The award for the stupidest slogan of our unwanted coronavirus era has to be: “The cure can’t be worse than the disease.”
Touted by some businesses and politicians that ideologically lean pro Big Business (even as they dress this up as support for small business), the slogan is a logical and ethical nonsense.
Unfortunately, there is no cure right now. So that’s not even the choice being considered.
Translate this ridiculous mantra from the language of magical thinking into that of reality, and what’s actually being advanced is this: lives saved (because people matter) or lives sacrificed on the altar of Mammon by some influential but delusional high priests of business, investment, venture capital and tech.
The saved lives will come from carefully managing restricted movement, slowly reopening segments of the economy, and creatively rethinking how many more people can safely work, until we have the options of a real cure, or vaccines, or interventional medications.
The other option is more death, as even the president of the United States allowed was the trade-off for his "let's get the US open right away" tack this week. "We can't keep our country closed. We have to open our country. . . . Will some people be badly affected? Yes."
“Some people” likely will translate into tens of thousands added to the country with the world’s highest Covid-19 death count. Perhaps worse, if a second wave of a poorly contained pandemic comes back in a more lethal iteration, as happened in 1918.
“Some people” are more likely to be the low and modest-income workers who have jobs that don’t enable them to work from home, Zoom with colleagues and chortle at the random unexpected appearance of cats or toddlers.
People who work in factories and plants, for example. Meat plants perhaps, which are so badly hit by the virus in the US that meat shortages are now a reality. Or car manufacturers. The frustration of not having his workers working sent Tesla founder Elon Musk into a recent series of rants on Twitter, then on an earnings call with analysts. He suggested the lockdown was "fascist", and far, far more.
This is a man who also claimed Covid fatality rates were “greatly overstated” (even as all evidence – of unexplained excess death rates far outstripping the norm across the world – suggests they are greatly understated) and that there would be “zero cases” in the US by April’s end (when there were over 23,000 new cases on the last day of that month).
On the other hand, a collective series of bizarre tweets from him wiped 11 per cent – some $13 billion (€12 billion) – off the value of Tesla, as investors reacted.
Meanwhile, the tech industry is peddling its own misleading “cures”, best exemplified by an array of still-unproven and opaquely explained tracing apps, and proposals for equally vague “immunity passports” that overexcite too many policymakers.
The UK is looking at an immunity passport idea based on facial recognition technology and serum tests “proving” immunity. Yet right now, too many simply do not understand that, with only perhaps, at best, 10 per cent of any national population affected (and remember, the possibility of immunity has not even been confirmed), a test with 97 per cent “accuracy” will in practice mean 3 per cent false positives given passports and sent to work.
Apps vs slog
But, as the World Health Organisation's Dr Mike Ryan reiterated at a press conference this week, "We are very, very keen to stress that IT tools do not replace the basic public health workforce that is going to be needed to test, trace, isolate and quarantine." He also added that countries must ensure such apps and the data collected aren't sneakily repurposed, post-pandemic. But low-tech isn't as exciting, and requires actual hard slog.
Many of the governments most eager for faster reopenings than advised by the vast majority of epidemic specialists are run by millionaires and billionaires. And the VCs and business people in a similar “reopen now” snit are looking at their own investments tanking.
The headlining people who keep saying company closures are a violation of people’s “freedom” and that they’ll take the disease over a cure are not actually the people who will be on those shop floors, or operating the till, or on the assembly line, or driving the delivery vehicles, or flying the planes, or caring for the affected.
Oh no. They will be isolating safely in their deluxe, and in some cases taxpayer-funded, homes of choice, impatient for the work done by others to commence before their ranking slips lower down the millionaire and billionaire lists. Or before they risk losing their Big Business donors and the next general election.