The Covid-19 pandemic is a tragedy that has already killed thousands around the globe. Governments, on the advice of medical staff and with the support of their citizens, have ordered a lockdown to slow the transmission of the virus. This measure, the only one possible in the absence of systematic testing, has been effective in reducing the death toll. Confinement as a temporary emergency measure made sense to “flatten the curve”.
Some countries have started to lift the lockdown but according to a recent Harvard study, it may be necessary to have periods of confinement until 2022. Maybe now is the time to calmly review the situation and discuss the merits of a prolonged confinement in the context of all of society, including future generations.
First, let us have a look at the present and future economic costs that those restrictions are imposing.
During the lockdown, countries are reportedly functioning at 60pc of their capacity. According to the European Commission, this translates into a reduction of 10pc in gross domestic product (GDP) for the eurozone for 2020. In comparison, eurozone GDP only shrank by 4.5pc in the last major financial crisis in 2009.
This economic crisis is already being compared to the 1929 crash. Companies are going bankrupt at an unprecedented rate and the unemployment rate in the USA is already at 16pc. Similar figures or worse are expected across Europe. This is the situation as of today and it worsens for every week the lockdown is prolonged.
We could argue that this economic slowdown has some benefits. Aside from spending time with our families, we are experiencing what the world would feel like with fewer cars and less pollution. Pictures of wild animals re-entering lost territories are populating social media and we can only rejoice at those scenes.
But governments are spending billions in an attempt to mitigate the economic crisis. Budget deficits are predicted to reach 10pc to 15pc of GDP for countries in the eurozone. Ultimately, those deficits will be added to national debts. France’s debt pile will likely soar to 115pc of GDP, Italy’s to 150pc. Fiscal measures in Europe alone should add up to €1.5 trillion this year.
With quantitative easing by central banks, developed countries may limit the damage. In simple terms, central banks are issuing new money to buy debts generated by their respective governments. This money is used to help people and companies during this difficult period. In a few years, the debt that is not owned by anyone but the central banks and can simply be erased.
Nobody can predict the effect of this monetary sleight of hand. At the minimum, it should result in hefty inflation and a significant lowering of the standard of living of the population in years to come. In addition, most of the debt will not be erased and the burden of this crisis will be passed on to our children.
To summarise, the price of this collapse will not be paid by the generation that is more likely to die from the virus (the average age of people dying from the coronavirus in France, for example, is 81), it will be paid by the current and future workforce – our children.
Ironically, in countries such as the USA, France and Germany, the older generation most affected by the virus had a better standard of living than any previous generation before them and very likely than any generation after them. In comparison, the crisis and associated measures taken by governments will be paid for by future generations whose destiny already seemed very uncertain.
All of this reveals a contradiction and an obsession.
The contradiction is that usually we accept many risks and deaths in order to live the way we live. The World Health Organisation estimates that pollution kills 4.2 million people every year. Around 1.35 million people die in road crashes each year. Harmful use of alcohol kills 2.5 million along with another 6 million people from tobacco, including a few hundred thousand from secondhand smoke exposure. Annual influenza epidemics result in 500,000 deaths worldwide.
Yet, pollution is widely tolerated, tobacco, alcohol and cars are not only legal but also legally advertised and nobody really seems to care about the flu.
In comparison, the measures taken to avoid the spread of the coronavirus – which so far has killed “only” 190,000 people – have jeopardized our way of life and the well-being of future generations.
The obsession is that life should be preserved at all cost. Financial cost, but also maybe at the cost of living our lives with the most basic human rights and dignity. Freedom of movement has been suspended and tomorrow movements may be digitally tracked through our mobile phones. As temporary measures, they may be acceptable.
More fundamentally, in many western societies, this obsession for life as opposed to living means that death is taboo. It is associated with the prolonging of life at any cost.
Confinement is not a sustainable way of living and yet even stricter measures have been imposed for people over 70.
Confinement also means dying alone, without the human decency of a proper family goodbye and burial.
Is it really worth living in those conditions in order to survive another week, another month, at best a few more years?
Surely, it is up to the individuals concerned to decide for themselves.
I know that many will argue that our way of living prior to Covid-19 was not sustainable.
I share the hope that this will give the impetus for us to change our way of living for a better future for our children.
However, we need to stop dreaming that human nature is going to change dramatically within a few months.
As if our society is going to become more altruistic and capitalism more human just because of a pandemic.
If 30pc unemployment becomes the norm, social unrest rather than social harmony may be a more likely outcome.
So where does all this leave us?
People who are the most vulnerable should protect themselves and should be protected to the best of our abilities.
Every single one of us should behave in a way that is mindful of others. Individuals should take responsibility for themselves, for their parents, and for their children.
The voices of doctors, to whom we are incredibly indebted, have been heard: we know that the lives of hundreds of thousands of people are at risk today.
But as the dire consequences of a prolonged confinement are becoming clearer, maybe other voices should also be heard– the sociologists, civil society, economists, to name a few but not all.
We need to face the very difficult decisions that need to be taken. Whether we collectively decide to goon with confinement, we need to take stock of the consequences from multiple perspectives.
Maybe now is the time for our western democracies to truly debate these issues to decide our present and our future.
Laurent Muzellec is Professor at Trinity Business School
HE had warned his counterparts what he would say if it came up. A couple of hours later, Dr Tony Holohan was asked the predicted question about the arrival of migrant workers at the fruit company Keelings during the lockdown. The chief medical officer (CMO) expressed his discomfort, saying it was "not consistent" with public health advice. "He said, 'if I am asked about it, I cannot stand over it'. Holohan is playing with a straight bat all the time," a political source said.