Extended: Comment: This might hurt …

Posted: 20th Apr 2020 by James Grant in Uncategorized

There seems to be two issues for consideration that a slightly different perspective might encourage some necessary critical thinking.

Firstly, for what it’s worth – and having tracked the exponential growth in goods and services which came to be regarded as “essential” seemed to reveal that government, however much praise it is due – and the numbers which we don’t yet have will tell us that – had not quite grasped what a lock down would require and had failed to plan. In particular, it had failed to recognise that, over time, virtually every service and everything, is essential. I repeat because it is critical, virtually everything and every service is essential, over time – that is, given enough time.

Government is urging us to take the view that it is relaxing the regulations slowly because – somehow – its numbers show the desired effect of the “lockdown” and that a staged release from lockdown will keep control of the numbers and keep the “curve flat”. What if, instead of expanding the number of goods and services almost everyday as it becomes clear that more and more goods and services are essential – and that we failed to recognise that to begin with, we simply release the relevant ‘goods and services’ from being regarded as non-essential. This would surely save face for a government which I doubt can answer the questions I pose below: what has it been doing until now – on the most critical issues to improve the lives of people.

Secondly, the question of whether we sacrifice lives in aid of stimulating or saving the economy seems to many like a no-brainer. The answer is obvious? I believe it is – that we must save lives first – but this has not been governments policy – at least (apparently) until now.

If this was government’s true concern, it would have declared a national disaster or even imposed martial law years ago to attempt to end the civil war against woman and girls. The same may be said of crime of every sort – but it strikes more harshly when you recognize that we live amongst cowards and bullies and that they prey on the vulnerable. But the effect of this would have been that we would have had to sacrifice our economy – so we rather sacrifice our woman and girls.

If this was the governments true concern – to save lives – it would have ensured that running water was made available to every home. It would have moved people (with their consent), out of informal settlements, it would have housed the homeless. But the economic costs would have simply been too great – so the government chose the economy over human lives.

My point is not that this is not necessarily wrong – when tending to the economy would quickly allow you to acquire the resources to save lives. It is also well understood that we place lives at risk every day in support of the economy. Here I am speaking not only of the people who we send down into the mines – but the simple act of driving or walking to work or around for work, puts one’s life at risk. I am speaking here of the hypocrisy of pretending that we are driven by a policy that requires that we tend to our people first.

It is sad that we saw for the first time a real effort to get essential services such as water to our people, move people out of informal settlements (with their consent), and to house the homeless. The question must be asked – what was government doing for our people before this crisis? The question is all the more pressing when one realises that it begun to do this while our country’s economy was virtually dead going in, and while measures to fight COVID were implemented, these measures has our economy going backward. Also, what is government going to do once we beat this pandemic: remove the new water sources? Throw people back on the street?

A possible and regrettable answer to all of this is that we don’t put lives first. We have now shown that even at our weakest, we can put lives first. But let’s not pretend that – at least until now – we valued lives over money.

Here is the most uncomfortable question of all which I would torture my students with: if I paid you enough money – I mean enough – Zillions even – so you could fulfil your wildest dreams and perhaps also those of your family’s, would you please just press this button – the effect of which is that someone will die. In my days as a lecturer this question would be roundly rejected until I said this: Remember – I’m not asking you what your moral code that you subscribe to says you should do in such circumstances. I’m asking you what you would do if I offered you enough money to keep you and your family in ultimate luxury for eternity – all you have to do is push a button – ohh yes, and as a consequence someone, somewhere will die.

I asked this question often over the 14 years that I taught, and I cannot claim what I saw to be scientific. But this follow up question made a significant difference. I was not asking what the students were supposed to do – I was asking what they would actually do. I was encouraged when people would, at least, be honest. Although there were exceptions, far too many hands went up for us to think that money doesn’t matter.

For many they had one condition – so long as that person who would die was not Desmond Tutu, they would push the button. So Tutu is safe – but not the rest of us. Maybe, just maybe, if we recognise this, we might be reminded of the value and dignity of human life.

James Grant

20 April 2020


Extended (6 May 2020): Terry Bell reports that a group specialists (including actuaries and statisticians) argue that – on the same premises described above – that the choice was not so obviously one of lives vs the economy (see “Actuaries warn Ramaphosa of a ‘humanitarian disaster to dwarf Covid-19′ if restrictive lockdown is not lifted:” Daily Maverick (5 May 2020). They argue that it is a false dichotomy to suggest that the choice is or was one of lives vs the economy – precisely because damaging will cost lives.

Again, as much as it sounds and feels wrong to prioritise the economy over human lives – we had already made that choice long ago. We sacrifice human lives – deliberately – every day in aid of the economy. We don’t feed people to a monster or a machine in exchange for financial stimulus, but we permit deadly endeavors and have allowed millions to live in conditions which place them at risk of falling ill without adequate healthcare.

Sweden has chosen, what, on the false dichotomy would be, their economy over human lives (see ‘The invisible pandemic‘ published in the Lancet (5 May 2020)). It transpires that choosing the economy may well have saved lives, and may still save more lives.

Our decision to deal with covert 19 by adopting an idealist and popular sentiment that we do not sacrifice lives may we produce the loss of lives anyway – except now, as Bell reports, at a rate 29 times higher than we would have suffered.

James Grant

6 May 2020

  1. Cathy Powell says:

    Consider Jacinda Ardern and Angela Merkel’s approaches, as covered by https://www.forbes.com/sites/avivahwittenbergcox/2020/04/13/what-do-countries-with-the-best-coronavirus-reponses-have-in-common-women-leaders/#358568653dec
    I loved the idea that Jacinda Ardern declared it fine to go on outings with ‘your bubble’ (the group of people you live with) as long as you keep enough distance from other people. Makes perfect sense. A lockdown with freedom of movement.

  2. Cathy Powell says:

    I can buy the idea that, if the people were worth more than the economy, the government would have sorted out a lot of other important problems before Covid-19 arrived. I think it’s attacking Covid-19 for the economy’s sake and maybe, also – let’s give them some credit – because all this suffering and death and fear all at once is a new terrible, and maybe they want to fix it. But their completely incoherent lockdown regime – growing worse by the day now that supermarkets may not sell hot food – shows that they don’t have a set of principles that is guiding their response. The fact that they are making it up as they go along does not, however, mean that it is impossible coherently to tackle Covid-19. But I don’t believe a ban on going out, or prohibiting sales of alcohol or hot food, is the way to go about it. I’d focus on ensuring minimal transmission of the virus by social distancing (and enforcing it), provision of proper hygiene equipment and education, more testing and extending health services (and yes, that costs). And I do believe that businesses that bring people into close contact need to close for a while. Basically, your underlying idea of what is going to bring the virus under control is going to inform what services are essential.

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