opinion

OPINION: If the coronavirus has taught us one thing, it’s that money is more important than your life.

It’s one of those realities that we all cleverly dodge, much like that guy at the wedding who’s drunk before the canapes are even served. It’s that niggling feeling at the back of your mind that the world has a dollar number on all our heads, the maximum value that will be expended to save our lives. 

The acceptance of lives having a dollar value has woven itself into the systems of governance and decision making. It’s always been there to some extent, but health events like the outbreak of the coronavirus, or more correctly, COVID-19, tell us clearly that the economy is more important than your life. 

There was a clear swing at some point after Swine Flu in 2009. Briefing notes in the aftermath show hints at the transition;

On the other hand, experiences during the SARS outbreak demonstrated the considerable economic and social disruption caused by some public health emergencies, meaning that experts could well be lobbied or pressured for commercial or political reasons, potentially compromising the objectivity of their advice.

The real effect of this change has become evident with the COVID-19 none-pandemic. It has infected over 100,000 people worldwide across every major continent (except Antarctica) and has killed thousands. But it is not a pandemic. Apparently, the definition of a pandemic has changed since the last one. Why? There are claims of minimising fear, of how the general public will buy even more toilet roll if a pandemic is declared. CNN has begun referring to COVID-19 as a pandemic even as the WHO claims the “threat” of a pandemic is “very real”. The reality is clear; the economic impact of the word “pandemic” is too high a cost.

Watch: How to protect yourself from COVID-19. Post continues below. 

Video by WHO

The idea of declaring a pandemic has of course lost all meaning, leaving only the perception of the word, the practical impact, the fear

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The idea of the declaration is to give governments the signal to start ramping up preparations. Nowhere is this clearer than in the difference between their reactive actions, and proactive actions. Most governments, even today, with a mountain of evidence around the risks of this virus continue to restrict their actions to the “reactive”. Football, rugby and sporting events continue with massive crowds in virtually all countries except Italy. Even in Italy, the decision for a nationwide lockdown was only made yesterday, after the number of confirmed cases surpassed 9,000. At last count, 631 people are dead. 

In testing as well, the methodology remains so restrictive that it evokes the image of a horse with blinkers worn firmly, progressing down the busy road safely protected from the fear that the knowledge of traffic would bring. The pattern that this virus has followed in every country has been clear. By the time you spot it due to a spike in hospital admissions, it is already too late. The UK only yesterday started testing people with respiratory illness for COVID-19. Perhaps we should be grateful that they’ve even started that before the case count ticks into the thousands. Despite there being a wealth of evidence that this virus has a fatality rate somewhere between 3 and 50 times more than the seasonal flu, we continue to see reports even this morning from the White House:

While we have asked all Americans to exercise common-sense hygiene measures, we are conducting business as usual. I want to remind the media once again to be responsible with all reporting.

Right now we’re telling people to act as if this is a severe flu season

          White house spokesperson Stephanie Grisham

What all of this means is clear. The primary danger of this virus is not people dying. The primary danger is fear. The media must be careful not to spread the highly contagious disease, “fear”. The WHO and numerous governments have all stated that the biggest danger is fear. Not the virus, not the death rate, not the fact that it’s a novel virus spreading rapidly uncontained. The real danger is fear. The real danger is buying too much toilet roll and too many face masks.

Our greatest enemy right now is not the #coronavirus itself. It’s fear, rumours and stigma. And our greatest assets are facts, reason and solidarity

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus Head of WHO

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Every time you hear “fear” mentioned, what they’re really talking about is this;

coronavirus economy

That’s the ASX 200 diving. The market is the real victim of this crisis, not people. I hear it said that it’s ok, or at least less bad, because it’s mostly old and sick people dying, as if their lives are somehow worth less. Well, in this context they are literally being priced up and valued at a lower rate. The US’ atrociously incompetent response makes more sense in this context; after all the economy was Trump’s main weapon in the next election. The US’ main priority has been to limit “fear” again and again, and the suspiciously slow rate to test for COVID-19 cases in the US are perhaps well explained by this mentality.

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A staff physician at New York-Presbyterian hospital told CNBC, “I’m here to tell you, right now, at one of the busiest hospitals in the country, I don’t have [a rapid diagnostic test] at my finger tips…

“I still have to make my case, plead to test people. This is not good. We know that there are 88 cases in the United States. There are going to be hundreds by middle of week. There’s going to be thousands by next week. And this is a testing issue….

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“I’m a practitioner on the firing line, and I don’t have the tools to properly care for patients today.”

Indonesia is another example of a country attempting to control their COVID-19 figures by simply forgoing testing. At the beginning of March, Indonesia was insisting they had zero cases of infection, despite only having tested 333 people in a country with a population of 270 million. It took two months after the outbreak in Wuhan, China, for Indonesia to conduct routine tests. With more testing, the numbers continue to rise. It has been widely speculated that the delay in testing was an economic measure to ensure tourists continued to visit, and also to protect an ill-equipped health system

Image via Worldometers, last updated March 2. 
Image via Worldometers, last updated March 2.

With this disease the focus has been clear from the start – the economy must be protected at all costs. The fall of the market must be buffeted with the lives of the population, fed to the machine to continue the never-ending dream of eternal growth. In this case though the fatality rate remains unknown and how far the disease will spread also remains unknown.

The question therefore becomes: Will the Australian government listen and act proactively? And more broadly, are our lives the number one priority? 

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