Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, there have been suggestions that a new “profound culture war” is erupting; pitting your money against your life; or at least somebody’s life.
The now familiar debates about ‘facts’ versus ‘science’, continues. Team Money cry that COVID-19 death numbers are inflated, because the figure includes everyone who has COVID-19 listed on their death certificate – alongside a multitude of other conditions, any one of which could have been ‘the’ killer. It is argued that many of these COVID-19 deaths are at most accelerations of already-imminent deaths.
Team Lives say no – COVID-19 deaths are significantly underestimated, as care home deaths are not counted, and we should use a ‘deaths above average’ measure to get a more accurate picture.
Yet this debate conceals a more fundamental flaw. Pitting lives against money is the falsest of false choices. The two are inextricably linked and lifting restrictions would both save money and save lives.
There is a strong libertarian current to those who argued for lockdown lifting, and who now argue for restriction removing. Lord Jonathan Sumption writes of governments “doing too much”, that’s it’s not possible or justified to “lock up” the entire population.
Libertarianism, however, is not the prism through which to argue for lifting restrictions. Sumption points out that governments let you smoke, drink and do all manner of unhealthy things. This is true, and for and for most of us under-60, COVID-19 constitutes less of a risk than long-term smoking. But the government prohibits smoking in enclosed spaces, inside pubs or restaurants or at the office. As with COVID-19 it is not about protecting yourself but protecting others.
Instead, long-term rationalism is needed. We need policies which “work for longer than a month”. The Institute for Fiscal Studies published research showing that for every 2% rise in unemployment, “more than a million” people develop “chronic health conditions”.
Despite wide-scale furloughing, unemployment has risen about 1.5% already. The US’s unemployment rate has jumped to 14.7%. Globally, COVID-19 puts 500 million people at risk of poverty, of which at least 60m are at risk of “extreme poverty”.
What will happen to them, or anyone trying to make their way in a labour market with no jobs? The pandemic has meant that governments have had to take expenditure to record levels but it is worth remembering that spending vast sums has long-term consequences on debt levels and the economy- which need to be tackled.
There is hope that post-COVID-19 inflation might in effect swallow some debt. Increasing taxes by adding a penny to each tax band might help, as might increasing capital gains tax or introducing an inheritance tax. Or even a wealth tax, on the shoulders of those perceived as able, and perhaps willing, to bear it. Yet these measures verge from the probable to the highly unlikely and are no magic bullets.
With inflation long established as a political bogeyman, the reality is that cuts are likely to be almost unavoidable at some point- whether now, or in the vague future. The long-term consequences of the last decade of cuts? 1m people are projected to die early in the UK by 2058.
Cuts were responsible for 120,000 extra deaths since 2010; or 100 every day. This is not a uniquely British experience, to be blamed solely on austerity: economic recessions lead to economic hardship regardless of policy. In 2009, following the global financial crash, suicide rates increased by 6.5% across Europe and North America. In real terms, this meant an extra 10,000 deaths in two years, alongside an additional one million cases of depression. The equivalent statistics in less wealthy countries are much starker.
Governments should open travel links, encourage restaurants, bars and even concert halls and stadiums to re-open at reduced capacity. Shops should re-open, with people booking slots online to go to ensure social distancing. Some large-scale expenditure will be necessary for a long time, and the government should commit to paying the wages of those who are at risk until a vaccine is found. Yet we do need some reopening, and we need them quickly.
This is not because of personal freedom or ‘the money’. Carry on as we are, and more people will die from the fallout than the virus itself. Victims of a future recession will not have COVID-19 on their death certificates, but will have been killed by it, nonetheless.