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.
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.
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’.
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.
‘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.
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