On coronavirus, medical and public policy experts face off

As fears of pandemic and economic recession grow, governments have to figure out what 'damage control' really means

A sign indicating a Coronavirus Pod is seen outside the St Thomas' Hospital, in London, Friday, March 6, 2020. Fearing a possible shortage in protective equipment, health ministers from the European Union are holding an emergency meeting to try to improve their collective response to the novel coronavirus outbreak. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

In the age of populism, one of the most resonant remarks by a senior political figure has been the British minister Michael Gove’s 2016 assertion that people had “enough of experts from organisations with acronyms”.

Mr Gove is a senior minister in Boris Johnson’s government – an administration that, like almost all of its peers, has been been fastidious in following expert advice in the face of coronavirus.

Hard choices on listening to the medical experts to get through the crisis are now bearing down on governments worldwide.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson washes his hands during a visit to the Mologic Laboratory in the Bedford technology Park, north of London on March 6, 2020. The Prime Minister pledged a further £46 million for research into a coronavirus vaccine and rapid diagnostic tests during the visit to the Laboratory, where British scientists are working on ways to diagnose coronavirus.
 / AFP / POOL / Jack Hill

The coronavirus response is now all about how to get through this wave of sickness in the least damaging way. That means moving on from the approach that was focused on stopping its spread.

A fierce debate has raged over the mortality rate of the virus and its gravity compared with the seasonal flu. Scientists seem to agree that around one per cent of those contracting coronavirus die, compared with 0.1 per cent of those with flu. One reason for the gap seems to be that older people, mostly over the age of 60, die in greater numbers. Another is that it triggers pneumonia, which is a danger especially to people with pre-existing conditions.

Closing schools has been an anguished decision for policymakers. One reason for this is that we don’t know how the strains of coronavirus will evolve and thus a precautionary approach would seem important. School shutdowns have consequent impacts – particularly on the workplace.

Travel for business and leisure has also taken a hit. It is drying up as motor shows and industry conferences, like the Geneva Motor Show and the London Book Fair, are cancelled.

Staying put does not guarantee escaping the crisis. When adult workers get sick, employers are advised to shut down offices and send everybody to work from home.

The growing list of employers now asking their staff to log in remotely has triggered questions over the need for centralised offices at all. The norms of working life are suddenly up for grabs. Meanwhile, mathematical models are being designed about how to ration hospital services, stagger burials of victims and stem hoarding through panic buying.

Leisure time has also been disrupted. Who really needs to go the cinema when air quality surveys routinely show that air filtration systems are no match for the heat and density of a crowded auditorium?

The experience economy is facing an existential threat. Private travel is also down. Tourism in Europe has rapidly fallen off in recent weeks.

As Chinese factories remain idle, the freight industry there estimates movements are down to one-third the annual norm. Forty-foot containers that are the building blocks of world trade are stacking up in China. Efforts to export US perishable foods to China face an astronomical shipping rate across the Pacific.

Pandemic fears have coincided with a structural inflexion point for the global economy. Obituaries for globalisation are being written by pundits around the world.

With strategies to contain coronavirus now exhausted and efforts shifted to delay transmission peaks, the experts cannot complain that their power to command is constrained by ignorance or populism.

epa08274825 A general view of an almost empty aisle in a Sainsbury's supermarket in Central London, Britain, 06 March 2020. Reports suggest UK retailers are suffering supply disruptions because of the Covid-19 conoravirus.  EPA/WILL OLIVER

The bigger picture cannot be ignored for too long.  Already the effect on the economy is three-fold. Supplies from factories have slumped, consumers are abandoning consumption and business investment has juddered to a halt. Consideration of the impacts of district-level quarantine measures, institutional shutdown, workplace disruption and meltdown of the financial markets has been an afterthought.

This is the reason share prices last week tumbled following the Federal Reserve’s half-point rate cut. The last time a comparable collapse loomed in 2008, the G7 showed unity of purpose and the G20 was born as a co-ordinating platform for official stimulus efforts.

Acceptance that there will be a pandemic means prioritising economic damage limitation.

There is, of course, a chance that the trajectory of the coronavirus infection and mortality rate will be clear before the end of the month. The shutdown response must then be scaled back quite quickly.

If most people of working age who contract the virus are suffering flu-like symptoms for a few days before recovering, the need for quarantines, travel bans and factory closures needs to be cut back rapidly.

Efforts to develop a vaccine appear to be moving much faster than in any previous outbreak. The social consequences of coronavirus mean changes in some of riskier behavioural patterns, including hygiene failings and the consumption of exotic animals.

Acceptance of a pandemic means prioritising economic damage limitation.

Technology is also proving its worth in tackling the spread of the virus, mapping the outbreak and managing the health and logistical responses.

The losers are likely to include outdated regimes that, for ideological reasons, tried to hide the virus. Despite their actions, they have been shown that there is no hiding place in the modern world. By normalising the coronavirus, governments can show their priorities lie beyond the narrow concerns of the experts. That way, the crisis will have triggered transformational changes and the slowdown can be reversed.

Damien McElroy is the London bureau chief of The National