As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage the globe, the conflict over what seem to be competing interests is heating up. The need for people to keep their distance from one another to prevent further spread of the disease has all but brought the gears of the world economy to a grinding halt. This has led many to conclude that, lockdown orders are damned, we must begin to open things up again as soon as possible. Others — the overwhelming majority — say that, at least for the time being, we must put the agenda of public health above that of private wealth.
But as if things were not already dicey enough, recent findings only complicate this debate further. A report out of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease and Research Policy found that the COVID-19 pandemic could continue in waves that last a full two years. The researchers behind the report also said that the virus cannot be considered to be contained until at least two-thirds of the world population are immune.
But those foregrounding concerns about the economy are very likely to believe that this is simply time we do not have. With all signs pointing toward the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, a desire to mitigate the damage of this impending doom is understandable. I should note, though, that this is not to, in any form or fashion, take the side of anti-lockdown protesters in my home country of the United States.
Those protesting stay-at-home orders and refusing to quarantine are, whether they realize it or not, needlessly putting others at risk of contracting COVID-19 (this is especially true of protesters in Lansing, Michigan, who blockaded the entrance to one of the city’s biggest hospitals). Social distancing is a common-sense public policy measure born of wholesome intentions. As such, it ought to be followed until those entrusted with managing public health deem it no longer necessary.
It is also worth noting that these anti-lockdown protests are by no means grassroots efforts. Indeed, they are being organized, propped up, and funded by the most cynical of far-right plutocrats, such as the woefully incompetent and unqualified Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. Worried about the negative effects COVID-19 might have on their bottom lines, DeVos and the company are scrambling to get workers to make money for them again as soon as possible — even if that means sending them on a death march.
This is just a political reality — as is the fact that those protesting generally are not the ones hurting the most right now. Quoting Ben Burgis, a professor of philosophy at Georgia State University, the protesters are largely “Middle-class people waving signs complaining that low-wage workers aren’t being forced to staff the golf courses and hair salons that they miss” and “… small business owners who are willing to sacrifice the lives of their employees and their employees’ loved ones by demanding that they go back to work during a plague.” The truth of the matter is that, whatever vacuous rhetorical overtures these people might make to the working class, this is primarily a white, well-to-do, suburban movement. Those truly struggling are too busy figuring out where their next meal is going to come from, or trying to scrape together their next rent payment, to engage in these sorts of political performances.
I, therefore, sympathize with those who choose to just roll their eyes and ignore these protests. However, I believe doing so is a mistake. I say this because, like it or not, and even if for the wrong reasons, those involved are motioning toward some real issues. Dismissing all economic concerns regarding COVID-19 is just not the right answer.
And as bad as things are right now, they are about to get a whole lot worse. According to a study out of a United Nations affiliate, “… the economic fallout from the global pandemic could increase global poverty by as much as half a billion people, or 8% of the total human population. This would be the first time that poverty has increased globally in thirty years, since 1990.”
Another study by the United Nations’ World Food Programme found that, unsurprisingly, the economic recession caused by COVID-19 will exacerbate the ongoing world hunger crisis. According to the source, “Latest numbers indicate the lives and livelihoods of 265 million people in low and middle-income countries will be under severe threat… up from a current 135 million.”
These grim prospects require an immediate, and coordinated, response. So-called “market forces” have proven themselves wholly unfit to deal with a crisis of this magnitude. Governments must therefore intervene, provide their citizens with more robust assistance, and prove that the supposed trade-off between economic security and public health is a false one.