Photo: The cover of the May edition

The Prospect editorial: The contagion effect

The lockdown, however necessary, will produce not only huge economic losses but deep social scars
April 2, 2020

As we were battling with going to press while locked out of the office, news came through that India’s 1.3bn citizens were also being locked down. That number is perhaps worth spelling out in digits—1,300,000,000—to underline the difference in scale with the 519 confirmed coronavirus cases and the mere 10 Indian deaths that had been reported when the lockdown kicked in.

That mismatch does not necessarily mean that Delhi has made a mistake. The terrifying consequences of exponential growth form the most fundamental lessons of epidemiology. By the time you read these words, the confirmed Indian caseload will—I’m sure—be much higher, and nor do I doubt that without drastic action it would soon have been dramatically higher again. Unchecked growth of the virus could have created a more acute humanitarian crisis than that which—doctors warn—could soon come crashing down on our own health service.

But the Indian case highlights starkly how there will also be serious human consequences from the decision to close down the economy and society, because it remains a country of very low average incomes. As day labourer Ramesh Kumar in Uttar Pradesh explained to the BBC: “I earn 600 rupees [£6.50] every day and I have five people to feed. We will run out of food in a few days. I know the risk of coronavirus, but I can’t see my children hungry.” When Donald Trump boorishly rants about not allowing coronavirus to get in the way of American business that is one thing; but in a place like India, if you destroy livelihoods it isn’t long before you destroy lives as well.

And to a lesser extent this is true in the west. I don’t envy the leaders who have to make the big calls because, as I explore, it could be that they are fated to be damned in retrospect whatever they do now. They reasonably fear being seen to have clamped down too little, and hence being blamed for cramped hospital corridors where gasping victims go untreated. But if, on the other hand, that disaster is averted, attention will soon turn to the consequences of the shock therapy we have applied—the lockdown will produce not only huge economic losses, but also deep social scars. Worse, with the epidemiology still unfolding and a second wave of infections possible, we’re leaving? without any clear “exit strategy.” John Kay and Mervyn King highlight how Covid-19 leaves us in the realm of “radical uncertainty,” making leaps in the dark between “unknown unknowns.” All we know for sure is that the situation will brighten when a vaccine arrives: Philip Ball gets inside the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to reveal how long that will take.

Every political speech just now closes with the thought that “we will come through this,” but that doesn’t make it untrue. Prospect will not be distracted from climate change, which in a few years’ time, when Covid-19 is but a disturbing memory, will still loom large. Anatol Lieven, decrying green utopians and blinkered national security elites in equal measure, provides a “realist” account of why the world is going to have to be saved one country at a time. Nor can the world after the virus be allowed to be a place devoid of intellectual enjoyment. If it is beginning to feel like one, try Cal Flyn’s quirky philosophical quest to talk to her dog and Adam Tooze’s calmly devastating assault on the Economist’s elite liberalism. Enjoy—and stay well.

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