them stay home. This, coupled with confused communication (remember the tiered system!), late action (travel quarantine), endless U-turns (school openings, for one) and outright stupidity (Eat out to help the virus), made the UK one of the worst affected countries in the planet.
But, at the core of all of it, was the question: Whose interests come first? Public Health and Economy can only be at the logger-heads only when we see the Economy as a short term thing consisting of how much money the big boys make. Indeed, jobs and livelihoods were paid lip-service to, but that was not what it was about, is it? It's no surprise that the death rates are higher among the minorities and poor, who has to keep the economy and essential services going (we clapped for them some Thursdays): Their livelihoods were protected at the cost of their lives. The government rejected calls for universal basic income, which would have been far more transparent to administer, and instead preferred a furlough scheme, which benefitted the employers and the organised labour, thus allowing corruption but making the unions happy. In the meantime, of course, the government largesse fed the scams (people taking out low-interest handout money to build house extensions) and fuelled a stock market boom, severing its last remaining connections with the real economy. For some reason, the government gave a stamp duty holiday, which bumped up the house prices, but banned house moves. The carefully hidden edifice of policy, that it really serves special interests and the large corporations, weakening the social contract even further.
I can indeed go on and on, but as the news pours in about new variants and my optimism about a new start early in 2021 fades, I have now start viewing the pandemic as a man-made one. Our selfish social structure and speculator-dominated economic system made it. That the Bat got eaten by a Pangolin which in turn became dinner for an ostentatious Chinese family was tragedy; then we made a farce out of it.