The economy after coronavirus: we have to decide whether we want an economy that serves us all or one that serves just a few. The consequences of the wrong choice are staggering

Posted on

I know I am far from alone in spending a lot of time talking to friends, peers and family about coronavirus at present. The only reasonable conclusions that can be drawn by most of us right now are that the situation is deeply frustrating, worrying, and profoundly difficult.

Even as an introvert who is used to working at home much of the time I am finding the lack of social interaction quite hard.

I am also sure that I far from alone in worrying about where money might come from, in my case when my current grants run out.

And then there is the health issue, most especially for those we care about, which remain very real.

There are, of course, many perspectives on this issue. I want to consider one of them that has been giving me a lot to think about after conversations I have had this week.

I am only too well aware that Covid 19 deaths are mainly amongst the elderly. There is increased risk simply by being in your 60s (and I am). And there is much-increased risk as age advances beyond that. To many younger people this virus is perversely relatively quite kind, which is a contrast to previous pandemics. But in that case I am beginning to think the unthinkable. Is it possible that the government might consider making the most severe outcome of this pandemic a threat to the way of life of the still active, but now at risk elderly? Could they, in other words, demand that these people lockdown almost in perpetuity when others have restrictions removed?

The fact is that anyone over a certain age now realises that the government's ongoing herd immunity policy, that is already unnecessarily killing tens of thousands of older people, shows that the government really does not care about those it considers elderly. This policy already makes it clear that those of about retirement age and above are now very obviously considered expendable. And this is unsurprising. Given that neoliberal politics in the UK long ago gave up worrying about how a government might provide for those enjoying ever longer lives I suspect that neoliberal politicians' delight that this problem is apparently being solved for them knows no limits: they will only see economic gain in this. They will simply be imagining the financial returns as all those pensions go unpaid.

But they are very wrong to do so, in a great many ways.

First that is because the fact is that there are millions of relatively well off baby boomer retired people, as defined by their available consumer spending in proportion to income. Whole industries, from the cliche of cruising onwards, are built around servicing their needs.

In addition, many voluntary organisations, from the National Trust to every preserved railway, which between them are magnets for much of the domestic tourist market, are staffed by these more elderly people, almost entirely unpaid and yet with substantial economic impact.

And then appreciate that it might just be that this whole sector, both as consumers and producers of value is about to face the biggest single threat it has ever known in our lifetimes. The risk that this entire population might be quite severely restricted as to what it might do is rumoured to be one possibility being considered by the government as the price of returning the rest of society to normality.

I admit that this idea is shocking. I would go further, as someone on the cusp of this age group. I think it shocking that it can be considered that a way for society to survive this crisis may be to suggest that millions might now be socially and economically isolated, including by making them unemployable in any paid or voluntary role that requires any normal social interaction, and that in the enforced retirement that society might impose the more elderly might also see their freedom of movement severely impaired.

I admit, this is not what I ever expected of older age. I am not unrealistic though. I am of course aware that are some ways in which everything has already been changed by Covid-19. But just as so many in business must now realise that every assumption that they ever made as to their business model is now redundant, should I, and all others of my age, now be doing the same with what might be called our own business models, or life plans? As Keynes is reputed to have said, when the facts change, do we have to change our thinking?

I am more than willing to do that. I have lived with uncertainty. But what if enforced lockdown disrupts uncertainty and makes it required inactivity? That's a really quite phenomenal change, bigger than anything I have considered before.

And what does the threat of life in lockdown really mean for those who are older? Can we really incarcerate a whole part of society? And if we do, what happens to the economy?

There will, for reasons already noted, be less production and spending going on. But there will also be a need for considerably more care as people unable to go out, and without much motivation to live left, will inevitably suffer rapidly deteriorating health in their homes?

The economic, social, health and emotional cost of this seems to me to be far beyond any price worth paying. It is not just wholly unrealistic, but is ultimately a breach of human rights because it is, of course, highly discriminatory.

What that means then is that if Covid 19 requires a response, and it clearly does, then the plan has to be one that ensures that all can emerge from this in ways that mean that they can fully engage in life again.

For large numbers of people that is going to mean that furlough is going to need to be replaced by a job guarantee: we cannot face 1930s style unemployment now.

And for those most vulnerable to the disease - who are the elderly - then the plan has to be to make life as safe as possible, but still decidedly liveable.

There there will be risk can be accepted, I suspect. When you're 60 you know you are finite. That's inevitable. It's an odd moment when you realise that most of life has happened, and accept the fact. But the idea that any part of our community can be written off to Covid-19, which is what the government's current herd immunity policy necessarily involves, which has implicit in it a massive indifference to both the lives and the quality of life of those aged 60 and above, seems to me wholly unacceptable.

Testing and tracing is essential to alleviate this situation.

So, too, are isolation hospitals so that other hospitals can resume their normal work, much of which they are not now doing, with considerable cost as a result.

But most of all we need to rethink what everything means in this new world. Keynes was right in that the facts have changed, but what the new plans as to what will be either permitted or possible are not known. But I am certainly going to be considering the issue. No one has a right, as I suspect this government will think it has, to tell the elderly that they are the collateral damage of getting the economy back to work. That is because an economy has to serve all in a community. Any economy that does not do that reveals something deeply sinister, which is that it is simply organised to support a few at cost to the many.

The question that we have to consider now is which of those choices will be taken. Are we to have an economy that serves us all, or one that serves a few at cost to many?

I suspect this is a theme I will be returning to, not least because what I think might become apparent is that we have an economy intended to serve a few. And if there was ever a moment when that was unacceptable then this is it.