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Pandemic aware economies, public health business models and (im)possible futures – Part 1

Summary:
From Jamie Morgan So here we are, months into the Covid-19 pandemic and starting to feel our way through it. It is extraordinary to think that it took considerably less than a Walking Dead scenario to bring the world to a standstill. The future we now occupy has come as quite a shock. A ‘new world’ with its new language and habits of social distancing, lockdown, phased releases and perpetual background sense of dread and foreboding. A world in which friends and family are now fraternal enemies of good health and peace of mind. A world in which a handshake is now weaponized, sanitisation and sanity go hand in hand and obsessive hygiene is no longer the preserve of the compulsive. How strange this new world looks, how unexpected it seems from a public point of view. It echoes an old

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from Jamie Morgan

So here we are, months into the Covid-19 pandemic and starting to feel our way through it. It is extraordinary to think that it took considerably less than a Walking Dead scenario to bring the world to a standstill. The future we now occupy has come as quite a shock. A ‘new world’ with its new language and habits of social distancing, lockdown, phased releases and perpetual background sense of dread and foreboding. A world in which friends and family are now fraternal enemies of good health and peace of mind. A world in which a handshake is now weaponized, sanitisation and sanity go hand in hand and obsessive hygiene is no longer the preserve of the compulsive.

How strange this new world looks, how unexpected it seems from a public point of view. It echoes an old world where pestilence stalked our societies and periodic plague literally scythed its way through our populations. We too have been forced to emulate our medieval counterparts and hide behind walls and ring bells. But we do not live in that old world where faith was mixed with fate and blame could be attributed to divine displeasure. Our world has scientific method and hundreds of years of cumulative scientific knowledge and practice, it has epidemiology, virology, vaccines, treatments, an infrastructure of sophisticated health services, behavioural science, massive databases, information networks, computers, government and governance resource mobilisation, crisis planning, and the capability to put aside some of each year’s surplus wealth creation to store needed resources against foreseeable possibilities in an uncertain world. In this context we can be confident that our civilization has the capacity to cope and recover, eventually. 

There is, however, a sharp distinction to be made between how well we have prepared and how well we have responded or coped with Covid-19. Short termism, complacency, and a tendency to ignore ‘low probability high impact events’ (as though the arrow of time did not mean the possible will happen eventually) are recognisable features of our political  economies and austerity politics has exacerbated this in many countries over the last decade, including the UK. It is no surprise then, if only in the useless sense of ‘in retrospect’, that lack of adequate preparation has prevailed.

We might say the Spanish flu happened a century ago and is well beyond the living memory of most of us, so lived experience of some equivalent to Covid-19 is long in the past; but no civilization like ours can judge its conduct only on what has been experienced, and in any case there have been many near misses and reminders in recent decades of what could happen, where humanity has collectively, if not locally, just got ‘lucky’ on the mutation, transfer, contagion and explosion spectrum of viral possibility. Expertise has not been lacking and in the UK case a variety of government solicited reports in the last 20 years flagged the risk and recommended contingency plans. We have domestic government advisory panels and committees, we have university-located ‘existential threat’ research centres, and whatever its current travails, we have a ‘World Health Organization’, whose remit extends to coordination of pandemic information and planning advice.

As such, our amazing civilizational potentials must stand as a rebuke to the pandemic preparation many (current and recent) governments around the world, including in the UK, have actually undertaken. This is especially so since many features of modern civilization make our societies more vulnerable to contagion (even if we have greater potential to address that contagion). We live on a full and lively planet with global supply chains, widespread personal transport, dense public transport systems, commuter working practices, and business and holiday travel by land, sea and air. There are billions of us taking billions of journeys and engaging in billions of interactions and many of us live in mega-cities with populations of 10 million or more. Globalization has transformed our world into a planetary petri-dish. A pandemic, then, rather than this pandemic, was a ‘crisis’ that was going to happen and whilst the public can be forgiven for forgetfulness, governments cannot plead ignorance. They can only offer apology and suggest they previously had other pressing priorities.

Some governments, of course, have been better prepared than others and some have responded more proficiently than others. Still, it is inaccurate to suggest this is because some societies are more authoritarian than others and thus better able to direct society. Resources, focus and planning are not beyond democracies and are not the preserve of dictators and Iran compares unfavourably with South Korea, just as one might in the opposite direction also contrast the USA and (tentatively) China. In any case, Covid-19 may have some time to run in this wave and the next (and the next), and ‘pandemic awareness’ may become a permanent feature of our societies as we go forward. What our new world will become is not a given, it depends on what we do now. But it has a variety of potentials depending on how we choose and how we act, and some features and issues are near term and some long term.

Tomorrow: Part 2 – First steps into the future

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