Much, too much ado about comparing the current economic crisis to past ones, and not enough about the current epidemic to previous ones. Yet, if we were to dig in this direction, we would soon discover something that should make the path to prevail much clearer, when faced with different paths.
During previous epidemics, for thousands of years, human life (except that of the powerful) did not count for much; it was short, without real value, neither economic nor ideological. And since there were not any therapeutic means to protect oneself from harm, one had to live with it; resigned to it. Moreover, in most civilizations, only the afterlife, as defined by the various forms of religion, was of interest.
When we started to have the means to protect ourselves a little bit through vaccines, we continued to live as before for the most part, interrupted only by the havoc caused by epidemics. And when we could, we began to provide care, limited by financial means.
Today we are in a radically novel situation: in some countries, among the richest, life has infinite value. Not only because we are living much longer. Not only because the productive capacity of each human being is greater than it has ever been; but above all because, ideologically and ethically, it is no longer acceptable to measure the value of anyone’s life solely on economic criteria. Furthermore, human beings do not consider it as acceptable for them to be satisfied with the promises of an afterlife. In these countries, if treatments are stopped, it is not because they are too expensive, but because the prognosis is irreversibly compromised.
These countries are very rare and perhaps even utopian.
In most of the other countries, even among the richest of them, care is still rationed, implicitly or explicitly. And many countries, not necessarily the same ones, refuse to put people’s health before the functioning of the economy. This is very explicitly the case in Sweden, Netherlands, Brazil. A little less clearly in the United States, where a President obsessed with the value of the stock market is in stark opposition against a part of the federal apparatus and state governors; the debate is even very explicit there, and we have seen grandparents say that they were prepared to take the risk of dying, exposing themselves to the epidemic, so that their children and grandchildren could have work because there are no unemployment benefits. In other words, in these countries the requirements of healthcare and the economy are contradictory.
It leads us to a mind-boggling question, which is rarely asked in explicit terms: what risks are we prepared to take, individually and collectively, today and in the future, to make our society function on a daily basis?
The answer is clear: we are all more willing to take this risk when we have no choice. Conversely, the better a society protects and compensates those whose exposure to risk is vital to others, the better it protects the relevant stakeholders against the risks of unemployment, and the more reluctant they will be to put their lives at risk by working in risky conditions.
For such society to function, of course, it must first be able to protect as perfectly as possible those whose work, which cannot be done remotely, but is vital for society to function. And society must produce more and more wealth and jobs in these sectors of protection and prevention, for the present and the future; sectors that, in one way or another, have given itself the mission of defending life: health, food, the environment, hygiene, education, research, innovation, safety, trade, information, culture and many others.
We then realize that these exposed sectors, which provide the conditions for the vital functioning of our societies, are undergoing major turmoil: until very recently, these sectors were mainly comprised of services, and therefore did not have the potential for growth, which only comes with increased productivity resulting from the industrialization of a service.
The recent and good news is that these sectors comprise of, as of recently, not only services, but also industries capable of increasing their productivity, and therefore of constantly improving their ability to fulfil their mission. It is therefore by putting all our efforts into workers and industries that we will save nations, civilizations and the economy.
While we wait for such strategy to bear fruit, perhaps those who have the privilege of being able to work while confined, might be advised to devote some of their leisure time, (at least if they have any) to rethinking their own relationship with their own lives, as well as the lives of others; and to ask themselves in particular how they can be useful, through their work or outside of their work, without exposing themselves to those folks whose job entails exposing themselves. By modestly preparing in their own way for this major mutation, which is a condition for the survival of the human species.