Since most governments ignored medical science warnings of a coming Pandemic, most countries have fallen back on various forms of hasty Plan B’s. These have involved lock downs, citizen isolation’s and quarantines of various kinds and duration’s. The effects have been to stop many kinds of economic activity except (as yet) essential food supplies, water, heating, electrical power and sewage. Economically, this has had the same effect as a global General Strike of workers but in this case motivated, authorised and part-funded by ruling elites.
Although unevenly distributed, the reduction of income and expenditure has been international. Government bailouts have been in the form of loans and percentages of previous incomes. Exceptions aside, those already struggling prior to lock down will therefore be in debt and those already in debt will be more so. That applies to employed, self-employed, unemployed and businesses. Hence in many countries speculation is rife about how soon ‘life’ will return to some kind of working ‘normal’. In this regard, it is worth considering three possible scenarios and outcomes for ending restrictions.
1 Before reliable and extended testing. It is clear that until a reliable test is widely conducted no one knows who has the Covid-19 virus or has had it and thus likely to spread it. This means that some percentage of those going back to work or beginning to socially congregate – before such testing – will inevitably spread the virus even if masked and practicing regular hand washing.
It would only take one or two lax persons to leave a trail of aerosol droplets in communal spaces or virus-containing hand debris on community sited handles, buttons, documents, food, counters etc., to attach itself to more than one other person (who even if immune) might thus deposit it elsewhere. That chain could potentially set off at least another localised epidemic. If due to the current lock-down and self-isolation a high percentage of citizens are not immune, then the infection figures could rise again along with a further percentage of hospitalisations and deaths.
Many businesses, for various reasons, will still not re-open at this point and therefore not re-employ workers. Many will not wish to risk catching the virus by returning to work or socialising too soon. Some will also not want to work or socialise with masks on and at distance from each other. Many businesses having collapsed may never re-open. Economic activity will therefore return but at very low levels.
Moreover, if due to premature lifting of restrictions, another serious spike in infections occurs, then isolation etc., will be re-instated all at a time when health service staff and resources would be exhausted and depleted.
2 After extensive good quality testing. In this case those tested positive and presumed not to be carrying and shedding viruses can return to work (if its available) and to socialising with others similarly positive. Whilst paying off any accrued debts those then in work can become purchasers of more than basic food stuffs. Those tested negative will need to continue isolation or risk picking up the virus in one of its mild or extreme forms. Those not tested will face the same dilemma as those testing negative. Some will and some won’t return to work or socialising.
All those who don’t find work will also have to deal with mounting debt whilst on benefits.
By that time more small businesses and some large ones will have been bankrupted or downsized and others will have cutback on staff, to lower costs and/or repay debts. Therefore, the unemployed figures will have risen, poverty will have increased and overall purchasing power still low. Even those businesses and sole traders who managed to survive during lock down will be faced with reduced customers and low margins. Economic activity will not be an upward spiral.
And still no vaccine yet! So no return to ‘normal‘ – if normal is envisaged as pre- 2020 levels of simmering crisis in social care, education, local government, financial bubbles and speculation, political corruption, air, land and water pollution and ecological destruction. All these were steadily ratcheting up and heading on crisis trajectories. Covid-19 merely interrupted their paths before they became disasters.
3. After a successful vaccination programme. The vast majority of citizens of countries who eventually carry out mass vaccination programmes will no longer need to socially isolate – but global trade will not have fully recovered. Consequently unemployment will remain high and demand for high-value products insufficient to stimulate large-scale employment. Capitalist investors will know that.
Apart from a few the rest will engage in financial speculation. Inflating financial bubbles will do little to stimulate jobs or trade.
And importantly none of the pre Covid19 problems referenced above will have been solved. Precarious employment, food-banks, low pay, high personal debt, social care problems, student debt, increasing drug dependence, crime, asylum seekers, economic migrants, political instability and yes still under-resourced health services. All these pre – Covid19 symptoms will have been intensified by the global shut down. Then there are the Covid19 ‘bail-out’ additions to the huge pre-2020 government debt levels.
Debt which isn’t cancelled will have to be serviced, by individuals and countries, the latter from a physical tax base reduced even further by Covid19 created unemployment and bankruptcies. Even the best post-vaccination scenario will be worse for many people, including large numbers of the middle-class, when good jobs and investment funds decrease. Even in the ‘advanced’ countries, the rest of 2020 and 2021 will not return to a normality most people would wish for. Not under the present mode of production.
After Covid19 lock-down, working people will therefore be faced with campaigning for a new egalitarian and ecological mode of production, valuing all workers and adequately preparing societies for the next crisis (or future Pandemic) or being driven back to 1930’s levels of poverty by the return of elite-orchestrated authoritarian capitalism. Either way, 21st century economic and social logic suggests that normal will not be returning soon.
Roy Ratcliffe (April 2020)
[For an interesting parallel to what faces us consider a short article on the novel ‘The Plague’ by Albert Camus at http://threewayfight.blogspot.com/2020/03/no-longer-merely-metaphor-re-reading.html ]