If a defining motto of the Roman Empire two millennia ago was “Si vis pacem, bellum para” (“If you aspire to peace, prepare for war”), the reverse might equally be true for Argentina today – in the midst of a war we already need to be thinking ahead to the peace. There can be no doubt that we are at war with a coronavirus epidemic which is causing death, destruction and panic on a par with military hostilities – that is the language being used by governments worldwide. But one day (which will not be next Tuesday) this will all end and a clarity of vision will be needed if we are not to waste time recouping our massive losses – which should not be confused with restoring the status quo ante bellum (to use another Latin phrase).
If this is indeed a world war, where are the Churchills, the Roosevelts and the De Gaulles, many ask, when looking at the erratic leadership (to put it mildly) offered by the likes of Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Boris Johnson or Andrés Manuel López Obrador? The world does indeed need more Winston Churchills (even if that style of leadership might no longer be particularly viable in an age of social networks) but this editorial would like to argue that this country in particular perhaps needs a Clement Attlee-type more.
What possible relevance can the leader of post-war Britain, three-quarters of a century ago, have for Argentina today? The aftermath of the pandemic lockdown is going to find an already recessive economy absolutely shattered with the chain of payments in collapse, placing countless companies and jobs on the brink, not to mention the debt mountain dominating the agenda until recently – a scenario which might well lead to a spirit of defeatism when facing reconstruction. Bombed-out Britain in 1945 was likewise doomsday country with a stratospheric national debt of 25 billion pounds (still big money today), while rationing persisted for nine years after the war. Attlee’s Labour government did not give absolute priority to economic recovery and nor was it especially successful at it (in any case its nationalisations hardly changed a war economy) – “you never had it so good” had to wait more than a decade. And yet this battered Britain pioneered the National Health Service, started up council housing and garden cities around the country and laid numerous foundations for the welfare state – it even managed to host the 1948 Olympics (unlike luckless Tokyo this year).
By the same token the Alberto Fernández government should not be bound to balancing its budget and renegotiating foreign debt ahead of embarking on reconstruction – post-pandemic priorities cannot be the same as pre-pandemic. The post-war British model cannot be simply transplanted across the distances of space and time, of course – even if introduction of a national health service might be more positive here than in most places with the jumble of the current system (no less than 292 union-run obras sociales healthcare schemes overlapping each other, for example).
But just as urgent as streamlining the health system would be extremely ambitious housing programmes to defuse the time-bomb now ticking in the more overcrowded reaches of Greater Buenos Aires (and in the nation’s prisons, it might be added, with mutinies claiming as many lives as coronavirus in the first half of the week). Argentina cannot be allowed to face the next contagious disease averaging three people per room in several percent of the homes in the poorer Greater Buenos Aires districts. Not to mention the lack of running water and sewage and other deficient sanitary conditions which are so basic when a pandemic comes along.
Both current and future problems must be approached with the idea that if something is necessary, then it must be possible. During World War II various countries re-adapted their industries to producing the millions of shells and bullets fired every day with far inferior technology – today in India the Mahindra automobile company is dedicating entire car plants to manufacturing artificial respirators. Argentina must likewise reinvent itself to face this emergency but the changes should not stop once Covid-19 has been overcome – the planning to remove once and for all the structural deficiencies exposed by this pandemic must start now.