17 March 2020
Across the world, from China to South Korea to Italy to South Africa to New Zealand to the US and now to the UK, we’ve taken a collective choice: to purposely slow, even paralyse, our economies in order to stop the spread of a deadly virus.
Nothing on this scale has ever been attempted in human history. And for it to work it has required unprecedented cooperation.
We were faced with a choice: let the novel coronavirus run wild through our populations, which is what happened in the 1918-19 influenza pandemic, or take drastic steps to “flatten the curve”. In 1918 there was no choice; there was no technological or political capacity— especially after World War I — for global co-operation. As a result, tens of millions of people died, almost certainly more than in the war itself.
No one can be absolutely sure that the choice the world has taken now is the right one. No mathematical model can confidently predict the suffering and death that will result from the slowdown of the world economy, the job losses and the closures of family businesses.
But one thing is clear: the “flatten the curve” strategy has the best chance of working if we all do it. We have to do this not only to protect ourselves but to protect each other, to protect as far as we can the medical staff who face the toughest challenges of all, and to prevent, or at least slow down, an unsupportable burden on our hospitals.
But there is a chance that from this crisis a better world will emerge.
Greenhouse gas emissions may even decline because of reduced consumption.
The worst free market excesses may be curbed and the obsession with fiscal austerity may dissolve. In some countries — France for instance — governments are already loosening the purse strings to protect workers, offer struggling enterprises tax holidays and guarantee debt.
Most important of all, we just might rediscover a sense of solidarity with each other, a “we are all in this together” approach, which could break down some of the barriers in our own society. In some countries, young people are shopping for elderly and more vulnerable neighbours, leaving the parcels at their door. Instead of going out for the traditional evening walk, Italians are coming to their windows to sing together. Spending more time at home with families, and less time in malls and more on quiet walks, may help us rethink our consumerist ways for when this is all over.
But in South Africa, one the world’s most unequal nations, our most important collective task is to make sure, in whatever way we can, that this burden too does not fall most heavily on the poorest and most vulnerable. The state will have to manage this but all of us who can afford to do so should prepare to make sacrifices. Rather than grabbing all the toilet paper and hand sanitisers from the supermarket shelves, we should be finding ways to share the wealth we have. Out of all this, a better society could emerge.