Preventing Upcoming Post-Epidemic Catastrophe

Pieter Bruegel the Elder "The Fall of the Rebel Angels" via Web Gallery of Art // Public Domain

If the ongoing lockdown – unprecedented on this scale in the modern history – is to continue for another three months or longer, we will bear witness to an economic and humanitarian catastrophe. What might follow is a massive and unpredictable social rebellion.

The greatest political challenge of today is coming up with a plan to help people go back to work and quell the current global panic attack. Which is why in this article I will attempt to prove why the solutions introduced by various governments on a mass scale are wrong, and that if kept in place for a longer period of time, their consequences might be far more severe than the disease they were put in place to fight against.

First of all, we must debunk the myth that “stopping the world” was a rational and well thought-over decision made by various governments. This was a decision oftentimes based on noble intentions, a domino effect of sorts, stemming from the politicians’ fear of the deadly accusation of neglecting to ct people’s lives.

In fact, the steps taken by the Polish government were a direct consequence of a moral blackmail, and as such were not based on any hard data (as these are still not available) nor a precise action plan.

In the history of the world, chance plays a much more important role than one could even imagine. No wonder that so many politicians made such decisions – it’s a pat of human nature. On a micro-scale, when facing a similar “moral blackmail” I had decided to shut down the cultural club managed by our Foundation even before the official restrictions were introduced.

There is nothing unusual in reacting to any possibility of having a detrimental effect on people’s health, we simply want to do our utmost to avoid bearing the consequences and protecting the people. This is what the micro scale requires.

This approach, however, is no longer applicable to governing whole societies and countries. On a macro scale, saving as many lives as possible and safeguarding the welfare of the entire society must be the priority. One simply cannot bury one’s head in the and and accept only one of the potential scenarios.

I have not yet heard any serious epidemiologist nor doctor who would claim that we are capable of containing the epidemic within a month, two, or even three.

Professor Jerzy Milewski, a Polish doctor and a member of National Development Council in the office of the president, claims that there is no way that the health crisis can be dealt with by the application of the currently employed methods in a situation when app. 80% of all infected has no symptoms. This means that this group is deprived of any systemic healthcare.

It is also worth to refer to a model created by the scientists working at the Faculty of Epidemiology at Oxford University under the supervision of Professor Sunetra Gupta. According to their model of how the virus spreads, the scale of the coronavirus spread in the United Kingdom may be far higher than the official statistics suggest. Even a half of the whole population could be infected.

If the Oxford model is correct, then that would be some great news, because it would suggest that only app. 0.01% of all the infected people requires hospitalization.

However, Professor Gupta emphasizes that this theory must be immediately verified by conducting immunological tests on Brits on a mass scale. Before this can happen, “stopping the world” seems like a sensible precaution.

If neither some miracle occurs, nor it turns out that there already exists a successful cure for the coronavirus, then we will need to prepare to fight the epidemic for a year, two, or even longer. Learning how to live with the virus around us will be thus necessary. We do not know yet if and when such a successful vaccine or any other cure will be found.

Lockdown makes sense only as a means to stop the spread of the virus and to buy us some time to prepare ourselves for living with and fighting against the virus later on.

Meanwhile, a panicing society, morally blackmailing politicians, and the tragic sight of coffins on the tv or computer screen (or, even among our closest ones) will make going back to work and our daily economic routine a huge challenge.

At the same time, three or six months of an economic halt will translate into an economic catastrophe of the size that the modern world has not yet seen. The imminent crisis will spread across almost the whole developed world, not only individual states.

The scale of businesses going bankrupt, unemployment, poverty, breakdown of production and distribution will most likely be larger than during any other economic crisis in the past.

What’s even worse, the people who are stuck at home will not be able to make up for it by pursuing independent economic activity – which is unprecedented, because even when facing a war, this is typically possible.

We must also remember that the forthcoming economic crisis will also mean that state budgets will suffer as well. Has anyone calculated to what extent will the budget of Poland be reduced after a month of lockdown?

In a few months there will be no funds to aid citizens and companies left with no financial means to get by, even if the authorities do their utmost t remedy the situation.

There will also be no funds to finance the growing cost and dramatic needs of the Polish healthcare. The people who suffer from pre-existing medical conditions will be dying on a mass scale due to a healthcare crisis.

Let’s not kid ourselves – we will be left with printing money devoid of any value, with we will not be able to buy anything. In fact, money is the only thing that truly reflects the value of products and services available on the market.

At present, the public debate considers as taboo any attempts of comparing the coronavirus death toll to the number of deaths caused by other factors. Whomever dares to make such a comparison is immediately severely criticized – this is uncalled for.

Of course, one cannot compare the current situation with any others. However, for centuries we have been accepting the fact that there is a certain risk that we may die.

Robert Sakowski, a Polish journalist, recently wrote on his social media account: “The first case of the coronavirus in Poland was recorded on March 4, 2020. Until now, 1,221 people have tested positive; 16 patients died. 384 people are still being hospitalized. For comparison, let us take a look at a different measurement: between March 4 and 25, 1,056 car accidents occurred on the Polish roads, with 123 casualties and 1,183 people injured”.

Does this mean that the coronavirus is less dangerous than driving a car? Of course not. The spread of the virus could lead to a far higher death toll. But does this mean that the response to this threat will force us to bear all its costs?

There must be a reasonable level of response to a given threat, which shall be evaluated by taking into account also any potential side-effects.

In an attempt to reduce the number of car accident casualties, we have developed adequate technology (seat belts, ABS systems, etc.), introduced speed limits and safer crossroads, we keep fighting to reduce the number of DUIs. We are considering whether electric cars should have an imposed maximum speed limit in the future.

An equivalent of such steps when trying to overcome the coronavirus crisis is probably ensuring isolation, providing delivery and revenue for those who are in the risk group of getting fatally infected, doing tests on a mass scale, the purchase of life-support machines no matter the cost, and increasing the funding of healthcare (which is feasible, since the state would have sufficient funds to do so).

Let’s imagine how would we react if the governments decided to respond to the hreat posed by car transportation by making them stay at home and refrain from working – or, in a less extreme manner, by banning all car traffic in order t save thousands of lives every month? It all boils down to is the inadequacy of the applied measures should they remain in place for a longer period of time, or cause tragic side-effects.

There is, however, a different approach that could be applied to the fight against the coronavirus – one that could bring similar, if not better, results than the currently adopted strategy. Will it be completely successful? Well, no. But the same is true for the measures now in place, which seems to be effective only when politicians talk about them during press conferences.

This other approach means that after the initial stage of “stopping the world”, the focus shall be placed on supporting primarily the groups that are the most exposed to health risks once infected, and a radical increase in funding for the healthcare system.

For centuries, our civilization has been based on a moral principle, according to which those who are stronger and better prepared work or fight in order to protect the weak, who need their help.

Nowadays, to help those who suffer first and foremost from pre-existing medical conditions, and the elderly, they must be provided with the best possible conditions enabling them to self-isolate and survive while awaiting a successful treatment.

But in order to pay for sickness benefits that make a difference, provide them with basic necessities, develop treatments offered by the Polish healthcare system – other citizens have to work and earn money. We cannot stop treating other serious conditions. This is the only way to avoid paying a terrible price for the side-effects – disastrous unemployment and poverty suffered by millions of people around the world. There is no other way in the long run.

Politicians must be able to make difficult decisions in trying times – this is how we get to know what the people in power stand for. This ability often requires overcoming one’s fear, going against the public opinion, not succumbing to moral blackmail, analyzing facts and data, and anticipating potential side-effects of a given course of action.

If nowadays the politicians who hold the steering wheels of the democratic states fail to face this challenge, what awaits us in the future is a massive social revolution.

As stated recently by Professor Marcin Król on the air in TVN24, “One day, the psycho-social boundaries will be broken. And if they do, people will go out onto the streets – in Poland, Paris, New York, everywhere.

They will break the windows of the first encountered shop. The police will show up, calming down or arresting two hundreds of rioters. Then, three thousands will show up. What’s going to happen next? I do not know. (…) If the isolation lasts longer than two weeks, the society will start breaking down”.

The professor also claimed that in Poland, just like in many other countries, one-fourth of all people will become unemployed. He pointed out that these people are referred to as “useless”.

These are the people who will lose their jobs as a result of the economic crisis. They will have no chance to get their jobs back. A lot of small, medium, but also large enterprises will go bankrupt.

There will be no funds to save them. These people will become desocialized. It will be a dramatic division. Some people – those whose work is knowledge- or technology-based – will do great moving forward. But the former will be left behind, pretty much on their own. This is not a sustainable model in any version of the world”.

Who and how will take advantage of this wave of a justified rebellion, misfortune, and frustration? It’s probably better we don’t find out. We, therefore, must act, before it’s to late.

The article was originally published in Polish at:

Translated by Olga Łabendowicz

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