Concilium Civitas Almanac 2020/2021 – Professor Adam Przeworski “Life in the Time of COVID-19” –

Concilium Civitas, Almanach 2020/2021, Przyszłość, Czas po COVID, life after COVID

Adam Przeworski

19 March 2020

Life in the Time of COVID-19

These are nothing more than random musings on the ongoing events and speculations on their long-term consequences. They are obviously a product of cabin fever: isolated from all physical contacts, one can connect to humanity only by thoughts. I am writing them as the catastrophe progresses.

A personal note. In two months I will be 80. During these 80 years I have lived through every kind of hell. When I was four, the entire population of Warsaw, where I was born, was expelled by Germans, who systematically burned the city building by building. Under falling bombs, my grandmother, mother and I were marched 15 km to a transitional concentration camp, where we spent a week expecting to all be killed, until the Germans decided to pack women and children in cattle cars and drop us in the middle of the night in some random field. When the war ended, hunger followed. One of my greatest life achievements, at the age of eight, was when my mother discovered that she did not have enough money to take the tram to pick up her monthly salary at the other end of Warsaw, and I found a coin that was the missing fare. I lived under communism, the Vietnam War period in the US, I barely escaped being in Chile during the 1973 coup and I was in New York on 9/11. So I thought I had lived through every conceivable misery. I never imagined that I would spend my 80th birthday cooped up with no one other than my wife, not even my daughter and granddaughter, as the world falls apart, with millions sick and thousands dying.

I do not think anyone else did, either. One reason many people, particularly young, ignore the warnings about social contacts is simply incredulity. If you believe that something is impossible, or perhaps more accurately, if you never imagined something to be possible, updating beliefs and adopting actions based on those updated beliefs is slow. It cannot be analysed by the standard models we use to study changing beliefs. Even if we do change our minds, as President Donald Trump belatedly did, we update gradually, so unfounded optimism lingers. Yet even if we fully realize the danger, most of our actions are based on habits, not rational decisions taken each time we are about to do something. If for years you have been buying L’Équipe in the morning and going to the same café to read it, not even needing to order because the waiter knows what you want, changing the habit is difficult. Hence we need to be forced, compelled by the state, to abandon our habits, whether or not we have changed our beliefs. I wonder about the long-term political consequences of this experience: if it is successful, China may become our future; if it fails, we may live in a state of permanent revolt.

I am not sure how much we have to bemoan. One reason the mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, hesitated about closing schools is that about one tenth of school kids, 114,000, are homeless and depend on school dinners to eat. This is in a city in which a couple of years ago I overheard a conversation between two very rich people, in which one asked the other, ‘How many houses do you own?’ to which came the answer ‘Fourteen, of which one is a family compound’. I have nothing in principle against someone owning 14 houses. But not in a city where 114,000 school kids are homeless. To put it abstractly, I do not care much about equality but I find poverty amid the plenty intolerable. It makes me angry, intensely angry. It would make me a revolutionary if I thought a revolution were feasible and if I had not seen what happens in its aftermath. So this is just futile, impotent anger. I am angry at myself: after all, I could house at least one homeless kid. It makes me angry with the owners of 14 houses. It makes me furious with politicians bought by the owners of 14 houses. And it makes me wonder about ‘representative institutions’: whom do they represent? We see populism as a threat to representative institutions, but there is something illogical and perhaps duplicitous in this lament, for one cannot bemoan the persistent inequality and defend the institutions that perpetuate it.

Had these institutions been representative, there would be no homeless kids in New York City. The propaganda trumpet of US liberalism, The New York Times (NYT), devotes entire pages to lambasting the autocratic measures adopted by the Chinese regime to limit the spread of the epidemic. By now the same measures have been adopted by Italy, France, Spain and Germany, and will be adopted by New York City within days if not hours. When physical survival is at stake, all competent regimes react the same way. The Chinese people were willing to make painful compromises not only to save themselves but also us. They were disciplined and solidaristic. Indeed, I was deeply moved when my former Chinese student living in Beijing sent me a package of masks. Now that it seems the epidemic in China is largely contained, the NYT still devotes pages to complaining about the lack of information in China. As distinct from Trump? From Boris Johnson?

The US is unprepared for what is coming, and the European countries are not much better at it. The current estimates are that there will soon come a day in which the demand for hospital beds will be three times higher than their supply, not to speak of the intensive care units. This should not be surprising and perhaps it is not irrational. The issue is known as the ‘ambulance problem’: how many ambulances should a city operate? If their number is sufficient to cover the peak demand, including unprecedented events, most of them will be idle most of the time. Hence, it is rational – the argument goes – to be prepared not to have enough ambulances when a catastrophe strikes. But think of military equipment. It may be rational to invest in nuclear weapons that will never be used; indeed, we invest in them so that they are never used. MAD stands for ‘mutual assured destruction’. But tanks? I have no idea about the numbers but I bet that very few of the tanks we produce and maintain ever see battlefields. We are keeping tanks for the worst eventuality, but not hospital beds. Is this rational? (Thanks to Steve H. for this observation.)

Had we been fully prepared, we could have avoided the worst of the disaster. I am not sure I completely understand the mathematics behind models of epidemics. But suppose we could test everyone. We could then identify those infected, quarantine them for the required period and eliminate the possibility of contagion quickly, even with a large mass of people remaining who are susceptible. People certified to have acquired immunity could go back to work. Clearly, this scenario assumes that the tests generate few false negatives, and I do not know their rate. But in any case, given that we are unprepared, we can test virtually no one. So we need to rely on indiscriminate physical isolation and tolerate high rates of infection.

Being confined is boring. I cannot concentrate on doing what I normally do. Thinking about anything other than the virus is just too trivial. Out of habit, every day I check all the soccer sites, but there are no games and the only news is about which players have got the virus. As one of my fellow Arsenal fans observed, the upside is that at least they are not losing. But one effect of physical distancing is increased sociability. This is a new kind of sociability. The number of contacts by mail and Zoom is skyrocketing. Friends enquire about each other across the world. We celebrate online ‘happy hours’ with family and friends, each of us confined, each with a glass of wine. This is not a substitute. There is something about sitting across a table, about touching, about the handshakes and the kisses that is irreplaceable. But this is a small price to pay for protecting oneself as well as others.

This is not the only price we pay. The fear of death has overwhelmed our liberal scruples. We are prohibited from doing what we thought we had the right to do: walk the streets, go to a museum or restaurant, and most people accept this willingly. And we are also willing to give up, or at least postpone, our right to choose governments, democracy. Louisiana and Ohio just postponed the primary elections. The UK has postponed municipal elections for a year, and given that the mayor of London is a prominent opponent of the prime minister, this does not look like a partisan move. President Emmanuel Macron was afraid to be accused of a ‘coup’ so he persisted with holding the first round of municipal elections, but now the opposition unanimously supports postponing the second round. The big fear in the US is that Trump will use this opportunity to ‘postpone’ the presidential election. There are already articles arguing that he could do so without violating constitutionality. At the same time, legislatures are suspending their meetings in several US states and foreign countries. The French government is seeking emergency powers from parliament so that it can manage the crisis by decree. So power is being concentrated in the executive.

In fact, I was surprised by Trump’s initial reaction to the epidemic. His incompetence will cost many lives but also led him to miss a unique political opportunity. I feared that at the first whiff of the gravity of the crisis he would assume a commanding posture, claiming all power, eviscerating Congress and the courts. His supporters would certainly go for it but probably many opponents would also be willing to be commanded if it were to save their lives. He goofed, but scarily it may not be too late. I listened to the speeches of three presidents: Trump, Macron and Alberto Fernández of Argentina. Trump was obviously ill at ease, dull, preoccupied with the stock market and making false promises. Macron was as always too articulate, relying on pathos, but clearly assuming both command and responsibility. Fernández was by far the best, with no political accents of any kind, down to earth, commanding and precise.

I wonder about leadership strategies. One is to say, ‘I did everything possible. There is little else I can do. It will go away.’ The other is ‘I am fully in command and will manage the crisis whatever happens.’ The first is ‘Do not blame me and do not credit me’: it minimizes political risks. The second is all or nothing: if people believe that the leader had things under control, it will be a great success; if things deteriorate beyond expectations, the leader will bear the political costs.

One part of Macron’s speech made my breath stop:

My dear compatriots, tomorrow we will have to learn the lessons of the moment we are going through, question the development model in which our world has been engaged for decades and which reveals its flaws in the light of day, question the weaknesses of our democracies. What this pandemic is already revealing is that free healthcare without conditions of income, career or profession, our welfare state, are not costs or burdens but precious goods, essential assets when fate strikes. What this pandemic reveals is that there are goods and services that must be placed outside the laws of the market. To delegate our food, our protection, our ability to take care of our living environment to others is madness.[1]

This is almost verbatim what a Swedish social democratic minister, Bertil Ohlin, said in 1938:

The costs of the health service represent an investment in the most valuable productive instrument of all, the people itself. In recent years it has become obvious that the same holds true of many other forms of consumption: food, clothing, recreation …. The tendency is in the direction of nationalization of consumption.[2]

I find it hard to figure out where Macron’s lesson comes from. I always thought that he was a neoliberal instinctively and here comes social democracy in its purest, original form, sadly abandoned by social democrats in the 1980s. Is it a political manoeuvre to placate the left or does he really think so? Another aspect of Macron’s speech is equally profound: his rejection of the idiotic Maastricht Treaty (1992) rule limiting deficits to 3 per cent. Announcing protection of incomes and increasing health expenditures, he three times repeated ‘quoi qui’l en coûte’, whatever it costs. Even Merkel said something similar. Because it disabled governments from pursuing counter-cyclical policies, this rule was always the main target of protests against Europe. Several governments performed accounting tricks to get around it, but conning was the rule. Is this the end of Maastricht? Are we finally done with neoliberalism?

Are we on our way back to the ‘Keynesian welfare state’? Or is it just a panicky reaction to the crisis? Europe will not be what it has been during the past 30 years. But the geopolitical consequences of the crisis extend to the entire world. Trump’s unilateral ban on travel from Europe, neither consulted nor coordinated, is the end of the West. This very term is a product of the Cold War, which divided the West from the communist bloc and the Third World. The Trans-Atlantic Alliance and its military embodiment, NATO, were supposed to be based on common values and interests. The West was the ‘free world’, embracing liberalism and democracy. This geographical denomination did not quite correspond to the political one, with several brutal military dictatorships in Latin America, as well as Greece, Portugal and Spain. But to fight against communism, even President Ronald Reagan had to turn against the Chilean military regime. And 1989 was the triumph of the West. The lesson the Europeans are forced to draw from the Trump presidency is that the US is a fickle ally. After his attempt at flirtation with Trump, Macron was perhaps the first European leader to understand that Europe cannot rely on the US, economically and militarily. He turned towards President Vladimir Putin but the alternative for Europe is also China. Europe will have to play a complex strategic game, balancing between the US, Russia and China. But with the cumbersome European decision-making and with Brexit, the capacity of Europe to sustain any consistent strategy is in doubt. It will be a mess.

Finally, but only for the moment, as I intend to continue when new thoughts occur, I wonder about the long-term consequences of this crisis for the role of science in governance and on science itself. Several governments have turned to scientists for day-to-day advice. France has a council of 11 scientists meeting every day and advising the government. Even Macron, whose favorite sentence is

‘I will explain to you’, listens to their advice. In the US, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) issues advisories about managing the epidemic, even if it was prevented from publicizing its advice when it conflicted with an announcement by the White House. It is clear to everyone that some policy issues call for expertise. For better or worse, we long ago granted this role to economists. But now suddenly we have had to turn to epidemiologists, virologists, clinicians and other scientists.

What perhaps merits attention is that, as distinct from economists, these experts speak pretty much in unison. They admit that they are uncertain, that all forecasts are conditioned on guesses about various parameters and have huge confidence intervals. Politicians, in turn, have to weigh scientists’ advice against economic considerations: if we shut down all activities, we will run out of food and essential services. But, perhaps with the exception of Trump who cares only about stock indices, the tone of these discussions is professional, serious and responsible. The choice is not easy and in retrospect some strategies will turn out to be more effective than others: the UK is pursuing a particularly risky one. But it is reassuring that decisions are made or at least informed by the people who know best. As for science itself, one wonders whether this experience will lead to public support for it, increased public spending and perhaps institutional changes.

One striking aspect is the cooperation and collaboration of scientists from all over the world, the sharing of data, the availability of the results in the public domain (even by oligopolists, such as the Dutch company Elsevier). Where politicians build walls, scientists understand that the virus has no nationality. The very idea that scientists would have to pay for access to the results of research financed by taxpayers’ money is now patently ludicrous. Will this cooperation last? Will open domain become the norm?

As I write these notes, I realize that many of my questions relate to whether the actions forced on us by the urgency of the crisis will persist when things return to normal. Will there be a ‘before’ and an ‘after’ the crisis? Are we capable of learning from pain?

[1] President Emmanuel Macron, address to the French nation, 12 March 2020, (accessed 10 April 2020), trans. A. Przeworski.

[2] Bertil Ohlin (1938) ‘Economic Progress in Sweden’. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 197, 5. A

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