Home > Opinion > Columns > Opinion | An important but indecent question that has to arise

In every crisis, there is one idea that is sacred, and one question that is indecent. In the viral pandemic that is underway, the sacred idea is that the world should be locked down for many weeks, even months. And the indecent question is: “But what about the economy?" The most sacrilegious form of the indecent question is: “Has the world overreacted to the virus?"

The world has not overreacted to the virus. That the priority of any government is to save human lives and not to make money is a moral code that suits all of us.

Governments make money from cigarettes and liquor, by taxing them, but faced with a pandemic, it is somehow indecent to ask whether a dominant moral idea should come at the expense of financial ruin for billions of people.

Scientists, capitalists, politicians and writers who have expressed concern at the shutting down of entire economies have faced a string of public insults from other scientists, economists, journalists and probably even devious quants who have shorted everything that could possibly be short-sold. Insults are dud weapons; even so, most people in the world fear being insulted.

As often, US President Donald Trump has articulated a thought that is on the minds of people who run businesses but are too polite to say it: “We can’t let the cure be worse than the problem." He announced that he will open the US for business in a matter of days. A familiar lament followed. A journalist posed the president an old sanctimonious retort that masquerades as a question: How many lives will Trump sacrifice for the economy? (“None," replied Trump, obviously.)

On Thursday, Sachin Bansal, co-founder of Flipkart, reacted to India’s relief package for the poor with this tweet: “I hope there’s plan to eventually get people back to work also". A self-righteous person with six followers responded, “I hope there’s a plan to feed people until they get back to work". Bansal had to flee with the chant, “Thats most important right now."

John Ioannidis, an epidemiologist, wondered in an article if the world was overreacting to the disease through expensive indefinite lockdowns, and if nations should instead respond to it the way they do to the flu and other mysterious viral infections that are as deadly but not famous enough to have well-recognized names. Public insults from peers followed. Insults are influential concept-delivery devices, and the concept they tended to carry in Ioannidis’s case was the argument of “second-order effects": the principle that an event has primary consequences that might be obvious or predictable, but it is hard to predict the consequences of the consequences.

But then, the same argument can be used to defend the critical nature of normal economic life. We do not fully know the second-order effects of shutting down whole nations. Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London who was among the scientists who influenced the UK to lock itself down, said this about the economic implications: “We’ll be paying for this year for decades to come."

Last week in the US, 3.25 million people applied for unemployment benefits. This is five times the previous weekly record for such applications, which was in 1982.

Right from the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, there have been two moral ways of responding. One was the Chinese way, involving a full lockdown, and the other was the South Korean way of letting most of the economy run but testing people extensively for infection and tracking down cases. South Korea appears to have contained the disease as effectively as China. Japan is another major economy that has not locked down. Nor is it conducting extensive checks. Yet, Japan is not as seriously affected as, say, Italy, which has enforced a lockdown.

Many in the lockdown camp seem confused by Japan’s good fortune and their tone almost suggests they want that country to implode in the misery of viral deaths just to teach the world a lesson—to lock down. Meanwhile a lot of spurious “cultural" reasons are being promoted to explain Japan’s luck: how clean the Japanese are, how often they wash hands, and so on.

Early in the pandemic, the UK, whose Prime Minister Boris Johnson has now tested positive for Covid, made a disastrous mistake— in storytelling. It wanted to keep the country open, and in its search for a moral reason, it hinted that it was attempting a strategy of herd immunity— where you let most of the population get infected, and let some die, but help society overall develop antibodies against the virus. It was a bad story to tell, as the idea that some deaths are acceptable easily evokes moral repugnance. Also, we still do not know how long someone can stay immune to a virus that mutates. The UK’s argument should unabashedly have focused on sustaining the country’s economy.

All of India has been locked down for the first time in its history. Road accidents have possibly reduced by a considerable extent over the past few days. The world appears perplexed by the slow spread of the disease in India. It could just be that our social inequalities saved us. The rich, who are the primary carriers of the virus, and the poor do not go to the same places. But then, at the time of writing this, India has tested only about 25,000 people. So we don’t know the real numbers. Maybe we will never know. But in a few weeks, India might claim a great victory over the virus and open its doors to business. The country may have no other option.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

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