Wednesday, 18 March 2020

COVID-19 and the flattening of the curve


It’s still relatively early COVID-19 days for us in the Caribbean, but I think it’s time we start considering the ways the global impact of the pandemic is likely to change our lives forever – for better or for worse.

The peaks and troughs of outbreaks, epidemics and pandemics are frequently described as statistical growth curves to be “flattened” through interventions that avoid an otherwise unavoidable explosion.

The experience with even less extreme events is that a lasting flattening of multiple social, economic and political curves can accompany such episodes.

It is true that the medically more vulnerable, together with the poor and financially disadvantaged, are called to bear an equal but intrinsically inequitable share of the burden, but it is also a fact that the burden of a pandemic crosses the divides as effectively as natural disasters and the inevitability of death.

It is thus difficult not to make constant reference to what I have been referring to as the “legacy” issues that relate to the world of work, lifestyles, public healthcare delivery, the use of technology, and the general power dynamics of domestic and global politics.

As we speak, the mighty are being brought to their knees and a disassembling of the structures of power and influence is already in evidence. Who would have thought that through all its wealth and political power, Europe (as was the case 1500 years ago with the Bubonic Justinian Plague) would grind to the screeching halt we are now witnessing?

Who would have guessed that the mighty USA would have found itself stuck on the crease, on the back foot, with a bouncer en route with pace to its unhelmeted head?

But all of this is not a new or original contemplation. Our planet has experienced life-changing pandemics in the past that have caused gigantic shifts comparable to the incidence of global warfare and accompanying dramatic changes in geo-political power and influence.

Europe’s 14th Century Bubonic disaster, which claimed up to two-thirds of the population of the continent is thought to have contributed to the eventual dissolution of the feudal state. There were also significant impacts, positive and negative, on farming practices and the process of urbanisation.

Could it be that COVID-19 has played a role in the carbon emissions discussions more than any global commitment of the past 20 years? Could it just be that the value of virtual workspaces has, by force, been finally established? Likewise, the unavailability of schools has not necessarily meant the absence of schooling.

It is also advisable, at this stage, to consider what happened when the HIV/AIDS pandemic peaked in the latter part of the 1900s and took the lives of tens of millions of people.

We have already had to address issues of social stereotyping, stigma and discrimination, harmful disinformation, and compliance with a reorienting of behaviours – “protection”, the role of clinical testing and other lasting features of our response to the virus.

It has also proven inadvisable to focus purely on fatality rates (as important as they are), especially now that current interventions at national levels, guided by the timely acquisition of knowledge are more likely than not to save countless lives and minimise suffering – providing people in the regular conduct of their lives take basic precautions.

There still are too many who do not accept that, at one level, it’s simply a matter of claiming adequate social space, washing your hands, and avoiding contact with eyes, nose and mouth - personal responsibility as the ultimate solution.

Beyond that, workers, employers, parents and citizens, are being called upon to make changes in the ways they have conceptualised their relationships with their natural and social environments.

Governments are now being forced to recalibrate revenue and expenditure estimates in the face of assured fiscal crises while addressing critical and otherwise under-served needs in the social services sector. Food import substitution remains a compelling option along with reduced reliance on imported consumer durables, even as aviation and shipping lanes close.

It might just be that we are all in a rendezvous with economic disaster, but maybe, just maybe, the flattening of the curve also brings with it a new dispensation in which hope can find space through which to shine more brightly than it has in recent times.

(Published in the T&T Guardian - March 18, 2020)


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