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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 28-03-2020 11:37

When togetherness is anti-social

Life and the economy are intertwined. Without money, people starve. In an unpleasantly short time, desperation can breed violent anarchy.

In the dystopian world we have just entered, Jean-Paul Sartre’s dictum, “L’enfer, c’est les autres” (“Hell is other people”) is the universal watchword. Governments just about everywhere say three’s a crowd and gatherings of more than two individuals must be broken up immediately by the police or the military. They tell us that getting within spitting distance of a stranger could mean a death sentence either for you or a member of your household, so we should keep our doors well bolted.

For those of us who live in leafy suburban districts or rural areas where barely a fortnight ago you could walk for miles without spotting a soul, a spell of self-isolation is not that gruelling, but for city-dwellers, as these days most people in the world are, it it surely traumatic. They are used to company and are most reluctant to do without it. This is true even of politicians who, before yet again ordering the rest of us to stay at home, hold convivial meetings in closed rooms, a practice which, if the gloomier virologists are to be believed, could have unhappy consequences for many of them.

Another Frenchman, Blaise Pascal, once said “all humanity’s problems stemmed from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” If the extraordinary mathematician, litterateur and theologian who lived over three centuries ago got it right, the global political class has stumbled on the solution to the world’s many problems, but, alas, that seems most unlikely. On the contrary, the international response to the coronavirus outbreak is creating a huge number of new ones to add to those that already kept many people awake at night. Though ecological activists may take heart from the news that pollution levels in central China have plummeted, they a r e about the only people who can find anything to be cheerful about.

Nationalism is making a spectacular comeback with governments everywhere pulling up the drawbridge to keep outsiders well and truly out; this does not suggest they will be any more cooperative in the future than they have been in the past. Among the most enthusiastic is Alberto Fernández’s – even Argentines stranded abroad will not be allowed in until arrangements to segregate all of them properly have been put in place, which could take some time. The aim is to stop the highly contagious virus from spreading too far before the already overstretched medical services are able to cope with a flood of new cases. This makes sense, but the efforts to achieve what he has in mind are fast increasing the number of doctors, nurses, policemen, gendarmes and others who have been in close contact with possible carriers and should therefore go into quarantine for at least a couple of weeks.

Much of the human race is now under house arrest. Even India, with her almost 1.4 billion inhabitants, has closed down for the duration. Just what all this will mean for the world economy is anybody’s guess; pessimists think a new great depression could be fast approaching, while optimists predict nothing worse than a prolonged recession like the one which followed the 2008 financial meltdown. Apart from Donald Trump, who does his best to be upbeat by insisting that he is doing an amazing job and that the United States will be open for business by Easter, most politicians appear to have resigned themselves to what looks inevitable. For some such as Alberto, even thinking about the probable economic consequences of what is going on is beneath their dignity; in the president’s view, if forced to choose between “life” and “the economy,” he, like any decent person, will plump for the former.

Such pronouncements may go down well, but, unfortunate as it no doubt strikes those of a philosophical bent, life and the economy are intertwined. Without money, people starve. In an unpleasantly short time, desperation can breed violent anarchy. This is why all governments, including ours, are keeping a close eye on depressed areas where many – in Argentina, many millions – of poor who make do day by day live as best they can. For most of them, a generalised economic collapse would be even more painful than the arrival of the coronavirus itself.

For the relatively well-off, a single week cooped up indoors may be just about tolerable, but it is unreasonable to ask people who struggle to stay alive in crowded makeshift shacks with no running water to do the same. This is widely understood, but if the government enforces quarantine rules far more strictly in the more prosperous enclaves of Buenos Aires than in the sprawling shantytowns, it will make itself the target of accusations that it is giving priority to the wellbeing of men and women in the upper income brackets over that of millions of others who, as it happens, include most of the people who last year voted it into power.

Epidemiologists have yet to agree on the health dangers posed by Covid-19. As many have pointed out, nobody knows how many people have already caught it. The alarming statistics originally put out by the World Health Organisation, according to which about 3.5 percent of those who got it would die, were based on the assumption that that all those infected had been properly counted but, as we were quickly reminded, it was entirely possible that – since only people who showed some well-defined symptoms had been tested – the true number of cases must be far larger, perhaps 10 times larger, than the official one. If this is so, what we are up against is worse than the common cold, but less deadly than a host of other ailments that are out there waiting to finish us off.

Has the world, led by China, overreacted to the coronavirus pandemic? So far, most of the stern measures that have been taken here and elsewhere have enjoyed considerable public support; people are frightened and want their governments to act decisively and crack down on malefactors who flout the rules. But when the economic costs of the pandemic of lockdowns, which has smashed supply chains, brought whole industries shuddering to a halt, wrecked tourism, downed airlines and sent unemployment soaring really begin to bite, doubts will come swarming back, especially if it turns out that, while vicious enough, the coronavirus – which preys on the elderly and infirm but which, thankfully, tends to leave the younger among us unharmed – is considerably less deadly than had been assumed.

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James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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