• Zuzanna Fiminska

COVID-19: What about the economy?

This is the second part of the COVID-19 in Context Series and is for anyone who's ever wondered why economic forecasting tends to fail, what disease has to do with climate change, and whether there is a promising post-COVID world vision. For part part 1, on health statistics and counting alpacas, go here.

Two weeks in, lockdown changed into countdown, and there I was, in my well-designed cage of an apartment, waiting for the end of the world, Mother Nature progressing swiftly from god-only-knows which warning to the final instalment of her wrath.

And so, as my neighbours hoarded pasta and toilet paper, I hoarded paid work. And as I focused on money, weeks became shorter than days.

The first fortnight was easy, with manuscripts about viral transmission, neonatal deaths, orthopaedic surgery, and risk factors for cancer. By the third week, the undetermined duration of the lockdown had become official. Further plans cancelled, refunds issued, restrictions on contact and movement more stringent, friends saying worldwide, stupid stupid stupid pandemic.

Stupid pandemic, indeed, I thought, hearing about mass layoffs bound to halt consumption and drive further redundancies. I grasped onto own work more tightly, accepting more assignments, sifting through research about incontinence, hand-washing, vaccinations, challenging my own capacity to sustain long stretches of concentration, as several organisations wrote to tell me things were cancelled “indefinitely.”

I went shopping under lockdown

Stuff I needed, of course, silk pyjamas, quality loungewear, things I would use daily and forever. Then came towels (my own were old and splashed with paint), a book for a friend, and a couple of items to turn my project-in-progress of an apartment into a home. Order confirmations in my inbox, I was mildly satisfied, lockdown-shmockdown, I was making progress, just look at these pretty things!

While we've been looking elsewhere, some global fast fashion brands have been behaving despicably in the aftermath of COVID-19, going back on their commitments to Bangladesh-based factories and refusing to pay for work contracted and already completed

The first batch arrived

I must have ordered the wrong stuff for my heart was beating fast but not the way I like. I scrolled through some more offerings, wondering what dress size I could be in this brand’s clothing. I ordered more stuff that promised to make me feel worthy and worldly, gambling on there being another black-tie event to which I could wear this full-length purple gown and a pair of shoes good for nothing other than standing. But when they arrived… whatever.

Meanwhile, having broken all my personal rules about money, I took on more and more assignments, like an academic editing machine, tense in the shoulders, waking up at night worrying about proofreading errors, calculating the projected value of my next invoice, finding myself compressed, locked tightly in the consequences of my spending spree that put me in debt and took over my imagination, putting me further away from all I could expect from life and what life could expect from me.

Lockdown-shmockdown, I was now hoping this was indeed the end of the world.

Best to call a friend

No video, just audio, and – finally! – someone acknowledged my need for a haircut and a cup of coffee at an Oxford bookshop, where I could browse books that Amazon would never deem relevant.

As we talked, I briefly stopped fretting about money and though in debt, I could imagine living to book another trip, to make a new friend, and to hug the long-term ones, wearing a dressed down purple gown.

Slowly, I moved away from the high volume of paid assignments and returned to the flow grounded in work that brings joy and meaning, that makes less money last longer. Encouraged, I asked:

When will lockdown end?

Then came a sinking feeling.

I don’t know much about the economy, but, frankly, if the people in charge go about the economy the way they go about health, they don’t know much about the economy either.

Among the many things I don’t understand about the present situation is the dire fear of restricted growth; weren’t Western economies already growing beyond the bounds of what was sustainable or sensible? What is growth, anyway? And why are its forecasts by the International Monetary Fund never accurate?

The International Monetary Fund has consistently failed to forecast the world's gross domestic product (DGP), making the merits of such exercise questionable (Source: Business Insider)

With all the rhetoric of this being a “war,” why aren’t we drawing on the radical post-crisis solutions that have historically allowed people to thrive?

With all these analysts presenting estimates of the "economic cost of COVID-19," why aren't they talking as much about the revenue smart interventions could generate?

Unlike my spending spree, which is independent of my source of revenue, in public finance, income depends on expenditure. While I recycle my money for commodities and can choose to stop spending without directly affecting my income, a state recycles its money via its people and when it stops spending, it stops earning. Wouldn’t then state expenditure improve population wealth and welfare, resulting in net economic benefit?

Wouldn’t pumping money through public sector investment keep people employed, stabilising consumption, keeping us all afloat?

President Franklin D. Roosevelt's wide-ranging post-depression recovery plan, known as the New Deal, involved large-scale construction projects, for example, bridges and dams, aimed at stabilising the economy and providing jobs and relief to those who were suffering. In 1934, work began on the Boneville Dams along the Columbia River (Image credit: Klaus Hackenberg/Corbis; Source: History.com)

I don’t understand much about the economy, but I do understand that what we need is a way to re-imagine the world rather than a mindless push to return to the pre-COVID status quo, which was not that great for a great number of people.

In fact, it had put us onto a trajectory toward demise, a place where legacy matters not, as there is no future to fulfil it.

The economy is NOT the planet

As a culture, we’re treating the economy like an untamed beast that we must bow to - a force of nature - while thinking we can control the planet, as if she were a man-made construct founded and perpetuated by the infrastructure of our ideas.

The economy is nothing but a set of made up rules governing relations between different groups. It emerges as a set of beliefs and behaviours, things that are observable and changeable but, unlike the planet, these things respond to our hopes and hysterias.

Also, unlike the planet, the more mathematically complex our modelling of the economy, the less likely it is to represent reality, failing to account for lapses in judgement and erosion of trust, two things upon which stability of exchanges relies.

Perhaps it is the result of listening to the economists who profess stats-based gibberish that never materialises that we have fallen deaf to the scientists who have been teaching us about the lethal interdependence of phenomena resulting from our destruction of nature.

Perhaps it is also from our concern for the economy that we have been complacent about nature, as loss of habitat that results from increased production and expanding human habitation costs us nothing in immediate or monetary terms, but cleaning up after natural disasters is in fact profitable (to some).

This pandemic (and several other recent epidemics) is a result of systematic and continued destruction of nature whose consequences are more immediate and constant than record hot summers and frostless winters.

This graph needs no caption, but compare and contrast it against the IMF forecasts above. For more on the Earth's vital signs, go to NASA's time machine. (Image credit: NASA Climate 365 project - a collaboration of the NASA Earth Science News Team, NASA Goddard and Jet Propulsion Laboratory communications teams, and NASA websites Earth Observatory and Global Climate Change)

COVID-19 and climate change

Cutting down trees and destroying animal habitat kills some of the animals and makes remaining animals migrate. These animals often carry pathogens they themselves have become immune to; when these animals escape their destroyed homes, they arrive in human neighbourhoods and with them arrive diseases dangerous to humans, such as Ebola.

Further in history, a similar disease transfer occurred when European conquerors arrived in Australia and Northern America, killing native populations with pathogens they carried but were themselves immune to. An example of between-community transfer, this marks the start of history of extractive profit and methodical destruction of nature driven by barbaric practices of colonial “powers.”

Climate change also affects the distribution of pathogens and ways in which they spread. During 2004-2016, in the United States alone, the number of cases of diseases from mosquito, flee, and tick bites has more than tripled. Epidemics of mosquito-borne diseases increased in frequency, while two new viruses and seven new tick-borne germs caused outbreaks for the first time. (Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

What we’re seeing, it’s not “unprecedented” and it’s not the last crisis of this kind.

Diseases are real. They might be triggered by our brutality and negligence, but they happen outside of us and what we think of them makes no difference. It’s a waste to protest disease because no one has the power to stop it.

In contrast, the economy of austerity and market societies is made up. It exists because of our brutality and negligence, and it only exists in a world where we think it must exist. We should protest such economy; there are people who have the power to stop it.

Better lives for more people might just improve most of our health and help manage disease risk.

This is how humanity ends

We must dare to re-imagine our economy, as the next disease might be one that combines the infectiousness of the present virus with the lethality of Ebola during a particularly hot summer when continued use of air conditioning and life support equipment results in electricity and water shortages, leading to painful, protracted demise, where we simultaneously boil, burn, and drown within our own bodies.

Insect populations are in rapid decline worldwide and scientists estimate that once they're all gone, all life on Earth will cease within 50 years. If humans disappeared overnight, some speculate, wildlife would thrive within several centuries.

For the past several years, many have been looking for the “moral equivalent” of war to introduce radical political and economic reforms such as the Green New Deal that could improve people’s lives and combat climate change. A way to live that revives communities, eradicates poverty, protects health, curtails bullshit jobs, and, fundamentally, saves the planet. Here it is.

A new world vision

Though I have no data to support this, I know many people have enjoyed the simplified version of life under lockdown. I have not heard of anyone missing their commute, longing for being stuck in traffic, or looking forward to the smog that blocks the night’s sky.

What we have been missing is the joy of the experiential value of our lives: interactions with our friends, colleagues, hairdressers, and baristas. The joys of little freedoms to come and go, have a meal made by someone other than ourselves, smiling with our teeth (not just our eyes) at the person selling us bread, as we note that money means nothing if there is nothing to spend it on.

As for the pandemic, we’re still counting. Restrictions are being loosened in many places, including countries hit the hardest, which were often those previously ranked as “best prepared for a health crisis.” Risk assessments regarding the second wave are on-going, as are trials on treatments and vaccines.

As we wait, we might create a radically different world vision. Here is a short film co-created by writer Naomi Klein, illustrator Molly Crabapple, and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez about how the world could be if we dared to see it differently and implemented the proposals of the Green New Deal, preserving our habitat for long enough to create vibrant democracies. Don’t we all want that?

Set a couple of decades from now, the film is a flat-out rejection of the idea that a dystopian future is a forgone conclusion. Instead, it offers a thought experiment: What if we decided not to drive off the climate cliff? What if we chose to radically change course and save both our habitat and ourselves? (Source: The Intercept)

There is no one way forward. But a way that puts the planet, health and people at its heart is the only way that ensures there is a road down which we can move ahead.

Zuzanna Fiminska is a writer and epidemiologist, and author of the COVID-19 in Context series. Part 1 on understanding health statistics and counting alpacas is available here.

Zuzanna Fiminska & Project Neighbours

Oxford, England, UK