Making Sense of COVID-19 Part II: Disproportionate Impacts and Existential Implications (18.04.20)

On 20 March 2020 I published an article titled ‘Making Sense of COVID-19’, which was an attempt to analyse and deconstruct the conditions which led to the outbreak of this global pandemic. It was described as a meta-analysis of some of the epistemic, psychological and political factors which unnecessarily exacerbated the spread of the virus. It was a reflection on immediately past events.

On 18 April 2020 I publish this in an attempt to analyse and deconstruct, in the present moment, how this pandemic has disproportionately impacted certain under-valued sectors of society and the existential implications of this disparity.

Economic Inequality

“The human brain evidently evolved to commit itself emotionally to only a small piece of geography, a limited band of kinsmen, and two or three generations into the future. To look neither far ahead nor far afield is elemental in a Darwinian sense. We are innately inclined to ignore any distant possibility not yet requiring examination. It is, people say, just good common sense. Why do they think in this short-sighted way?

The reason is simple: it is a hardwired part of our Palaeolithic heritage. For hundreds of millennia, those who worked for short-term gain within a small circle of relatives and friends lived longer and left more offspring — even when their collective striving caused their chiefdoms and empires to crumble around them. The long view that might have saved their distant descendants required a vision and extended altruism instinctively difficult to marshal”.

- E.O. Wilson (2002)

In the midst of the 2008 global financial crisis, the US Federal Reserve provided a bailout (called the Troubled Asset Relief Program) for the financial industry to the tune of $700 billion. The argument that certain organisations were “too big to fail” was bought hook, line and sinker. The underlying implication was that Wall Street were free to socialise and offset any losses they incurred against the State, while at the same time privatising any of the gains arising from their risk taking. All the while ordinary US citizens were facing foreclosure on their homes, bankruptcy, and crippling unemployment. Many of these factors led to the Occupy Wall Street Movement.

On 26 March 2020, the US Senate signed a $2 trillion stimulus relief package in response to the coronavirus pandemic. This package includes some much-needed measures — notably the money being sent directly to US citizens in the form of monthly ‘stimulus checks’ of $1,200 (a precursor to Universal Basic Income), in addition to expanded unemployment benefits, paid sick leave, and temporary student debt relief. However, this stimulus package disproportionately benefits the privileged in US society. An analysis conducted by the non-partisan Joint Committee on Taxation has found that the bill alters what certain business owners are allowed to deduct from their taxes, which will result in some of the nation’s wealthiest avoiding nearly $82 billion of tax liability in 2020, with approximately 82% of the benefits from this change going to people making $1 million or more annually.

Beyond nuclear annihilation, ecological destruction and artificial intelligence, wealth inequality is probably the most existentially threatening issue for humanity. This pandemic will exacerbate wealth disparity. It is worth noting that wealth accumulation, if it goes unchecked, is an inevitable phenomenon (see the Pareto Principle and the Matthew Principle, “for to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away”). But if this wealth inequality continues and — as a result of the pandemic — there is a repeat of the immense upward transfer of wealth akin to 2008, we risk descending into a Hobbesian Nightmare. Equality of outcome is not the goal, for individual freedom and liberty is a sacred value paramount to a liberal democratic society. Rather, we should strive for equality of opportunity and better predistribution (rather than redistribution).

Professional Inequality

This pandemic is a timely reminder of the importance of previously under-valued and under-paid industries and the citizens who diligently provide these essential (yet often thankless) services. Many of the least well-paid in our society — nurses, grocery store employees, delivery and postal services, cleaning staff, transport operators, police, food producers, waste collectors, maintenance and repair operators — have been putting their health and their lives at risk by working at the frontline. All of these groups are being disproportionately affected in contracting the virus — new HSE figures show that healthcare workers make up over a quarter of positive cases in Ireland, with nurses accounting for 9.2% of cases. These aforementioned groups have emerged as the true heroes during this pandemic.

The people who have been spared from exposure to COVID-19 and can afford to work from home are often the highest remunerated jobs in our society — particularly professional services, technology platforms or software service providers. We have a distorted perception that the best jobs in society are the best paying jobs. There is a natural fallacy to directly equate renumeration with competency and prestige. This pandemic has reminded us that people’s value extends far, far beyond their monthly pay check or their contribution to the Gross Domestic Product (itself a poor, narrow measure of a country’s health and well-being). If you consider the Irish Government’s list of essential workers who are exempt from certain restrictions, at least half of those involve physical interaction with other human beings, the natural environment or tangible goods. Prior to this pandemic, the value of these services to society was often under-appreciated and under-compensated.

Metaphysical Separation

The rapid acceleration of our impending ecological destruction has been underpinned by increasing separation between human beings and everything else which constitutes “life” on this planet. We tend to display a hubris about our place in the universe, partly as a result of having supposedly mastered Mother Nature and asserted order upon her chaos. We see ourselves as separate entities from the teeming biological and ecological life that we rely upon and symbiotically interact with. Whether you prefer to describe this as evidencing the spiritual “oneness” of life, or framing it as the fact that we are composed of the same atoms that make up a star or a tree (notwithstanding the still unexplainable wonder of human consciousness), is largely semantic. What is relevant is the recognition that without the oxygen from a tree, the photosynthesis of a plant, or the pollination by bees we would all perish and humanity would cease to exist. As such, our collective pillaging and exploiting of these vital life forms for short-term gain begins to look non-sensical and self-defeating.

We do not even have to go to that level of abstraction. This same disconnect in recognising the homogeneity of life is exemplified in the historical rationalisation that Tutsi’s are superior to Hutus, Protestants to Catholics, Sunni’s to Yazidis, believers to infidels, Brahmins to outcasts, or the proletariat to the bourgeoisie. I believe that people are inherently good. However, I think that good people can become consumed by bad ideas. Or they can be misled by bad incentives. Plato said that “the wise shall lead and rule, and the ignorant shall follow”. But rather than focusing on who should lead and trying to find “good” people, we should focus on organising our institutions so that bad or incompetent rulers can be prevented from doing too much damage and propagating bad ideas or bad incentives.

The relevance to our current situation is this: Boris Johnson spoke of his immense gratitude for the heroic efforts of the NHS in caring for him while he battled COVID-19. Will his experience instigate a personal ‘awakening’ of sorts? Can he see the causal effects between the Tory’s decade-long privatisation of the NHS and de-funding of medical professionals and services, and the same under-resourced system which is now struggling with the Sisyphean task of containing the COVID-19 catastrophe emerging in the UK? Such a metamorphism would be miraculous. The point is that our rugged individualism mindset has disconnected us from the cause and effect of our actions, whether that be in relation to our ecology, our institutions or our fellow human beings.

Concluding Thoughts

§ We underestimate the instability that can be released from decades of cumulative damage. This pandemic is a minor reflection of that when we consider our lack of preparedness and inability to take precautionary measures. Within the context of climate change, this cumulative damage will be magnitudes greater. One of our problems is that we lack knowledge about the true extent of our lack of knowledge (epistemic humility). Contrary to historical belief, we cannot predict the future based on past events or data, due to non-linearities and the unpredictability of second-order consequences. Political leaders need to comprehend complexity and systems thinking.

§ The word “science” is continuing to be hijacked by political leaders to justify their un-scientific views and approaches. We must protect the integrity of science and not let people be misled about what science actually entails.

§ We need more non-political leaders making decisions in their area of expertise. A good example is Dr. Anthony Faucci, who has emerged during this crisis and who appears to prioritise objective truth and evidence over political narratives (on both sides) and who calls out misrepresentations by certain actors in the media. Truth stands above humanity authority, and any attempts to make truth fit confirmatory narrative biases must be discredited. Ireland’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr Tony Holohan, has also been exemplary.

§ I have previously said that this pandemic represents an opportunity to reset and reorient society. I mean this in an evolutionary manner and not a blank slate, Utopian social engineering kind of way. Progress has always occurred through piecemeal improvements of society. We must, in the words of the great Karl Popper, “work for the elimination of concrete evils rather than for the realisation of abstract goods”.

§ The relevance of philosophy suffers from its abstractness. As such, the bridge between philosophy and the real world is applied ethics. An extremely grey, difficult problem which is emerging is at what point we consider lifting lockdown restrictions vis a vis the risk of further deaths from the virus, in light of considerations of the collective economic, mental health and physical well-being of the citizenry. Is it at the risk of a further 1,000 deaths? One death? If that one death is a member of your family, your perspective is not the same. We might also consider that economic recessions — and primarily the resulting job losses and unemployment — lead to a corresponding rise in deaths due to second-order consequences. There is no one right answer.

§ The optimism that I previously alluded to — that this pandemic represents an incredible opportunity to reset and reorient the values we wish to prioritise in society — remains, but I have been disheartened by certain unfolding developments. Least of all, China’s decision to re-open the seafood market in Wuhan where the first human transmission occurred in late November brings into question their willingness to avoid future pandemics.

Stay safe and vigilant.

Brian Cronin — 20 April 2020

Exploring nuanced crevices of truth in a world of complexity. Aspire to provide readers with better epistemic frameworks for intellectual and moral progression.

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