Has there ever been a more fatuous debate than the “health versus wealth” one that animates public political discourse about Covid-19 lockdowns in many places, including South Africa?
It mirrors the confusion concerning the “end of the lockdown”, which fails to recognise that it will be a process — a staggered one, stretching over months, if not years — rather than a single event. It may have begun as the clock struck midnight, but it will not “end” so definitively.
That is why this crisis presents presidents and prime ministers with the biggest test of their political leadership. Provided they were willing to listen to the medical science experts, the first test — when to act and how best to implement and enforce a lockdown — was relatively straightforward to pass, even though some G7 world leaders flunked it badly and others such as Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro have chosen to piss on the exam paper.
But the question of what parts of the economy to reopen and how best to ease the lockdown restrictions is a wicked problem for which there is no solution, only mitigation of different forms of risk — social, economic and political.
If the situation were not so grave, one could luxuriate in the exquisiteness of the governance challenge: for which bits of the economy should restrictions be lifted to breathe livelihood-sustaining life back into society, without unreasonably or unduly risking the health of people and the public healthcare system?
Again, there is considerable confusion about the purpose of the lockdown. It is not, as some people still seem to think, to “contain” the virus. Contain in this context means “control”. But it is clear that Covid-19 is not controllable — once it arrives, it spreads, and fast.
Hence, the purpose of the lockdown is in relation to phases two and three: delay and mitigation. And the more effectively you delay (transmission and the speed of infection), the better you can mitigate (reduce the health, welfare and the economic risks).
People who are sick (or dead) can’t work. The economy suffers. But, equally, the restrictions necessary for an effective delay harms the economy, and the “working poor” will suffer — those low-paid workers with employers who will not pay them during the lockdown and with wholly inadequate savings and insurance to cope for long.
Clearly, therefore, Covid-19 is a public health and social crisis with a profound economic dimension; and, concurrently, an economic crisis with a deep social and public healthcare and welfare dimension. It is not a binary clash between “health” and “wealth”, which is a false dichotomy that is as sterile as it is superficial and misconceived.
To disregard the complexity of the governance challenge, irrespective of whether certain Cabinet ministers or regulations are undermining confidence in the rationality and reasonableness of some aspects of the lockdown strategy, is feckless.
And to end a public commentary by asking “So why didn’t we just go out and buy, who knows, 50 000 beds?”, as Peter Bruce did on Tuesday in Business Day, is as daft as it is democratically dangerous for President Donald Trump to encourage violent protest by people against state governors who are disinclined to ease lockdown conditions too rapidly.
A better debate, and certainly a better question to ask, is what does a politically progressive lockdown exit strategy look like?
First and foremost, respect for human life and dignity. Unemployment, harmful and degrading as it is, may not be permanent. Death certainly is.
Therefore, protecting as many people as possible from contagion has to be the first priority.
This part of a progressive strategy must also include doing everything possible to enable the public health system to cope with the pressure it will be put under — including ensuring that healthcare workers have the necessary kit to defend themselves from infection.
Second, it should be premised on ensuring that the social security safety net is sufficiently resilient to cope with the added weight of numbers that the “hard stop” economic crash will cause — resilient in terms of both resources (for increased welfare payments) and infrastructure (to ensure efficient delivery to recipients).
Third, a robust economic recovery package is essential — one that is tailored to try to do two things at once: resuscitate those parts of the economy that provide safe and decently-paid employment to environmentally friendly, sustainable enterprises with a clear social purpose while, secondly, transforming away from those parts of the economy that don’t.
This is a once-in-a-century opportunity to reset the economy, to define a new paradigm for social and economic relations, and to escape the clutches of high-carbon industry that has caused the climate catastrophe that will hit humanity hard over the coming decades unless urgent action at scale is taken now.
Many progressive thinkers and economists, as well as development finance advisers and (increasingly) asset managers, have been agitating about how to “organise” a “just energy transition” that can overcome a resistant political economy. Covid-19 provides a scorched-earth chance to propel that transition irrevocably forwards.
These are the criterion against which government action and strategy should be measured, and which should also guide global financial recovery packages.
What should be clear now is that the underlying premise cannot be a return to “normality” because that “normality” will not be possible and should be avoided because it was an integral part of the systemic failure that so exposed human precarity.
So, certain things will never, and should never, be the same again.
Nonetheless, the “new normal” is impossible to predict with any sense of assurance — though there are many soothsayers out there (not to mention the snake oil sellers, such as Trump).
But as the dense fog of uncertainty that has blanketed the world this year, and which obscures humanity’s destiny, begins to thin, so the contours of the biggest, system-level geopolitical questions begin to take shape.
First, globalisation and the nation-state: Will Covid-19 be the death of modern-era economic globalisation or will it provoke serious reflection and reform of how nations trade and organise their common institutions of multilateral governance? Will it serve to further diminish the authority of multilateral bodies and thereby further the spread of authoritarian nationalism?
Second, on the economy: Will it mould a new economic paradigm and thereby attend to our common interest in arresting the climate emergency?
Third, the political settlement that emerges post-Covid-19: Will it restore trust in the need for government and propel a generational settlement relating to the rights of all people to live safe and dignified lives in just societies to match the big moments of progressive social progress such as in 1945? Or will it drive humans towards greater individual and collective protectionism — a Darwinian survival of the fittest (and richest) — in which we are compelled to accept a sharp reversal in “progress” and human development back to the Hegelian “state of nature” in which most lives will be “nasty, brutish and short”?
Answering these questions will require us to define “the future we want” — as Dame Polly Courtice, the head of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership described it when launching a new leadership platform recently: “For some, this crisis will harden whatever views they previously held — but for others it will shape new possibilities and understanding. The reality is that our very way of life is likely to be profoundly changed for ever.
“This is an opportunity to shape the future, not just respond to it. There are some principles that we can trust in and rely upon, such as the laws of nature, the laws of physics and the interconnectedness of human and natural systems, alongside the emerging clarity about our interdependence and what we value as societies, and the importance of science to inform evidence-led decision making.”
Political leadership will matter more than ever. If this epochal opportunity is to be seized, it will require extraordinary vision and courage. Ultimately, the ideology and worldview of those in power will likely dictate the future that we get. So we had better ensure that we get the leaders that we need.
Richard Calland is associate professor in public law at the University of Cape Town and a fellow of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership