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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 21-03-2020 10:28

The world turned upside down

How long can this cooperative mood, which reportedly prevails in most countries, last?

For most people, the coronavirus is an extremely worrisome intruder which, as well as threatening their own health and that of their loved-ones, is likely to have a permanently adverse effect on their way of life by causing havoc in the economy. But for some politicians it has turned out to be a most welcome guest.

Instead of spending much of their time fending off nitpicking critics out to nail them for using the wrong pronoun or some such misdemeanour as has become habitual in the English-speaking world, they have been given a chance to play the gratifying role of commander-in-chief leading the nation in an all-out war against a pitiless enemy.

They can even forget about economic realities and ladle out huge sums of money without paying much heed to minor matters like inflation. Until further notice, the short term will be all that counts.

With Xi Jinping showing the way forward, Donald Trump, Emmanuel Macron, Boris Johnson, Giuseppe Conte and our own Alberto Fernández are making the most of the opportunity nature has given them. People demand strong leadership and they are more than willing to provide it. The favoured approach is to slam shut their country’s borders and order those trapped within them to stay indoors unless they absolutely must go outside. In some places, military patrols ensure they do what they are told.

Just how long all this will last is impossible to say. The Chinese say that, thanks to their willingness to seal off entire provinces, in their country the coronavirus epidemic is waning fast. But elsewhere, especially in Italy, it is still raging on. Meanwhile, the folk at the World Health Organisation are enjoying their moment in the limelight; long accused of crying wolf far too often, they say mortality rate from the coronavirus plague is a fearful 3.4 percent and governments everywhere are taking them at their word.

Is it really that lethal? Neither the WHO spokespersons nor anyone else has any way of knowing because only a fraction, perhaps a tiny one, of those who have contracted the virus, has been properly tested. Even the United States is suffering from an acute shortage of the necessary kits; here, they are in desperately hard to find.

And then there is the problem posed by the high death toll among the elderly and those who are already ill, most of whom would have been equally vulnerable to the common flu or some other nasty infection. As the Stanford University epidemiologist John P.A. Ioannidis has pointed out, many far-reaching decisions are being made on the basis of what so far are thoroughly unreliable data. In his view, a big danger is that if governments succeed in “flattening the curve to prevent medical systems from getting overwhelmed, as they seem to have been in Italy,” they could prolong the period in which many “ordinary” life-threatening ailments go without adequate treatment.

Putting a country in lockdown for the duration – as so many governments, including Alberto’s, are doing – may satisfy those who think the virus poses an existential threat, but should the “state of emergency” or whatever those in office call it drag on for more than a few weeks, the long-term consequences of what they are doing seem certain be extremely unpleasant.

If economies collapse and the world slithers into a major recession or even a depression, as could well happen, hundreds of millions of people will get buried under the rubble and many of them will be extremely angry. Instead of thanking their rulers for saving them from the coronavirus, they will accuse them of grossly overreacting to a manageable health hazard, of behaving like a man who, by using a sledgehammer to get at a mouse, wrecks the building he is living in.

No doubt “social distancing” will help slow the spread of the virus and, with luck, stop it doing more harm than would otherwise be the case. For now at any rate, most people are happy enough to avoid largish gatherings and stay out of range of potentially dangerous droplets coming from others, even family members.

How long can this cooperative mood, which reportedly prevails in most countries, last? After several weeks, many are sure to start feeling restive. Shunning elderly relatives may make sense for a while, but if it goes on for months the costs for them will be great. And while social distancing among individuals can be tolerable, when countries, provinces or towns feel they too must distance themselves from one another, the divisive attitudes thus encouraged will not bring communities any closer together.

Soon after the coronavirus made its arrival, the European Union started coming apart. So much for the dreams of ideologues who assumed that “more Europe” would be a universal panacea. To their dismay, overnight those old-fashioned national borders became of vital importance. Foreigners had to be kept out because they were likely to prove infectious. The US has proved to be every bit as standoffish: even the border with Canada has been closed.

Meanwhile, here in Argentina, provinces lost no time in getting into the act, with Chaco, Jujuy, Mendoza, Santa Fe, Santiago del Estero and Tierra del Fuego leading the way, And then came towns like Mar del Plata, Pinamar and Villa Gesell, whose mayors told would-be visitors to stay well away and, to make the sojourn of those who took no notice of their warnings and managed to get through the roadblocks as uncomfortable as possible, ordered hotels and restaurants to keep their doors locked. Much the same is happening throughout the world.

As was to be expected, conspiracy theories are, one might say, going viral. Some people have taken to accusing foreigners of deliberately unleashing what Trump calls “the Chinese virus”; he says he is entitled to give it this name because some Chinese officials claim the thing had been concocted in a US military laboratory. Not surprisingly, the Chinese protested at what they took to be a baseless presidential slur, but they had better get used to getting blamed for the virus; though patriotic Spaniards have never stopped complaining about it, we still speak of the “Spanish flu” that just over a century ago shortened the lives of up to forty million people. Luckily, the coronavirus which has turned the world upside down seems to be considerably less dangerous than that scourge which, unlike its newest relative, in many places showed a marked predilection for young adults and children.

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James Neilson

James Neilson

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

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