Saturday, May 30, 2020

A deserted O’Rahilly Street in Ballina. Picture: John O’Grady

By Adrian Langan

For such a little thing, Covid-19 will bring big changes – rivalling in significance the ones we have already experienced.
Fighting the virus in the short term involves keeping our attention, day by day, on what is right in front of us. Of course that means the focus, for now, remains on the deaths, the serious illness and the multiple immediate burdens which responding to the virus has imposed on us. But as it becomes clearer just how long this crisis is going to dominate our lives, it’s also the long-term effects that are now beginning to dominate minds. They are going to impact globally and be felt locally – both nationally for our country and in the west.
What that will mean in detail – globally and locally – remains an exercise in guesswork, because we don’t know how much more damage will be done. But while it is impossible to predict those details with certainty, there are a number of general things we can say at this stage. These things will continue to shape the world we live in, long after we have got Covid-19 under some sort of control.
First, the virus is going to bring about a decline for some time in global trade, in the volume of services and especially goods that are sold between countries and around the world. That is a major immediate issue. It will also be a longer-term issue as countries resolve that they should make key products at home and not rely on other countries to do it. We all agree with that in Ireland when it comes personal protection equipment (which we don’t make here). We don’t agree so much when Donald Trump says it about pharmaceuticals (which we do make here).
Second, there will be structural change to our economies. In the private sector, some sectors will be seriously damaged, while opportunities will grow in others such as technology, communications and pharmaceuticals. In the public sector, there will be demands to move more resources into health (which will be popular), but which can only be done by moving money from other areas or by raising taxes (which will not be so popular). Many in Ireland will argue that we can do one without the other and without pain to anybody, which we might call the ‘get fit from your armchair’ response.
Third, there will now be an even greater interest and focus on issues of sustainability. The concern that we are damaging our planet, perhaps beyond repair, will become an even more urgent issue. There will be loud demands for more rapid action. This will be especially pronounced among younger people, who will care even less for older people telling them why whatever action they propose is not possible. These concerns won’t just be about wet markets or immediate public health concerns, but will spread into all areas of how we live – and use resources – on this planet.
Fourth, the already high levels of concern about, and objection to, migration and the movement of people will rise further. It will be linked – vaguely – to public health concerns. This point of view will be especially pronounced among older people. It will be increasingly said out loud without concern for who hears it.
Fifth, the crisis will put pressure on the EU and even more on relations with our nearest neighbour. The package of financial support for EU countries promoted by France and Germany last week will ease that pressure, but over time there will still be tensions. All these supports which countries are now providing companies (usually banned under EU rules) will in the longer run benefit the bigger countries, whose bigger industries will be more able to survive the crisis. Closer to home, the British government will try and frighten us into a terrible deal while hoping that in the midst of all the trouble caused by Covid-19 their own citizens won’t notice what an economic disaster leaving the EU is.
The sixth factor is perhaps the most uncertain. The fashion these days for strong leaders ‘telling it like it is’ will either become even more popular or will be totally discredited. How that plays out one cannot say, but if a man who suggests his people try injecting disinfectant as some form of medical remedy gets re-elected, then we will have our answer. Looking at it in a wider way, there will be a greater desire for security among people, and whenever that arises in human societies, leaders get handed more authority without democratic scrutiny. Such leaders almost always use such authority badly, and when they fail they then pick fights to obscure their failure and to look vigorous. So, on the international stage, there may be trouble ahead – the moonlight and music will alas be forgotten.
How will all those things impact on us and most especially on the west?
First, on trade. A decline in global trade levels is bad news for us. We became a wealthy country, after centuries of being a poor one, because of global trade and our access to it. There is a lot of very soft-headed talk in our country about all this, with some people doubting we are a wealthy country, and others thinking that anything we do have is solely to do with our native genius. We got wealthy – yes, really – over the last 30 years because of trade.
There are many in the west who say that the region has not had its fair share of benefits the country has garnered from this global trade. Some others say that the economic benefits have not been shared as equally as they might among all social classes. Sometimes when you hear those arguments made you can hear alongside them skepticism about the benefits of open international trade. To that I would simply say: shrinking a cake does not mean you get to eat a bigger slice. It may well be that we redistribute economic benefits in our country unfairly, but losing the benefits open trade has brought for us all is not a road to fairness.
On the upside, and in respect of the impact on different sectors of the economy, the industries that will likely benefit from the crisis are ones at which we – in both the west and nationwide – are good at, so that’s a help.
Third, the focus on sustainability will increase the focus on farming practices. There will be a further rise in the desire for organic and ethically-produced food. That will create a set of rows about new laws, but the big picture here might produce some fresh thinking: if this crisis makes us all think that more food should be produced closer to home and more sustainably, that means the price of food will have to rise.
On the issue of migration, the west of Ireland has, shall we say, some history here. That should not be far from our minds when these issues are raised.
On the last two issues, whether it is the rise of less democratic leadership, or pressures both within the EU, and with the UK, we are never going to be more in need of friends and allies.
With a bumpy few years ahead, best to keep those friends and allies socially distant, but nonetheless close.

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