In crisis mode

March 18, 2020


Mahir Ali
Mahir Ali

AMID the multifarious known unknowns of the coronavirus epidemic, it is fascinating to see how many media outlets in the West are more focused on the tumbling stock markets than on the human toll.

Suddenly, socialism by any other name is the flavour of the day, as governments are importuned to rescue floundering capitalist enterprises. And it doesn’t end there. In certain particularly shameless ideological circles, there are arguments being made for exploiting the crisis as an opportunity to reinforce neoliberal economic structures with ‘reforms’ relating to company tax cuts, labour market ‘flexibility’, and even pension schemes.

That, we are unreliably informed, is the way the world will rapidly return to a ‘growth path’ after the looming global recession. The starkly exposed inadequacies of privatised healthcare are an unlikely topic in such forums, where Mammon is the star, sustained by a supporting cast not of human beings but ‘clients’ and ‘consumers’. And the very idea of extending corporate socialism to the rest of humanity is dismissed as a recipe for the end of the world as we know it. Which, if you think about it, might not be such a bad outcome.

Since last week, Western central banks from the US to the EU, Britain and Australia have been deploying the tools at their disposal to stave off a market meltdown — thus far to little effect. The key indices remain in free fall as COVID-19 keeps spreading, with the epicentre shifting from Asia to Europe.

Where the disease will spread next is uncertain.

Like so many other aspects of the highly infectious disease, where it will spread next remains uncertain. The coronavirus thus far hasn’t reached deep into Africa. Asia, of course, is a different story.

The rate of infection has been sharply declining in China, wherefrom COVID-19 apparently sprang. South Korea, the next worst-hit nation, has been remarkably successful in keeping the fatality rate extremely low. Adhering to advice from the WHO has also paid off for Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore.

Iran has been a different story altogether, with an alarming rate of fatalities relative to the number of infections, although it’s widely assumed that the actual rate of infections is considerably higher than the reported figures. The initial insouciance of the regime in Tehran is one factor in the unfolding tragedy, but Western — primarily American — sanctions are also taking a toll, not least by limiting the nation’s access to medical supplies.

India and Pakistan have thus far got off pretty lightly, but there are no grounds for complacency. It’s worth recalling that during the so-called Spanish flu pandemic that provided a horrific coda to the depredations of the First World War a little more than 100 years ago, western India (a united British colony at the time) accounted for up to 60 per cent of an estimated global death toll of at least 50 million.

The mortality rate of the Spanish flu has commonly been compared in recent weeks with that of the novel coronavirus currently confronting us, boiled down to a figure of 2.5pc. But it doesn’t require a particularly mathematical mind to figure out that back in 1918, 50 million represented 2.5pc of the world’s population, rather than the one-third of humanity that is believed to have been infected.

At present, the level of fatalities anyhow seems to vary widely from one country to another, with Iran faring much worse than South Korea, for instance, and Italy emerging as something of an outlier in Europe. Amazingly, Italy appears to have been receiving more assistance from China and Cuba than from the EU. Meanwhile, Jack Ma, the entrepreneur behind Alibaba and the richest man in Asia, has begun donating test kits to the US as well as other Western countries.

It is particularly unfortunate that during a crisis such as this, a couple of the most vulnerable countries boast leaders such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. Given its National Health Service, Britain is not as badly off as the US, where a public health system is conspicuous by its absence.

A Harvard epidemiologist recently commented that he and his colleagues initially treated the Johnson government’s faith in ‘herd immunity’ — the hope that if enough people are exposed to the virus, they will in time develop immunity to it — as a spot of British satire. The idea of daily media briefings by the British prime minister is also not particularly reassuring. But it’s no match for Trump’s rapid evolution from ‘who cares?’ to ‘everything is under control’, when it clearly isn’t, with the US president himself this week advising state governors to fend for themselves in obtaining test kits.

But then, he presides over a country whose denizens reportedly have been rushing out to stock up on assault weapons. Amid all the self-isolation, mandatory quarantining and social distancing, panic-buying toilet rolls would seem to be the safer option.

Published in Dawn, March 18th, 2020