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OP-ED | 24-10-2020 08:22

Pandemic and post-globalisation

Covid-19 poses a “problem without passports” to end all such problems, but the supreme paradox is that this first truly universal disaster finds globalisation in full retreat.

If last week’s editorial viewed the 75th anniversary of Peronist Loyalty Day, this week’s likewise takes a 75th anniversary falling today as its starting-point – the creation of the United Nations. An anniversary hardly noticed here (unlike Peronist Loyalty Day) or anywhere yet that may well be the whole point. Over 20 years ago, then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan coined the phrase “problems without passports” to describe global challenges – today an invisible Covid-19 poses a “problem without passports” to end all such problems, but the supreme paradox is that this first truly universal disaster finds globalisation in full retreat with international organisations conspicuous by their absence.

Back home a week starting with Argentina becoming just one of six countries in the world to have a seven-digit total of confirmed coronavirus cases has done little to restore attention to a pandemic fading away from the public spotlight since midyear – dollar volatility and Supreme Court mulling commanded bigger headlines this week. Today’s public opinion surveys show only 30 percent registering coronavirus as their biggest worry while fully two-thirds give pride of place to economic anxieties, whereas in the first month of quarantine 79 percent agreed with President Alberto Fernández in prioritising health as against a 16 percent minority expressing economic misgivings.

This juxtaposition of the medical and economic pandemic impact, voiced from the very start, has been repeatedly dismissed as a false dilemma but still early days to say whether this is so and if not, which of the horns of this dilemma protrudes most. Neither horn lends itself to exact measurement. Coronavirus number-crunching has become an exact science which is exasperatingly imprecise at the same time while gauging the economic damage hinges on which letter of the alphabet (such as V, W and L) will come to depict best the rebound from total lockdown. Meanwhile who can say who is right or wrong in that grieta between health and economy?

Meticulously exact data emerge daily from such coronavirus census-takers as the World Health Organisation (WHO) or Johns Hopkins but they are written in sand, thus hindering both any assessment of the real dangers and of how the pandemic is being tackled by individual nations. WHO and other data are vulnerable to the GIGO (garbage in, garbage out) principle. Thus taking Monday’s million mark, how do we know that only six countries are suffering seven-digit contagion – is it possible that less than a million of, say, 273 million Indonesians or 115 million Ethiopians have contracted Covid-19 (not to mention just 0.00003 percent of the population dying in the Chinese cradle of the pandemic)? At the time of the UN vote on human rights in Venezuela earlier this month, ex-ambassador Alicia Castro used the latest Caracas data as relayed by the WHO (just 80,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 653 deaths in a population of almost 30 million) to argue that Venezuela had a much better public health system than Argentina or any of the countries condemning it – an argument at odds with the frequency with which medical consultations here are responded with a Caribbean accent.

In fact, it could be the other way round with Argentina’s dire coronavirus figures also a backhanded tribute to its public health system – if Argentina rivals Europe for coronavirus havoc, this could imply an almost European standard of healthcare. This does not make the Health Ministry’s handling of the pandemic perfect, as this week’s controversy over the absurdly high positive testing ratio of 70 to 80 percent (due to the clumsy omission of negative results) shows. In the worldwide statistical confusion, everything is relative rather than good or bad – thus if Argentina has headed the world for deaths per million in the past month, this is largely due to updating from winter.

No verdict between health and the economy is possible with these surrealistic data. Appalling as these are, they still only amount to around 0.54 percent of world population infected and 0.014 percent dead, which would seem to vindicate those highlighting the economic damage. But given the scale of the underreporting of this largely asymptomatic disease (reaching an estimated nine times more people in Argentina and four times even in the United States, not to mention more drastic shortfalls elsewhere), we still have no real idea of the dangers.

To end where we started, with the UN – in the face of this truly universal threat and the global governance vacuum, more people should be saying: “Stop the world, I want to get on.”          

 

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