Opinions Mon, 1 Jun 2020
The World at a StandstillThere is practically no individual on the planet Earth who has not been significantly affected by raging COVID-19. From workers who have lost their source of income, Christians and Moslems cannot gather together to worship their God, to politicians and business leaders whose agenda has been hijacked by COVID 19. For the most part of the world’s population, there is one form of a lockdown or the other. These restrictions have resulted in a drastic impact on the world.
The question that is yet to be answered as to what are the changes that would occur in the long-term, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Change is an integral part of life. A famous quote that is usually wrongly attributed to Charles Darwin is “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change”. In the late1990s, when I completed my A-level examination, I exchanged postal addresses with my fellow students. In the early 2000s when I completed university, we exchanged email addresses.
The Bishop of York, was recently a panelist on a program on BBC about COVID-19, he made a statement to the effect that, the most important thing the UK government can do, in the COVID 19 pandemic, will be to listen to what the scientists are saying on COVID-19. He did not talk about the government needing to seek the counsel of God.
This is very different to what would have occurred in the 18th or the 19th century, if a pandemic had occurred then. During those times, religious leaders would have been the main group of people that will be listened to. Religious leaders would be leading the offering of sacrifices, including human sacrifices, to various gods as a means of stopping the pandemic.
Possible Aftermath of the COVID-19
What this article seeks to do is to set out some possible long term outcomes of the COVID 19 pandemic.
One thing that is certain about any academic prediction exercise, such as what this article is, is that reality will be different from the prediction.
However, the purpose of envisaging the future, is not to predict the future, but to focus the mind of society, especially decision makers, to think of the future, plan and make decisions today that would help ensure a better future. What would happen in reality depends on how individuals, society and government react to the pandemic and its associated challenges.
In the next paragraphs, the potential impact of COVID-19 on various aspects of our lives will be considered.
For any relationship to be successful, the individuals in the relationship will have to give up part of their liberty. This is as true of marriages as it is true of being a citizen of a country. Citizens that are not prepared to give up the “choice” of murdering others or stealing other peoples’ property are usually excluded from society, by being kept in a prison.
Government of most countries have been changed their laws as a result of the COVID 19 pandemic. A common feature of these newly introduced legislations is that, it gives governments greater powers at the expense of the liberty of individuals and to some extent businesses.
In Scotland for example, the use of juries to determine whether an accused is guilty, is a time honoured tradition. However, legislation introduced to deal with COVID 19 allows a judge to determine if an accused is guilty without a jury. The legislation introduced in Ghana as a result of COVID 19 allows the government to access the call history, mobile money wallet transactions as well as location of people in Ghana.
Most of these legislations are meant to be temporary and for very specific occasions. History, however, shows that, laws that are meant for specific situations have been used by government in totally different circumstances. This is to say that one of the consequences of the COVID 19 pandemic is that, the power of governments have increased at the expense of individual liberty.
The reduction of liberty will include a reduction in the liberty of spending the income individuals earn. A greater part of individual incomes will be taxed in future.
A number of countries have elected populist or nationalist politicians in recent years. Some have argued that this is as a result of the financial crises of 2008 in which governments implemented bailout programs that appeared to benefit the elite and the rich instead of the entirety of the population.
One common feature of the elections that elected these populist politicians has been a strategy to belittle the importance of “experts”. This transpired in Brazil, United Kingdom as well as in United States of America. Technical knowledge was considered inferior to strongly held beliefs, vision or intuition of leaders, especially charismatic leaders.
How Do I Mean?
This kind of thinking, has undoubtedly, greatly influenced the manner in which some western countries prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic. Due, presumably to superiority complex, some leaders believed that their country would be spared the damage done by COVID -19 in other countries.
History will show that the biggest risk factor for COVID-19 was superiority complex of leaders of the countries and how long ago the countries had suffered from an epidemic.
A common feature of the response of most countries, has been government bailouts. These bailouts have been unprecedented. In some countries, the bailouts have come in the form of paying the salaries of workers. in UK, to payment of utility services in Ghana. Historically taxes are paid so that governments can use it to provide services such as education, security, health, subsidies on utilities etc.
The trend of governments assisting businesses and individuals, in difficult times such as a pandemic, is expanding the role of government and consequently the use of taxes.
Governments are implicitly saying that in times of national crises, the government will ensure a minimum standard of living. This expansion of the role of government in the life of the individual as well as businesses, would result in the need for government to get more income, which would temporarily come from increased borrowing but will ultimately be paid through taxes. This points to increased taxes to pay for the largesse shown during the current pandemic.
A notable feature of the COVID 19 news briefing that is given by governments in most countries is the presence of experts alongside politicians. This is done partly to shore up politicians, but it is also clear that society is waking up to the importance of knowledge and expertise rather than just intuition, vision and beliefs. Society as a whole is coming to understand that, knowledge and knowhow is just as important as vision and charisma.
I am not unbiased when it comes to Religion. I am a Christian, or to put it more accurately, I consider myself as such. As such my views on religion will be tainted with some bias.
One of the reasons why humans are religious is that, there are events or circumstances that are outside of our control. Humans are also religious because there are phenomena that we do not fully understand. This explains why in times of crises such as pandemics, most of us turn to religion for comfort. This is why, the closing down of places of worship has adversely affected a number of people.
The role of religion in national life has reduced significantly over the decades. However, religion continues to be important in the lives of a number of individuals. Even in secular nations, such as Britain, during the pandemic a lot of airtime are given to religious leaders. In countries with more religious populations, national day of prayers and fasting having been organised in response to COVID 19.
When Science turned out to be only “Scientific”
The importance of science and research have been highlighted by this pandemic. However, when scientists are questioned, they do not give definite answers. They do not say “this plague that you see, you shall see no more” or do they say “if the people who are called by my name, humble themselves and pray, I will heal their land”. The pandemic has also highlighted the fact that research is basically, an educated form of trial and error. This is exemplified by the test kits that were procured by the UK government to test whether an individual has anti-bodies which will indicate that they have had COVID 19 and have recovered, were found not to be as accurate as required.
The lure of religion includes the certainty it gives. Religion offers reassurance that it will be well in the end. Romans 8:28 puts this very nicely, “everything works together for the good...”. This reassurance is very valuable in uncertain times. And this kind of reliance is difficult to find anywhere else.
The future will continue to be very uncertain. Given our interconnected world, pandemics and economic downturns, have greater probability of occurring. Climate change also has the potential of increasing the variability of the weather, which is likely to adversely affect our livelihoods. Technology, for all the benefits it gives, will make some professions obsolete.
Religion will continue to provide comfort to individuals who are threatened by such challenges.
This pandemic has also laid bare some of the dark side of religion. Religious leaders that prey on the faith of their followers or peddle conspiracy theories have had their fifteen seconds of fame. These actions will have some negative impact on religion.
Some scientists are of the view, that we are moving into the Anthropocene geological era. This is basically the era of man. This is because, currently, humans are the main reason why the environment is changing. The activities of humans have resulted in an increased amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere and oceans. This is one of the reasons why the oceans are more acidic.
It is reported that during the financial crisis of 2008, the slowdown in economic activity resulted in a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from 29.3GT to 29GT. This, however, only lasted for a short time. When economic activity picked up, emissions continued to follow their previous increasing trajectory. Similarly, there will be a short term impact positive impact of COVID 19 pandemic on the environment. This will primarily be as a result of the reduction in economic activity, especially manufacturing, during the period of the lockdown.
The long term impact of the pandemic will be determined by the extent by which the world’s population is reduced by and in which country the reduction occurs the most. The carbon dioxide emission per capita of developed countries is almost ten times that of developing countries. Thus, a reduction in population in the developed world will have more significant impact on emissions than that of the developing countries.
Pandemics that result in significant reduction in population, such as the Black Death pandemic that killed about 40% of Europeans and reduced global population from 450million to an estimated 350million, results in a significant positive impact on the environment. This is because there is less demand for food, goods and services, the production of which, is one of the main causes of environmental pollution.
Irrespective of how devasting the death toll of this pandemic is or likely to be, it has made most of society reassess what is important. There is the possibility that our leaders will wake up to the importance of long term strategic thinking which would include the importance of our environment.
Given the lockdown, there will be a significant immediate reduction in economic activity in most countries. There are a number of ways to assess how the economy will be impacted. We could look at how much economic growth will be impacted by considering how the pandemic will affect the factors that affect economic growth, such as population growth, technology and accumulation of capital.
However, the focus of this discussion will be what is the purpose of an economy and how by this pandemic, we may cause us to assess what we prioritize most. To do this, we need to answer the question, “was the economy made for man or man was made for the economy”.
This conflict can be seen in the following scriptures:
1. 2 Thessalonians 3:10 - "For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: 'The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat. ...”
2. Deuteronomy 26:2 – “When you have finished setting aside a tenth of all your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give it to the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied”.
The above scriptures talk about how Christians are supposed to respond to the poor and needy. As a result of the pandemics, most countries are providing some forms of relief to especially their citizens who have become impoverished. Some countries such as Spain have started thinking of giving each individual a minimum income, irrespective of whether the individual is working or not. This is basically being done so that society as a whole will have a minimum standard of living.
The conflict that most of us have, is that there are individuals who take advantage of society by making use of these benefits without just cause. That is, does the safety net provided by society promote laziness and cheating?
The impact of poverty is dire and all encompassing. If we attempted to cover the impact of poverty, it will certainly double the length of this article. However, we can summarise it by highlighting that communities that are most affected by COVID 19 in USA are the African American communities. This is mainly because of their jobs which are mainly in public services that interact a lot of the public and the affect they are generally economically disadvantaged.
What this pandemic is showing is that no individual and for that matter, country is an island to themselves. The health of others affects all of us. Thus, there is a need for an economy in which the poor and needy are supported. Afterall, the strength of a chain depends on the weakest link.
The most useful thing that can come out of the pandemic is a redefining of what is valued by society and how the society is developed together with the economic system to support this vision.
The idea that the market should determine the value of everything in society has been destroyed. If that was the case, there should have not been any bailouts. By the bailout, we are saying that individuals should have some minimum standard of living. The logical follow on question is why should we not extend this to normal times. There are some individuals in the society that may be in their own economic “pandemic”, even during the so-called normal times. This is why there is a need for a global effort to improve the lives of every individual in every country, especially their health.
Very few events have had this level of global impact. The other event that has had such a global impact was the World war II. The aftermath of the World War II lead to the formation of important organisations such as United Nations. Organisations such as the UN have their critics, but few would argue they are completely useless.
Event such as this pandemic offers society an opportunity to reassess itself. It gives us an opportunity to think of the society we want to have, especially about the weakest members of the society, as well as countries. it also allows us to reform some of the International bodies in place to deal with the various risks that we face as a society.
In summary, the pandemic offers us an opportunity for society to think of what decisions that can be taken now to influence the environment and society that we will leave to the future generation. This is very important given that the bailouts that we are using to deal with the pandemic, will be paid for by the future generation.
The Author, Mr Seth Eshun is a Fellow of the Institute of Actuaries and a Civil Engineer by training. He is currently the Head of Supervision of the National Insurance Commission, Ghana after having had stints with the Bank of England, UK, Aviva UK and Ernst & Young, UK. He is also an adjunct Lecturer at the Statistics Department of the University of Ghana.
Columnist: Seth Eshun