The schadenfreude of corona

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and other lessons on intergenerational equity

By David Salt

It’s payback time for society; payback for the hypocrisy and self-serving twaddle that society cares about truth, freedom and justice. In practice we (as the individuals that collectively make up society) really only care about ourselves, our own resources and our own freedom; and we’ll do anything to hold onto the power to preserve our privilege. And the gulf between the lie we tell ourselves and what we actually do is now horrifyingly revealed as corona virus tears our communities apart.

Too strong? Well, you have to admit that there are many interesting intersections between the impact of corona and our notions of truth, freedom and justice. It also throws a wan light on society’s efforts on sustainability.

Truth

For starters, corona impacts are greatest in countries whose leaders have discounted or rejected medical expertise; think the US, Brazil and the UK.

There’s one classic graph going around (see figure 1) showing the escalating rates of infection in the United States over time. Next to the rising line are many of Trump’s tweets (with comments from other officials as well) constantly lying about the severity of the disease and the closeness of a cure. It’s surreal if you think about it. It’s also funny and very scary. It says something is quite rotten about the world’s ‘greatest democracy’, that blatant denial and lying can be the sustained response to a medical emergency that is seeing the needless death of tens of thousands of American citizens.

Figure 1: A graph showing US COVID-19 cases over time, and the US Government’s truth-less commentary as the pandemic unfolds.

Brazil’s President Bolsonaro is another agent of falsehood constantly downplaying the coronavirus as nothing more than a “little flu.” He refused to take measures to contain the infection and undermined the work of mayors and governors who had sought to do so. He sacked two health ministers with whom he disagreed while praising the effectiveness of antimalarial drugs that science said were useless.

And then he came down with COVID-19 himself causing many Brazilians to say it serves him right after he downplayed the dangers of the pandemic – the headlines screamed Schadenfreude in Brazil, and who could blame them.

Freedom

Who can forget the protests both here in Australia and overseas (and especially in the US) of crowds of people demanding their right to associate as they like; no bans on their movements and no forcing of wearing face masks. It was surreal again with the medical experts telling us this way lays folly, this path leads to a blossoming pandemic and widespread death.

And did these freedom fighters accept this advice on what was responsible community behaviour? Not at all. They crowded the beaches, the shopping malls and bars; and the pandemic ramped up, death rates soared and everyone looked for someone to blame.

Officials in many US states that had demanded the economy be opened up immediately were now saying they had acted too quickly. A little more schadenfreude possibly?

It constantly amazes me how people demanding freedom are blind to responsibilities that go with that right.

Justice

The burden of a pandemic is never shared equally. The poor, the old and the sick always suffer disproportionately, and so it has proved with corona virus.

The virus follows paths of least resistance; it breeds in places where people aggregate, places like migrant camps and ghettoes where social distancing is a physical impossibility. It’s spread by people who can’t afford to stay at home and self-isolate, so common now in our super-casualised workforce; or those who simply don’t know better, having not been included in government awareness programs. And once it takes hold it hits the most vulnerable the hardest.

The rich can lock themselves away, drive out of town to their beach homes, live on their savings while wagging their fingers at all those people they perceive to have done wrong, regardless of their circumstance. But, at some point, even the rich suffer as the economy freezes, their financial buffers drain away or they discover their friends, or parents or even themselves have been caught in the sticky web of infection.

Is this real justice then? We turn our backs on the plight of the poor and disadvantaged, and we’re surprised with the virus breaks out because people are going to work instead of isolating (or simply not doing the right thing because they were never told). Before we know it, it’s not just the poor; everyone is suffering as the economy goes into lockdown, and everyone is worried that it might be their parents next.

Intergenerational equity

Because that’s one feature about the COVID 19 pandemic that no-one can avoid. While it can lead to the death of younger people, overwhelmingly it’s killing the old.

And therein lies irony and possibly the ultimate schadenfreude.

Younger people aren’t as afraid of corona as older people. In many places younger people are breaking the rules, partying and mixing like there’s no tomorrow; and acting as the vector that spreads the disease. They’re also locked into low paying, insecure casualised jobs. They can’t afford not to turn up to work, so again the disease spreads.

Yes, they hear lectures about ‘doing the right thing’; but, increasingly, why should they care? The older generation clearly isn’t doing much to pass on a liveable planet, so why should they care about the older generation?

The older generation doesn’t seem to worry too much about the integrity of truth, or concerned about sharing their privilege, so maybe it’s only ‘fair’ that the older generation has to wear the cost of a pandemic disease that is disproportionately hitting older people.

There are many parallels here with climate change. Truth, freedom and justice are central to our effort to find some form of sustainable solution to the challenge of climate change. Yet our engagement with these ideas is mired in self-interest, the preservation of the status quo and holding on to existing power.

Humanity is on an unsustainable pathway. The science is clear but a meaningful moral response is absent. The rich and the elite will suffer as much as the poor and the vulnerable. And when the rich fall, some might say that’s schadenfreude*.

*[Justice-based] schadenfreude comes from seeing that behavior seen as immoral or “bad” is punished. It is the pleasure associated with seeing a “bad” person being harmed or receiving retribution.

Image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay

Health trumps economy; economy trumps environment

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Political priorities hinge on voter values

By David Salt

As CoVID 19 burns it way through 2020, the economy is taking a king hit. And I don’t simply mean a downturn in economic activity and ‘wealth’ creation; I also refer to the hegemony of economic advice in our national decision making. Traditional economic advice is taking a back seat to health advice.

The environment, as always, isn’t given any priority despite the environmental catastrophe of the wildfires at the beginning of the year.

Political priorities

The reason behind this switch of priorities is self evidently political. We have been receiving an avalanche of information and media showing us how bad the pandemic can be and our political leaders have had little choice but to follow expert advice on how to tackle this highly contagious virus because the consequences of not following this advice would be political death.

As I have discussed earlier (see ‘The man who shamed the PM’), Australia was uniquely lucky in its engagement with CoVID 19. Our national government was reluctant to bring on the lockdown because of the economic pain it would cause (even in the dying moments prior to the lockdown the PM was keen to promote mass crowd gatherings and wanted to personally attend rugby league matches) but the Black Summer of fire had our leaders hypersensitive to the perils of delay in the face of disaster. Consequently, they listened and responded quickly to the expert advice they were receiving.

And when that advice (and the government’s response) appeared to halt the virus in its tracks in Australia there was wide spread praise for government action and a belief that we had defeated CoVID 19.

Now we’re facing a second wave of disease with an explosion of cases in Victoria stemming from a breakdown in quarantine procedures. The critics are lining up to berate the Victorian State Government for not doing enough (often the same critics who castigated the Government for being too slow to reopen the economy) but all governments (state and federal) appear to be very responsive to the expert medical advice on how we need to respond as a society – close the borders, step up testing, enforce a lockdown of affected areas and increase community awareness of appropriate (and inappropriate) social behaviour.

Just as the bushfire emergency primed us for this pandemic emergency, so this breakout in Victoria is sustaining our vigilance and readiness to act on expert advice.

Real costs

Of course, this advice runs contrary to many economic advisers and business interests encouraging the government to open up the economy again.

Indeed some economists, such as Professor Gigi Foster from the University of NSW, say there’s a strong argument suggesting Australians would have been better off if the economy was never locked down, even if a “very extreme epidemic” had occurred. She points out that there are real and significant costs (including increased loss of life) associated with the economic lockdown that are not acknowledged by health experts who are just focussing on the impacts of the corona virus.

The Prime Minister tells us the lockdown is costing the economy $4 billion a week and that we need to get one million Australians back to work.

Of course, every decision has a cost, but these costs vary over time and space with different impacts on different people. The costs that matter most to our political leaders are those costs their voters perceive to be the most important to them. At this instant, voters are most scared about the immediate health implications of an unraveling pandemic.

A hierarchy of concern

Yes, those same voters are worried about the death of the Great Barrier Reef due to climate change. Indeed, a recent ABC poll found 60% of Australians believer climate change is real and present and “immediate action is necessary” (with another 24% feeling “some action” should be taken). The experts have provided the government with detailed advice on what action it needs to take to counter climate change but that advice by and large has been ignored, primarily behind the cover that it will hurt our economy.

The government is currently reviewing its premier environmental law and the line it is running is the primary focus needs to be on how it can be reformed to speed up economic growth (a line strongly backed by the resources industry).

Time and again we see it, the economy trumps the environment. Recall former Prime Minister Abbott’s words after the last election: “Where climate change is a moral issue we Liberals do it tough. Where climate change is an economic issue, as tonight shows, we do very, very well.”

However, in these strange times we’re seeing something new – health is trumping the economy. Could this be the proximity of the issue to your average voter? Considerations about the Great Barrier Reef don’t affect your average Australian on a day-to-day basis. The cost of petrol (and the strength of the economy and the employment market) does. However, the availability of toilet paper and the fear of your workmates, neighbours and family, trumps your concern about the strength of the economy.

Environment first

Which leads to a fairly sad conclusion when it comes to environmental protection; it will only become a significant priority (to our political leaders) when it is perceived (by voters) as being fundamental to their day-to-day welfare and intrinsic to their economic wellbeing.

As one voter, I hold these truths to be self-evident (ie, the environment is central to our quality of life), as do many of the voters whose lives were shattered by the Black Summer fires. But I’m certain this is not the case for the wider electorate where the environment is only a consideration after everything else has been addressed.

Until the environment is perceived as central to our sustainable health and wellbeing (and under immediate threat), it will always be trumped by other values. That’s something every environmental expert should keep in mind when telling the world about their latest scientific insight.

Image by Alexandra_Koch from Pixabay