An horrendous, but unquantifiable Covid-19 cost

Posted on November 15, 2021


(First published as Inside Labour on Fin24, September 19, 2021)

The newest coronavirus, in whatever variation, has underscored one outstanding fact:  that there is a single human race on this planet that was unequally prepared, but quite equally threatened, by a pandemic.  It seems to give added resonance to that fundamental call of the labour movement for workers of all countries to unite.

For it is the vast majority of the world’s population, who have only their labour to sell in order to survive, who are the major sufferers.  But mostly not from Covid-19, rather from the effects of poorly planned and ill thought out official responses to the pandemic within an economic and social system that prioritises profits over the welfare of people.

So, while most of the wealthiest 1% of the global population have seen their wealth vastly increase over the past 18 months, millions more men and women, along with their children, have lost jobs and livelihoods and face even more abject poverty.  At least, as vaccination programmes spread, overcoming the remaining vestiges of anti-vax religious bigotry and other sources of fake news, fewer and fewer working people will become infected or require hospitalisation for Covid-19.

This applies across social class and age  However, the most vulnerable group threatened by the virus were — and still seem to remain — the elderly, who are often riddled with comorbidities.

Across the world, the number of fatalities attributed to Covid-19 infection are, overwhelmingly, senior citizens, the highest proportion being those over age 70.  Sweden provides a good example.  The only country not to adopt a lockdown strategy, Sweden also failed to adequately protect its quite large population of elderly residents in care homes.

The latest figures for this Scandinavian country provide a clear indication:  of the 14,772 Covid-19 deaths to September, 14,205 were of people over age 60.And of that number, 3,891 were over the age of 90.

It was also from Sweden in May last year that I first received a warning that one of the consequences of the Covid-19 outbreak would be political.  Swedish epidemiologist  Professor Johan Gieseck warned that the latest coronavirus might enable politicians to “show decisiveness and strength” and exercise “authoritarian tendencies”.

What the professor implied was that politicians could cherry pick items from the scientific data and use them to justify measures based on their own political needs and prejudices;  that these might not be  to the general good.  Or, and Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro provided a classic example, they could simply ignore the science and pander to their populist base.

Gieseck was right and, on the world stage, there was also an early case of racist buffoonery from the White House in the United States with then president Donald Trump referring to Covid-19 as “Kung Flu”.  But there were plenty of knee-jerk reactions from any number of political establishments, South Africa being no exception.

Some official responses qualified as bizarre.  How else to describe, for example,  regulations regarding the sort of footwear or undergarments one was permitted to purchase?  

Or even the wholly irrational — and still unexplained — five-week long ban on the export of wine that lost the country an estimated R175 million a week in foreign currency?  There was, perhaps, some justification, on long term health grounds, for the ban on tobacco products.  But apart from depriving the revenue service of much needed income, it gave a massive boost to the illegal trade and to organised crime.

Economists have already begun quantifying the cost of these measures, but one horrendous cost will remain incalculable:  the damage done, especially to the young, among the poor and dispossessed.  These will have hugely negative, but precisely unquantifiable effects on the future, not least in the need for greater health care.

Poverty, especially over the long term, is not only physically, socially and economically damaging, it also kills, perhaps slowly, but just as surely as any virus.  This was well summed up by the comment of a desperate man to an aid worker in KZN last year:  “Bring the virus and let me die, because already I am dying of hunger.”

But now that Spring has come and the warmer months of Summer — and a decline in respiratory illnesses — looms, we should take proper account of what has happened since March last year and demand that the political will be found, along with adequate budgets, to try to set to rights the damage that has been done.

As Nelson Mandela noted when he launched his Children’s Fund in May 1995:  “We come from a past in which the lives of our children were assaulted and devastated in countless ways. It would be no exaggeration to speak of a national abuse of a generation by a society which it should have been able to trust… of our highest priorities must therefore be our children.”

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