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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 15-08-2020 10:08

Light from the city of dreaming spires

It is no longer enough for governments to concentrate solely on trying to block the spread of the virus. They are also expected to keep the economy moving and to worry about the long-term effects the prolonged lockdowns are certain to have on people’s lives.

Almost 12 years ago, the then-British prime minister, Gordon Brown, boasted (he later said it was a slip of the tongue) that he had “saved the world” by acting quickly and decisively to get his counterparts elsewhere to pump huge sums of money into an international banking system that risked tumbling into the abyss. No doubt the current PM, Boris Johnson, would dearly like to do even better than Brown by announcing to a worldwide audience that, under his watch, a British-led team had found the medical equivalent of the holy grail by developing a vaccine that would put end to the pandemic which, in addition to cutting short what by then will be at least a million lives, is having an even worse economic impact than the financial meltdown of 2008, as well as forcing people to give up most of their social activities. 

Perhaps Boris is already thinking about what to tell the world when the great moment arrives, as it well could in the coming weeks. Leading the race to be the first to come up with a vaccine capable of stopping the all-conquering coronavirus is the university in which he read classics and which, by and large, has long been better known for its attachment to the ancient world Boris finds fascinating than for its contributions to modern medicine, considerable though these have evidently been.

Whether or not the Oxford vaccine, which if successful is to be produced and marketed by the big Anglo-Swedish company AstraZeneca, does prove to be as beneficial as not just the researchers but millions of others fervently hope is still an open question, but it would seem that up to now the test results have been highly promising.

What is more, unlike most of its rivals, the vaccine the scientists are working on in Oxford would be relatively cheap, at less than US$4 a shot, and could therefore be distributed massively in hard-up countries such as Argentina where many fear that the pharmaceutical giants, in league with nationalistic politicians like Donald Trump, want to give priority to their own immediate interests without caring overmuch about what happened in the poorer parts of the world. 

This no doubt is one reason why Alberto Fernández and many members of his government are looking towards the “city of dreaming spires” in search of a glimpse of the so far elusive light at the end of the tunnel they and the rest of us entered last March and which since then has got darker. Another reason is that they desperately need to come up with more good news.

Though the recent agreement with the creditors was welcomed by economists, whether “orthodox” or not – plus the many who were aware that, unless the country got out of the default into which it had stumbled, it would find it all but impossible to recover from the many economic pathologies which have kept it bed-ridden for decades – it did little to lift the spirits of the general population. Perhaps the possibility that a vaccine is on the way and that an Argentine firm will play a role in the project by producing hundreds of millions of doses do more to cheer up people even though, assuming it does meet the standards of the main regulatory boards, several more months will have to go by before anyone apart from volunteer guinea-pigs starts receiving it.

If Alberto, Axel Kiciloff and the more hawkish epidemiologists who advise them have their way, until then the country should remain in full lockdown, with armed police cracking down on miscreants who commit crimes such as partying together or paying a visit to elderly relatives living alone. Meanwhile, the economy would be left shrivel, muggers more than willing to murder their victims would continue to roam the streets and, psychologists warn us, some people, their health ruined by a lengthy period of enforced sedentarism, would sink into depression.

When the lockdown began, much of the population welcomed it warmly, thanked Alberto for putting “life” before mere material things like incomes or jobs and agreed to stay at home as ordered, but then, as the weeks and months dragged on, more and more people began refusing to do what the government says they should even after the daily death toll had started to rise at an alarming rate and more cases appeared in places that had been seen as safe havens.

While it’s impossible to predict just how many men and women will fall to the coronavirus before it is finally checked, if it ever is, in government circles some are having nightmares in which they see Argentina suffering outbreaks which are every bit as nasty as those which have ravaged Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, Mexico, the United States and Brazil. Should this happen, as it conceivably could, in the grimmer districts of Greater Buenos Aires the already overstretched medical services would probably be overwhelmed.

Those who favour a tight lockdown until the coronavirus has either gone away or ceased to be much of a danger hope that, by telling people that a vaccine could soon be available, they will persuade them that “normality” of a kind is just around the corner and so they should bear up and be more patient. But the message they are trying to get across could also have the opposite effect by encouraging the many who are thoroughly fed up with living under the beady eyes of police bent on making sure they do not get too close to one another. If they think that before too long a jab or two will make them immune from the virus, such malcontents will be tempted to jump the gun and pay even less attention to the official guidelines.

When the pandemic started making itself felt, in many countries a majority loudly demanded tough lockdown measures and harshly criticised governments, among them that of Johnson, which were reluctant to take authoritarian measures or slam shut the borders to prevent even their compatriots from returning home and, while about it, bring the economy juddering to a sudden halt, but since then opinion has shifted. It is no longer enough for governments to concentrate solely on trying to block the spread of the virus. They are also expected to keep the economy moving and to worry about the long-term effects the prolonged lockdowns are certain to have on people’s lives. No matter what they do they will be accused of getting something badly wrong, of either having too strict too early, as many say here in Argentina, or of having been too lax when circumstances called for a tough approach, as in the UK. 

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James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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