The Moral Economy of COVID-19

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

The initial COVID-19 outbreak, first identified in southern China in December 2019, subsequently spread throughout Asia then westward into Iran and Europe, across the Atlantic to the US, and more recently southward into Latin America and the sub-Saharan region to become a full-blown pandemic. During the course of weeks and then months, absent appropriate containment measures, the corona virus ranged the planet. In so doing, what would reasonably constitute a global health crisis became a crisis of political leadership, a crisis of markets, and perhaps most of all a moral crisis. Those empowered to make critical decisions delayed even as warnings from the WHO, CDC, and Chinese government required a swift and thorough response. Pandemics are by definition devastating, while political imprudence can make them catastrophic.

Three decades ago, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the world was reorganized enabling the movement of greater volumes of goods, capital, people, and ideas. “Globalization” emerged as both a practical and ideological force ostensibly promoting frictionless movement, porous national borders, flexible sovereignties, and free trade. While new electronic technologies accelerated market integration eventually “freeing” the market from the most rigorous regulatory frameworks, social commitments, and responsibilities. Pandora’s box opened and a new and more predatory capitalism stepped out and with it new pathways for pathogens.

As the US (and the world) confronts deep recession and even the possibility of a depression, some would look further back to the 1970s to better comprehend the ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic is revealing inequalities, discriminations, and injustices that are constitutive of the American experience. The ascent of Reagan and Thatcher following the 1973 financial crisis marked a seismic ideological shift. Abandoning fiscal, demand-side economic policy, both the US and the UK embraced instead a radically pro-market, anti-labor agenda. While the push to privatize almost everything eroded core government functions and know-how and encouraged deep cuts to benefits in so doing remaking the relationship between worker-citizens, industry, and the state. Today, the notable absence of public healthcare, employment security, free or affordable education, guaranteed income in retirement, and other safety nets (paid sick leave, parental leave, etc.) are assumed in the US and for that matter thoroughly normalized. But in these times, such deficits visibilize not only the stark vulnerabilities of a society confronting serious illness, the potential for long term unemployment, and even death, but equally the policies and ideologies that created those vulnerabilities in the first place.

The last few weeks COVID-19’s impact on the most vulnerable has cleaved to the fault lines of rampant laissez-faire liberalism. We are all at risk of infection and the coronavirus doesn’t discriminate, in the first instance, on grounds of race, class, gender, sexuality, or any other form of difference. But it is opportunistic! Coronavirus seeks human hosts by the easiest path, by the breakdown of barriers to infection, in places where transmission goes virtually unimpeded. As one such example, in the greater Chicago area, certain categories of people, subjects, or bodies appear by the numbers more vulnerable because they are poor, lacking shelter, or because America’s long and violent history of race and racism informs the gravest health disparities. Notably, though African Americans make up a mere 23 percent of those living in Cook County they account for 58 percent of those who succumb to COVID-19. We know too that the rates of infection skyrocket in jails and prisons and that in the US with a carceral population of almost 2.4 million; infections in cramped cells and holding pens push rates of infection amongst inmates as high as 8,600 percent greater than in the general US population.

Attending to human well-being, need, and care of self and others—though at the heart of the successful eradication of COVID-19—is currently judged a set of costs rather than rights; aligned with commitments to improving yield curves rather than flattening the pandemic’s curve; and revealing the degree to which markets rather than mortality drive political decisions and judgment. If true, if considerations of costs supersede the moral and ethical obligation that government (and corporations) have to people, then laissez-faire ideology will have won the day.

A final irony: in these times, many who were globalism’s most vocal supporters have switched sides embracing isolationism and protectionism. Closed borders and global coordination and collaboration is one thing, isolationism another. Let’s try not to confuse the two!