Leader: This is the gravest crisis of our times

Having endured a decade of economic stagnation and political disruption, states are now confronted by their most elementary duty: to protect the public.

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The coronavirus outbreak is the gravest crisis that Europe – the new centre of the pandemic – has faced since the Second World War. Even at this early stage, the implications are far more profound than those of the 2008 financial crash. To echo WB Yeats, all is “changed, changed utterly”.

Having endured a decade of economic stagnation and political disruption, states are now confronted by their most elementary duty: to protect the public. The danger of Covid-19, which at the time of writing had killed more than 7,500 people, has been heightened by the authoritarian nationalists leading many of the world’s largest countries (the US, India and Brazil), as Jeremy Cliffe writes this week. 

Such fears have been vindicated. Donald Trump initially dismissed the coronavirus, suggesting that it would disappear “like a miracle”, then rushed to impose a haphazard travel ban. As our new US editor, Emily Tamkin, writes, the Trump administration refused to test people early, perhaps in the belief that keeping numbers low would aid the president’s chance of re-election. The US, a country already ill-served by its fragmented private healthcare system (28 million Americans have no health insurance), must now contend with the most irresponsible leader in its history. 

In the UK, a government that has often appeared to disdain traditional experts has instead sought to draw strength from them. But its response has at times been confused and inadequate. In defiance of advice from the World Health Organisation and others, the government initially sought to “mitigate” the spread of the disease, in the seeming hope of building “herd immunity”, and only adopted a strategy of “suppression” after concluding that the NHS would be overwhelmed. 

In countries such as South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, aggressive testing, contact tracing and strict quarantine rules have been crucial to arresting the virus’s spread. But while at the time of writing South Korea had tested around 250,000 people (one in 200 citizens), the UK had tested just 50,000. 

Covid-19 is new but the threat posed by pandemics is not. Medics and scientists have long warned of the need to build resilience against one of the defining challenges of globalisation. Yet the enfeeblement of the public realm in an era of austerity has weakened the UK’s defences. As Harry Lambert reports, even after a 2016 simulation warned of the risk of “inadequate ventilation” in a future pandemic, the government still failed to procure adequate supplies. 

The suppression of the disease entails a dramatic decline in economic activity. Forecasts suggest that UK GDP could shrink by 10 to 20 per cent in the next three months, compared to 6 per cent over the 2008-09 crisis. In France, President Emmanuel Macron promised €300bn in state-backed loans to ensure that no firm goes bankrupt, and to suspend energy and rental payments for distressed small businesses. President Macron’s essential insight is that Covid-19 cannot be defeated if people lack economic security. “We are at war – a public health war, certainly, but we are at war, against an invisible and elusive enemy,” he said. Though the British government announced £330bn of business loans on 17 March, it did not guarantee that no company would go bankrupt and offered no new support to individual workers or renters. Whatever measures are yet to come, the UK should be leading, not following. 

The coronavirus is not the first global pandemic, nor will it be the last. The suspension of normal life is a stress-test for the spectres haunting this century: environmental breakdown, natural disasters, antimicrobial resistance and resource wars. Covid-19 has at once demonstrated the need for global leadership and the paucity of it. The complacency of the liberal assumption that we are on a path of inexorable progress has been exposed once more – this time surely for good. 

Over the months that follow, the crisis will demonstrate some of the worst impulses of humanity: demagoguery, prejudice and opportunism. But it will also demonstrate some of the best: kindness, altruism and resourcefulness. It is in these qualities that we place our hope.

This article appears in the 20 March 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The final reckoning

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