Flat White

Among all this oddness, we’ve been given the gift of time. Let’s not waste it

1 April 2020

12:30 PM

1 April 2020

12:30 PM

I’m beginning to wonder: when I stagger back out into the sunlight in six months, blinking blearily against the glare, my beard-hair gently tickling the top of my feet, and muttering to a half-deflated soccer-ball named Wilson… what will the rest of the world have become? 

At first, our focus was on the virus itself. What is it? How is it spread? How many people have it? (400,000 at the time of writing, about 0.006% of the world’s population) 

Then we saw some funny little economic impacts as our supermarkets saw shortages. “What’s with the loo-paper panic-buying?” we wondered. And we all laughed.  

(Well, except me. Personally, I thought it made a lot of sense. If I’m told that there’s a reasonable possibility that I’ll have to self-isolate for two weeks, I would stock up on toilet paper too. And If I was a total bunker-nut, suddenly faced with the zombie apocalypse that I’d always been expecting and that is clearly occurring but the governments and big banks are obviously trying to down-play and hence I’m going to hide in a concrete hole for the next two years, I’d be buying a lot of toilet paper. Many of my friends tried to tell me that “toilet-paper is not a necessity”. I don’t know what sort of filthy lifestyle such people live, but that’s un-Australian, guys. We’re not French, we don’t use bidets, and we’re not Indian, so we don’t use our hands. We might just use the Adelaide Advertiser though personally I have softness standards and prefer 3-ply in all situations. But I digress…) 

Next, we all did a crash course on the control of pandemics. Really nifty graphics and memes were circulated, explaining ‘social distancing’ and how it ‘flattens the curve’ so that we don’t ‘exceed the capacity of the healthcare system’. We learnt some horror stories about the Spanish flu in Chicago. 

(I listened to an American podcast on the ABC that interviewed a German maths student who told them about ‘exponential curves’ and refused to name his professor. “See how everyone is scared? He won’t even name his professor.” they interpreted. In reality, what he had explained was year-10 level maths and he hadn’t wanted to name his professor because he was worried he’d got it wrong. Which he sort-of had; he really wasn’t an expert and some discussion of the ‘logistic curve’ or the ‘rumour function’ would at least have got him to year-12 level. But I digress. Again.) 

Then we saw the scenes from Italy where they have already exceeded the capacity of their healthcare system and it looks really bad, and everyone is talking about it and nothing else and it’s all become very, very real. Even though most of us, even most doctors, haven’t met a single person who has it. Yet. 

So we all began taking social distancing seriously and, for the most part, doing what we’re told. This immediately caused the real economic impact to show itself. It was at this point I began to wonder the rest of the world will look like after this? Within the space of a few days, suddenly a lot of commentators were asking, ‘at what point does the cure become worse than the disease?’ Economic hardship also kills, if it is severe enough. 

It turns out that ‘flattening the curve’ costs. The more you flatten it, the more it costs—firstly, because you have to disrupt the economy to a greater degree and secondly, because you have to disrupt it for a longer time.  

The government has the unenviable task of balancing risks. Coronavirus causes deaths, and exceeding your healthcare system’s capacity causes lots of deaths. But do you flatten the curve as much as possible, or just enough to get bellow the health-care system capacity line? Do you flatten straight away, or wait until you’re at five per cent healthcare capacity and then flatten like you’ve never flattened anything before? Can you flatten it hard but just long enough to develop a cure? Can you flatten it long enough to mass-produce testing kits so that you can then practice specific, rather than general, social distancing?  

Given the cost of flattening the curve is proving to be so high, I think the first best way to spend stupendous amounts of stimulus money is on increasing the healthcare system’s capacity, so that we don’t have to ‘flatten it’ as much. 

I’ve seen a few proposals for what the world might look like. Several of my Facebook friends see this as a grand opportunity for the government to take over the private sector and kill capitalism. I suppose the reasoning is something like ‘If you’re going to have toilet-paper shortages anyway, then you might as well have socialism.’ The United States Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi mistook their government’s stimulus package for a Green New Deal Kick-start Programme last week, and tried to include requirements for, among other things, the limiting of airline emissions and changing voter registration rules. Russia and Iran happily slashed the oil price (something that would get a lot more coverage if it weren’t for coronavirus); they imagine a world with a bit less of the USA, and are certainly not above “kicking them when they’re down”. (Of course, they’re down too, but misery loves company.) 

The economy is the system that we use to meet our material needs. In ‘the economy’ goods are continuously transferred from producers to consumers, and a common currency is used in every exchange so that everyone can measure and hence maximise the value of what they give and get. 

Coronavirus is a disruption to our economy firstly because it creates a period of time when people value different things to usual. Usually, we value travel, now we don’t. Usually, we value eating at restaurants. Now we don’t. The economy is set up for one demand profile, and it suddenly faces another. There are winners and losers in that change – last week my local Office Works exceeded their all-time record of daily revenue two days in a row. They sold out webcams in the first 2 hours. 

Covid-19 is a disruption secondly because a lot of people are doing less or no work. Although money is what we use to measure everything, labour is the true powerhouse of the economy. Socialism mainly doesn’t work because people stop working when they’re no longer reaping the rewards of their efforts. Unemployment rates are increasing rapidly. The government and individuals are telling everyone to be inactive.  

From the first round of groceries hoarding, to the state border shut-downs (now you know what it feels like to be a fruit-fly), to the illogical half-hour limit on hairdresser appointment durations (think: the shorter each appointment, the more appointments per day, which is worse, not better), ‘not doing stuff’ has become quite a theme of this pandemic. Many memes on social media are saying “stay at home and do nothing”.  

Stay at home, sure, but do nothing

For the sake of the economy and for the sake of ourselves, we should try to do stuff. The economy is designed to reward people who are being useful. What was useful a few weeks ago and what is useful today may be two different things, but there are still many needs to be met. 

The respiratory clinics will need workers. Manufacturing companies trying to gear up to make respirators and face-masks will need workers. Food delivery services are skyrocketing. Are you good with I.T.? Many people need assistance setting up home videoconferencing systems. Can you clean? My employer has been engaging additional cleaning shifts and paying someone to do additional surface wiping at mid-day. Have you already had the virus and gotten over it? You may be a perfect candidate for in-home caring. Can you look after children? Home-schooling and child-care services should be at a premium – that’s a good option for teachers if/when the schools close down. 

What is unique about first-world economies today is that so much of what we do is, strictly-speaking, non-essential. Only a tiny fraction of the work-force is dedicated to providing food and shelter, and only a small fraction of our money is used to buy them. So a large portion of the economy can be shut down without killing us all, which was not quite as true a hundred years ago. 

It’s not the preferable option though. Inactivity is depressing and dangerously habit-forming. We should all be trying to find ways to be useful to one another. If you don’t need the money, then volunteer.  Before you go to Centrelink, or lock yourself in your bunker, search for opportunities. Advertise your services on Facebook and LinkedIn. Still limit your exposure to other people and follow good hygiene, but be useful. The less we need the government to support us, the better. 

Of course, the final answer to my initial question is: we don’t know what the world will look like after this. We just aren’t privileged with knowledge of the future. No-one ever is. A friend recently shared my favourite lines from the Lord of the Rings:  

Frodo: “I wish none of this had happened” 

Gandalf: “So do all who live to see such times, but that isn’t for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” 

It’s useless for us to try to control those things that are outside of our power. I can pray for the government, and critique the government, but that is all. My use of my time, however… it’s the only precious commodity I’ve truly been charged with. Best not to waste it. 

Nick Kastelein is a Christian and a conservative who grew up and lives in Adelaide where he works for an engineering consultancy.

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