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Category Archives: Socio-economic Collapse
The Analytical Angle: How smart containment, along with active learning, can help mitigate the Covid-19 crisis – DAWN.com
Posted: April 18, 2020 at 7:07 pm
Policymakers must be empowered down to the district levels to respond differentially based on local data.
Governments across the world face a near impossible choice in tackling the Covid-19 virus lockdown and prevent spread, but risk economic collapse and potentially many dying of non-Covid-19 reasons, or remain (mostly) open to minimise the socio-economic fallout, but risk many dying of Covid-19.
To make matters worse, there is little data to base a policy response on. Our knowledge of this new virus (transmission mechanisms, environmental triggers, immunity, etc) is still nascent and fast evolving. We also dont know enough about the potential adverse socio-economic and health impacts of the proposed public health policies. While many countries in the developed world have gone down the route of blanket lockdowns, for others, the choice is harder to make.
Physical distancing and locking down will be particularly damaging for the developing world. In Pakistan, much of the economy is informal. According to the Labour Force Survey 2017-18, the informal sector accounts for 72 per cent of non-agricultural employment. This makes it harder to target and provide financial assistance to those who may need it most.
Loss of livelihood and severe financial hardships may be accompanied by food shortages. In South Asia, food supply chains are dominated by labour-intensive SMEs. This means that extended lockdowns and quarantines may result in food supply disruptions especially in midstream and downstream segments retail, food service, distribution.
Health issues which require regular care are widely prevalent in Pakistan. The World Health Organisation characterises Pakistan as a TB high-burden country with the fourth highest prevalence of multi-drug resistant TB globally. In young children, diarrhoea is still a major killer, and malnutrition and stunting are persistent problems. Maternal deaths due to preventable causes prevail and half of women of reproductive age are anaemic.
The impact of Covid-19 policies on an already weak and over-stressed healthcare system must be well thought out. Managing health conditions in a lockdown may be difficult. Conversely, easing distancing measures may be too risky as the high prevalence of these health conditions in some populations makes them highly vulnerable to the Covid-19 virus.
Fiscal space is severely limited for adequate relief measures and countercyclical policies which will be required as the economy comes to a grinding halt. Weak state capacity may also make it nearly impossible to implement and enforce a country-wide lockdown, while ensuring all citizens are taken care of.
Understandably, these are very tough decisions to make. While the fear of uncontrolled spread and mortality eventually pushed the government out of paralysis, at times it also led to panic and poorly thought out decisions. The decision to expand the Ehsaas programme, for example, was a good one but the execution was poorly thought out with massive crowding outside distribution points.
The decision to ease the lockdown and open up some industries is also a controversial one especially with little transparency on the criteria being used to strengthen or ease the lockdowns.
In Pakistan this crisis has also become politicised resulting in misalignment of strategies across government tiers. The enormity of this challenge requires cooperation rather than tribalism. Our leaders need to work together to save lives and build resilient systems for the long-term.
Up till now the choice has largely been presented as a binary: Lockdown and prevent spread but risk economic collapse, loss of livelihoods, and deaths from other preventable reasons; or remain open to minimise this socioeconomic disaster, but risk health systems buckling and thousands dying from the virus.
Read: A better response to the Covid-19 challenge lies in smart lockdown strategies
Given the dearth of data, however, we are driving blind: we just dont know enough about the health and economic impact to figure out the trade-offs between these choices. How can we make better decisions in the face of such great uncertainty?
The crux of our approach is the importance of learning. Governments must draw on a well-developed and well-tested machinery for how to make decisions under uncertainty. Policy actions should inform our learning so that policies are tested and refined in real-time. This is what we call smart containment with active learning.
While some decisions must be made immediately (such as, increasing testing capacity and personal protective equipment for health workers), others may be better made after collecting some information (such as, socio-economic data to better target the relief response). Many decisions may also be refined over time as more information comes in (such as, which specific aspects of distancing and lockdown strategies are most effective).
The smart containment approach allows for a locally heterogeneous policy response each area may have different prevalence, and different needs based on demographic, economic and other characteristics. For example, areas with high population densities or areas with high-risk health characteristics such as high incidence of TB, may need to be treated differently.
Policymakers must be empowered down to the district and local levels to respond differentially based on local data and ground realities. These ground realities then translate into differential and graded decisions on smart testing strategies, physical distancing and lockdown measures, relief measures, public messaging, health sector capacity, and so on.
The active learning aspect calls for re-evaluating policy measures regularly based on data and evidence. This will help us better understand the benefits and costs of each policy and refine accordingly. This process of continuous re-evaluation can provide a roadmap for the next 18 months that is fully guided by the evidence.
The roadmap should inform the design of physical distancing measures and enable better targeting of support measures to rebuild the economy and society.
Consider the two contrasting policy choices (a) a weaker lockdown where there is isolation, contact tracing and care for those who are sick but there is also a degree of freedom of movement to allow essential workers, such as food producers and distributors, to continue their work, or (b) strict quarantines and physical isolation which will require massive investments in maintaining food chains, ensuring necessities for every family and providing critical care for those who need it.
Up till now, decisions have been made in the face of substantial uncertainty without any clear guidelines for how those decisions should be made to resolve the uncertainty as rapidly as possible. The approach we recommend incorporates prior information and multidisciplinary expertise in a structured fashion and enables real-time data responsiveness.
The Analytical Angle is a monthly column where top researchers bring rigorous evidence to policy debates in Pakistan. The series is a collaboration between the Centre for Economic Research in Pakistan and Dawn.com. The views expressed are the authors alone.
Here is the original post:
Posted: at 7:07 pm
We will not and cannot return to the world as it was before the pandemic struck. We must rebuild societies that are better, more resilient and we must do so together.Secretary General Antonio Guterres
The unprecedented crisis triggered by the spread of the COVID-19 virus, has focused the full attention of the United Nations System (UN) on a strategy of rapid response and recovery. In the words of the UN Secretary-General, this pandemic is the worst global crisis since World War II. The IMFs World Economic Outlook frames the depth of the current global economic recession as the deepest since the Great Depression.
I. Introduction: The COVID Response
The UNs efforts to help save lives and protect people from the COVID-19 pandemic focus on three critical components, all led by each countrys Resident Coordinator: the health response, coordinated by the World Health Organisation (WHO); the humanitarian response, coordinated by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA); and the socio-economic response, coordinated by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) in close collaboration with all UN agencies in 162 countries and territories.
In a recent report entitled Shared responsibility, global solidarity: Responding to the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19, the UN Secretary-General calls for a large-scale, coordinated, comprehensive multilateral response that amounts to at least 10 per cent of GDP. The size of this commitment requires an open discussion about debt relief in all developing countries in fragile/crisis contexts, in low and middle-income countries as well as in Small Island Developing States.
While its impact will vary from country to country, Covid-19 will likely increase poverty and inequalities at a global scale. According to the UN International Labour Organization, working hours are projected to decline by 6.7% in Q2 (2020), equivalent to 195 million full-time workers, with the world losing between $860 billion to $3.4 trillion in labor income. The UN Conference on Trade and Development projects 30 to 40 per cent downward pressure on global foreign direct investment flows. The World Tourism Organization sees a 2030 per cent decline in international arrivals. The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization forecasts that 1.5 billion students will be out of school. Inequality of access to broadband connectivity and inaccessibility of ICTs hinders effective remote participation and access to remote schooling arrangements, health information and telemedicine by all. According to the International Telecommunication Union, an estimated 3.6 billion people remain offline, with most of the unconnected living in the least developed countries.
To operationalise the UN Secretary-Generals report, the UN development system has developed a socio-economic response framework and has switched into emergency mode. A significant portion of the UNs existing portfolio of sustainable development programmes of a total of $17.8 billion across all the SDGs is being adjusted and expanded towards COVID-19 related needs, in close collaboration with programme countries, donors and partners.
II. The Socio-Economic Response
The UNs response to the socio-economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis considers a variety of interlinked dimensions that need to be addressed in an integrated manner to protect the needs and rights of people living under the duress of the pandemic, with particular focus on the most vulnerable countries, groups, and people who risk being left behind.
1. HEALTH FIRST: PROTECT AND STRENGTHEN THE HEALTH SYSTEM: Health systems are being overwhelmed by demand for services generated by the COVID-19 outbreak. When health systems collapse, both direct mortality from the outbreak and avertable mortality from vaccine and other care interventions, preventable and treatable conditions increase dramatically. At least half of the worlds population still do not have full coverage of essential health services and about 100 million people are still being pushed into extreme poverty (defined as living on 1.90 USD or less a day) because they have to pay for health care. Over 930 million people (around 12% of the worlds population) spend at least 10% of their household budgets to pay for health care.
Countries with the weakest health systems stand before huge challenges in all these aspects. There must be immediate, targeted actions to allow countries to maintain essential lifesaving health services even as they surge to meet the spike in demand for acute care. And there must be a complementary effort on health systems recovery, preparedness and strengthening with a focus on primary health care and Universal Health Coverage (UHC). Massive investment in health will be needed for both, maintaining services and to strengthen preparedness of health systems to respond to future waves of COVID-19 and future global outbreaks.
2. PROTECT PEOPLE: SOCIAL PROTECTION AND BASIC SERVICES: The COVID-19 crisis impacts the worlds poorest and most vulnerable. The crisis will devastate incomes and access to basic services with intergenerational implications for families on multidimensional poverty and inequality. Many governments are responding to the crisis by expanding existing programmes, but 4 billion people accounting for 71% of the world population, including 2 out of 3 children have no or inadequate social protection to start with. Therefore, the scope of the challenges ahead requires an extraordinary scale up of the response. Those with informal or unstable employment, entrepreneurs and those working in the service industry (majority women) are most affected, with only 1 in 5 unemployed persons able to avail of unemployment benefits. Social protection responses must consider differentiated impacts of COVID-19 on vulnerable groups and women and men.
Access to social services is being curtailed either through reduction in services or in access. Key areas include: (a) Food and Nutrition: The disruption of markets impacts on the quality of diets and nutrition practices, which translate into an increase of mortality, morbidity and malnutrition among the population groups with the highest nutrition needs; (b) Education: About 90% of the total number of school children in the world have been directly affected by school closures, with an estimated 370 million school children also missing out on school meals. Adolescent girls already lack access to secondary education and are at heightened risk; (c) Water and sanitation: WASH services will be affected with public utilities potentially facing less than optimal staffing and available workforce, disrupted supply chains, and challenges in payments to support functionality putting these services at grave risk of collapsing. Women-headed households are more likely to have inadequate housing, including on water and sanitation, which can increase health risks, especially in cases of overcrowding of shelters; (d) Gender-Based Violence (GBV): Quarantine and isolation policies, coupled with financial stress on families, individuals and communities, will exacerbate the conditions for women already vulnerable to domestic violence, estimated to be at least one third of all women. Care and support to GBV survivors may be disrupted when health service providers are overburdened; (e) Protection, mental health and psychosocial support: Fear, worry and acute stressors can lead to long-term consequences, coupled with diminished availability to services from social workers and case workers, leaving women and the most vulnerable exposed to violence, abuse, exploitation and neglect.
3.PROTECT JOBS AND ECONOMIC RECOVERIES: COVID-19 has plunged the world economy into a recession with deep consequences and historical levels of unemployment and deprivation. It is estimated that we could lose 25 million jobs and see losses in labour income in the range of USD 860 billion to USD 3.4 trillion. Small and medium enterprises, the self-employed, daily wage earners and migrant workers are hit the hardest. Supporting income and employment for workers needs to be a core element of stimulus packages. Most vulnerable workers are in the informal economy, with no or limited access to social protection, nor do they have the economic security to take sick leave, get treated if required, or cope with lockdown. Women represent approximately 70 per cent of frontline workers dealing with the pandemic in the health and social sector, many of whom are migrant workers. Women are also overrepresented in some of the services sectors most impacted by the crisis, mostly lacking social protection, and will also bear a disproportionate burden in the care economy.
Economic recovery is about protecting critical productive assets, productive units and productive networks during the crisis. Ensuring the continued or improved functioning of SMEs across sectors, including food and other essential goods and services supply chains, is of particular urgency. First, policy actions across multiple sectors and mitigation of adverse policy effects on essential services are needed to avoid disruption and permanent job losses. Second, employment crises are the harbingers of political crises. Disruptions in massive employment sectors presents immediate existential threats to essential services that result in riots, violence and erosion of trust in institutions and governments. Third, a global economic recession will impact global population movements and hence affect countries with high levels of migration and large portions of remittances in their GDP. The return of migrants and the reduction of remittances will likely surpass the capacity of the formal and informal sectors in those countries to absorb large numbers of returnees or additional local job seekers in the local labour market.
4.THE MACROECONOMIC RESPONSE AND MULTILATERAL COORDINATION: A major global economic recession is underway, along with the possibility of a financial crisis, with major implications for vulnerable population groups and households. A large-scale fiscal and financial effort for counter-cyclical spending is urgently needed everywhere.
A three-step strategy is essential for the socio-economic response to the COVID-19 crisis. First, a rapid assessment of the potential impact of the crisis is needed in order to quantify the spending necessary to contain it. Second, an assessment of the fiscal space available to finance increased spending, as it will restrict the governments capacity for action. Third, an analysis of policy priorities and available policy measures considering both financing and implementation constraints faced by governments. The possible implications of the proposed policy measures will need to be accounted for as well.
As the UN Secretary-General has noted, a large scale, coordinated and comprehensive multilateral response is needed now more than ever. COVID-19 is a global problem and confronting the effects of the pandemic will require global and coordinated efforts supported by regional initiatives and regional institutions. While the level and intensity of the impact of COVID-19 varies across the world, countries under sanctions may be particularly affected. Three areas of regional coordination are particularly relevant: trade policy, monetary coordination and enhanced connectivity.
5.SOCIAL COHESION AND COMMUNITY RESILENCE: The impact of COVID-19 on the life of rural and urban communities is set to be massive, particularly in poor and densely populated urban areas and slums. 1 billion people live in slums, where living conditions affect the health of the urban poor dramatically, where people are unable to self-isolate and where their livelihood depends on income from day to day work in the informal sector.
The scale of the socio-economic impact of COVID19 on the urban and rural poor will largely depend on tailored solutions for these communities. This will require a close interaction between national, subnational and local Governments and communities, based on a good understanding of the specific situations of communities through local assessments, strengthen community-led advocacy and service delivery. It will also require that communities are empowered to participate in local planning and in the oversight of services.
The COVID-19 crisis also threatens social cohesion as the crisis can erode trust within society and with respect to governments. Whole-of-society approaches are essential to confront the socio-economic impacts of the crisis. Social cohesion, embedded in actors, communities and institutions, holds the society together and is critical to the achievement of the SDGs, advancing the values, norms and fundamental human rights. Close attention should be paid to the impact of COVID-19 on fragile political transitions and in countries already facing a rapid deterioration of security conditions, on top of weak health systems and climate change.
III. A focus on debt
The size of fiscal and financial stimulus needed in each country - short run measures to address the pandemic, and fiscal policy to spur demand in the medium run - is in the order of several percentage points of GDP. Yet, many developing countries, including low- and middle-income countries, fragile/crisis context countries and Small Island Development States, will be unable to raise the resources needed.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, global debt had reached record highs. As the UN 2020 Financing for Sustainable Development Report points out, the long period of unusually low international interest rates and unprecedented levels of global liquidity associated with quantitative easing gave developing countries, including least developed countries, increased access to commercial financing. While providing much needed resources in the short term, this has also resulted in higher debt servicing costs, and heightened interest rate, exchange rate and rollover risks. Forty-four per cent of least developed countries and other low-income developing countries were already at high risk of external debt distress or already in debt distress prior to the outbreak of the pandemic.
A UN proposal: Debt relief should not be based on level of income but on vulnerability
The global COVID-19-induced contraction in economic activity is having dire consequences, including on debt sustainability. This is not limited to low-income countries. Middle-income countries, home to 75% of the worlds population and 62% of the worlds poor, are highly vulnerable to a debt crisis, lost market access and capital outflows. Small Island Developing States face structural constraints on growth, energy and food imports, and fiscal space that need to be addressed in comprehensive fashion.
Principles for Global Solidarity
To effectively halt a debt crisis, we need to move quickly. We propose a framework that aims to ensure debt relief, while accounting for heterogeneous debt situations across countries and the need for tailored policy responses.
This approach builds on principles for debt sustainability discussed and agreed at the United Nations and laid out most recently in the Addis Ababa Action Agenda. They also reflect best practices underlying debt resolution at the IMF and the World Bank.
i) Debtors and creditors must share responsibility for preventing and resolving unsustainable debt situations
ii) Debt restructurings should be timely, orderly, effective, fair and negotiated in good faith
iii) Debt workouts should aim to restore public debt sustainability, while enhancing the ability of countries to achieve sustainable development, growth with greater equality and the sustainable development goals.
A Three Phase Approach
A comprehensive approach across three phases, involving all relevant creditors and all countries facing liquidity and solvency issues due to the crisis is required.
An across-the-board debt standstill for two years for all developing countries who cannot service their debt and request relief should be instituted. To start, official bilateral creditors should immediately institute an emergency debt payment moratorium on sovereign debt.
The standstill should also:
Include other creditors (private creditors as well as multilaterals). Coordination is of the essence.
Extend beyond IDA countries to include other low-income and those heavily indebted middle-income countries that request relief.
Include principal and interest payments, as well as associated fees and charges
Set a cut-off date, after which new financing is excluded from future debt restructurings, in order to facilitate access to financing after this date.
Allow for repayment schedules that ensure ability of countries to implement the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda.
A second phase should consider a more comprehensive assessment and options towards debt sustainability. Debt swaps can release resources for the COVID-19 response in developing countries, although they may not adequately solve unsustainable debt situations.
A debt mechanism for the SDGs, with a focus on creating fiscal space for recovery in a resilient manner and SDG achievement could be considered.
Addressing long outstanding issues in the international debt architecture should be cast as a third phase given the urgency and immediacy of the need to act in the face of COVID.
This new international debt architecture should build upon the Principles established in the Financing for Sustainable Development Agenda of timely, orderly, effective, fair resolutions. It should aim at preventing defaults from turning into prolonged financial and economic crises, restoring public debt sustainability, and enhancing the ability of countries to achieve the sustainable development goals.
IV. Next Steps
The pandemic has reminded us, in the starkest way possible, of the price we pay for weaknesses in health systems, social protections and public services. It has underscored and exacerbated inequalities, above all gender inequality, laying bare the way in which the formal economy has been sustained on the back of invisible and unpaid care labour. It has highlighted ongoing human rights challenges, including stigma and violence against women.
Building a better, post-pandemic future will require social and economic interventions today that build greater resilience tomorrow. To be resilient, COVID-19 recovery efforts must be part of the solution to climate change the other global crisis facing this generation. They must accelerate rather than undermine decarbonization, the protection of natural capital, social equality and inclusion, the realization of human rights for everyone, and strong, capable governments and institutions all critical, systemic elements to avoiding such an outbreak again.
Rather than being put aside as aspirational in a time of crisis, the SDGs offer a framework for a fair and sustainable transition, as they recognize the interconnected nature of all life on this planet. Beyond the socio-economic frame of the current response, the role the environment and natural capital will play in the path to recovery is a policy choice that warrants further elaboration, as do good governance, gender equality and empowerment, and the protection and promotion of human rights for all.
As the UN Secretary-General report avers, we need to build back better. A large-scale, coordinated and comprehensive multilateral response is needed now more than ever. The COVID-19 crisis is a global problem and confronting the effects of the pandemic will require global and coordinated efforts supported by regional and sub-regional collaboration.
The UN is fully mobilized. It will make full use of its programmatic assets, contribute through actions that enable and empower, and through words that connect and protect with the SDGs as compass. It is also establishing a new Multi-Partner Trust Fund for COVID19 Response and Recovery. The collective know-how of the UNs Country Teams is operational and mobilized to implement this strategy over the next 12 to 18 months, led by Resident Coordinators in 162 countries and territories, and supported by a global and regional network of expertise and experience.
There will be no return to the old normal. The massive fiscal and financial repurposing made by governments in these weeks and months, including the redirection of fossil fuel subsidies to aid the response, are a glimpse of the future. They suggest that the status quo and business-as-usual are policy choices, not inevitable constraints on sustainable development.
Recovering from this pandemic must not come at the expense of tackling others. We need to do everything possible to ensure that our efforts to support countries ravaged by Covid-19 do not divert resources from existing crises addressing the needs of refugees and other vulnerable groups; tackling the global climate emergency; ending violence against women and girls; and putting an end to discrimination in all its forms. How stimulus plans are implemented matters to what this recovery will look like. The global recovery needs to be fair; it needs to be green, and above all, it must be inclusive.
Posted: at 7:07 pm
As the Covid-19 coronavirus crisis grows more profound across the globe, claiming the lives of nearly 110,000 people and infecting over 1.78 million others by 12 April, the world is racing to develop a reliable vaccine to save humanity from the worst pandemic in over a century.
However, as the world is vehemently searching for a reliable vaccine or cure, the elephant in the room is the state of the world economy, which is growing worse by the day. As most of the worlds major cities have slowed to a snails pace during the crisis, its manufacturing plants, agriculture, stock markets and trading centres have also come to a virtual halt due to enforced curfews and lockdowns preventing most human gatherings.
These health and safety measures intended to save human lives have a steep economic cost, and the global economy was already on the edge of recession before the coronavirus crisis. Now many economists are predicting its near total collapse.
Many questions still surround how to tackle the worlds most challenging crisis since World War II and how normal life can be restored even if the virus itself is eventually contained. These questions are not easy to answer, but life will return to normal eventually and maybe even faster than many pundits and analysts think. One line of thought says that the Covid-19 crisis could give rise to a new world order and see the rise of China to inherit the throne left vacant by the United States.
However, neither of these things is certain. There is too little data available to forecast what will happen in the coming period or in the post-coronavirus era. There is also exaggeration or even wishful thinking in the ominous forecasts that say that the Western capitalist counties are doomed after they survive this crisis.
Such forecasts stem from the possible recession that the Western economies may suffer from as a result of the crisis, predicting their fall in favour of the rise of the Chinese. However, this analysis neglects the fact that the Chinese economys meteoric growth over the past three decades has been largely reliant on exporting goods to these Western countries and their thriving economies. As a result, China, as the worlds leading exporter, could take an even bigger hit than the Western economies should the latter falter and fall into recession.
Thousands of Chinese manufacturers would be out of business in record time, especially those that are reliant on exports to Western countries such the states of the European Union, the United States and Canada. The rising economies in Asia, Africa, South America and the Middle East will hardly fill the gap if the Europeans and North Americans are unable to import Chinese products.
The credit lines granted by the Chinese government to developing countries have helped Chinese exporters to grow exponentially by facilitating their entrance to markets that had previously relied on Western products. But these credit lines have a limit, and they cannot be provided indefinitely. In many cases, and even before the current economic crisis, some countries had defaulted on their debts to Chinese lenders, such as Kenyas inability to pay a two billion Euros loan to the Exim Bank of China taken out to build a new port in Mombasa.
The situation had exacerbated to the extent that China was threatening to take over the new port from Kenya. China remains Kenyas largest lender, and Chinese loans account for more than 72 per cent of Kenyan foreign debts, which are more than 42.8 billion Euros. This situation is an undesirable one for any developing country, and Kenya thus faces defaulting on Chinese debt and possibly leading to the seizure of one of its main assets.
Moreover, China is facing a backlash from the Western countries as well as from Asian economic and political rivals such as Japan. There is a growing trend for foreign investors in the Chinese economy seeking to relocate their investments to their home countries to make up for the economic stagnation and recession that has befallen them.
Japan has allocated $2.5 billion to Japanese companies seeking to relocate their investments out of China. Other calls, which have gone hand-in-hand with calls to boycott Chinese products, are being heard in the United States coming from various politicians. But economic boycotts against China will not lead to any tangible results in either the shorter or the longer term, as economic ties to China are too intertwined, and boycotting Chinese companies will lead to harming American and Western companies as well.
At the same time, while China is vying for the top spot as an economic superpower, it is very much aware that there is no point in manufacturing products that will have no markets if it loses its largest export markets in Europe and North America as a result of the recession that may befall these economies. In fact, the Chinese economy will be equally hit if the EU and US economies suffer in the coming period, which means that it is in the best interests of China for the global economy to remain in its current position, as there will be no real winners if the economic superpowers start to fall out with each other.
As a result, even during this dark period of economic uncertainty when there are shifting tides favouring one country against another, a general restructuring is unlikely to be straightforward due to the complex global economic structure. This is not to say that China may not eventually claim the top spot as the biggest economy in the world should the current state of near recession drag on after the coronavirus crisis is over. But no war like World War II has destroyed the economic or industrial might of the other existing main players.
Therefore, returning to normal rates of production after the crisis is over will be attainable provided that governments, central banks and commercial banks provide the necessary incentives to save ailing companies through loans and other programmes intended to facilitate the return of companies and industrial plants to full production. Losses will be incurred by the banks, and some companies may not be able to withstand the tide of events, but a total economic meltdown can be avoided with smart planning and execution.
Germany has already announced an economic-stimulus package of over one trillion Euros, and the US has allocated over $2 trillion to support the economy. Other countries are taking similar action to support their economies and allow them to survive the current crisis. These actions and others on the socio-economic level will ensure the survival of the global economy despite the speculation of many economists worldwide. They will also mean that such uncertainties will not change the global economic balance much in the coming period.
The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypts Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 April, 2020 edition ofAl-Ahram Weekly
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The pandemic, profits and the capitalist justification of suffering and death – World Socialist Web Site
Posted: at 7:07 pm
18 April 2020
The Trump administrations cynical announcement of a set of fraudulent guidelines that will serve to legitimize a rapid reopening of businesses and a forced return to work, in unsafe conditions, brings to an end any public pretense of a systematic and coordinated effort within the United States to prioritize health and to protect human life in combatting the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The premature return to work that the Trump administration is orchestrating will lead to countless thousands of deaths, which could be prevented if a rigorous program of social distancing, supported by a massive program of testing and contact tracing, were implemented and sustained during the coming critical months.
There is absolutely no significant factual evidence, let alone scientific analysis, that can be cited to justify Trumps announcement. Leading epidemiologists have already publicly challenged the validity of the statistical model being used by the White House. Referring to projections by the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, epidemiologist Ruth Etzioni of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center told the medical journal STAT: That the IHME model keeps changing is evidence of its lack of reliability as a predictive tool. That it is being used for policy decisions and its results interpreted wrongly is a travesty unfolding before our eyes.
The pandemic is exacting a horrifying toll in human life. During the 24 hours that preceded Trumps announcement, the COVID-19 coronavirus claimed 4,591 lives in the US. This number was more than a 75 percent increase over the 2,569 deaths during the previous 24-hour period. Over the past three days, the nationwide death toll has risen from 26,000 to over 36,000.
It is widely recognized that the official figure substantially undercounts the total number of deaths. The discoveries of bodies of elderly patients in two different nursing homes are only the most frightful examples of the gap between the official and real death toll. At this point, there is no reliable tally of people dying outside of hospitals, either of an undiagnosed COVID-19 infection or of causes related to the pandemic.
This is a global pandemic. There are, as of this writing, 2,216,000 cases and 151,000 deaths. These statistics are no more reliable than those provided for the United States. The previously reported figures are already being revised upward.
Trumps blatant ignorance and gangster-like persona imparted to the announcement of the guidelines the sociopathic and generally putrescent atmosphere that pervades all his public appearances. But his policies are not simply those of an individual. The criminal form in which the policies are presented is determined by the economic and social interests of the class Trump serves.
For the financial-corporate oligarchy, the pandemic has been viewed, above all else, as an economic crisis. Its principal concern, from the start, was not the potential loss of life but the destabilization of the financial markets, the disruption of the process of profit extraction, and, of course, a substantial decline in the personal wealth of the members of the oligarchy.
While in February and March, the Trump administration publicly downplayed the seriousness of the crisis, officials at the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve worked in close consultation with the major banks to structure and implement a multi-trillion-dollar bailout that would dwarf that which followed the financial collapse of 2008.
During the first three weeks of March, the news was dominated by the mounting international and national impact of the pandemic on public health. Public attention was focused on the drama of the cruise ships, the deaths in Italy and the initial reports of infection in Washington state. The urgent need to implement quarantines and shut down non-essential businesses was, despite Trump, widely acknowledged.
On March 19, the CARES Act was introduced in the Senate. The rapid passage of the bailout of the entire financial industry was taken for granted. Indeed, corporate executives, kept well informed by their political servants in Congress, took advantage of the plunge on Wall Street to buy back billions in company shares in anticipation of the massive rally that would follow the final passage of the CARES Act.
As soon as the CARES Act was introduced, the focus of the media began to shift toward an aggressive campaign for a return to work. There could be no delay. The massive increase in fictitious capitalmore than $2 trillion in digitally created debtwas to be added to the Federal Reserves balance sheet within less than a month. Additional trillions of dollars of debt will be added in the coming months. This represents, in the final analysis, claims on real value that must be satisfied through the exploitation of the labor power of the working class. The greater the debt incurred by the state-sanctioned creation of fictitious capital, the more urgent the demand for a rapid end to restraints on the process of profit extraction.
Thus, on March 22, even as the CARES Act was making its way toward passage, Thomas Friedman, the leading columnist of the New York Times, initiated the campaign for a return to work: What the hell are we doing to ourselves? To our economy? To our next generation? he shouted. Is this cureeven for a short whileworse than the disease?
The latter sentence provided the slogan for a campaign that became increasingly insistent in the weeks that followed. Arguments against excessive concern for the protection of human life became more and more brazen. Evading an examination of the socio-economic interests that had prevented an effective response to the pandemic, the Times began extolling the benefits of human suffering. As much as we might wish, none of us can avoid suffering, opined columnist Emily Esfahani Smith on April 7. Thats why its important to learn to suffer as well.
On April 11, the Times dished up further musings on the benefits of suffering and death. Ross Douthat, in a column titled The Pandemic and the Will of God, invited readers to consider how suffering fits into a providential plan. Another essay, by Simon Critchley of the New School in New York City, proclaimed that To Philosophize Is to Learn How to Die. Pretentiously invoking the authority of Descartes, Boethius, More, Gramsci, Heidegger, Pascal, T.S. Eliot, Montaigne, Cicero, Dafoe, Camus, Kierkegaard and even Boccaccioall within the confines of one newspaper columnthis academic blowhard summed up the wisdom of the ages by advising his readers, Facing death can be a key to our liberation and survival.
The brutal practical agenda underlying these rather ethereal ruminations on suffering and death found blunt expression in the text of a round-table video conference organized by the Times. Participants included Zeke Emanuel, who is notorious for arguing that physicians should not seek to prolong life beyond the age of 75, and Peter Singer, a bioethics professor at Princeton, whose advocacy of euthanasia for debilitated infants led to protests upon his appointment to the university post 20 years ago. The Times is entirely familiar with Singers views, as it wrote extensively two decades ago on the controversy generated by his arrival at Princeton.
The text of the video conference discussion was posted in the on-line edition of the New York Times Magazine on April 10, under the title Restarting America Means People Will Die. So When Do We Do It? Five thinkers weigh moral choices in a crisis.
In its introduction to the text, the Times asserted that it will become necessary to accept that there is a trade-off between saving lives and saving the economy. While in the short term the two goals may be aligned, in the longer run, though, its important to acknowledge that a trade-off will emergeand become more urgent in the coming months, as the economy slides deeper into recession.
In its analysis of the trade off, the Times proceeds from the unquestioned premise that economic interests can only be those of the capitalist class. The profit system, private ownership of the productive forces and vast personal wealth are unalterable and eternal. Therefore, the trade off requires, inevitably, the sacrifice of human life, specifically, the lives of working people.
Singer declared that it is impossible to provide an assistance package for all those people for a year or 18 months. Thats where well get into saying, Yes, people will die if we open up, but the consequences of not opening up are so severe that maybe weve got to do it anyway.
It goes without saying that none of the Times panelists called attention to the fact that Congress had just injected several trillion dollars into the coffers of the banks and corporations to save executives and shareholders. Nor was it noted that there are approximately 250 billionaires in the United States, who have a collective net worth of close to $9 trillion dollars. If this wealth were expropriated and distributed evenly among the 100 million poorest households in the United States, it would provide each household with a monthly income of $5,000 for 18 months!
Of course, the expropriation of this gargantuan sum of privately held wealthwhich is entirely legitimate and necessary in the context of a massive social crisisis not an option which the Times and its panelists are even prepared to consider as a theoretical possibility. But they are willing to accept the deaths of countless thousands as a matter of practical, i.e., capitalist necessity.
The subordination of life to the profit system is not confined to the United States. It is being proclaimed as a universal principle by the ruling elites in Europe. The Neue Zurcher Zeitung, the main voice of the Swiss ruling class, posted an article yesterday, that asks:
Do you want to live forever? This was the question Frederick the Great asked his soldiers at the Battle of Kolin in 1757, when they gave way to the enemy. One is inclined to ask the same question again in view of the disputable relationship between the corona sick and deceased on the one hand and the population as a whole and those suffering from common diseases on the other.
Some things here seem to beliterallycrazy. But also the collateral damage of disease with its wanton acceptance of the destruction of the economy provokes the whole question. Anyone who wants to put it drastically could say: We choose economic suicide to prevent individual elderly people from passing away a few years earlier than would be expected under normal circumstances.
The advocacy of a policy that accepts, and even advocates the culling of the aged and weak finds its most explicitly fascistic expression in a lengthy essay published on April 13 in the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel. Titled We need to talk about dying, it is written by Bernard Gill, a sociologist who has been associated with the Green Party.
In a sweeping assault on the development of science, Gill denounces the heroic narrative that celebrated the great nineteenth century scientists Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch as heroes who made microbes visible, manageable and therefore controllable. Gill protests:
In this story of creation, the microbes are aliens, which threaten us and therefore hold us down with power are best exterminated. Our lives against their livesscientific knowledge and well-organized defensive struggle until the final victory of hygiene, which promises eternal life in a germ-free environment.
But this is a violation of nature. Our life, Gill declares, is not conceivable without death. But those who seek to contain the infection with all means, also fights dying with all means.
Gill advocates an acceptance of the natural spread of the pandemicbased on the program of herd immunitywhich views dying as a natural process that is individually painful for those involved, but from a distance makes room for new life. With this approach, Gill argues, we come to terms with the microbes in the knowledge that our life without death is unthinkable. We console ourselves with the prospect of new life.
These are arguments with which Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, who committed suicide 75 years ago this month in his Berlin bunker, would have readily agreed.
Deeply reactionary and inhuman ideas are wafting about Germany. But there, no less than in the United States, they arise not from the sick psychology of individuals, but from the needs of the capitalist system.
The same publication, Der Spiegel, that provides a forum for Gill, warns that the German auto industry cannot endure a prolonged shutdown.
The longer the corona crisis lasts, the louder industry calls will grow for politicians to finally name a date for the easing of the shutdowns in order to provide companies with some planning security
The automotive industry in particular is facing a trial of strength for which there is no historical precedent. In order to prevent a collapse, companies need to get their shuttered factories opened again this spring.
Involved as well are critical issues of global competitiveness. Der Spiegel continues:
There are also geostrategic interests. Executives at companies in Europe want to strengthen the European market in order to establish it as a counterweight to the United States and China as economic powers...
This is all the more true given that China, where the coronavirus originated, appears to be emerging from the crisis faster than the rest of the world.
The COVID-19 coronavirus confronts mankind with not only a scientific-medical problem, but also a political and social challenge. The response of the ruling classes to the coronavirus pandemic reveals that its interests are incompatible with human progress and the very survival of mankind.
In its failure to prepare for the pandemic, its chaotic and disorganized response to the coronavirus once the outbreak began, its subordination of every social need to its own economic interests, its nationally-grounded sabotage of all possibility of a unified global response to the disease, and its open justification of the reactionary and neo-fascistic program of social euthanasia, the ruling class is demonstrating the necessity of socialism.
For humanity to survive, the subordination of society to the money mad capitalist elites must be ended.
Featured statements on the coronavirus pandemic
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Posted: March 31, 2020 at 6:32 am
Its beginning to dawn on the national security establishment and ordinary citizens alike that theres no going back.
The coronavirus, the current biggest threat to global security, has already destroyed life as we know it. Even if previous pre-pandemic certainties about socio-economic and political realities can be quickly reestablished in the recovery period (though unlikely), the unsettling consequences of the virus will last a lifetime.
Despite the pandemics current duration, seismic long-term changes are already palpable. Fear has made personal and familial safety paramount. This new primacy of safety demands obedience, both to state authority and to scientific expertise, carrying the consequence of recidivism to a more Hobbesian world where state power reigns supreme.
The pandemic has ushered in the retreat of globalization and many of its idealistic tropes, such as sanctuary cities and free movement zones. Tight, severe border management has already arrived, for what sane person will advocate admitting infected people? Epidemiological procedures have no patience with civil liberties, and as state power becomes more manifest, individualism will be pushed aside for national preservation.
The national security establishments in Europe and the United States are taking a fatalistic view, weighing the cost in lives against an outright economic collapse. The calculation is a hard choice between easing restrictions on internal movement, thereby enabling businesses to reboot, or continuing a lockdown at the price of economic security.
That type of turnaround raises the prospect that many will die. In Germany, one million people could perish over time if the government removes its shelter-in-place diktat. Yet, continuing the lockdown risks destroying the German economy and, with it, a pan-European recovery.
The coronavirus has sent rippling shock waves through the global economy, with countries taking severe measures to adjust.
The EU, United Kingdom, Japan, Australia, and the U.S. are all printing money. With output and production indices falling, all this new money may prompt another epidemic inflation. If the massive cash infusions announced this past week are primarily being used to buttress corporate balance books, even basic systemic liquidity could be in doubt. But this may provide an opportunity for global private capital, or various sovereign funds, to finance new sovereign indebtedness, incurred via new spending and an explosion in contingent liabilities.
The contraction of globalization as a consequence of the pandemic will have other long-lasting effects on the economy, including the return of EU and U.S. firms to their domiciled countries of origin and the decline of face-to-face business, which is being replaced by teleworking and long-distance electronic monitoring and surveillance. With drastically declining business travel, virtual interaction with customers and e-commerce will grow exponentially.
Industries will move towards vertical integration, with far less reliance on foreign-sourced materials, especially in critical sectors of national security (rare earth minerals) or basic supplies (pharmaceuticals, and medical supplies like cotton swabs or syringes). As a national security objective, mature Western economies will reduce dependence on supplies from Asia.
The largest economic, political, and social risk lies in the vulnerability of the payments system. Despite the stress tests on the banks since the 2008 crisis, the retail banking sector never anticipated anything like the coronavirus their inability to adapt to post-pandemic circumstances will cause them to be one of the biggest fatalities of the virus, with financial technology, or fintech, rising to fill this gap.
As the American economy struggles to stay afloat in the face of market uncertainties caused by the coronavirus, it also faces the growing pressure from foreign powers waging war on domestic oil, a vital national security interest.
In light of these threats, the administrations stimulus package is the best choice for stabilizing our economy, keeping unemployment down, restoring confidence in consumer spending, and protecting the market from an orchestrated attack by foreign rivals. For example, the current Saudi-Russian oil price war has reinforced the need for the U.S. to strengthen its domestic oil production. Although the Trump administration cannot indulge every panicked call for subsidy or special treatment, a rescue package for the shale oil industry is necessary to support one of the nation's major critical industries and make ourselves self-reliant by maintaining our supplies and preserving our industries.
What this pandemic has taught us is that we can only rely on ourselves for the future and theres no going back.
Ron Wahid is chairman and CEO of Arcanum Global, a strategic intelligence company.
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Posted: at 6:32 am
The emergence of COVID-19 as a public health emergency by the World Health Organization has led to a number of precautionary measures such as quarantines, social distancing or in some cases total lockdown in region or countries around the world.
For the first time since WWII, Europeans have been confronted with such restrictions and have to adjust to new realities where the future is unpredictable. Keeping a job and earning a living have become uncertain, especially for those who are already in a precarious situation, leading to greater levels of stress and anxiety. Furthermore, limiting access to normal daily activities, not just going to work, but normal social interactions with others provokes mental health issues, and weakens physical health for those who already struggle to maintain good health and wellbeing.
This situation is particularly worrying for prisoners, who may experience greater mental health effects as they are deprived of external social contacts for a longer period. Children are also affected by social isolation and the mental health issues this provokes. For those who already experiencing loneliness, the social distancing required to stop the pandemic only further raises their feelings of social isolation.
Feelings of loneliness and social isolation, heightened by the current public health crisis, can have severe health consequences for a number of socio-economic groups. Anxiety and apathy, as well as loneliness, are some of the mental health consequences that will persist long after the pandemic ends, while the increased feelings of depression and stress, especially during a time of uncertainty, may have serious impacts on public health, increasing peoples vulnerability to poor health, and weakening society as a whole. Social isolation should not become a norm, even if some specific circumstances require social distancing. These two terms are often used interchangeably but their meanings should be clearly distinguished and used in an appropriate manner. Indeed, it may be more appropriate to talk about physical distancing instead.
Tackling the pandemic and preventing its further spread is vital for society, but such measures do not mean there should be a collapse in social contact. The impact of isolation and loneliness should not be under-estimated or fall to the bottom of politicians lists of priorities as inaction now will lead to high human and financial costs later on. The strong social and economic arguments should be enough to convince decision makers that they also need to take urgent action to tackle peoples social isolation especially those in a vulnerable situation. Developing effective interventions, including prevention measures is not an easy task during a public health emergency when priorities have to be redefined and public spending has to be urgently reallocated; but consideration of these issues now can widely contribute to limiting the long-term effects of the current crisis.
In an era when digital technology is an integral part of peoples lives, public authorities must deploy their capacity to meet peoples needs and address both the physical and mental health impacts of social isolation. Online medical consultations can support doctors and patients to ensure proper medical follow-up, which is widely affected by confinement. Such a measure will demonstrate the role of digital technologies in the health sector and provide an effective response to patients needs allowing patients to be properly diagnosed and avoid self-medication that can additionally worsen peoples health during a health emergency.
The possibility for online discussion with a health professional or a psychologist is another concrete action that can help reduce anxiety and panic and overcome feelings of being alone or powerlessness. Virtual thematic discussions and group activities offered by social workers can also help combat social isolation people can be part of a collective where they can meet and discuss with others, their common values and interests. Teachers play an important role for childs socialization, through online classes, as well as extra-school activities that can meet childrens specific social needs.
These are just a few examples of activities that can be adapted to local contexts to reduce the mental health effects of the pandemic. Measures to combat peoples isolation, loneliness, anxiety and panic; and improve peoples well-being, can contribute to the successful reconstruction of our society, when some normality returns, and people can return to their daily lives.
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Posted: at 6:32 am
WITH many people confined to their homes through the movement control order, there is a lot of time for catching up on reading, watching TV or anything to whittle the time away.
Trying to figure out what the world will look like after the Covid-19 pandemic subsides sufficiently for people to go back to work is like a post-apocalyptic scenario. The projections of what is going to happen is conjecture at this point, but nonetheless, the divergence of opinions does point to one thing: hardship.
Unemployment by all accounts is going to be a problem for people and governments, and one interesting article that was circulating on social media was that the current crisis is akin to war-time conditions. By that, it said that there is a collapse in both demand and supply. The demand side has been the focus of many governments to ensure that liquidity and cash is there to support any recovery in consumption when it happens.
The supply side is tackled differently. Thats why a number of SMEs have been painting a dreadful outlook, as a number have said they do not have sufficient cash flow to survive the month of April. Businesses, regardless of whether they are large or small, need conditions to inch towards normalcy to have any chance of surviving.
Retailers are going to feel the brunt of the pandemic. People will be hesitant to go out and eat after this, as they will err on the side of caution. There will be a waiting period until new cases drop to zero for a period of time before confidence returns to resume past activities. Even then, how the current crisis will change everyday consumption is left to be seen.
The closure of companies will damage the supply side of the economy. For large businesses, especially exporters, there is a need to resume fast so they do not lose their international clients. The faster Malaysia is able to resume production, the better it is for our exporting companies to not only protect market share, but also win new businesses from countries that are affected by a prolonged crisis. Thats why testing as many people as possible, which is the Korean model and what Germany is doing now, seems to be the right direction to take.
Then, there is another issue the government will be faced with in the recovery process. If it is a V-shaped one, then there is little displacement for workers. But if the recovery is U-shaped, then a hard decision will need to be made as regards to foreign workers.
If unemployment is an issue, the focus will be to make sure Malaysians are the first choice among employers. And if businesses are structurally hurt, then many Malaysians will become wage takers in that scenario.
That will hurt wage growth, consumption and a host of other socio-economic issues that can have a telling consequence on the make-up of labour in this country. We have gone through a period when there were dozens of Malaysians applying for a job at a fast-food restaurant. No one wants to return to those times.
That is why the government has to act fast and hard now to avoid such a situation. No one wants this crisis to set Malaysia back years and if it does, there needs to be a policy intervention to make sure Malaysians are the ones that stand to recover from a rebound in employment before anyone else.
Lets hope it does not come to that.
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Posted: at 6:32 am
Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Development & Aid, Economy & Trade, Education, Featured, Gender, Global, Headlines, Health, Human Rights, Humanitarian Emergencies, Inequity, TerraViva United Nations
HRH Prince El Hassan bin Talal
AMMAN, Jordan, Mar 26 2020 (IPS) - Humankind has outlived multiple pandemics in the course of world history. The kingdoms and states of Central and Western Europe abolished the institution of serfdom once it had become clear that medieval rule in the aftermath of devastating pestilence would founder without ending the dependency and servitude that characterized the Dark Ages. The vulnerability of entire nations to the risk of total collapse in the absence of widespread access to the most basic healthcare in the Spanish Flu spurred governments to build the public health systems that have made the progress and development of the last hundred years possible. If the past is prologue, then continuity and survival command that we change.
We have more often than not banded together in the face of all kinds of threats. In all its ramifications, COVID-19 threatens to push our social, political and economic structures to the brink. Disease, recession and fright can rapidly overwhelm states and societies. Each coming day will bring increasing challenges that can only be met by caring for the sick, minimizing the impact of shutdowns on lives and livelihoods, securing the delivery of adequate water, food and energy supplies, and racing for a cure. Success as in an asymmetric conflict rests on resilience. To contain the socio-political and socio-economic fallout from the crisis, policymaking efforts should center on human dignity and welfare as the bedrock of national and international security.
The most vulnerable members of society in some parts of our world are those on the front lines of the crisis: the doctors, nurses, care-givers, pharmacists, sanitation workers, farmers, supermarket cashiers and truck drivers whose courage, sacrifice and dedication will see us through the next 12 to 18 months of expected lockdowns. In the absence of state support, what will happen to the hundreds of thousands of people who have already been laid off, while millions more face looming hardship as the numbers of layoffs grow? Some will continue to ignore the vulnerable and marginalized, those who have least access to humanitarian assistance, while others will continue to exploit them. The calls for social distancing have grown louder and more frequent over the last couple of days, and as we begin to separate from one other we must remember our humanitarian duty to each another.
Security, far from being individual, is collective and global. The current crisis calls for transcendent thinking between politicians on both sides of the aisle. Grey areas in politics in which zero-sum games and the perverse logic of mutually assured destruction proliferate will not protect and promote human dignity and welfare. Conservatives and reformers must now move beyond the tournaments and arm-twisting of politics. The logic of mutually assured survival cannot accept grey areas. If conflict resolution transcends political beliefs, nationality, ethnicity, gender, and religion, then human dignity and welfare is the benchmark of the humanitarian commitment to life.
Reliable brokers in the management of this crisis and other crises do exist as in the International Committee of the Red Cross and Mdecins Sans Frontires. Corporate social responsibility requires developing a public platform of health facts so that people-to-people conversations and consultations can be promoted through civil society, the media and educational institutions. We cannot cherry-pick energy and climate change without talking about health or education and human dignity. Migrants and refugees must be an integral part of the national response for halting the spread of the novel coronavirus. The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for West Asia reports that 55 million people, in West Asia region, require some sort of humanitarian assistance and that the vulnerability of displaced women and girls is especially heightened in a pandemic. Post-conflict insecurity whether in countries ravaged by war or across the urban centers and countrysides of advanced economies overwhelmed by disease can only be addressed in the careful terrain mapping of humanitarian access. Yemen, Syria, Gaza and Libya are frighteningly vulnerable to the onslaught of epidemics what will peace uncover there when the wars end?
Regional insecurity is heightened in the absence of cooperation, but the multilateral system is not at a loss in facing an existential crisis. European solidarity has been sharply damaged by the onset of widespread disease although China is performing through the swift and effective action that has come to the aid of the people and government of Italy. Multilateralism today can only be revisited with a focus on the interdisciplinary priorities of the twenty-first century that include addressing the need for a Law of Peace. We draw humanitarian concessions from the law of war in times of conflict, but have no recourse to legal instruments that can secure the dignity and welfare of all in times of peace.
The current crisis is as much a global health crisis as it is a crisis of the globalization that has come to undermine the foundations of modern society with its rampant inequality and rising injustice and which threatens the very survival of our species with climate change. The planet that we share with other organisms is fragile and prone to crises. A resolution to our predicament will take nothing short of extending the ethic of human solidarity beyond the contours of our immediate response to the outbreak of COVID-19. Real success lies not in the taming of a pathogen or in re-discovering the value of compassion, respect and generosity, but in institutionalizing these values in the days, weeks and months ahead.
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Norway and Sweden: Battling Coronavirus in Two Different Worlds – Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO)
Posted: at 6:31 am
There is no doubt that the coronavirus already has and will continue to put the whole world in a very challenging position. No one knows how to battle the virus nor its implications on the worlds health systems and economies. What is clear, however, is that Sweden is relatively alone in its approach to manage this ongoing crisis, at least in terms of control over the spread of the virus in the population.
Illustration: Indigo Trigg-Hauger. Photo: saamiblog via Flickr
On Sunday March 22, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lfven spoke to the nation in a pre-recorded clip for a total of five minutes. For some the economic sector those five minutes created a sense of trust in the government, that it is strong and will not let the economy in free fall, that citizens can believe in the expertise of the Swedish public health agency (Folkhlsomyndigheten) follow its recommendations, and go on with their lives. For others, those five minutes only brought questions and concerns to the fore.
In Sweden, the public health authority free from ministerial rule recommends life to go on basically as usual; stay home if you are ill; wash your hands; cover your mouth with your elbow when you cough or sneeze; keep a safe distance from others; if you can, work from home, and if you do go to the mountains, no after ski partying. These recommendations are at the moment the most liberal among countries who are affected by the virus, and as such they also place heavy emphasis on individuals to act responsibly and follow the recommendations. On Thursday March 26, the Public Health authority commented that they were receiving signals that people over 70, one of the risk groups, were not following the recommendations. In consequence, information campaigns towards the risk groups have increased. In order to be able to follow given recommendations, however, individuals must understand what their responsibilities are and why they are responsible for following the recommendations. So far, individuals are trusted, but at the same they are packed in commuter busesn order to get to work because they are asked to do so. That sends mixed signals.
In Norway, on the other hand, comprehensive measures, such as the Corona law, were undertaken in order to limit transmission of the virus and not overburden health and care services. Among these measures are closing schools, universities and day cares, a ban on cultural events, closed swimming pools, gyms, and all service provisions that involve physical contact with persons less than two meters away with an exception for critical health care services, and finally no cabin trip to the mountains, which is a huge deal and has spurred a debate whether it is a human right for Norwegians to go to their cabins. Responsibility to not overburden hospitals and risk putting healthcare workers in difficult ethical dilemmas is placed on the collective, a national dugnad.
In Sweden on the other hand, the public health authority encourages the public to keep gyms and other training venues, youth and children activities and sport events open. A Scandinavian gym chain recently re-opened its centers there, while at the same time keeping the other centers in the Nordic region closed, as instructed by the countries respective Public Health agencies and governments. The same approach was adopted by a company that owns and runs winter sports facilities in Norway and Sweden. It closed its facilities in Norway but kept them open in Sweden, and alas will continue to do so, despite the hazard of overburdening hospitals in the regions with less resources to handle the influx of broken legs and COVID-19 at the same time.
The logic behind these companies decisions is that they are simply following public health agencies and governments recommendations or rules blindly.
Inevitably, witnessing the diametrically different approaches to battle the spread of COVID-19 leave the observer with doubt about what the right approach is. And it begs the question: do Swedish authorities have too much trust in the public? Can people really be trusted to act responsibly without the more extreme measures seen in Norway? On the other hand, one can ask if Norwegian government dont trust its population to follow recommendations and therefore sees the need to implement stricter rules?
As a Swedish citizen living in Norway, I find this development rather perplexing. The differences in each governments approach to combat COVID-19 is above all seen in the posts of acquaintances, friends and family on social media in Sweden. Ive seen social gatherings, parties, game nights and trips to Stockholm, Gothenburg, cabins in the mountains and archipelago to get some much-needed break from the corona hysteria in the cities girls night out, to name a few of the examples. It makes me wonder if Swedes are immune. More critically it makes me question whether the measures millions of people are affected by in other countries are legit. Clearly, Swedes are not immune. In fact, the death rate per million people in Sweden is nearly double that of Norway.
Most people in both countries, however, want to and do trust their governments, above all their respective public health agencies. Support for the governments have increased as they tend to do in times of crisis. In a recent interview with Dagens Nyheter, foreign minister Ann Linde commented that the level of trust the Swedish public have in its government and public agencies is very high. And, according to the latest government at a glance report from OECD, there is consensus in the academic literature that trust influences the relationship between citizens and the government and has an impact on public policy.
Thus, the keywords to understand these diametrically different approaches are trust and the Swedish governments belief the common sense folkvett of its citizens. Yet, while many people do understand the consequences of their decision to not stay at home and go to the family gathering at grandmas house with symptoms, alas there are too many who dont understand that in the end their actions may inflict on doctors and nurses the difficult decision of choosing what life to save which is a reality in Italy, Spain and now even the U.S.
Its a huge experiment.  We have no idea it could work out. But it could also go crazily in the wrong direction.
Starting in mid-March, the Public Health Authority in Sweden and Norway have both commented on the situation almost every day. Journalists in both countries cover their comments meticulously and the Swedish press conferences are screened on Norwegian TV as well. Former Swedish state epidemiologist, Johan Giesecke call the Norwegian measures draconian and unnecessary; We are right while Europe are wrong is his message to anyone who want to understand what they are doing, and acting state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell agrees. The public health authority expects people to get seriously ill, and that people will die. But 500-2000 people die from the seasonal flu every year, Johan Giesecke says. The head of analysis at the Swedish public health institute recently commented on international criticism from media and other experts: We do not believe it is possible to keep society closed until a vaccine is developed  the economy will collapse long before that  and people will not follow the recommendations.
The Swedish strategy is based on volunteering, information campaigns and a high level of public trust in the public health agency, and keeping the economy alive. The Norwegian approach on the other hand is based on collective suppression of the virus, but Norway also has the worlds largest financial security the pension fund. Nevertheless, both the Swedish and Norwegian governments do adhere to advice from various authorities with various expertise and capacities to handle this crisis. Based on the similarities Sweden do share with its Nordic neighbors in terms of levels of education and other and socio-economic factors developed simultaneously during the last century, it is plausible to claim that the countries are not that different, except in crises.
Time will tell. The Swedish approach might be right. Joacim Rocklv, Professor of epidemiology and Public Health at Ume Univeristy, emphasizes that we dont know and that he does not see why Sweden would be so different from other countries. Its a huge experiment.  We have no idea it could work out. But it could also go crazily in the wrong direction.
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Posted: at 6:31 am
At a glance: Key points for relief aid
Countries that are already struggling with poverty, conflict, or natural disasters will be hit hard by COVID-19. Governments, medics, and aid groups are scrambling to prepare, but face daunting challenges.
After forcing China to confine 750 million people to their homes, the virus brought rich countries to a standstill and overwhelmed their hospitals and economies. A third wave is starting to reach the crisis-affected and low-income countries of the Global South.
How is the humanitarian sector typically ready and willing to respond anywhere adjusting? What are the scenarios and priorities? What is different with this crisis?
TNH Senior Editor Ben Parker discussed some of the most pressing issues with leading specialists and practitioners from across the humanitarian sector:
Here are some key points from the discussion, condensed from the full hours recording.
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The third wave after China, after Europe will hit poorer nations hard, said Karl Blanchet of the CERAH research centre. Blanchet said the capacities of healthcare systems in countries already facing other crises are far too low to cope with COVID-19. And the weakest and poorest places make a fertile ground for the disease. When it comes to crowded slums, informal settlements, or camps, you would have a hard time designing a more dangerous setting, said Jeremy Konyndyk of the Center for Global Development.
Not only will COVID-19 be an immediate health disaster, but it will take resources away from other lifesaving work. Normal health programmes need to continue. We are still going to have a lot of deliveries. We still have a lot of chronic care patients, said Blanchet. We need to get access to their medication: diabetes, HIV/AIDS, and so on, make sure they've got 30 days of medication.
During the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, more people died of other diseases than died of Ebola, Konyndyk said. Pre-existing aid projects outside of the health sphere cant be abandoned either, he added: If we focus all our attention on coronavirus and meanwhile locusts eat up all the crops in a country, that is a pandemic impact.
Blanchet urged caution. While aid agencies are talking about business continuity, he said NGOs should scale back now. You need to identify what is essential and postpone anything else to avoid mass gathering, he said. Social distancing should be a top priority for aid organisations, he said, adding: I think that's your responsibility.
Konyndyk said places where there is a crowded population, very poor sanitation, a low level of basic health within the community, very poor disease surveillance, and very poor health services combine to make the virus extraordinarily dangerous. I don't think that's getting enough global attention yet, he added.
The medical emergency will be accompanied by enormous secondary impacts on jobs, food production, and trade, Konyndyk said.
For example, Virginie Lefvre of Lebanese NGO Amel Association, said Lebanon faces several interlinked crises, including a very acute socio-economic crisis since mid-2019, involving a near-collapse of the banking system and 200,000 job losses. So it's quite difficult to be positive, she said.
In Somalia, it's like people have braced for a tidal wave, said Suze van Meegen of the Norwegian Refugee Council, adding: We're all kind of just sitting on tenterhooks waiting to see where this will go.
NGOs and other humanitarian organisations face a difficult balancing act of keeping their current operations intact while pivoting to COVID-19. On my mind is how we absorb this shock but maintain our existing programmes, said van Meegen.
Responding to the looming emergency will be an enormous challenge for the humanitarian world, which is likely to be working on the outbreak in the most compromised and most vulnerable settings, Konyndyk said.
The scale of response needed, the operational and logistical challenges, the funding issues and coordination complexities are all daunting.
With international flight bans and lockdowns, the model of rushing foreign aid teams and cargo to frontline response is looking ill-suited to COVID-19. That could be an opportunity for local aid groups long hoping for greater recognition and resources. Its a widely supported shift that has proven stubbornly hard to achieve. It's going to really force a more effective, and more supportive, and frankly, more respectful and power-balanced way of working between international partners and local partners than I think we've seen before, said Konyndyk.
Humanitarian response shouldnt ignore the systems already in place, said Lefvre. She said she was concerned that we're going to develop a parallel system over the next six months when, if anything good could come of the pandemic, it might leave behind a stronger national health system.
Van Meegen said donor countries that fund international relief programmes will need to show flexibility, as current projects will be disrupted and might need to change. How to design and implement programmes for the new threat is still a fresh problem. I think the best thing donors could do now is ensure they are giving time and space to us to figure out what is needed in different contexts, said van Meegen. That will take different amounts of time in different countries, she added. If things go wrong, donors need to share the blame, not pass all the risk onto their grantees, she said: We're seeing ourselves carry the burden of all risks relating to security, financial management, the risk of fraud. And that's both time consuming and expensive. And that tension is even greater where armed groups under terrorism sanctions are in control.
We have closed our borders in a time where we need more international collaboration, and that's an issue for me.
There will be many players involved. Fundamentally, this is a huge coordination challenge for the international aid system, said Konyndyk, and at a much bigger scale than what we are used to dealing with. Asked if we have the international machinery in place to manage, he said, I don't think we do, and referred to a real struggle during the West Africa Ebola crisis. At that time, the UN installed a health-keeping mission that didn't work very well, he said. This time, the UN-led international aid will be coordinated by the UNs emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, and the World Health Organisation. They're trying a different way, said Konyndyk. We will see how that works.
Blanchet said he was heartened by evidence of national and local solidarity: People are helping each other, helping elderly people, and doing the shopping for them. It's beautiful. But does that translate internationally? We have closed our borders in a time where we need more international collaboration, and that's an issue for me, he said.
You have to be careful about the backlash when drawing attention to those at particular risk, like some refugees, said Lefvre. In Lebanon, pre-existing tensions could be worsened, putting people at greater risk. Handled badly, a very acute health crisis could turn into internal clashes, she warned.
The country already faces rifts between different Lebanese communities and between them and Syrian refugees in the country. Im always very, very careful, when it comes to tensions and stigma, not to over-exaggerate what is going on, said Lefvre. When it comes to catastrophic language, I think that we have to be very, very careful. In Lebanon, Lefvre said her organisation was working to make sure that patients (especially refugees) who live in informal shelters and settlements get referred and treated in the official health system.
Competition for medical supplies will be critical. Konyndyk said fights are coming over limited supplies of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), limited supplies of vaccines, and limited supplies of therapeutics.
Im always very, very careful, when it comes to tensions and stigma, not to over-exaggerate what is going on.
If and when there is a vaccine, there aren't going to be seven billion doses ready immediately, he added. This is more a political issue than a humanitarian one When the first 100 million doses of vaccines come out, it's going to be a big fight over who gets those and it's going to be very important that they not just go to those who can afford them.
NGOs need to look after their staff and volunteers, as there's fear, and a lot of misinformation. Aid staffers, van Meegen thought, could be reluctant to get involved. As the world has become more inward-looking, she said, so too will some humanitarian staff. They will be fearful for their own health, safety, and families.
According to Lefvre, locally-led response, the community-based initiatives, are working despite the fear. Frontline aid workers will be exposed to the virus more than others and are already facing very high levels of stress, she warned.
A core tool for modern humanitarian response is cash distribution, usually means-tested: hard-up aid recipients get money, vouchers, or a debit card and can spend as they choose. Ramping up the cash for COVID-19 response might seem relatively easy to scale up to large numbers of people (cash handouts are part of state relief packages in the richer countries). But there could be a serious flaw, according to van Meegen. What is there to buy?
Even before the coronavirus had arrived in Somalia, markets were absolutely empty of basic medical supplies: of soap, of hand sanitiser, of buckets, van Meegen said. If markets aren't functioning and aren't able to meet those needs, how do we adapt?
I would caution against NGOs taking an excessively opportunistic approach to this and diving into something because the money's available.
Could aid work get special permission to fly? Van Meegen hopes for humanitarian exemptions on travel restrictions. We know that we'll be relying predominantly on national teams, she said. But how can we ensure that within countries and across borders to the extent necessary we are able to travel?
Blanchet called for health and other efforts to be closely integrated. This pandemic is a very good example of how multisectoral we have to be and it's not a buzzword, he said. We need the private sector to be involved. We need transport. We need airlines to transport staff and products and we need international collaboration.
Should NGOs switch what they are doing to go all-in on COVID-19? Van Meegen is wary: I would caution against NGOs taking an excessively opportunistic approach to this and diving into something because the money's available. Konyndyk said there had been valid examples of programmes layering additional elements into existing programmes during the Ebola epidemic. The burial teams in Liberia, for example, those were built on top of an existing community WASH programme that already had community confidence and participation. not in a sort of opportunistic way, but in a way that is strategic, he said. I think it could be a huge opportunity.
I think the information is one of our biggest concerns, said van Meegen. Misinformation including rumours, theories, and unproven remedies are circulating at speed in Somalia, she said, part of a global parallel infodemic. We see irrational behaviour in high-resource countries too, she pointed out, where people are believing all sorts of things stockpiling, and panicking. The most vulnerable people will be hit very, very hard because they're the ones with even less access to reliable information.
Konyndyk: We need to be working on developing... low-tech approaches to things like personal protective equipment, infection prevention and control a scalable low-tech solution to testing, and some of these settings will be really important.
Van Meegen: Humanitarian organisations should remind wealthy countries and high-resource countries of the impact its going to have elsewhere, but without seeming sensationalist or hysterical, because that messaging actually does a lot of damage.
Blanchet: We need to make sure we can create field hospitals to separate suspected cases with confirmed cases.
Lefvre: This crisis shows, and there was no need to demonstrate it, but it shows that localised responses are the only solution in certain settings. But I don't think that this means no international actors.