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Home > Features > Two steps forward, one step back

Two steps forward, one step back

Pardon me for stating the obvious, but things are not easy for many people lately, and for some they are just plain awful. We have, in the main, been privileged to live long, happy and healthy lives, free from privations in a time of unprecedented peace and prosperity with welfare states that will do their best to put us back on two feet if fate turns against us.

Straight into the middle of these charmed lives the Covid-19 landed with a disruptive crash. As we close for press in mid July, many European countries have ended their lockdowns, and are tentatively trying to reopen and restart their economies, and open their businesses, and it’s not exactly plain sailing.

Mallorca in Spain, The Islander´s home port is a case in point. Spain experienced a rapid spread of the virus in late February and early March, with daily death rates close to 1000, the government acted swiftly, perhaps not as swiftly as they should have, but when action came, it came rapidly, and hard. Spain lived through the harshest lockdown in Europe, you stayed at home for all but the bare essential trips, and you had to prove it, or receive a stiff fine. Results came quickly, after four weeks the decline in cases was as rapid as the rise had been. The obvious problem in Mallorca is the same problem, more or less as anywhere else. Lock everyone at home, and close the borders and we stay safe, but the lifeblood of the island is shut off. More than half of the money the Balearic Islands earn, and more than half of its population is employed in tourism. Staying locked in with the airport closed simply is not an option, there just simply isn’t a way to look after those levels of unemployed with an economy in that bad a shape.

These are awful decisions to make, our presidents and prime ministers have health experts telling them in one ear to close everything down to avoid huge mortality rates, while their finance ministers in the other ear whisper prophecies of economic catastrophe if we don’t get back to work into the other ear.

The problem is that they are both right. However we can’t stay at home until the virus is gone, mainly because it probably won’t ever go completely, but six weeks or so of lockdown have created a recession larger than any most living people have experienced.If we go back at full speed the rise of infections of a second peak could, if modeling is correct, dwarf the first wave of the virus. The decision of how to reopen the economy has to be somewhere in between those two poles, it has to be nuanced and fine tuned, and importantly, it has downsides on both sides, there is no good option, only bad ones, the knack is to choose the least bad one and cross your fingers that you called it right.

To return to Mallorca as an example, a month or so after lockdown ended for Spaniards, they opened the shop for holiday makers to come back, slowly, a few at first to test the water, and gradually increase the numbers in the hope that at least there might be some decent business in the second half of this disastrous summer season. A few have come, with bookings looking a bit more healthy for August, a few restaurants and tourism businesses have unfurloughed some staff, brushed off their terraces and opened their doors. Sadly, the inevitable has happened, the infection rate has begun to climb again. It was always going to of course, this virus is spread by people moving around and infecting each other, so it’s a no-brainer that inviting people here from all over the world is going to bring the virus back, and those making those impossible decisions would no doubt have been aware of that, but what else are you supposed to do? Regions of Spain, including Mallorca have introduced mandatory mask wearing in most public places, and it seems to have all but killed off the optimistic shoots in the tourism industry as potential holiday makers just don’t fancy spending their summer holidays wearing a mask and surrounded by infection, and I don’t think we can blame them for that.

The truth is this next phase of the virus is just going to be like this, and probably for a while, not just in Spain, but more or less everywhere. It’s going to be two steps forward, one step back. Back to work, then back home, no more masks, put your mask back on. Stop start. It is going to be an awful time to run your business, but there isn’t very much anyone can do about it.

We need to recognise that our leaders are making impossible decisions based on imperfect information. Scientific consensus, where it exists at all, is changing constantly. We must recognise that mistakes will be made, and there are no perfect outcomes. While it is important to analyse these decisions, to make sure that lessons are learned, we also need a bit of Blitz spirit here. For me there has been too much moaning, to much bleating about civil liberties being infringed by lockdowns, or mask wearing. Perhaps we have just had it too easy. I don’t think the wartime generations complained about civil liberties when the man from the ministry took your front gate to make into a Spitfire, or planted spuds on the cricket pitch. They just saw this as a necessity, pulled together as one and got on with it.

Human beings… every one of us, are facing a common enemy that threatens ourselves, our wealth and our loved ones, and when we face a common enemy, we are at our best, and most effective when we work together.

Phill McCoffers – The Islander Economics Correspondent