Economics Magazine

The Virus is a Mirror

Posted on the 06 May 2020 by Andrewgavinmarshall @A_G_Marshall
Let us see that the virus allows us to reflect on ourselves, not simply at a national level, but at a civilizational level - at the level of the human species.

In a matter of a few months, our world has undergone profound disruptions and change. In fact, much of this came in just days and weeks. At first, it was a shock: yes, there is a pandemic, a deadly - or potentially deadly - virus that was spreading rapidly, accelerating exponentially, and killing excessively. Initially it was China, and we did not pay much attention. China has had epidemics before, and they'll deal with it; that's just China. Other countries in Asia began experiencing a spike in cases, from South Korea to Iran. But Korea was handling it, and Iran - well, aren't they kind of a "troubled" spot, anyhow?

Enter Italy

The cases shot up, the crisis erupted, and an emergency was apparent. The numbers read out from our TVs and phone screens showed rising infections and deaths with hospitals overwhelmed. The world's "trouble spots" were China, South Korea, Iran and Italy. Other nations were putting up travel restrictions and quarantine rules for those arriving from those hot spots. As you read this, you may think, "oh, yeah, I remember when it was just those four." But it was not so long ago, just early March, two months, eight weeks (as of this writing).

But many other nations had, by that time, reported cases of the virus in their populations, spread by travelers emanating from those four centres. Still, the virus seemed a distant, vague threat. It was worrying, yes, but worrying for China, South Korea, Iran and Italy. "Here," in whatever country you/we are in (I am in Canada), "we are safe, we are fine." Our governments had already blocked or quarantined travelers from those countries, so, "we will not have any problems." The problem is effectively solved, the virus contained; but wow, close call. Poor Italy, though. Poor Italy.

As we all now know, it wasn't just Italy.

On March 8, the United States had 500 reported cases of the virus; the world had a reported 100,000 cases, and nearly 3,500 deaths, the majority of which were in China. The next day, Italy went into lockdown as Canada and Germany reported their first deaths from the virus. Within days, all 26 European Union nations reported cases of the virus, and many began to shutter their schools. Flights were being suspended, travel grounded, stores were closing, various U.S. states declared emergencies.

On March 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the virus outbreak to officially be a pandemic, an epidemic on a global level.

Suddenly, seemingly, it was everywhere. The world economy was battered, and global stock markets took a one-two-three punch of crashes on the 9 th, 12 th and 16 th of March. By the third market crash, the US had over 4,000 confirmed cases of the virus, schools were closing in US states and cities, Spain was shutting down, France was shutting down, Germany closed its borders. Two weeks later, at the beginning of April, the United States had more than 200,000 infections and over 4,000 deaths. Global cases surpassed one million, deaths surpassed 50,000, with roughly 91% of Americans ordered to stay at home. Approximately half the world's population was living under one form of lockdown in early April.

The Lockdowns

The lockdowns created tens of millions of new unemployed, and many governments had to come to the rescue of their citizens (as indeed they should have). But they also made a priority of bailing out financial institutions and large corporations. The world entered a major recession, with most of the commentary declaring this to be the worst economic event since the Great Depression, the worst global economic event in history. It far surpassed the global financial crisis of 2008, which already tore through the past decade and left us with a deeply unstable global economic and financial system, sick and writhing long before the viral spread. The only thing that spread faster than the virus itself was the economic chaos it unleashed.

Trillions of dollars were pumped into financial markets to keep the financial system afloat. In fact, the very same day that the WHO declared a pandemic, the U.S. Federal Reserve (the country's central bank) announced that it would pump trillions of dollars into the financial system, and for one week in March it said it would make $1 trillion available every day to markets. In April, the Fed announced it could inject trillions more into the financial system.

What the Fed and other central banks spend in a day in providing support to financial markets, governments of the same countries take weeks of negotiations to provide support for their domestic populations, if they do so at all. Financial markets sit at the centre of our global financial system and economy and represent the richest institutions in the world: banks, asset managers, hedge funds, and other investment vehicles that individually hold trillions in assets. These institutions and this system of finance could not survive day one of the pandemic without trillions in support, yet it took weeks to rally less money to support tens of millions of people struggling with unemployment, loss of wages, rents, mortgages, credit card debt and consumer shortages.

The lockdowns were extended, the virus spread, cases rose, deaths continued, populations became restless, and in some cases, resistant. Starting at the point at which the WHO declared a pandemic (on March 11), to the first week of May, the lockdowns have lasted for up to eight weeks (depending on the country). China's lockdown started much earlier than those in the rest of the world and was thus able to come to an end sooner. However, it is only opening slowly and with caution.

The Spread

In the first week of May, global cases surpassed 3.5 million and deaths rose above 250,000. In the roughly four weeks since the start of April, global cases increased from 1 to 3.5 million, and deaths from 50,000 to 250,000. In that same four-week span, US numbers went from 270,000 cases and 7,000 deaths to 1.2 million cases and 70,000 deaths.

While we struggle with the fatigue of the lockdowns, and earnestly desire for society to open once again - to see our friends and family and be together and experience all the things we previously took for granted - we still must face the struggle of reality. The reality is that the virus is a part of our world now. The virus - and the subsequent global lockdowns - are undoubtedly one of the most significant global events ever witnessed. Much like the virus itself, the economic, political and social chaos and crises it unleashed are only in their early stages, their first few weeks and months. This does not mean that all that is to come will be like the lockdowns and crashes of mid-March, or akin to the human tragedy unleashed in places like Italy and the United States.

It will not all be like that. But there will (likely) be periods of opening, and then more lockdowns to come. There will likely be places that seem to have everything under control, and then there will be countries that plunge into crisis and its people into pain. The virus is a part of our world now, in the actual scientific sense of the virus having mutated from one species into humans, unleashing a highly contagious and deadly new pathogen for which humans have no antibodies or pharmacological remedies. But the virus is also a part of our world as social, political and economic beings. It has ruptured our lives and upended our societies, some more than others.

The Virus is a Mirror

In its spread, we see the interconnectedness of our world; we see our healthcare systems, our doctors and nurses, our "essential workers." We see the migrant workers who pick our food, the working class who keep us fed and well-supplied with all our necessities. We see inadequate social systems that offer little support. We see lives being sacrificed for the hopes of reviving the economy. We see greed and petulance, madness and depravity.

But we also see how simple it is to provide for the many, to give the financial support that is necessary for the population to meet its basic needs. We see homeless people given empty homes or hotel rooms. We see some countries saying itis time for guaranteed basic incomes. We see the need for better and more widely accessible healthcare. We see the strength and necessity of our working classes, and the uselessness and greed of the financial superclass.

Medical and scientific professionals have been fighting the virus on the front lines, and as a result have often been falling victim to its endless appetite for expansion. Working class people have kept our grocery stores stocked, our supplies shipped, our (remaining) public spaces clean, our deliveries arriving, our stomachs full and our homes secure. They are lower paid, usually with no benefits, and they work in the midst of a pandemic at greater risk to themselves than we face in the comfort of our homes. They are also a major reason why, in the midst of a pandemic and the lockdowns that ensued, civilization itself has not collapsed. It may sound like an exaggeration, but if the food stops being picked, or shipped, and the stores stop being stocked, or items sold; if maintenance workers stopped maintaining, if transport workers stopped transporting, we would have worse problems on our hands than the virus itself.

Compare this class to the super-rich, particularly the financial sector. Once the pandemic was underway, the state institutions opened the floodgates of cash to pump into the financial sector, to the tune of several trillions (the real numbers will not likely be known for years, just as was the case following the global financial crisis of 2008, which itself saw tens of trillions in support for financial institutions). At a moment's notice, with the threat of a virus, the financial centre of our global economic system crashed and needed more support than ever before, and more support than any other sector of human society.

The working people who we rely upon for our society to keep functioning are left with low wages, few benefits (if any), and increased personal risk of exposure to the virus itself.

If the virus is a mirror of our society, let us see not only what is bad and wrong and frightening in our reflection, but also what is good and strong. Let us see that the virus allows us to reflect on ourselves, not simply at a national level, but at a civilizational level - at the level of the human species. Let us see that other existential threats - such as climate change or nuclear warfare - must be taken more seriously. Let us see the need for a shift in priorities, from economic growth and profits to environmental sustainability and people. Let us put humanity's potential to survive the 21 st century - and for our civilization to avoid collapse - ahead of the desire for better quarterly returns, equity dividends, and profit incentives.

In the function of the virus we also see our global economy, constantly in search of new hosts, new cells to latch onto and infect, consume, and destroy, and from which it disseminates and propagates. Perpetually in search of growth and expansion, it is perfectly designed to spread, to mutate, to accelerate and to destroy. In the ultimate destruction of the host, the virus triumphs, but if it does not spread further, it dies with the host as well.

Let us see in the virus ourselves, our society, for what it is and what it lacks, but also for what it can be. Let us see.

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