The world is awash in stories about the silver linings to the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent economic lockdown. The problem with seeing silver linings is that it wilfully ignores, plays down or even exploits the dark clouds that cause them.

Many people are finding the ‘silver linings’ to the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting emergency measures rather appealing.

‘For all of the devastation it’s wreaking on the world, Coronavirus has proven it is entirely possible to dramatically decrease pollution in a very short period of time,’ wrote the French circular economy and sustainability consultant Paula Miquelis. ‘In any catastrophe scenario, there is always some sort of lesson we can extract. And this might just be a sign from Mother Earth that if we really wanted to do something about the climate crisis, we could.’

It is also a sign of the economic cost that urgent climate action would exact.

‘Carbon dioxide emissions could fall by the largest amount since World War Two this year as the coronavirus outbreak brings economies to a virtual standstill,’ trumpeted Reuters.

It quoted Rob Jackson, a professor of Earth system science at Stanford University in California, who said he wouldn’t be surprised to see a 5% year-on-year drop in carbon dioxide emissions. That is still substantially less than the 7.6% per year that the latest UN report says would be needed to achieve the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C.

Catastrophic consequences

Given the economic devastation that is producing this decline, imagine the catastrophic consequences of actually trying to limit emissions by that much, not just once-off, but every year.

In the Financial Times, Indian novelist and activist Arundhati Roy wrote hauntingly of the human impact of that country’s draconian lockdown rules, which are similar to those in South Africa.

Food crops are rotting in the fields, millions of newly unemployed poor people are fleeing for the countryside, medicines and essential supplies are running out.

Yet she believes that the pandemic offers us a portal. ‘Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next,’ she writes. ‘We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.’

The price of her brave new eco-socialist world, it seems, is widespread suffering, human rights violations, and starvation.

If you’re a wealthy elitist on a comfortable salary, perhaps the virtues of minimalism are worth pondering

Casper Lötter, a ‘critical criminologist’ attached to North West University, took to the Mail and Guardian to argue that the Covid-19 pandemic has given us ‘an unexpected taste of a post-development world’, where caring and minimalism trump business and profit. Indeed, it has.

If you’re a wealthy elitist on a comfortable salary, perhaps the virtues of minimalism are worth pondering, as Lötter does, but millions of people, forced into minimalism under the jackboot of draconian restrictions, don’t like it one bit.

Carolyn Whitzman, a professor in urban planning at Ottawa University also sees silver linings, saying Covid-19 could lead to a ‘better future’. This supposedly better future includes food relief and rationing, universal basic income, a ‘Green New Deal-type economic stimulus plan’, the government buying condominiums and apartments on the cheap to facilitate social housing, rebuilding social welfare systems and taxing the rich.

In Daily Maverick, Swati Thiyagarajan, an activist and environmental journalist, anthropomorphises the Earth, and misanthropically describes the Covid-19 pandemic as her revenge against ‘this really ghastly virus called the agricultural, and then the industrialised human’.

Overwhelmed

She connects it to the ‘illegal wildlife trade’, totally ignoring that similar zoonotic viruses emerge in domestic farm animals such as pigs and chickens. She decries ‘hyper-capitalism’, despite the fact that the healthcare systems that were overwhelmed by this virus were largely, or wholly, government-owned and -run.

‘The pace of diffusion [of the virus] can be attributed to the multiple nodes of connection and flow that bind the world in service of global capitalism,’ wrote Suraya Scheba, a lecturer at the University of Cape Town, failing to recognise that the rise of global free trade has been responsible for the greatest increase in life expectancy and prosperity that the world has ever seen.

This is a great opportunity, she believes, to counteract the ‘virulence of global capitalism’. Instead of calling for more private property rights and less restrictive labour laws to raise the poor out of poverty and unemployment, she prefers government programmes and ‘social solidarity’ to ensure security of income, food, housing, and basic services.

Perhaps he has not seen the astonishing transformation that capitalism has wrought in the world

Vishwas Satgar, an international relations professor at Wits University who calls himself an ‘ecological Marxist’ (and earns a very handsome salary for doing so), likewise blames capitalism, which ‘persists in driving us towards harm and destruction’.

Perhaps he has not seen the astonishing transformation that capitalism has wrought in the world. Two hundred years ago, 89% of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty. Today, 90% of the world’s population do not live in extreme poverty. Capitalism has completely turned the tables on poverty and deprivation. Yet Satgar says ‘it has not worked’.

Social spending in rich-world countries has risen from 1% of GDP or less in 1900, to between 17% and 32% in 2016, funded entirely by taxation on capitalist economies engaged in global free trade. Yet Satgar, witnessing the destruction wrought by the draconian measures to shut down the economy, is only concerned with ‘the imposed collective suicide of financialised eco-cidal carbon capitalism’.

He frets about the gap between ‘commodified healthcare for a few and failing healthcare for the many’, failing to note – like Thiyagarajan – that private healthcare is largely successful, while public healthcare systems the world over are at risk of being overrun.

Spare cash

‘Covid-19 has achieved what almost three decades of UN multilateral negotiations have failed to achieve,’ Satgar wrote, calling for an ‘eco-justice stimulus package’ for South Africa, as if the country is rolling in spare cash. ‘If governments can take the Covid-19 emergency seriously, they can take the climate crisis seriously.’

‘What is required to mitigate climate change and its impacts is a large-scale, worldwide response, such as the one triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic,’ agrees Gaylor Montmasson-Clair, an economist. ‘The current crisis demonstrates that a rapid, ambitious, global response is possible.’

He, too, sees silver linings: ‘The global lockdown has led to a rejuvenation of nature, with ecosystems, biodiversity and even urban environments rediscovering a degree of peace and serenity. It has also led to a much-needed, material decrease in greenhouse gas emissions and the significant restrictions on purchases outside of “essential goods and services” have furthermore put a grinding halt to the cult of unnecessary materialistic consumerism.’

Spoken like a true elitist, living high on the hog despite the lockdown.

one has to wonder if the cure is not worse than the disease

To all of these commentators, one must object that the cost of taking Covid-19 seriously is economic catastrophe. It is destroying productive capital and driving millions back into the destitution from which capitalism lifted so many. If that is what it takes to try – and probably fail – to limit climate change, one has to wonder if the cure is not worse than the disease.

Human rights lawyer and social justice activist Fatima Hassan opportunistically makes the case for ‘compulsory licensing’ to ‘prevent pharmaceutical profiteering’. Although Hassan conflates vaccines and treatments, wrongly describing the antiviral drug remdesivir as a ‘vaccine’, she believes the mere fact of needing medicine gives moral justification for nullifying the patents of those who invested in inventing and producing it. She doesn’t seem to appreciate that this will significantly dampen the enthusiasm of the victims of such expropriation to invest billions in researching vaccines or treatments for the next great pandemic.

In the New York Times, Bret L. Stephens wrote a hypothetical ‘look back from 2025’ in which he describes the rise of authoritarianism, big government, nationalisation, the economic collapse of poor countries, and military adventurism. That is also the price we’ll pay to realise the dreams of socialists and radical environmentalists.

Falling domestic demand

The cost of living could fall, reports Londiwe Buthelezi for Fin24, as a result of carnage on the foreign exchange markets and falling domestic demand. Sure, this might happen, but the article warns that a fall in prices would probably not extend to food and essentials, which might see price rises, ‘possibly, pretty fast’.

For many South Africans, food and essentials comprise the majority of their monthly expenses. The article also neglects to mention that the fall in demand for other goods is a direct consequence of the catastrophic economic fallout of draconian lockdown regulations, which has shuttered businesses and turfed millions out of jobs, especially in the informal sector, which enjoys little financial flexibility, and cannot look forward to government relief.

That prices might be slightly lower in future will come as cold comfort to poor people who have lost much or all of their income.

In City Press, Terence S. Chauke lists eight financial silver linings: savings due to lower interest rates, qualifying for larger loans or bonds, savings from lower fuel prices and reduced transport use, the opportunity to buy shares on the cheap, government protection from inflated prices, encouraging ‘risk budgeting’, and the ability to use downtime creatively to improve health, society, or even start new businesses.

The problem is that the cost of these silver linings, in every case, exceeds their benefit. It is cold comfort to the hitherto successful entrepreneur, now forced to lay off staff or close a business, that someone else might be able to start a new business.

Lower interest rates lead to asset price inflation, blowing up bubbles that inevitably must burst, just as the housing bubble burst, and the dot com bubble burst before it. Sure, buy shares on the cheap, but be sure to call the top before the next stimulus-induced crash comes.

Stock shortages

Lower fuel prices indicate lower demand, which implies less economic activity, which generates less prosperity and fewer jobs. Price controls reduce the incentive for producers to increase supply to meet demand, leading to stock shortages.

All of these supposed silver linings exist only thanks to the large, dark clouds behind them. These clouds include the rise of totalitarian police states, destruction of capital, loss of income, disruption in supply chains, and a sharp increase in poverty, unemployment, hunger and death.

Assorted anti-capitalists and radical environmentalists see in this pandemic the makings of a new world that more closely conforms to their ideals. In doing so, however, they merely highlight the unbearable costs and burdens that such a world would bring about.

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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10 COMMENTS

  1. A comment on the Marxist’s views from UCT and Wits.

    In 1996 the Sociology of Work Unit at Wits headed by Eddie Webster was able to convince the dti and government that the funders, planners and planner behind a plan to industrialize squatter camps were incompetent. This plan would transform communities living on top of one and other into proper villages with decent spacing between homes, driven by industry and farming developed with in these communities.

    SWOP’s Webster and his merry Marxist men of nine, got everything wrong in their report to the dti which showed that the developers, Ford, GM, Goodyear and Siemens were incompetent in manufacturing development which the dti accepted. Apart from Proof factory 1, also rejected by the dti was a report from Ford’s manufacturing director the late Neville Cohen which showed that the SWOP report had no basis in manufacturing reality, as did similar reports from consulting engineers and the CSIR.

    Rejecting all of this in favour of similar Marxist’s stupidity that destroyed East European industry, in the 90’s the dti issued an instruction not to support the development of industry in squatter camps and their rehousing. In 2006 according to a statement from an official at a S&T Portfolio Committee on evaluating this plan, that instruction was still in place.

    In 2008/9 The CSIR advised the S&T PC, parliament that the plan would work and this forced one of the major champions behind the rise in poverty Dr Alan Hirsch, now a professor at UCT, to recuse himself from claiming that the plan could not work as he had done since 1996. In doing so he tried to indicate that I was lying about the involvement of the manufacturers, but correspondence shows that it was not me who was lying.

    In December 2010 The EU funded me with R3mil to demonstrate how to industrialize squatter camps and consulting engineers appointed by the CSIR confirmed the plan. However it demonstrated that if implemented in the 90’s it could have prevented housing wasting R50 billion as Sexwale announced in 2012 and would have left industry behind once the houses were delivered. Therefore in true Marxist tradition Davies killed it. He did so by promising Zandspruit squatter camp the funds to allow the SABS to create the manufacturing specifications needed for commercialization. This was just a lie and after waiting for over 18 months for the commercialization funds of less than R1mil to arrive the project collapsed due to rising debt.

    The European union instructed the dti to refund the project from EU funds that the dti held, however DG October wrote that there was no funds to which the EU called him a liar.

    So the rise in poverty since the fall of Apartheid is a consequence of Marxist stupidity, incompetence , uselessness and irresponsibility as for 25 years the Marxista in SA government and at Wits have been hell bent in demonstrating how they can accelerate poverty at a greater speed than during apartheid days. In this regard they have been very successful.

    Fortunately the SA Council of Churches now realise that Marxist officials cannot prove the Ford, GM, Goodyear and Siemens are incompetent in manufacturing development as they have done for the past 26 years.. They have invited me to inform them how the dti, Housing and Agriculture were able to convince government of this amazing fact for so long an bring nothing but poverty and joblessness upon many of its Church members.
    I have asked them to approach the President to ask him to place these Marxists sociologists in front of industrial development engineers and prove that the engineering plan which they cannot understand does not work.

    For those interested, here is how you take seven squatter camps at a time and transform them into proper villages with an industrial business and agriculture centre. Naturally the plan is just a rough outline but the detail is available

    https://drive.google.com/file/d/1onm0dUeLWW5pmlnQh8tsYkzkca2dI3JP/view?usp=sharing

    • Very interesting and I think sensible approach. A huge benefit also is that people have self respect when they can work for a living. The impact is more than just financial.

  2. What a surprise – people’s response to the pandemic is guided by their politics (ideology / world views)! It again just illustrate how good we are at rationalising our politics. Data and information get rationalised into our world views. Nobody is immune to this not even the IRR (it’s own report on COVID 19 – shock and horror is full of classic liberal policy positions) or Ivo Vegter (which picks up his usual political targets and makes his usual political points).

    It would actually be far more interesting if Ivo where to for instance think what challenges his libertarian politics or put his value trade-offs transparently aside and swap in a few different ones and see how it changes the analysis or if there is overlap.

  3. For crying out loud. Remove all ideologues from power and put engineers and entrpreneurs in charge. then at least we will not have wannabee priests and perpetual intelllectuals living on other peoples’ money ie everyone in out so called independent universities, telling us what to do.

    Professors who have nothing but book learning in their heads, who have gone from school to university and stayed there, are a very real danger to the world. Their knowlege of human beings and what they want is entirely theoretical and usually false.

  4. Although you have made a number of good points, it is a mistake to present the environment vs. capitalism as a false choice. The situation is much more nuanced. The cost of caring for the environment should be seen more in the light of the cost you pay monthly to get the garbage taken away. It is a nuisance, but necessary if we are not to be overwhelmed by in the long run. I will use two examples. There is a lookout point on the road in to Yosemite looking back towards the sea. The sign there says that since California enacted the clean air act, on a clear day, visibility has improved by 1 mile further each year. This has not damaged the Californian economy! As a second example: When I visited Halifax many years ago I could still see the black grime coating on many of the old buildings. The air was then clear and the new buildings were clean. Cleaning up the old smoke stack industries has not damaged the UK economy, but has certainly made it a more pleasant place to live in. In the same way there are many solutions to our environmental problems, and they are not necessarily bad for business. Ask anyone who bought Tesla shares a few years back if he has been unhappy with the purchase!

    • My objection is not to improving the environment. My objection is to thinking capitalism is the problem and needs to be dismantled. The more prosperous countries get, the better they look after their environment. The environment is the last thing on your mind when you’re poor and hungry. Remember the polluted industrial wastelands of former Eastern Bloc countries? Socialism isn’t particularly eco-friendly.

      • I agree with you 100%. Some areas in the Eastern Block could literally not be farmed because of the effect of pollution on the fields. But the problem I had was with a statement such as “Given the economic devastation that is producing this decline, imagine the catastrophic consequences of actually trying to limit emissions by that much, not just once-off, but every year.” As I read it the implication in that statement is that there needs to be economic devastation to produce the decline in emissions. This is not true. Policies and incentives to lower emissions may have some cost, but by no means do they have to wreak economic devastation. In fact in some cases they have proven to be less costly in the long run. These policies and incentives should still be applied within the capitalist framework to incentivise individuals.

  5. Decrying the environmentalist naivety, or the socialist economic ignorance is not much more than an intellectual wank. We have a clean sheet moment here, we have an economy that is in essence in a holding pattern, a health system in serious trouble, a population looking for leadership and how to get back to work to solve their individual problems, namely food, housing and how to survive this time. Are we really going to leave it to the ANC to design the answer and playbook.
    Thought leadership should be focused on the steps to ensure that our poor and destitute have opportunity to get going again, SMME’s can find new ways of performing their businesses, a staged lock-down release designed on an improving herd immunity situation, our youth, protecting our vulnerable all the while getting things going again, but in changed ways.
    If the solution is our current status, modified, we need to start the process of designing how to exist for an extended period working from home, using hands off no contact mechanisms of trade, Oh, and lets not forget using our hands to cling to our hard won liberties and freedoms.
    I would look to our think tanks, universities and other forms of media to help start the conversation. I am sure there are many that can contribute.

  6. Oh the socialists that poison our society! Once again they are looking down at a leaking tap while blithely refusing to see the rapidly approaching tsunami!

  7. My wife and I are white, English-speaking pensioners. Just WHAT, exactly, are we able, or indeed allowed, to do to try to redirect an Afro-nationalist socialist government away from the ideologically driven path?
    Incidentally Ivo, nice to be able to read your acerbic digs at idiocy again! Since I dropped DM from my go-to list, I miss your views.

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