Policy cures worse than the disease

Governments first failed to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic, then resorted to misguided, self-serving and often disastrous policy responses. Their push for centralization and control of economies, companies and ultimately, individuals, bodes ill for the future.

A chained and locked entry to a store in Poland
Krakow, March 25, 2020: Lock and chain on the door of one of the hundreds of closed stores in the city center. Globally, the indiscriminate closure of businesses will prove more disastrous than the pandemic itself. © dpa

The world has lost its head and gone into a panicky, large-scale economic lockdown. Coronavirus rules supreme.

The disease started in Wuhan, a city in the Hubei province of China. After first ignoring the problem, the authorities in Beijing cut off the contaminated area from the rest of the country – however, they did not ban international air traffic. By the end of January, the world was facing a health problem, but that truth had still not sunk in.

First: denial

When, on February 1, the United States began denying entry to travelers from China, the decision was loudly criticized. Many in Europe saw it as a manifestation of President Donald Trump’s anti-Chinese leanings. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), argued that travel restrictions cause more harm than good because they hinder information flow, disrupt medical supply chains and harm the economies. Through many of his official actions, the head of the WHO has revealed his uncritical admiration for the People’s Republic of China.

Governments have severely overstepped their duty to provide health information and encourage responsible behavior.

The problem was spotted but sleepwalking continued. No emergency plans were drawn in Europe, which at the time had insufficient stores of protective medical gear and too few beds and respirators in intensive care units. 

A month and a half later, denial gave way to near hysteria. Societies and economies were locked down without much thought about the consequences. As the unprecedented restrictions on citizens’ rights needed a justification, scare campaigns were launched. Official statements and relentless news reports on the pandemic’s casualties, including images of the dying and the deceased, terrified citizens. Governments have severely overstepped their responsibility to provide health information and encourage responsible behavior.

Politicians (and some of the media) have been hiding behind experts and technocrats since the beginning of the lockdown. What has not changed is their apparent inability to act on their mandate and use it to manage the crisis wisely. Doctors only prioritize the medical aspect of the situation. It is up to politicians to implement balanced solutions.

Now, what situation are we in? How extensive is the damage? The number of new infections appears to be declining. It is difficult to assess, however, to what extent these extreme measures have contributed to easing the pandemic.

Alarming record

Governments and supranational bureaucracies continue using scare tactics in defense of blanket lockdown policies. Meanwhile, professional organizations are assessing the damage and looking for ways to restart business in practical and responsible ways. The remedy favored by governments, supranational organizations and agencies of the United Nations is throwing vast amounts of money at the problem, printing it if need be. These entities would also have states play an even bigger role

There is no doubt that states should lend financial support to viable businesses facing an existential threat because of government decisions so that they can resume their operations. The damage to the economy, however, is already extensive.

Then, there is the social and humanitarian aspect. Since the elderly have been recognized as a high-risk group, they are isolated in strict lockdowns. This robs them of their sense of purpose and leads to distress, despair and even suicides. The rest of the population, restricted to their dwellings and allowed to go out for a few specific purposes only, is not much better off. In medical facilities, the sorting process has become truly inhuman, leveraging one life against another. To make room for coronavirus patients, other people were not treated. Most of them were denied even necessary preventive care. It is a fair, not exaggerated, conclusion that keeping them alive was deemed more important than saving patients afflicted with other illnesses.

Catastrophic tendencies

In Africa, such policies could be even more damaging. The continent faces health hazards more dangerous than coronavirus – think of malaria, tuberculosis and HIV. Africans have been making headway in fighting these diseases in recent years. If the drive stops or slows now on account of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, these hard-won gains will be lost. Given Africa’s challenging logistics, one of the consequences could be food scarcity and hunger for large parts of the population, resulting in human misery and deaths.

Finally, governance systems will be affected. The economic crisis – attributable to states’ failures – is used by political elites to strengthen government powers and the role of supranational institutions at the expense of markets and citizens’ freedom. Center-left parties, dominant in most European countries, are already calling for higher and stricter taxation and more regulation. The International Monetary Fund and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development are moving in the same direction, using their resources and influence to push for more harmonization, economic planning and centralization. It is not only the economy as a whole that finds itself in their crosshairs, but also every business and every individual. Taken together, these policies foreclose a return to economic growth. When free-market economies, freedom and democracy are being replaced by socialism, bondage and bureaucracy, one can bid farewell to global prosperity and peace.

In a closer to ideal world, the pandemic would be a sobering jolt leading to the creation of more decentralized, but well-coordinated national healthcare systems. It would also improve the populations’ resilience thanks to a focus on preventive medicine. Such reforms, paired with free-market policies unleashing entrepreneurship and innovation, could bring a new era of prosperity for all. Unfortunately, sound recovery policies – well-proven in Europe, especially in Germany after World War II – are not likely to be applied.

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