We are over the first shock, and if frustrated, we are at least settled into a routine. So now we begin to peer into the crystal ball, wondering where this all leads. Not surprisingly, we are asking the question, ‘What happens afterwards?’
I suspect that here in the UK, the PM’s own pandemic experience will prove to influence fundamentally his thinking on how to move the country forward. Whether that matters, depends on the strength of a lone leader’s voice. Cabinet hawks have not been similarly affected; Boris Johnson has a reputation for putting effective people in place then letting them get on with it. Perhaps, in the end, his own opinions will not count for so much.
Much else will depend on how long the aftershocks last. At present most eyes are upon the hope of an end to lockdown, as if it were to be as abrupt as the beginning of the shuttering. A great deal of hope and self-motivation is driven by that. When it proves not to be, we are likely to see both widespread emotional deflation and the slow emergence of a two-tier, or multi-tier world: those full released, those partly released, those (the frailest?) for whom lockdown becomes a long-term expectation.
And then there will come the voices that call for economic reason – ‘We’re letting the young die because the ventilators are filled with the old; why extend the life of an old person by a year or two if it means condemning their grandchildren to ten years of poverty? It’s sad, but let those who are going to die, die. The rest of us have families to feed (the unspoken translation of some of which is, “I want my holiday, I want my new car, I want my restaurants back, I have a fortune to make and this is holding me up.”)”
Some element of lingering gratitude to the NHS will remain, possibly rewarded by a significant allocation of resources – but how great can that be in the biggest economic contraction for centuries? Think, not the Great Depression of 1929-32, but of 1347-1351: the Black Death.
More likely, we will institute an annual NHS day, erect monuments, call scout troupes to church. For at the going down of the sun, we will salve our consciences by remembering them.
Stock markets have at least the same distance to fall again as they have fallen so far – the present bear market rally is predicated on nothing more than hope and denial of inconvenient fact (think climate change denial, think holocaust denial). The housing market will fall materially (think 1989-1992, perhaps more) – all those partially-saved deposits now spent on living expenses; all those jobs lost because the banks have been sclerotic in approving government-guaranteed business loans (20% approval rate so far); all those mortgage lenders who will require bigger and bigger deposits as values, provided by surveyors with one eye on their professional indemnity premiums, drop like dead birds in mid flight. Fear is the greatest motivator.
As to safe havens? Some government debt will be repaid, some not. Who remembers the 1929 5% War Stock, converted in 1932 to undated 3.5% War Loan, finally paid, inflation-decimated, in 2015?
You can dash for gold- many are – but you can’t eat it.
Shortages may have barely begun. Reports on Bloomberg this morning refer to the destruction of food in the USA because processing workers are sick or have died. It has yet to impact the cities. Normal UK food stocks in the supply chain are said to be nine days. And, soon, the picking season begins with, we are told, a shortage of labourers. As for non food stuffs, as yet little-publicised reports say only a small proportion of ordered PPE is actually being delivered despite having been paid for. We all heaved a sigh of relief when a flight arrives from Turkey with three days’ supply.
Recovery will come, but slowly. Think 1945-1960.
Children will be born into, and grow up in, a post-Covid world. They will play, not in blitz-bombed ruins, but graffiti-sprayed shopping centres with broken shutters rattling in the wind. They, and we, will wonder how we lived the way we did; how we permitted ourselves to be deluded by worthless trinkets (think the purchase of Manhattan Island from native North Americans for strings of beads).
We will see polarisation. Some will grow more socially serious, more caring, in a world in which state support can no longer be taken for granted, in which we must therefore care with more genuine concern for one another. Charity registration will increase. The synagogues, the mosques, the temples and the churches will be better attended.
Others will live on their wits; exploit. Think, ration-facilitated black markets; think, false claims for ineffective remedies spun across the world at the speed of electrons, through the portals of social media gullibility. Think of the spice trade, started because spices were believed to offer protection against the plague. Think of the value of the ineptly-named Gilead Sciences, soaring then plummeting on hopes and dashed hopes of an antidote. Think about a president, so myopically motivated by his desperation for re-election, that he rouses the rabble to stampede out of state-imposed lockdowns, while calling on the rest of us to sit in the sunshine and mainline disinfectant to kill the virus.
We who have grown used to Government-provided solutions to our problems will clamour for inherently conflicting outcomes: save the NHS, save the economy, give me back my job, give us a vaccine and give to us it now, wave a wand. Some how, anyhow, make it how it used to be.
We will not be quick in accepting that it is not going to be how it used to be. We will grieve for a lost world, but will not quickly grasp that grieving is a five stage process. And we will pass through all five steps before arriving at acceptance that the old world has gone.
And what will they – the politicians – do? They will rely on the best advice from lauded advisors with an unenviable task and an unimpressive track record in crystal ball gazing. They will meet in Cobras and corridors, lip-serving, social-serving and self-serving as they do, with one eye on their helplessness, another on the need for re-election and their third on opportunity to make covert gain.
Overtly, we will see some, or all, of the following: higher taxes including the long-shunned wealth taxes; more committees; more bureaucrats; more surveillance cameras; more, and more subtle, curtailment of freedom; rationing (if the supermarkets can do it, the state can do it); five year plans; nationalisation; martial law.
What we will not see, is the uncertainty and despair they take home nightly to their wives and husbands, their uneasy co-conspirators in the suppression of mass panic, who watch their loved ones’ dematerialising confidence waft away with the sunset. They will stutter and flounder. And they will stake the family silver on a plethora of book-learned arrogance, lacing their statutory instruments with the hemlock of well-intentioned ignorance.
In short, they will do what they can, whilst unconvincingly reassuring the rest of us and giving us hope, for that is why we vote for them. That is what we pay them for – to be certain when we cannot be certain, to tell us there will eventually be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover and that we will meet again some post-Covid day, to celebrate once more, the inspirational Captain Tom- for a season.
It does end. History repeatedly tells us so. But history offers us no certainty as to when, for each challenge, each opportunity to rethink our direction, looks a little different from the last. Many will come to the end their life journey sooner than they had anticipated. Of those who remain, some will re-entrench their cynicism. Others will dig deeper, try harder. A few will reach further, squeezing the comfort zones until the alveoli convulse.
But will many take heed of Blaise Pascual’s sometimes quoted phrase: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone?” No, I doubt that. In any given lifetime, only a few ever learn the meaning of that one.