I have an invitation from Mr Rob Edwardsen, currently providing essential services in Thousand Oaks, California. He’s invited me to shift focus from client strategy to my views on the COVID19 pandemic as a whole. That is, he asked me what I think about all this.
The first thing I think is that I’m very, very pleased that there is still diesel in the pump, fresh farmed salmon in my local shop and a robust delivery infrastructure bringing things to my door. A lot of people are doing a lot of work to keep me and mine going. I might have a less philosophical set of ideas in a month if these things are no longer true.
That said, with a couple of days’ respite before going back to the video conference setup in my office, here is what I think.
1. This will happen again, soon
From the SARS moment in 2002, it was clear that viral pandemic posed a serious threat to our culture and economy. My own view was that an influenza virus was our most dangerous threat, but that was because I’m an historian and I expected a centennial version of the Spanish ‘Flu epidemic. I still expect it, and more.
A bacterial plague is lurking in the shadows. The people who sneer at Chinese people for their supposed diet of bats and pangolins feed masses of antibiotics to their cattle to make them fat. We are systematically ruining our ability to stop a modern Black Death when it comes.
We have now got a medium-deadly virus demonstrating its potency in a way that demands serious attention. This is not the pandemic of our nightmare: a really dangerous disease will kill a lot more of its victims, and a lot younger people. The COVID19 pandemic invites us either to take this as a dress rehearsal, or to declare victory over the virus and set ourselves up for a serious disaster in future. As a species, but also as a set of human governments, we have to decide whether to configure our society to be resilient to future, more and less lethal assaults; or try to return to our previous vulnerability.
2. This is not the end of capitalism
Second point: this virus does not prove your economic or political theory. A lot of people are banging their keyboards to explain how COVID19 is the end of capitalism. A lot of other people, who are heavily bought into capitalism, but appear bizarrely to believe the first group, are banging their keyboards to say that taking sensible measures to avoid spreading disease is a bad idea because communism. Any theory of political economy has to be durable enough to sustain a serious crisis, but do not imagine for a moment that political theories and economic systems that survived the industrial warfare of the 20th Century will break next week.
We have developed a delicate globalised economy over the century since the Versailles Treaties. In those 100 years we have largely set aside the gold standard, ancient ideas of race and the limitations of social class. The global economy we had in 2019 was no paradise, but it was qualitatively different and in almost every detail better than what existed before the First World War.
Our reconstruction after this wave of disruption passes will create something new. It will come about through a discontinuous moment, which Karl Marx would appreciate because he believed (wrongly) that all historical change comes about through discontinuity. Marxists will, ironically, hate the change because 19th Century ideas of social class, race and gender will recede further into the distance.
3. Health, life and productivity are intertwined
We are witnessing a massive breach in some countries between people affected by disease and people’s access to health care. By ‘some countries’ I mostly mean developing countries where health promotion is weakly integrated into society, and the US where access to health care is often tied directly to certain categories of employment. Because this virus is deadly, but not Black Death deadly, we can survive to learn an important lesson about what an economy is: a way of co-ordinating and optimising human well-being.
You can’t have a functioning economy if people are unable to remain healthy and productive. This might sound as though I am justifying health on the grounds of wealth, but that’s not it. Human effort exists, and comes together in an economy, in order to make people’s lives better. It’s why hunter-gatherers became shepherds. It’s why shepherds became farmers. It’s why the Hebrew Bible is such a durable document: it understands the basis of economics (though often in a dark, bitter way, to my Bible-reading eye).
My point is that describing the world in terms of economics, is a way of tying production and consumption to well-being and individual self-fulfillment, so that the relationships can be studied and understood.
‘No man is an iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee….’
- John Donne, Meditation 17, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions
Imagining that a functioning economy is separate from optimising human health is like imagining that a functioning economy is separate from providing security, water, power and sewerage. This pandemic is a strong suggestion that my own well-being depends on everyone’s health: no man is an iland. In every part of the world, this virus invites us to build this into our way of working.
4. Illusions of efficiency
My mother, may she rest in peace, kept enough canned goods in her cupboards to eat for a month, and enough meat in her freezer to cater a wedding. She was born in the summer before the Second World War to parents who had lived through the rough edge of the Great Depression. I grew up in the just-in-time universe, and my efficient little fridge and freezer in my efficient little kitchen could hold supplies for a week, except there’s a full-size bottle of vodka taking up a chunk of the freezer and fifteen jars of chutney in the fridge.
There was a time when governments, businesses and individuals had logistical depth. For years we have been stripping that away. Our business culture has equated inventory with waste, and that concept has spread across the economy. Armies stopped keeping deep stores of artillery ammunition in the 1990s. Navies stopped keeping reserve fleets. Hospitals stopped keeping entire wings ready for disaster relief. It’s the last one that’s really noticeable now.
My older daughter, who is fond of the vintage clothes, has a splendid dark blue overcoat with the badge of the National Hospital Service Reserve, a civil defence organisation that existed for 20 years last century. We got rid of it in 1968 because, presumably, we couldn’t justify the expense of keeping a volunteer reserve of trained nurses in peacetime. Who, after all, needs surge capacity?
In the early part of this century the British Home Office decided it would never again need to use the Armed Forces to look after civil contingencies, because the Private Sector would always be able to provide capabilities in return for cash, and in the mean time the Private Sector could deal with the overheads of storage and staffing and whatever. It’s all very efficient unless something goes wrong.
We have allowed ourselves to make decisions about food and health and security without asking ‘what if it all goes wrong?’ Perhaps more dangerous, we haven’t asked, ‘how will it all go wrong, when it definitely does go wrong?’
We also institutionally forget how to manage logistical depth. Buying a year’s supply of toilet roll all at once is a dubious use of cash flow, but reasonable if this is your last chance to lay in some bumf in 2020. Buying a year’s supply of cauliflower all at once, which I swear people around here did, is just a waste of money.
5. This is not the great crisis of our time
The great crisis of our time is still to come.