Defend Truth


Covid and the complex issue of the size of the state


Tim Cohen is editor of Business Maverick. He is a business and political journalist and commentator of more years than he likes to admit. His freelance work has included contributions to the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, but he spent most of his life working for Business Day. After a mid-life crisis that didn't include the traditional fast car, Cohen now lives in the middle of nowhere in the Karoo.

The process of ageing is an exercise in understanding how little you understand. One thing I thought I was sure about at the start of the coronavirus pandemic was that it would reinforce the role of the state and encourage us to value more highly the role it plays.

After all, the hallowed British National Health Service (NHS), publicly funded and free at the point of consumption, was introduced as a consequence of World War 2. In fact, World War 1 was effectively the stepping stone towards the NHS, since before then the UK’s health service was akin to SA’s now – a system partially publicly funded underpinned by a health insurance methodology.

In economics, this is called the ratchet effect. Services introduced as temporary measures transform into becoming part of the permanent bureaucracy.

Yet, around the world, my sense is that this time it’s working out differently. One global survey that tries to answer this question is the Edelman Trust Barometer. The survey of people in 28 countries has just come out, and in large measure it confirms the shocking findings of the 2021 survey.

Trust in government declined in almost every country surveyed, and in some, it imploded. South Korea, the UK, Canada, China and Mexico recorded double digit declines in 2021. In the 2022 survey, China rose, but Germany and the Netherlands dropped by six and five percentage points respectively, and the US fell further.

In 2021, trust in the media, NGOs and business also declined but by lesser degrees, with business actually faring the best by declining the least, becoming incredibly, almost by default, the most trusted of the four pillars of society. In 2022, this trend was slightly reversed with respect to NGOs with business holding.

Trust in the media of all descriptions dropped to the lowest numbers since 2021, with the traditional media dropping below search engines for the first time. In 2022, trust in the media dropped even further.

The issues go wider than this, too. In times of crisis, governments tend to clamp down on the free flow of information. That has certainly happened in authoritarian and developing countries during the crisis.

But in most democratic countries, the crisis was complicated by social media. This time around, governments in democratic countries were unable or unwilling to impose stricter rules on the media, presumably because they would be ineffective.

Instead, what happened is the media landscape polarised. One recent example was the decision of rocker Neil Young, supported by other musicians, to remove his songs from the music app Spotify because of what he considered “misinformation” aired by talk-show host Joe Rogan about Covid-19. At one point Rogan himself refused to be vaccinated and subsequently got Covid-19. He then said he wasn’t an “anti-vaxxer”, but he thought young people shouldn’t get vaccinated because they were probably healthy enough to withstand the virus. Rogan is clearly tapped into a vein of scepticism and disdain for authorities.

Yet, look at it from the other point of view. Consider for a moment the notion of an ageing rocker, long a proponent of free speech and who has himself supported causes in opposition to scientific convention, demanding others now conform to scientific convention. Young has long claimed that genetically modified foods are “poison”; they may be disagreeable to some but since about 60% of food in the average supermarket is genetically modified, clearly they are not poisonous.

Rogan has apologised, sort of; Spotify has tried to pretend it supports free speech, but did remove 40 of Rogan’s podcasts.

Overall, the degree of media clampdown, and therefore the dominance of the state, has not been anything as severe as in the big national crises in recent history.

In SA, all of this is summarised in a way by the unfortunate debate within the Presidential Economic Advisory Council about the introduction of a basic income grant (BIG). Several leaks revealed strongly contested opinions within the group, with most opposing the immediate introduction of a BIG, based mainly on questions of affordability, while others pressed hard for its introduction based on necessity.

The debate is complex, but it’s worth noting that it mirrors the global tussle over the desirability of expanding the state, particularly funded by huge amounts of new debt, which is viewed broadly with scepticism.

Partly because of the complexity of Covid-19 and its changing character, the crisis has had different consequences from other major disasters. Government missteps, some understandable in hindsight, have meant few have rallied around the flag. Whether that is a good thing or not depends on your politics, but the fact is it hasn’t happened. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Woolworths, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.


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