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OP-ED | 21-03-2020 10:46

Stay home

The common responsibility against coronavirus leaves no room for political strife, which has been refreshingly absent in recent days.

Now that coronavirus has indefinitely consigned football to oblivion along with so much else, the late LiverpooI coach Bill Shankly’s ultra-quoted tongue-in-cheek reflection on the sport – “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death … I can assure you it is much, much more important than that” – is strangely transferable to Covid-19. Contrary to widespread paranoia, this pandemic is not so much a matter of life and death as something a whole lot worse – it confronts humanity as a whole with a cruel choice between an economic meltdown dwarfing anything experienced here in 2001-2002 or worldwide in 2008- 2009 and a total collapse of the health system, which would jolt the death rate into an otherwise avoidable spiral.

Hard as it may be for those outside the medical profession to grasp, the real danger of Covid-19 is its contagion rather than its virulence. The latter needs to be placed into statistical perspective, With a mortality rate of just over four percent worldwide (although much higher in some countries than others), this is clearly not the Black Death, which killed between a third and half of humanity. However, it has obviously already grown beyond being the damp squib of SARS in 2003 (when the initial projections, the work of experts not some wild rumour mill, calculated 142 million deaths worldwide but less than 800 actually died).

Year in, year out almost 10 percent of the 350,000 or so people dying annually in Argentina succumb to a flu-related disease and/or pneumonia – 10,000 people for every coronavirus death during the first 15 days of the micro-organism’s presence here.

And yet anybody taking refuge in these hard data would be completely missing the point. Any claim that nobody is going to die who would not have died anyway this year would not be as far as it might seem from the facts until now but this is writing in sand because a virus can mutate with amazing speed, hitting new target groups. But even without a turn for the worse, the moment of truth for this pandemic will come when the multiplier effect of contagion leads to thousands of pneumonia cases overrunning a hospital system which only counts iron lungs in the hundreds. Be afraid, be very afraid.

Not only is contagion the real issue rather than the mortality rate, it also represents the level at which everybody can do something (which also includes not doing some things) – absolutely nobody can shirk their responsibilities. That simple message “Stay home” says it all – minimising all social contacts means minimising contagion. This existential need for everybody to take responsibility represents a dramatic change of paradigm for a country where too many people expect everything from the State, which monopolises the blame with “la gente” innocent victims of a government they do not deserve.

Yet socially responsible behaviour also carries a terrible economic price. The damage caused by preventive initiatives runs far deeper than the record stock market plunges of recent weeks, the virtual extinction faced by entire sectors (airlines, cruisers, hotels, restaurants, etc.), the crisis facing oil and other commodity prices with China at a standstill, the millions upon millions of jobs at stake and so on. When the phrase “going viral” was first coined for an electronic context some three decades ago, nobody imagined that one day it would actually be a virus turning the whole world viral at an accelerated pace. But that is what is happening – and happening today, thanks to Covid-19. In recent years there have been growing fears of the approach of a future in which robots and other technology replace human labour – that future is perhaps closer than ever now. The other side of the coin to the “Stay home” message.

The common responsibility against coronavirus leaves no room for political strife, which has been refreshingly absent in recent days. Only two interpretations of the government’s initiatives against this peril are legitimate – that the Alberto Fernández administration is doing the right things for the right reasons or that it is doing the right things for the wrong reasons (these would basically be jumping on coronavirus as a splendid excuse for debt hardball and as the perfect alibi for mismanagement of an already recessive economy, maximising preventive action in order to magnify these arguments). But either way, let nobody in Argentina hesitate to give all the preventive measures the benefit of the doubt, even when as drastic as the curfew ordered yesterday – after all, that is something we cannot expect from Covid-19.

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