Opinion | Those in panic need a sense of perspective on this pandemic4 min read . Updated: 20 Apr 2020, 10:09 PM IST
The West’s disproportionate reaction to its last crisis necessitated its economic response to this one
Nearly a month ago, Fritjof Capra of Tao Of Physics fame wrote a long article looking back from 2050. It re-imagined a world in which humans lived in harmony with nature. They travelled less; they connected with their communities. They ate what they grew organically in their neighbourhood. They respected the environment and they allowed the damage they had caused it to reverse. It was a message of hope that Homo sapiens would learn to live in harmony with nature and other life forms, rather than living in perpetual conflict with them. For some strange reason, the article did not circulate as widely as I expected.
Then, sometime later, I saw a Bloomberg story on clean air in Indian cities. Videos of people watching Himalayan peaks from Amritsar were doing the rounds. A resident of Delhi quipped that the air in Delhi felt like mountain air. Clearly, the pandemic-induced lockdown was a controlled experiment that no government would have attempted in normal times. It was as though nature had designed this experiment to reveal the stark trade-off between economic growth and the environment.
Many dismissed the environmental improvement as a fetish of the rich, noting that it had come at the cost of livelihoods of the poor. This is true only up to a point. Air and water pollution hurt the poor as much as they harm the rich, if not more. In fact, the indigent are relatively ill-equipped to handle the health consequences of environmental pollution, and a lost day of work due to illness is a lost day of earnings. Factoring ecological concerns into economic growth aspirations is therefore pro- rather than anti-poor. Further, investments made to safeguard flora and fauna also contribute to the process of economic growth. Therefore, a better balance between environmental and economic imperatives could be a win-win for both.
However, the question is whether the pandemic and the consequences that we are grappling with will reshape human perspectives along these lines.
The evidence so far is mixed, at best, and absent at worst. Take the sale of food and beverages in the US, which are part of a monthly retail sales report. The amount of food and beverages that Americans bought in the month of March 2020 exceeded their purchases of these in the previous nine years. A tweet by David Rosenberg, former chief economist for Merrill Lynch in North America, alerted me to this fact. I checked the data and he was not exaggerating. The scale of panic-buying in the US was astounding. Imagine hoarding products that would have taken 108 months to sell in normal times. This is not a reassuring sign of humans learning the right lessons from the covid-19 pandemic.
However, it was not just regular US citizens who panicked. Policymakers did too, both in their immediate reactions to the threat of covid-19, based on unverifiable claims arising out of data and models that look dubious, and in their economic policy responses.
Central banks and governments across the world have pressed the panic button all at once, creating the potential for moral hazard and destabilizing economic, social and political consequences in the years ahead.
That is how they reacted to the crisis of 2008. As a result, as Nick Paumgarten wrote in The New Yorker, “the economy had a pre-existing condition—debt, instead of pulmonary disease. Corporate debt, high-yield debt, distressed debt, student debt, consumer debt, mortgage debt, sovereign debt" (The Price Of The Coronavirus Pandemic, 13 April 2020). One disproportionate reaction, to the 2008 crisis, set up economic conditions that have now led to another disproportionate reaction, this time to the covid crisis.
Then, let us take the media reaction. One of my good friends who was with the mainstream media reacts rather badly whenever I point fingers at some of these media outlets and complain how information from them is sometimes indistinguishable from what one receives from social media sources. Over time, more and more opinions have come masquerading as news and information.
But, quite apart from these, the way the pandemic has been covered also makes me pessimistic about the ability of our species to learn the right lessons from it. Some reports over the weekend seemed to suggest that the covid cases in India were out of control. These lacked a sense of perspective on how bad the problem is, especially in comparison with other problems that we face in the country.
A balanced perspective came from Abhishek De. In an article (India’s Top Infectious Disease Killed Over 4,40,000 People In 2018, 17 April 2020) for the Indian Express, he reminded us that India’s top infectious disease was Tuberculosis (TB), that it had killed over 400,000 people every year in the three years from 2016 to 2018, and that its fatality rate was over 20%. Yet, we see no boxes or mini-screens showing India’s annual TB cases and fatalities.
So, was Fritjof Capra being naïve? Perhaps not. We could learn from nature. Within a week or two of the lockdown, it revealed its beauty to us. Is it too difficult to learn from it?
V. Anantha Nageswaran is member of the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister
These are the author’s personal views