Economics vs Health in fighting Covid-19

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by Matthew Bugeja

Everything is about COVID19 at the moment. There is no escaping the unprecedented impact it has had on the entire planet in just three short months. Short of a global conflict, this event has shook entire populations to their very core, and we have seen that locally as well. People are avoiding large gatherings, trying to stay away from older relatives to avoid infecting them, and non-essential businesses have closed. Entire economic sectors have come to a grinding halt, none less so than those which depend on people frequenting them often, and in large numbers, such as the tourism, catering and aviation industries. Those three sectors will continue to feel the pain for some time to come, no matter how quickly we manage to manage the threat of the virus.

This all comes down to one key fact – a vaccine for the novel coronavirus will not be available for a minimum of 12, but perhaps 18 months. Once it becomes available, it is a question of distribution, since every human being on the planet will want to be vaccinated… with a few exceptions, The global population hovers around 7.7 billion people at the time of writing, and it is difficult to foresee just how the vaccines can be rolled out fairly and equitably across every country simultaneously without some serious issues, and without a truly global coordinating effort. In short, It will probably take another year or so on top of that to produce enough vaccinations for even half of the global population, deliver it, and administer it to people. In short, we will be dealing with COVID19 to some degree until 2022, at a minimum.

There are still many things we do not know for sure about the coronavirus, at least at the time of writing this. We do not know for sure if you are immune to it once you become infected, and if so, how long that immunity lasts. Other coronaviruses can reinfect a human host within 1-3 years. But we’re still in the early days of the outbreak to know for certain. In addition, despite nearly every laboratory and scientists currently working around the clock to find both treatments and cures to tackle COVID19, we can only mitigate its impact on patients, not treat it in a targeted manner with the right medicines.

That leaves us with a two year time window in which governments will have to balance the physical health of their populations along with the economic health of the country. These are both very important elements of the integrity of a country’s ability to function. On the one hand, governments should avoid relaxing measures which allow for the quick reopening of economic and social activities too soon, as this may prompt a second outbreak (which many epidemiologists have said is likely inevitable in any event), leading to another set of restrictive measures on citizens’ movement. On the other, national governments cannot maintain a closure of their economy indefinitely, as that would lead to mass unemployment and potentially government default in the medium term. That means that businesses, including but not limited to those in retail and catering would need to be allowed to reopen at some point. That much is almost certain. But under which conditions?

Will people be allowed to crowd in shops as they had done before?

Will they have their temperature taken before entering the establishment?

Must all customers wear masks prior to entry?

How will items be disinfected before being put on the shelves?

How will those who are infected with COVID19 be allocated sick leave? Will it be a special sick leave, or taken from the standard sick leave?

Will shops need to disinfect regularly?

Will employees need to be swabbed on a monthly basis to ensure they are not infected?

Will the employer or employee pay for it? Or the government?

These are just a few questions that come to mind at present. Needless to say, we are in the early days of the COVID19 pandemic, and we have not quite entered the fallout/aftermath phase of it. That will come later. But we need to start thinking ahead about how we will all approach reengaging in social behaviour. That time will come, and we need to be prepared for a whole new world.

Matthew Bugeja 

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