Costs of pandemic

Published On: March 31, 2020 09:47 AM NPT By: Sarans Pandey

As businesses are forced to suspend their services and lay off workers, the cumulative effect on the economy will most likely steer countries towards a recession


These are rather peculiar times that we find ourselves in. As the dark clouds of fear and uncertainty hover above, the world desperately lies in wait for that elusive fresh beginning. This is not the first time that a crisis has befallen our planet. As a matter of fact, in all these years of human existence, we have faced and we have overcome horrors far worse than what the current pandemic is shaping up to become. It is estimated that anywhere from one third to half of the population of Europe perished because of the Black Death.

The Spanish flu of 1918 laid claim to the lives of more than 50 million people. And both world wars account for over a 100 million casualties. These numbers, and others like them, do, to a certain extent, support the aforementioned statement. But in order to use them to overlook the current crisis, it would require reducing human life into mere statistics. According to the recent data compiled by Johns Hopkins, the total number of coronavirus cases worldwide has crossed 7,00,000 and has resulted in the deaths of more 30,000. For those unaffected, these numbers are merely echoes of a distant warning. But for those who, aside from themselves, have friends and family who couldn't risk testing their vulnerability, these figures represent a premonition of imminent danger.

Affecting all  

The word pandemic originates from Greek words "Pan" and "Demos". Pan means "all" and the word demos stands for "people". The etymology of the term serves as a friendly reminder of the fact that everyone is in this together. All the demographic distinctions that were robust up until a few months ago now appear so frail in front of this crisis. Maybe because we are usually so busy fighting one another that we often tend to forget we are part of the same species, equally vulnerable to the indiscriminate attacks originating from Mother Nature. As of now we are at war with an invisible foe. But unlike all other wars human race has previously partaken in, this pandemic sees each and every member of the society enlisted with responsibilities that could affect the outcome of this crisis and save lives. And even though the younger generation might move past the current crisis relatively unscathed, at least physically, they will forever carry with them the experience of a close call, which on any other future crisis, could prove more fatal.

The Spanish Flu was known to have a higher mortality rate for young people between 20 and 40, and the majority of deaths in the 2009 pandemic were in people below the age of sixty-five. Although the viruses don’t discriminate when looking for a host, there are factors that will always render some people more vulnerable than the others. Because of the exponential nature of the spread of this virus, the actions of one individual in this chain of transmission can have a multiplier effect, both negative and positive, on the total number of cases. The basic reproduction number of Covid-19 is estimated to be between 2 and 3. This means that on average, an infected person could pass that virus onto that many people. By altering our lifestyles, we can limit the spread of the virus, and, at the least, help prevent overcrowding of valuable health resources. That way the best possible care is provided to those with the greatest need. Seldom does the individual hold so much power so as to be able to influence the outcome for the mass.

Under these sorts of circumstances, individuals can either choose to exercise that power to safeguard the vulnerable ones in our society, or they can resort to apathy. But before we make it a black and white issue, we will need to address a few things. The ideal scenario in the current situation would be one where every member of the society resorts to practices like social distancing and/or self-isolation until someone finds a vaccine or the pandemic somehow runs its course. But the problem is we don’t really know how long this period is going to last. Even if people have nothing but the best intentions, the prospect of not having an income to sustain the cost of living in the foreseeable future might propel them to make decisions that won’t be in the best interests of the community.

So, a refusal to comply with instructions, for some, might not entirely be apathy, but instead a necessity. In order for current containment strategies to work, it is imperative that a broad and clear economic plan be implemented along with it so that when the opportunity to step up for society comes by, people don’t have to look the other way because of financial impediments.

Specter of recession

We need to realize that the crisis at our hands is first and foremost a health issue. But that being said, this pandemic will have grave consequences for the economy. Much of the containment strategies we are seeing involve blanket restrictions and shutdowns. As businesses are forced to suspend their services and lay off workers, the cumulative effect on the economy will most likely steer countries towards a recession. In an effort to try and prevent that outcome, governments around the world are mulling over the idea of fiscal stimulus packages. Initiatives as such, at least theoretically, should help counter the stagnation brought about by this pandemic. But that kind of spending can only be sustained for so long before it takes a toll on the long term economic health of a country. And besides, if this goes on for months, democratic societies will have a hard time balancing personal freedom with containment. Eventually, the governments are going to need to address the economic and social fallout of this pandemic. Unless this crisis magically leads to new self-sufficient utopian societies of some sort, the lockdown won’t be a feasible option for much longer.

The evidence from South Korea suggests that perhaps blanket restrictions might not even be necessary in this case. But before thinking about making that decision, all countries need to first test their citizens aggressively. Not only does that enable efficient containment of the pandemic, but it also helps epidemiologists understand the virus better. Until then, compliance is the only thing that is in everyone’s best interests. The sooner we contain the virus, the sooner can we expect things to go back to normal. At the moment, there seems to be a lot of fear and anxiety among people, and quite rightly so. Maybe because this is the first pandemic after the boom of social media, much of the information appears to have been blown out of proportion.

But then again, no one seems to know what the true proportion is. Perhaps the lockdown is an overreaction. But is taking a hasty risk to test the hypothesis worth it even though it could mean the loss of another human life?

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