A Way out of Covid-19 Lockdown

Any path out of lockdown has to balance the interests of health against economic considerations. The ‘health’ side of the equation is clear, people are getting ill and dying from Covid-19. This is an emotional tug, but if one steps back, these numbers are not that big – nothing to compare with say the plague in the Middle Ages. The real issue on this side is to avoid the epidemic running out of control. The ‘economic’ side of the equation is usually presented in terms of various schemes to assist people and businesses as economic activity falls away and the consequent government borrowing that will be required. But it is much more than that. There are also huge human costs here, less photogenic, as people lose their incomes and frequently fall through the gaps of government programmes intended to support them[1]. There is increasing poverty and isolation, issues of mental health resulting from sustained isolation and rising abuse in the home to put into the balance here. As a result, this analysis may perhaps seem to favour the ‘economic’ side, which is not just about economics, of the equation rather than the more visible ‘health’ side.

The analysis draws on four hypotheses, each of which are plausible, but some are still somewhat controversial:

  • The virus is mostly transmitted by close or sustained contact with someone else who is infected, so for example within families, care homes, hospitals and large social events. It is rarely transmitted by casual contact with other people or with surfaces. See for example:
  • Wearing a simple face covering, even homemade ones, will not stop you getting infected, but, in the event that you are infected without knowing about it, they will greatly reduce the risk of you passing the virus on to other people.
  • Children do not generally get seriously ill from Covid-19 and may not transmit the infection to any great extent.
  • People will generally abide by the rules, despite the small number of miscreants that get highlighted in the media and social media.

The data (albeit unreliable) clearly suggest that in most severely affected European countries the epidemic has now passed its peak, but the decline is slow. (In other words that famous parameter R may now be below 1, but not much below!) So, the epidemic will take time to die out. If treatments come available, and ultimately a vaccine, then the decline would begin to be more rapid. So, for the time being, countries will have to accept that a number of people will still come into hospital with the virus every day and some of them will die. Coronavirus will have to be considered, along with cancer and heart disease, as one of the major causes of death. It will be for governments to decide at what level of infection their medical systems will be able to cope with this, without excess overload, and therefore at what point they can begin to open up their economies again. They will of course then have to monitor closely the effect of ‘opening up’ on the continuing infection rate and be prepared to make changes if necessary.

A striking feature about the epidemic in Europe, but rarely commented on, is the large gap between a small group (Group A) of larger countries that have been badly affected and the much larger group of smaller countries (Group B) that have barely been touched by the virus[2][3]. In many of this latter group opening up is already taking place.

Contact tracing will be important but will only really be feasible – whether by apps of by other means – when the daily numbers of new infections have dropped to a manageable level; I would suggest to less than 0.01% of the population (less than 100 new daily infections per million people.) As it happens all the countries in the second group would already meet this criterion. Whereas contact tracing could as yet be difficult to manage in Group A countries.

The availability of tests for infection is still limited in many countries and antibody tests are still merely on the horizon. So, as tests for infection become more available, the successive priorities should be:

  • Hospital staff
  • Care home staff
  • Other ‘key’ workers – hospital ancillary staff, delivery people, transport staff, supermarket staff, rubbish collectors, postal workers, policemen, prison staff and those maintaining water, electricity etc[4]
  • People who are showing symptoms of having the virus
  • Teachers and child minders – as schools go back
  • Hospitality staff – as bars restaurants and hotels reopen.
  • People with other medical conditions that make them more vulnerable
  • Anyone responsible on an unpaid basis for the care of, young children, old people or vulnerable adults.
  • Anyone else who would like to be tested.

For the opening up, there would be five general rules to be followed indefinitely:

  1. Continue with social distancing as much as is practicable.
  2. Require everyone to wear a face-covering when in a public space with other people nearby.
  3. Those who can work from home would be expected to continue doing so as much as possible.
  4. Continue to require anyone who is shown to be infected to go into self-isolation for two weeks[5].
  5. Ban any gathering of more than, say initially, 10 people, whether in public or private. This would remain the most onerous restriction clearly showing that life had not gone back to ‘normal’.

Based on these rules there could be the following initial steps:

  • Reopen schools and day-care centres starting with the youngest children and gradually moving up the age range.
  • Reopen shops.
  • Allow people back to work, including in the hospitality sectors, though this would be subject to rule 5 above.
  • Allow people to travel domestically.

There would then need to be sustained monitoring of the numbers of new infections, as well as an attempt to learn from the experience of other countries, and a willingness to make any necessary adjustments. But assuming these numbers continue to decline, the principal subsequent relaxation would be to raise progressively the size of groups that could gather, though very large gatherings, football matches, rock concerts etc, would likely be prohibited for many months yet.

International travel remains a problem area. For international air or rail travel the approach could be:

  • Since the infection rates vary so greatly, countries of ‘arrival’ should designate from which other countries they would accept flights. (This of course is not fool proof since it would be easy to transit through an ‘acceptable’ country.)
  • For these ‘acceptable’ countries there would be compulsory temperature testing before departure and also on arrival.
  • If a passenger fails the temperature test on arrival, they would be given a normal test for the infection, and if necessary be subject to a two-week quarantine period.

In the Schengen area, or within the EU more generally, there should be an attempt to harmonise the approach across all the countries concerned – not least because road travel presents a particular problem. But since EU countries fall into two distinct groups, as explained above, harmonisation could be politically difficult. I suggest that all countries concerned adopt the 5 general rules outlined above. But within those rules each country would decide what is the maximum size of permitted gathering in that country. So, for example if Germany permitted groups of up to 50 and France up to 20, anyone travelling from Germany to France would have to abide by the French limit. In addition, there could be temperature tests for people crossing the borders.

SJMc Luxembourg

24 April 2020

[1] I am a long-standing advocate of a Universal Basic Income. That might alleviate some of the issues here, but really needs to be considered as a long-term programme of rebalancing the relations between the State and its citizens – as the NHS did in the UK three generations ago.

[2] Study for example this graph: It is rather cluttered and not easy to disentangle. But it clearly shows how European countries fall into two distinct groups. (Luxembourg was initially heading to join the first group (A) but has now dropped towards the second (B)) You can add or remove countries from the graph and update it each day.

[3] What characteristics distinguish the two groups of countries? We do not know. But I would suggest, following my first hypothesis above, it is the absence at the critical time of events which drew large crowds of people. Another factor could be that the group of larger countries are more ‘international’, more open to travellers and visitors from around the world. With Greece and Scandinavian countries together in Group B it is difficult to argue for ‘cultural’ explanations. And several of these countries, such as Greece, locked down very quickly.

[4] It might even be easier to try and identify those who aren’t key workers, those doing socially useless ‘bullshit jobs’ as David Graeber calls them! This would include most of the PR, marketing and advertising industries, and many in the financial sector.

[5] For the many people living in cramped or over-crowded accommodation this might be impossible. Governments should make empty hotels available for them.

What is UBI?

The idea of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) paid to everyone (or every adult?) in a particular country, without any preconditions, has been floating in the political ether for many years. But in many countries it has recently moved higher up the political agenda.

Ubi is not a panacea, but it could ease a number of social problems

Indeed the concept has been partially implemented in a number of countries, including Brazil and Namibia. And several pilot schemes on a limited scale have been tried, for example in Finland. But the conclusions from such pilots are inevitably unreliable either because the trial was not unconditional, or it was just for a limited period or was for a small delimited community. I believe the only place where such a scheme actually operates at a modest level, typically around €1000 a year, is the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend paid to all long-term residents in Alaska.

UBI has to be paid to everyone. If a means test were to be imposed it would eventually fail to receive continued political support and would in due course be watered down as (I understand) happened in the UK with Child Benefit, which was originally a universal unconditional scheme. UBI would however have to be taxable; thus for wealthier recipients the benefit would be partially withdrawn through taxation.

However, ‘universality’ immediately raises the most widespread objection: that UBI is unaffordable and would demand such high rates of taxation as to be unacceptable. Various detailed studies attempt to refute this argument. However, I’m more inclined to say: ‘Where there’s a will (which for the moment there isn’t) there’s a way’. The fact is that we live in a society of abundance and it is intolerant, and indeed sinful, that some members of western society are rich beyond the dreams of Croesus, while others struggle to put a roof over their heads or to feed themselves or their families. For me this is more a moral than a political issue.

Another difficulty is how to draw a boundary around those who are entitled to receive the benefit; should they be residents or citizens? And how would one deal with the inevitable pressures of economic migration towards a country which offered UBI? There is no easy answer to this one, except that the geographically larger the ‘eligible’ community the smaller the problem. So, for instance, I support the campaign for an EU-wide UBI. A modest sum, say €500, a month would have little impact in Luxembourg but could be hugely important in Greece. But that would involve the EU becoming a ‘Transfer Union’ which is anathema to many prosperous northern EU Member States.

Then, the question arises: wouldn’t an unconditional payment, especially if set at an amount sufficient to live off, reduce the incentive to work and thereby lead to a community of skivers? Well: No and Yes. Most people would still want to work for a higher income. But if a UBI reduced the incentive to do mindless, menial or dirty jobs for poverty wages – cleaning toilets for example – it could have the desirable effect of driving up the wages for this type of work. And indeed there’s a fundamental human desire to contribute to society in some way or another, either through paid ‘socially useful[1]’ work, or through unpaid (and undervalued) work such as caring for a family or for elderly relatives – which is now most commonly done by women. A UBI even at a modest level would, at the margin, increase the incentive for many to opt out of the ‘paid’ economy and contribute to society and the common good in the unpaid economy. (Look for example at the amount of unpaid work done by retired people in our Church communities – including by the editor of Lumen!)

Finally, it is worth noting that UBI is often supported on the right of the political spectrum as well as on the left. But the right wing politicians that do so tend to view the concept as a panacea that would replace all other forms of social assistance. UBI might replace a basic state pension. But it is obvious that people who are, for example, severely disabled in one way or another would continue to need additional support beyond that of other members of society.

UBI is not a panacea but it could help to overcome the obscene inequalities of the society in which we live.

This article was originally published in Lumen, the magazine of the Anglican Chaplaincy in Luxembourg, in November 2019

[1] David Graeber in his book ‘Bullshit Jobs’ has pointed out how much paid work in our society is not socially useful. This includes many bullshit jobs in, say, the financial sector, but does not include ‘dirty jobs’ such as cleaning toilets which are indeed socially useful.

No to ‘transition’ – Yes to ‘Article 50 extension’

Many commentators propose a long ‘transition’ period. But transition is a one way street; there is no easy way back. Much better would be significantly to extend the Article 50 negotiating period to five or even six years. This would give the British people time to ponder the decisions being taken in their name. But since an extension has to be agreed unanimously by all EU Member States, the EU27 need to be convinced that it would be in their interests to offer such an extension. In December 2017 we made this case in individual emails to all the 678 Members of the European Parliament  coming from the EU27. These emails were based on a memorandum which can be downloaded here: Memorandum to MEPs. Or read a shortened version below. #ExtendArt50

The replies we have received so far from MEPs have been encouraging.

The essential idea is simple and can be stated in a few sentences. The present British government has been captured by a small group of hardline politicians who have always opposed Britain’s membership of the EU on dogmatic grounds, but who do not represent the views of the British people as a whole. Many of those who voted for Brexit in the referendum did so for reasons which have little to do with Britain’s real relationship with the EU. The British people now need to be given time to think through the practical implications of leaving the EU, to have the opportunity to reflect further on whether Brexit really is in the interests of the country and possibly change their mind. It is also probable that political priorities will change as other political events come to seem more important, and there remains the real possibility that the British electorate will elect a new government in the near future.

The proposal is, therefore, that the ’EU27’ Member States should, at an appropriate moment, voluntarily (i.e. without being requested by the British government) decide unanimously to extend the Brexit negotiating period under Article 50 of the Treaty from two to five or six years – not an unreasonable time for such a complex negotiation. At the same time the ‘27’ should refuse any transition period, which only complicates matters and muddies the waters. The present British government would probably wish to refuse such an ‘offer’, but, faced with the possibility of a disastrous alternative, it seems most likely that the British Parliament would insist that the government did indeed accept it. The negotiations so far have shown that there are any number of difficult detailed but important issues which have to be properly dealt with and that the two-year period for departure provided under Article 50 of the Treaty is wholly inadequate for resolving them. As these issues are worked through, it may become clearer just how unsatisfactory Brexit will be for Britain, which may affect public opinion in the country.

Britain has been a difficult but ultimately effective Member of the EU. Many EU Member States would on balance prefer Britain to be in the EU than outside. Others might be more hesitant. So it is important to note that under this proposal the ‘27’ would not be asked to take a view on Britain’s continued membership, but merely to decide on whether the negotiations should be extended. At some future date the British government may then seek to withdraw its Article 50 notice; that would be the point at which the ‘27’ would have to decide on Britain’s continued membership or not.

How to avoid Brexit

One way to avoid the looming catastrophe of Brexit would be for the 27 EU Member States simply and unilaterally to extend the negotiating period from two years to five – without waiting for a request to do so from the British government. They could use the argument that two years was simply too short for such a complex negotiation. I think at the same time they should refuse any transition period.

The British government would not like this proposal and could of course still insist on leaving after two years. But, since the present negotiations are leading to a cliff edge and to Britain simply crashing out of the EU, it seems highly unlikely that there would be a majority in Parliament to exit after two years when five years was on offer and available.

Anything could then happen in the following three years. In, very likely, a deep recession, Britain might come to its senses again. And a new government could well be in power.

My argument is set out in more detail in my recently published article in Dantemag which can be found here.

Reflections eighteen months later

This is my first blog post for a year and a half. Then, early in 2016, the risk of environmental destruction certainly appeared as the greatest problem facing humankind. Internationally this was publicly acknowledged by the adoption  on 12 December 2015 of the Paris Agreement by 195 negotiating parties.

Some of course perceived this problem as intrinsically linked to social injustice across the world and to rising inequality in income, but especially in wealth. Certainly this was the argument of Pope Francis in his highly influential 2015 Encyclical, Laudato Si.

Looking back this now seems like a high water mark, at least for the time being.  Since then the tide of interest in the environment, at least in the media and public discourse has receded. Nevertheless, a great deal of practical activity and investment has been maintained, particularly in renewable energy, the costs of which continue to fall. Whether all this will be sufficient is more doubtful.

Then came the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. Both clearly reflected something deeper happening in these countries – ordinary people taking an opportunity to kick out blindly at the ruling political class and the neo-liberal economic policies that have been pursued there for the last two or three decades. These policies have allowed the rich to grow richer and left  stranded the poorer members of society, whether they are in work or not.

So the political ground is shifting, not just in these countries but in the wider world as well. And the attention of the media, (and indeed my own attention), has become very focussed on these events. These are not problems for humanity on the same scale as that of the destruction of our environment. But they may represent the beginning of a change in political discourse and social values across the wider world – as the tip of an iceberg in effect. Social divisions and the intolerance of others seem to be increasing. And many feel freerer to voice their long-held intolerance which only serves to exacerbate the vicious circle.

In an article in the Guardian newspaper on 1 August 2017 concerning proposals for a Holocaust memorial in London, Sir Peter Bazalgatte (chair of the Holocaust Memorial Foundation) was reported as saying that the memorial would “underline what happens when society breaks down, when law, order, decency and tolerance, and empathy disappear. This is what happened in 1930s Germany, and it has lessons today, lessons about tolerance, lessons about race hatred, lessons for all of us”.

More bluntly Joan Salter, 77, who was separated from her Polish-Jewish family during the war, said: “[It is] comforting to assume that civilisation is a one-way street, when in fact experience teaches us that it is but a thin veneer, very easily torn away. Germany yesterday could so easily become Britain tomorrow. In recent times, we have seen the splintering of social cohesion, the growing willingness to express extreme views, the ability of some to act out their intolerance with violent acts, the lack of respect for those of different cultures. We live in dangerous times.”

It may well happen that the Constitution and institutions of the US prove to be sufficiently robust that Trump’s presidency will be seen as a passing blip in the history of that country – so long as he does not engage in nuclear war in the meantime. And, although the final outcome of Brexit may be the wilful impoverishment of a country whose people cannot yet accept that Britain is no longer immensely powerful and influential on the world stage, this would still not be an event of world importance. Yet the undercurrents driving these events along may well be of great importance and worth trying to understand.

Evolution and Climate Change

Ken Wilber is one of the most original thinkers of our age. In his A Brief History of Everything he traces the path, the hierarchy, of evolution from sub-atomic particles right through to humanity. He points out that each step of increasing complexity, transcends what went before and opens up a potential that could not have been predicted from the prior individual components. So, for example, the various properties of a molecule could not have been anticipated from the properties of the atoms from which it is composed. Likewise the properties of bacteria, in which we already begin to discern ‘life’, could not have been predicted from those of simple molecules. And so it goes on; the ability for self-awareness and abstract thought in human beings could not be anticipated by considering other primates to whom we are remarkably, physically similar. Wilber characterizes each evolutionary stage as a holon; something which is whole in itself, but which emerges from and yet is quite different to the holon lower down the hierarchy. He also argues that transition from one holon to the next is accompanied by struggle and contradiction of some sort.

Now we have no reason to believe that evolution has come to an end with humankind. Indeed Wilber argues that, even if individual human beings have maintained a physical appearance similar to our pre-historic ancestors, and no doubt a similar genetic structure, humanity is nevertheless continuing to evolve in its understanding as it passes through increasingly sophisticated phases of awareness. Wilber’s argument is quite detailed, but we can note in particular the similarity with other commentators who have pointed to the Axial Age, the moment in about 3000 BC, when humankind, in different parts of the world, first became aware of the transcendent. This was the moment of the founding of the world’s great religious traditions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism of which Christianity and later Islam are outcrops.

Although Wilber makes little reference to him, his ideas on humanity’s continuing evolution echo those of Teilhard de Chardin (notably both priest and scientist) who, in the Phenomenon of Man, wrote about the emerging noosphere. Somehow humanity coalesces into something larger and more complex in which human knowledge and wisdom no longer reside in any particular individual. At a dinner party recently all manner of questions came up to which the reaction invariably was to ‘Google it’. Perhaps we’re already living in the noosphere. Google’s cloud, Wikipedia and so on contain a great deal of knowledge which can no longer be located or associated with any particular individual but rather with humanity as a whole. And if, as some extreme pessimists believe, most of humanity, most individual humans, are wiped out by climate change will human knowledge survive? I like to think it will somehow, somewhere. The noosphere becomes a new holon largely independent of the lower steps in the evolutionary hierarchy.

But what has this got to do with the seemingly more concrete problem of the environmental challenges that the humanity now faces? Well it is the first truly global problem, the first to be faced by humanity as a whole, by this new ‘holon’ or de Chardin’s noosphere. No individual or collection of individuals can solve it on their own[1]. Economists would call this a ‘free-rider’ issue, but it a free-rider issue on a scale never before experienced. And, as Wilber would have anticipated, the coming into being of this new holon in such a way that it can act effectively, is a moment of struggle – like a new birth. This is the background against which to see the outcome of the COP21, the Paris Conference on Climate Change which took place in December 2015. It was the first time that representatives of the whole of humanity, the emergent noosphere agreed to act together – albeit for now tentatively and inadequately – against a perceived common problem. It remains to be seen what happens next, but it seems to me that on that occasion a step transition occurred – an evolutionary jump [2].

One could perhaps cite other earlier occasions when the noosphere acted. The proclamation of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights being a candidate, though that was largely the outcome of a group of countries, recently successful in world war, imposing (if that is not too strong a word) on others. Or we could consider Neil Armstrong’s: ‘That’s one small step for man one giant leap for mankind’ in 1969 as he steps onto the Moon. But notwithstanding his sentiment the event was in fact the outcome of a ‘space race’ between two nations, not the action of humanity as a whole. Still, these are unimportant debating points.

And to point to the 2015 Paris Conference as an act of the noosphere in no way belittles the hugely critical preparation done by many individuals (other holons, lower down the hierarchy!), nor the very skillful diplomacy of the French hosts. Personally I would add to this the action of Pope Francis (and his team) in writing his timely encyclical Laudato Si. I believe, though it could never be demonstrated, that this radical, critical but ultimately hopeful document, read and commented upon by millions of people prior to the Conference, had an enormous influence on its outcome. And to me it is significant that this document, with its lyrical description of the beauty of Creation and its insistence on the Earth as a common home for all of humanity, came from the pen of the leader of the world’s largest religious organisation, an organisation which proclaims a set of values somewhat at odds with those by which most of us live our lives.

Now dear reader, you may ask: What’s the point of this rather abstract discussion of holons and the noosphere? What does it add? Well for me it shows that there are still new, emergent possibilities, scarcely discerned for now, for humanity as a body, as a new holon, to act in the face of a common problem. And here I think we have reason to hope for the world and for the future of humanity. But just as an atom does not ‘know’ that it is part of a molecule, we may not yet appreciate what is actually happening here.

[1] Nevertheless, wealthy individuals and nations may be able to protect themselves for a while against some of the consequences of environmental destruction. Billionaires will be inclined still to fly around the world in their private jets, even while the poor are driven into destitution by the consequences of climate change – one reason why inequality in the distribution of wealth and income is so crucial.

[2] Notwithstanding the idea of slow change through natural selection, there is evidence that evolution frequently occurs by such sudden unanticipated jumps.