OPINION: Life after coronavirus?

With the world’s attention focused on new infection rates, case fatality rates, efforts to create a vaccine, efforts to create an inoculation, and the manifold missteps by various world leaders, not to mention the blizzard of fake news doing the rounds about the Covid-19 pandemic, it is easy for the future and how it is likely to unfold, to recede into the middle distance.

Most news coverage is devoted to the here and now of the pandemic, and where it seems to be headed in the near future – with the caveat that there are more unknowns than knowns – but little attention is devoted to what the shape will be of a post-pandemic society.

An enduring debate across media channels is the wisdom of lockdown measures enforced, in an attempt to “flatten the curve”, and the consequent economic impact.

One school of thought postulates that the economic cost of lockdown will be significantly greater than the quantum of deaths that will result from Covid-19.

Another way of putting it: the number of lives saved by lockdown measures, does not justify the economic cost.

Quite how one goes about comparing apples (lives) with pears (economic cost), beats me, but there you are.

The opposing school of thought postulates that not imposing a lockdown will have an even greater economic cost.

In the scenario planning context (with a doffing of the cap to Clem Sunter), one looks at current actions as an indicator of what might unfold in the future, and if Italy, Spain, and America are any indication, it is the delay in imposing lockdown measures that resulted in the massive spike in infections, overwhelming of healthcare systems, and far higher mortality rates than might otherwise have occurred.

Which brings us to South Africa and the decision to place the country in lockdown when the infection rate was relatively low in comparison with other countries, at the same time in the trajectory of the disease.

The dominant narrative seems to be that the country cannot afford the economic cost of lockdown.

Well, here’s the thing: the country cannot afford the economic cost of the pandemic, period.

No matter what steps government takes to deal with the pandemic on South African soil, the economic consequences will be dire, and it is only in hindsight – which gives one 20/20 vision – that we will know the final cost.

In the meantime, the impact of the pandemic and the consequences of measures to combat it, are unfolding.

The oil price is heading for an all-time low – informed speculation suggests it might drop as low as $10 a barrel, off the back of dwindling demand.

Schools and universities have closed and in remarkably short time, online learning systems have been crafted and launched.

Businesses in lockdown have discovered that it is possible to function relatively successfully without concentrations of people in common spaces, or, for that matter, local and international travel, thanks to online conferencing and collaboration systems.

Tourism, sport and entertainment have ground to a halt, along with the massive contribution they collectively make to the global economy.

Company after company is announcing forced leave, pay cuts, retrenchments, and, in extreme cases, the threat of closure.

Airlines around the world are cancelling scheduled flights because there is so little demand, so they sit with grounded aircraft.

Securities and bond markets are in turmoil, with little certainty about where they are headed.

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), as recently as March 17, released a statement saying “the slowdown in the global economy caused by the coronavirus outbreak is likely to cost at least $1 trillion”.

No country, no society, no region, is immune to the economic consequences of the pandemic.

One positive consequence of the pandemic, is the extent of international collaboration on a number of fronts, that has unfolded as the magnitude of the crisis became apparent.

Having a common enemy seems to have fostered cooperation rather than competition, which if we are really fortunate, will endure, post Covid-19.

But despite the flags that we see, the greatest unknown is how will we, as a society, be irrevocably changed by this pandemic?