Written by Paul Beaumont, PhD Fellow, Noragric.
The corona crisis is not the beginning of the apocalypse but a symptom – we have been in the apocalypse for a while now. Akin to how the industrial revolution occurred over a far longer period than we normally associate with ‘revolutions’, apocalypses seldom occur overnight either. In this regard, humans have systematically misread the paradigmatic apocalypse scenario: the asteroid. Rather than wiping out humanity in one big bang, as Deep Impact would have it, it took decades for the mass extinctions to unfold. Similarly, even if COVID 19 does prompt mass deaths and/or societal collapse, if there are any historians still around to argue over the origins of our demise, they will be unlikely to pay much heed to the Corona outbreak itself.
Instead, I expect they will puzzle over a paradox that did not befall the dinosaurs. How did humans manage to create a society so technologically advanced that they could predict the apocalypse(s), develop the technology to stop it (them), yet adamantly and proudly refuse to do so?
With regards to humankind’s inability to halt climate change or the destruction of the world’s biodiversity, future historians will likely and rightly lean heavily on the collective dilemma to explain our failure to act. However, pandemic preparation is not a collective action problem for the state. States can prepare for pandemics without requiring all others to do the same, and states cannot necessarily free-ride from another state’s preparations.
Reasonable to expect states to prepare for pandemics
But is it reasonable to expect states to prepare successfully for pandemics? In short: yes. Like an earthquake, the precise timing and contours of any single pandemic are impossible to predict, but health experts have warned for some time that a deadly virus in the corona family was coming. The question was not if, but when. Indeed, we have had several warnings in the last decades, meanwhile deadly global pandemics have been a feature of history since we started recording it.
Moreover, humans have known what to do when plagues hit at least since the Middle Ages. You “stay the fuck inside”, and you pull up the drawbridge everywhere you can. Both to keep plague out and, where it hits, keep it in. But we have also come a long way since the Middle Ages. Advances in hygiene and medical technology mean we can stop the spread easier and save more of the afflicted. Corona and outbreaks of viruses like corona should be an unpleasant but manageable part of modern government.
And yet here we are. The worlds most developed economies have shown themselves to be both woefully underprepared for a global pandemic and idiotically slow to take the requisite measures to contain corona. Pubs remained full and concerts packed long after the outbreak had begun in Britain and the US. Despite being cheap to produce, many developed countries lack the ventilators and respirator masks required to keep the death rate down to the 1% of those that contract the virus, rather than the 15-20% who will perish if they do not receive adequate treatment.
At least some of these preparations should not have been beyond the wit of man nor the budget of developed states. Despite being cheap to produce, few countries have stockpiled the N95 masks required to protect healthcare workers – and thus the general population – during a Corona-like-virus. For instance, according to the New York Times, the US has just stockpiled just 1% of the N95 respirators required over the course of a year if the outbreak reaches pandemic levels. As Tyler Rogoway has calculated, a sufficient stockpile would cost around $350m per year. Or, roughly the cost of 3 F35 fighter jets, which the US plans to buy 2443 of by 2037. Rogoway quite reasonably suggests that the US’s pandemic preparations, or lack thereof, seem “so astonishingly near-sighted it seems criminal”.
While I would concur with Rogoway’s sentiment, it’s hard to prosecute social-economic structures. Indeed, we may as well prosecute ourselves: we all implicated by virtue of our complicity in a society that will likely appear to my imaginary future historian as a highly sophisticated but vainglorious deathcult. Instead of preparing for pandemics, humans have instead fostered social economic structures that not only do not incentivize preparing for disasters, but activity work against such preparations.
The most obvious culprit here is the capitalist resource-allocation system most countries are wedded to. Its primary mechanism for allocating resources – the market— is so hopelessly short-termist and individualist it is scarcely worth dwelling on. We need only note that the invisible hand will not deliver an effective response to contain a virus if that response requires limiting economic activity. However, there is no reason why private commerce would necessarily hinder a social-democratic government’s’preparations for a pandemic. In short: the inadequate response of capitalist democracies cannot be laid entirely at capitalism’s door.
Indeed, although market mechanisms will never allocate resources to maximise public health, nobody really expects them to. This is why nearly every developed state in the world has a large state sector with the primary purpose of reallocating resources towards the public good. Put differently, developed states all have highly sophisticated and well-funded bureaucracies whose primary responsibility is to correct for the undersupply of education, health and security that would ensue if the invisible hand were left to its own devices. At least part of this reallocation is supposed to go on preparing for and mitigating large-scale disasters, such as pandemics.
Yet, as Corona has illuminated, many governments’ disaster preparations seem myopic at best and negligent at worst. The puzzle then is why, given this is supposed to be a key job of the modern state? One uncomfortable reason stems from the incentives citizens provide to governments seeking to win their votes. Boring, costly and mostly invisible policies – e.g. preparing for a pandemic – satisfy none of the selectorate’s immediate interests. Put simply: The leader who provides a pay rise will, ceterus paribus, defeat the leader who invests in insurance for the rainy day.
>£200 billion on nuclear arms
However, this answer is still unsatisfactory because all developed states do also spend large sums on one particular type of disaster preparation; one that has enormous costs for society: Defence Spending. For instance, the UK alone plans to spend more than £200 billion on what several governments have called the “ultimate insurance policy”: Trident nuclear armed submarines. The UK is not an outlier here: As Lilach Gilady has documented in the Price of Prestige, states systematically overspend on difficult, visible, and wasteful defence projects. The flip side of this oversupply of wasteful weaponry is the chronic underfunding of less glamorous but potentially life-saving projects such as disaster preparation.
Yet, one cannot just blame governments. Indeed, Trident is of little use against Corona (or much else besides committing war-crimes), yet it has long enjoyed popular support amongst the British public. Indeed, it is conventional wisdom that opposing Trident makes a party unelectable. Thus, the penchant of politicians to pat bombs rather than prepare for pandemics is a product of electoral politics. They do it because we reward them. Putting on feminist spectacles, we might say societies attach a (gendered) social value upon war and preparations for war, which crowds out other more ‘feminized’ measures to protect the population.
Bound up with the politics that privileges Trident over ventilators is a highly institutionalized and pathological national security discourse. As critical security scholars have long pointed out, conventional notions of national security have long prioritized state-security over human security. In the context of national security institutions, this implies it is often easier to securitize threats to the state, rather than threats to individual humans or the environment. Thus, similar to how electoral politics rewards the immediate and the visible over the latent and invisible, national security priorities of many countries reflect a historically sedimented emphasis on human-collective enemies rather than the arguably more serious threat of viruses, or for that matter, climate breakdown.
These incentive structures that push our politics to prioritize the visible over the invisible, the immediate over the latent, and the human over the non-human, are deeply embedded within many developed countries politics. The question is whether much can be done about this. Assuming that international society does not collapse under corona, then the widespread distress, shock and suffering that the virus will leave in its wake should open a window of opportunity for radical readjustment; a critical juncture if you will. Where electoral politics has hitherto led to underinvestment in disaster preparation, hopefully the aftermath of corona will produce the political will to forge cross-party alliances to make preparation a priority, while at the same time depoliticizing its cost. Unfortunately, that would still leave climate change and the ongoing destruction of biodiversity to fix before the apocalypse can be reversed.
Paul Beaumont is a PhD Fellow in International Relations at Noragric. His research interests include nuclear weapons and arms control, country performance indicators and 21st century migration politics.
The views represented in Noragric blog posts are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Noragric/NMBU.