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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 28-03-2020 08:17

Coronavirus: poverty and ethics

Assuming social distancing enforced through differing levels of quarantines is indeed the necessary initial response to the pandemic, how would one deal with the more than 320,000 households in a state of “critical overcrowding” in Argentina?

The series of ethical dilemmas prompted by the onslaught of the novel coronavirus take on their own dimensions when looked at through a Latin American, even Argentine, lens. From a macro standpoint it is important to ask ourselves whether the strategies used to slow the virus can have an even more devastating public health impact given the almost assured probability of an economic collapse of epic proportions.

President Alberto Fernández appeared to have already made his choice in a radio interview earlier this week: “Many are saying that we will destroy the economy with this quarantine, but if the choice is between the economy and life, I choose life.” In the United States, Donald Trump initially made light of Covid-19, calling it a hoax before it caused a major stock market meltdown, forcing him to take tough measures that will unquestionably have a negative economic impact. Trump, like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, is already looking to ease social distancing rules in order to get the economy rolling again. It partially makes sense, with the markets imploding and US jobless claims surging to a record 3.3 million last week — the previous record was 695,000 in 1982, indicating the velocity of this economic crisis is unprecedented — but it could lead to a wider spread of what continued to be an uncontrollable infectious disease. The problem is it is not so clear whether we are talking about two different problems.

Before dwelling on utilitarian versus Kantian ethical conceptions, it is important to put Argentina’s own, unique set of circumstances in context, making the response to Covid-19 very different from what could happen in the United States, Europe, and even China. Assuming social distancing enforced through differing levels of quarantines is indeed the necessary initial response to the pandemic, how would one deal with the more than 320,000 households in a state of “critical overcrowding,” meaning three or more people share each room, in which some two million people live in Argentina? The figures, put together by journalist Ismael Bermudéz, from the official statistics agency INDEC are staggering. Access to a working bathroom, a condition that is probably met by almost the whole of the populations of the US and Western Europe, isn’t available to 15.3 percent of Argentina’s population, or more than six million people. “Inadequate sanitation,” which affects 1.8 million households, is defined by the INDEC national statistics bureau as homes which don’t have a toilet within the property, have a shared bathroom with other properties, have toilets that aren’t connected to the public sewage system or to a septic tank, or have a bathroom without water discharge. Finally, more than 350,000 families are forced to leave their homes to get water, adding up to 1.2 million people. Is it possible for these people to respect the quarantine?

New York City is one of the global epicentres of the novel coronavirus, in great part due to its massive population and its density. Yet, imagine the voracity with which the disease could spread in one of the villa miserias or shantytowns that line the Buenos Aires metropolitan area, where 35 percent of the population is considered to live below the line of poverty according to INDEC, of which more than half are under the age of 14.

Abject poverty exacerbates the economic impacts that the coronavirus outbreak will generate at a global level. In Argentina, about half of labourers are part of the “informal economy,” meaning job security is extremely low, private healthcare is inexistent, and many are day labourers living day by day. Yet, that same issue stretches to the rest of the population, as the near complete shutdown of the productive apparatus of Argentina is already taking its toll on the economy. Argentina’s economic decrepitude has extended at least for the past eight years, meaning businesses and individuals are already running on fumes. Consumption, which makes up more than two-thirds of gross domestic product, has obviously fallen off a cliff, with the exception of certain necessary foodstuffs, medical products, and others. At the global level, a massive demand shock came side by side with a deep disruption to international supply chains. In most countries, and definitely in Argentina, corporate defaults will grow exponentially, which in turn will put people out of jobs, creating a vicious cycle. Adding to Argentina’s woes, commodity prices have tanked, harming our major agricultural exports, while a geopolitical crude oil price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia has all but buried the prospects of the Vaca Muerta shale formation. If Argentina was already on the verge of a new sovereign debt default, the global crisis seems to have all but guaranteed it.

Thus, policymakers face an intensely complex scenario. Is it more important to stop the spread of the virus or avert a major economic crash that could match the Great Depression? Among the many philosophical dichotomies, one of the most popular occurs within the realm of metaphysics between utilitarian and Kantians. The former, rallying behind the likes of John Stuart Mills and Jeremy Bentham, postulate that the desired ethical outcome is the one that maximises welfare, meaning, in an extreme example, that the few should be sacrificed for the good of the many. On the opposing side stood German idealist Immanuel Kant, whose concept of the categorical imperative relies on the notion that there exists an objective and unconditional rule that must be followed by everyone irrespective of particular outcomes. “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law,” Kant explains in his Lectures on Ethics.

Unfortunately, neither ethical conception allows one to logically derive a solution to the current conundrum, as it is impossible to dissociate the negative economic impacts of the public health crisis from the public health issues that will be caused by the current economic crisis. In order to maximise wellbeing under a utilitarian conception, is it better to save as many lives as possible today, or to avert the future suffering unleashed by a global depression? Given our current limitation of critical care beds, but also of qualified physicians and even hospitals, should younger sick patients be prioritised over the old? What about patients suffering from coronavirus and those with other dangerous ailments? If we were to postulate a universal, Kantian rule, who would we save?

The ethical and real world effects of the decisions being taken by today’s leaders will undoubtedly shape the coming future. Today, President Fernández is being praised across the globe for his relatively swift response to the Covid-19 pandemic, even if that means shutting down the nation’s borders to citizens who’ve been stranded overseas, while imposing strict restrictions on public circulation that will deepen Argentina’s recession. Will these issues worsen our capacity to successfully negotiation a debt restructuring with private creditors to avert a default? At the same time, China’s autocratic government is considered by some commentators superior to Western Democracies in their capacity to impose and uphold unpopular regulations, while the personal freedoms enjoyed in Northern Italy and the United States are partially to blame for the exponential growth of the crisis there. The US has already become the country with the highest number of cases while Italy has already tripled the number of deaths seen in China.

Crises like the one-two punch of a global pandemic and a financial-economic implosion break through our established systems of thought, rendering traditional ethical, public health, and economic conceptions useless. The world cannot handle the novel coronavirus and its collateral effects with the usual medicine. If we look at things under the same light, whether it is comparing Argentina to the rest of the world, or this crisis to the previous ones, we will get it wrong.

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Agustino Fontevecchia

Agustino Fontevecchia

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