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COVID-2019 and the Challenges of Investing in People

COVID-2019 and the Challenges of Investing in People

Sunday, 22 March, 2020 - 08:15

A friend of mine sent me a video of a lecture given a couple of years ago by Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft. In this lecture, Gates said the greatest threat to the world in the future is not a Third World War, but a lethal virus that will sweep the globe and threaten mankind.


I know that Mr. Gates is not a conspiracy theorist politician, but a visionary who has lived through the great technological advances and mingled with influential figures and lobbies. He therefore, has fully understood their priorities. From his experience, he has noted that the elements of greed, hubris, and lack of social empathy push politicians – especially, in major powers – to espouse strategies with the wrong priorities.


Indeed, following the collapse of the USSR – and subsequently the retreat of Europe’s left – a simplistic, but strong, belief emerged that any belief in public good, social welfare and government intervention in the economy, in order to provide a social safety net, was proven to be wrong.


During that significant period in Europe’s history, I met a young Italian scientist at a party hosted by my wife’s professor at his London home. As we chatted, of course beginning with football, we moved to politics. He told me he was “a disillusioned leftist” who was going through a period of despair, emptiness and sadness over his wrong intellectual gambles.


“Why do you say ‘wrong political gambles’?” I asked. He replied, “Well, don’t you think that the collapse of the USSR (is) enough proof of the collapse of socialist thought?” This reply led to a discussion, in which I told him that “I never accepted that Moscow had a monopoly on socialism, Washington on democracy and even the Vatican on the belief in God!”


I then remarked that “democracies such as Sweden, Switzerland and Finland are successful socialist countries, while many dictatorships in the third world are ‘failed states’. Furthermore, there is no static political thinking, and in your home country, Italy, the Communist leader Enrico Berlinguer was one of the leading critics of the ‘Soviet model’, which is why he called for the ‘historic compromise’ with non-Communists in power-sharing. He simply realized that what applies to Russia does not necessarily apply elsewhere. The same could be said about Capitalism, which would not necessarily work in poor countries with no safety nets.”


I concluded by telling my Italian friend, “Please, always remember that even the most just causes could lose if their defenders are either corrupt or stupid.” His reaction to my argument was a strange sense of relief expressed by his innocent question, “So, you do not think that all is lost?!”


“Certainly not,” I replied. “As long man lives, needs, covets and thinks, the struggle will go on between thoughts and priorities, but in various shapes, excuses and interests.”


That evening in 1990 came to my mind as I was following the different reactions by countries in confronting the COVID-2019 virus. They varied between stringent enforcement of quarantines and declaring a state of emergency, as what we have seen in Italy, Spain and the US, and the slow reaction that has been adopted by the UK.


Most significant was the painful call by Italy’s former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, specifically, to the Germans, British and French. He pleaded with them “not to make the same mistake the Italians made” by taking the virus lightly. Renzi said that confronting a novel virus for which there are no vaccines and no treatment, is different from defeating terrorism by carrying on with normal daily life.


Even in the US, in the light of the rapid rise in infections and fatalities, President Donald Trump toughened his stance and moved close to declaring a state of emergency.


In the UK, however, the Conservative government – as of last Monday – has refused to adopt a tough policy. In fact, its scientific and public health advisers came up with ideas and excuses that were encountered by strong criticism. They suggested that imposing house isolation was too early would create boredom and that “delaying” the inevitable spike in infection cases would increase “herd immunity”!


Then, the following day, The Guardian quoted a well-placed source arguing that school closures alone would cost the GDP by 3 billion pounds.


This provoked sharp criticism, claiming that the Conservatives’ top priority was money and the business community, even if it meant sacrificing the lives of tens of thousands of citizens, most of whom are elderly or suffering from long-term conditions.


Looking at past experience, such criticism does not seem to be misplaced. The British right – indeed, most of the right-wing movements in the West – have always been most interested in financial “efficiency”. Thus, it is impossible to separate the consistent policy of running down the public sector – including the British National Health Service – through privatizations, tax cuts and failure to invest in the infrastructure … and the terrible lack of resources and equipment in hospital ICUs. According to reliable sources, the UK suffers from a dangerous shortage in medical and nursing staff, as well as ventilators and other equipment badly needed to cope with the COVID-2019 outbreak.


A list comparing the number of ICU beds to every 100,000 inhabitants in several countries reads as follows:


US (34.7), Germany (29.2), Italy (12.5), France (11.6), South Korea (10.6), Spain (9.7), Japan (7.3), UK (6.6), China (3.6) and India (2.3).


This means two things: the first, is that the UK lags behind Italy and Spain, both of whom are already suffering badly under the outbreak. The second, is that China could not have been able to virtually contain the virus had it not resorted to radical steps, such as strict isolation and quarantines, in addition to rapidly constructing and equipping emergency hospitals.


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