1 March

Black Swan Events like Covid-19 Should Make Us Think

Events like the outbreak of coronavirus should make us pause to think. It is no exaggeration at this point to assert that things appear poised on the brink of pandemic. At the time of writing, the virus has spread globally with fatalities in Iran reaching 19 and whole towns in Italy now in quarantine. Currently there seem to have been about 83,000 cases with 3,000 deaths. Despite all the news, however, it remains unclear just how pervasive the virus is in China as mainstream information is hard to trust. Doctors and scientists are naturally prompted to think medically and scientifically about the outbreak, but the rest of us ought really to pause and think about our hierarchy of values.

If cities and entire regions are in quarantine, why not whole countries? Public officials must work out a point at which halting the outbreak of Covid-19 in the UK, or elsewhere, warrants the economic impact of closing borders. This risk assessment ought to show where our deeper values lie. The BBC published an article explaining that the sick and elderly are those most at risk of infection, and from dying of the infection. An outbreak in the UK is unlikely to do huge amounts of damage, and we have been reassured that the NHS can cope, but if it does get to the point it is worth reflecting on whether we should wish to risk an outbreak in order to protect the economic status quo.

At this point this blogger should make clear that he is not advocating the closing of borders, but merely suggesting that the point at which we choose to close borders will speak to our values. Having made the caveat, let the thought-experiment continue. Perhaps we shall wake up tomorrow and find that a cure or a preventive for the virus has been discovered. Or again perhaps the virus will never get as far as a really significant break-out in the UK. One might imagine a scenario, however, in which borders in Europe cannot be closed to those coming from infected countries of lest this look like unjust discrimination. It would not be the first time people have failed to do their jobs properly out of fear that they might appear racist. This allegation was, you will recall, made of the police not taking action against child sex rings in Rotherham and other cities with large immigrant populations in the UK.

Another, perhaps even more pernicious, policy would be to keep borders open for economic reasons only – more pernicious because even more seductive. It hides behind a veneer of rationality. The argument is not wholly bad, for if the likely outcome was that a handful of people might catch the virus, experience flu-like symptoms and then be cured, surely one could not justify closing borders. If a general outbreak was possible, and the lives of many vulnerable people were at stake, it might appear that those lives had been sacrificed at the altar of economic stability or continued growth.

The scenarios presented are all debatable, but what seems to lie at the heart of this is ‘globalism’. Globalism has certainly contributed to the spread of the disease, and it will surely prove an impediment to containing it. It does not seem likely that we, in the UK, will be significantly affected by the outbreak, but Italy has been already. Precautions do not seem to have been taken on a global scale. Whilst England’s Chief Medical Advisor, Professor Chris Witty, suggests that schools might be closed for up to two months, the government has hitherto not taken steps to limit flights coming into the UK. Many countries are, indeed, taking precautions to minimise the impact locally, but there has been no serious global response. Limiting flights seems to be the most obvious measure to take, so why have so few countries taken it?

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