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The age of disruption – scenes of Covid-19 action and dark art economics

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Saliem Fakir is Executive Director of the African Climate Change Foundation

What is needed now is not globalisation but glo-co-operation. Covid-19 action is far more a systemic contagion than the 2008 financial crisis.

It is an eerie moment – something I have never seen before. I feel unsettled and disorientated by the emergence of a new reality given how fast the new has foisted itself upon all of us. We will all not be unscathed by Covid-19. It remains to be seen whether we come together or further separate from each other. A real test of whether the four decades of globalisation was a bridge builder or a divider of the world.

Charles De Gaulle (CDG) airport is usually busy bustling with people at duty free shops, the restaurants and departure gates. This Saturday my colleague and I decided we needed to get out of Europe. We are undeniably anxious. South Africa felt safer than Europe. 

We had just done a study tour starting in the United Kingdom and going through three other countries in Europe – all in two intense weeks.

To use Camus’s title, the Plague, is only days away from exponential surge but the plague is already all around. The fast-moving pace of the plague’s spread through Italy makes you realise this thing is no joke even though before I came to Europe I was joking about it. The way Italy and Spain is going has focused minds all over the world – and not everybody is heeding the warnings. Across the Great Wall of China the world is no longer cursing and laughing at China but rather asking for help.

We are for sure in Covid’s field force breathing the air where the virus is finding its way through geographies, public spaces and homes unremittingly and without a sense of national borders. The virus leaps from one human vessel to another and unbeknown to most of them they are the sumptuous host for a voracious unfamiliar predator.

We are on our way back home, in a hurry to say the least, and always nervous about flights being cancelled given how quiet CDG was.

The duty-free stores are empty and the attendants sit idly about wondering about the security of their jobs. The economic impact of the virus slowly percolates through the network infrastructure and channels that society and the economy relies on daily to get things done. Ironically, the benefits of globalisation is also the fast-track for pandemics.

There was hardly a soul and you could hear a pin drop. Few passengers boarded the flight to Heathrow and the flight attendant remarked that this was the busiest plane they have had in three days. All of economic life is rapidly shutting down towards the moment of economic standstill. All economies sign a Faustian bargain with the devil and the devil is uncertainty.  Who would have thought that your New Year’s wish will find you stepping into the headwind of Covid action.

We can feel the presence of the virus – in the fear that hangs in the air and the people that stayed away from places where masses naturally congregate as commuters take trains, planes or buses to wherever they go in Europe. 

We were in Covid 19 territory, but on ground zero a week ago, especially the London tube few people wear masks and most carry on with life as if there was no Covid 19 virus. I think to myself the tube is the best breeding ground for the virus. At peak hours you are a breath away from a stranger packed as it were in this mobile capsule with everybody less than a meter away from each other.

Inevitable you have to hang on to the rails, hand-holders and breathe in a few coughs and sneezes. If you are not pressed close to each other you are touching surfaces or taking in air droplets. So, it’s a bit odd that the UK government should still hold the “scientific” belief that herd immunity is the solution for Londoners when the rest of the world is going the other way.  It’s clear it is not science but ideology that flutters through the policy dungeon of 10 Downing Street. 

The virus has a politics of its own. Reminding us that diseases do not only have a biology and science but a social layer and body-politic that governs the very biology and organic spread of this tiny unseen thing starting to wreak havoc across the globe. 

The virus itself is challenging different models of social organisation and pitting state will against individual will. At the heart is whether the “nanny state” waits for individual responsibility and liberty – like free marketeers and libertarians would want it – or act decisively and to decide for the whole nation than free will debate the pros and cons of this or that solution.

Indeed, leaders have risen to the challenge and they are coming out from unexpected quarters -surprisingly even our slow handler of change, President Ramaphosa, is acting with clarity of vision and will. Sometimes intuitive leadership, that is empathetic and holds together the collective will is better than indecision and over-consultation that is chaotic.

There may well be no democracy left if we have to wait for everybody to concede. What is visible is that citizens are not looking to the ethereal globalisation for immediate action but nation states – they are not doing it via the ballot box but through social media. The voices are loud and clear. In this sanction of state will by ordinary citizens the rise of the national state is once again visible thanks to Covid action.

Ramaphosa will be made or broken by such a decision so will many leaders around the world. Political parties have to leave their differences aside even though the itch to make populist political capital can be enticing. In some countries, like in Hungary, the Covid 19 virus has served dual ends: one to control the pandemic and the other to instil fear and control by an increasingly authoritarian Viktor Orban as he seeks a life-term ‘service’ in political office.

While Orban has aspirations for a heavy touch, even light touch state interventionists may find in social engineering a newfound opportunity as the state will take precedence over free will. China has shown how its system can cope better when states act decisively and with less democracy. Even in the US, there is now talk of the need for the Federal government to nationalise private hospital beds as the fragmented polity of semi-autonomous states run helter-skelter to declare lockdowns and emergencies.

If we are to learn anything from previous pandemics such as Black Death and the Spanish flu is that if there is a prolonged economic shutdown economies can be permanently damaged. Some have better resources to recover and others may be set back even more years.

Globalisation will be turned on its head as countries go their way as nationalist instincts take over even though the level of global co-operation and knowledge sharing around unlocking the dynamics of the virus to fast track a vaccine remain tied through unprecedented goodwill. 

Social distancing will flatten the curve but nobody knows whether it can be sustained over very long periods before a vaccine is available. Pressure will mount as people scrape through empty shelves, feel cooked up and where normal routines and pleasures of life are squeezed out by soldiers and the law. Anger at homes may well into the streets as freedom and lockdown strain the umbilical cord of social order.

It is unclear how nationalists’ feelings can withstand long periods of social distancing and the unequal dispensing of care (given the unequal nature of medical care and facilities) and neighbourhood lockdowns in the prevailing apartheid geography that persists in South Africa. Old frictions, wounds and divisions can easily surface and then more than the virus will break loose. This is why Ramaphosa has to work with all social players and consistently delay his messaging on national news in front of Rainbow Nation.

Again, the state  against individual will shall be tested. Our state has limited resources as other states, the policers of austerity measures, now seem to be limitless in their printing spree of money. Ordinary citizens will hear now familiar economic jargon like “quantity easing” (as one gang member of the so-called Zuma-era Premier League leaders clumsily called it), helicopter money or other economic terms like stimulus packages. Modern monetary theory has some merit but only developed economies, with strong foreign currency and an export dominant economy, seem to have the licence to print money. Others must continue to beg and borrow from the IMF and global capital markets – they cannot print money for fear of hyperinflation and loss of control over exchange rates.

Yet, another reason why globalisation has failed poorer states and their citizens is the distribution of economic power and ability to print money is for a few.

The race is not only to prevent an implosion in medical services but to also find short-term economic solutions as countries grapple with what we know is certain economic slow-down. The world should consider a global solidarity fund where the EU already has one in place for itself. What is needed now is not globalisation but glo-co-operation. Covid action is far more a systemic contagion than the 2008 financial crisis.

As we land in Cape Town the flight attendant on the BA flight tells me she may lose her job – the airlines are cutting routes and people. I think of how many other jobs will be lost and how will it all end.

I walk off  the plane pleased to be back home but yet still uncertain as to the future that Covid action has opened up for all of us. My world is divided between the care of myself and that of others. DM

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