There’s a common refrain at the moment in the UK which goes along the lines of ‘no one can predict what is going to happen’, or ‘there is a lot of unknowns’. That is only partly true. The thing about a global crisis of this nature is that it may be very fast, but it is still uneven. And in the data age we live in, that unevenness gives us an opportunity to identify what has happened elsewhere and learn from it. We are not going into this crisis blind. Or, at least we don’t have to be. As the old saying goes: “There are none so blind as those who will not see.” We have a number of real world examples to learn from, and if we fail to learn from them it’s because we didn’t want to see.
Those case studies have most definitively been on the public health side of the crisis (intensive community tracing and testing being the most obvious lesson out of Asia), but the economic crisis is not far behind at all. In Italy – the country deepest into the Covid crisis in Europe, nearly one month into lockdown – there is now emerging evidence of social unrest due to shortages of money and food. Sky News has reported on people breaking into supermarkets and videos of people pleading for money, food, or both. One father says that in a few days there won’t be any bread left for his daughter: “We’re at our limit”.
To say that the UK cannot become like Italy is naive. A Yorkshire Building Society study last year found one in four people’s savings would “last them less than a month”. One in six have no savings at all. The government’s payment protection scheme goes into bank accounts 12 April, while the self-employed have to wait until June. There is also undeclared employment – those operating illegally in the shadow economy, thought to be worth as much as 10 per cent of GDP – who will get nothing, and thus will have an economic incentive very early on to break the lockdown. It’s possible that some people who cannot wait will find other means: credit card debt, borrowing from family and friends, etc. Usually there are ways for people to forestall crisis, but not always, and not permanently.
Then there is what we know about the need to shutdown the economy to contain the virus. We know Italy waited until 23 March, a month after the first death, to halt all non-essential production. Spain waited until today, 30 March, to do the same, when the situation was already disastrous. There is little reason to think the UK will not have to follow suit. Leaving aside the public health aspect for the moment, the question then becomes what to do about a shutdown of this nature in terms of ensuring the production side of the economy functions in such a way that it meets essential needs? That planning must start now, since we know the direction of travel of this crisis.
At a time like this we should be wary of false prophets, looking to jump on a crisis to push pre-conceived ideas. But we should also be wary of lockdown passivity; those who seem satisfied with allowing Boris Johnson and the corporate lobby which surrounds him to impose their own answers. A vacuum of leadership won’t last long in a crisis like this: either we work out what is happening and give some agency to citizens in terms of a response, or we sit back, watch Netflix and hope the Tories – with their newly inherited extraordinary state powers – take care of us. I know what I will be doing.