Life Interrupted, Coronavirus Edition

The COVID-19 pandemic is teaching us many hard lessons. One is that flow – not just of money but of all sorts of things – is fundamental to a functioning society. On both the material and non-material level, life is enabled by circulation, by constant movement. One could even say that relentless movement is one of modernity’s main characteristics. Charlie Chaplin, frantically trying to keep up with his tasks on the factory assembly line in Modern Times is emblematic not just of work (the kind of work which few in high-income countries experience anymore) but of many people’s daily lives.The coronavirus has now jammed up the gears in that machine.

When COVID-19 arrived, my work-life routine, like that of billions of others, was upended. I cancelled my flight to Dakar just hours before take-off, and instead spent the next week getting up at 5 am for marathon meeting sessions with my Senegalese counterparts. My first virtual business trip. A long-planned Italy vacation – scratched and postponed indefinitely. Dinners with friends, meetings with colleagues, leisurely morning café outings: delete, delete, delete. Maybe the only thing that didn’t change was my newspaper landing on my front steps every morning. The presses didn’t stop rolling. Yes, a throwback to earlier days and a relief for eyes which spend the rest of the days staring at a computer.

The effect of the pandemic has been to block or slow the many streams that comprise daily life. The virus, like humans, thrives on flow and exchange. Perhaps few of us paid much heed before to the pulsing undercurrent of money, goods, public transport, people, knowledge, and much more, until these things began to suddenly back up with the onset of the crisis and government responses. So, fairly soon (although not soon enough), starting in the city at the epicenter, Wuhan, China, governments began to curtail movement of anything that would aid its spread.

Money turned into molasses as commercial activity ground to a halt, shut down for the safety of workers as well as shrinking as consumption suddenly dropped off. Spending on the non-essential stuff, plummeted. Remittances, the money migrants send to their home countries, shrank by about 20 percent compared with 2019, with ripple effects in the home economies. And with their fall, a huge number of people who relied on them are expected to slip back into poverty.

Many supply chains were disrupted, or seized up, as industries halted production to keep workers safe. Other supply chains couldn’t cope with spiking demand.  Toilet paper is now back on the shelves, but just try buying a bicycle these days, or a dog! There’s a long wait-list. A bicycle store in Florida first saw a boom in sales when the crisis hit as many people saw biking as an ideal pastime. A few months later it had to shut down when it was unable to source more bicycles, as manufacturers couldn’t keep up with demand.  We now know that cycling is, well, counter-cyclical, in pandemic times, at least. But stop and think for a moment – when else have you heard that because demand for an item was so high, the store that specialized in those items went out of business?

A corollary to the rise in cycling was the fall in motorized vehicle traffic, to the extent that the skies cleared in many cities, and wildlife made a tentative steps into urban areas, to check out what had happened in the years since their habitat had been paved and built over.

The flow of knowledge imparted to growing minds has been curtailed with the closing of schools and universities. Online learning, if a child even has access, acts as a poor substitute and some wonder whether there will be a  lost generation as an estimated 90 percent of school age children have been affected.  Of course, this assumes that all those children were getting a decent education in the first place, an assumption that doesn’t always hold. In some countries, teachers don’t show up, and textbooks are outdated if they even are available. (I’m not offering this as a solution, but can mention in passing that I went to a Waldorf school, where we didn’t have any textbooks at all until high school. We had to write and illustrate our own “main lesson” books.)

In many cities around the world, the streets emptied as the flow of pedestrians petered out under lockdown measures. The seasonal tide of tourists virtually disappeared as international travel was sharply curtailed. In May 2020 international tourist numbers were down a whopping 98% compared with the previous year. Given that before the pandemic, the new buzzword was flygskam, Swedish for flight shame (stemming from the carbon emissions produced by flying) that would seem to be a silver lining.

The importance of a constant and steady flow will be familiar to most homeowners. In my experience, the vast majority of house repair problems stem from either too much or too little flow. Almost all the headaches we’ve had to deal with in our house over the past 10 years have been linked to electric current, gas, water, sewage and air (conditioning) not working, i.e. not moving through the system as they should. The normal circulation of the elements stopped or was rather in excess, when it came to water and, er, sewage. The optimal is an even, well-managed flow.

The COVID-induced economy and societal blockages are logical, if, at least in most cases disastrous for many people. COVID spreads through interactions and contact and the less of this there is, the safer we all are and the sooner the virus is beaten.

If we consider the factors that that inhibit the circulation processes vital to society and economy, both positive and negative examples come to mind. Among the negative: a heavy-handed bureaucracy which, for example, hobbles government service provision; trade barriers which reduce optimal allocation of capital, and increase the cost of goods; regulations which limit commercial activity. Unrelated to the pandemic, the US mail delivery service is another example of systemic flow that has been impeded. (Many suspect an ulterior motive behind the introduction of cost-cutting measures so close to the November US elections, when the use of mail-in ballots will be widespread.)

People in poor countries, however, don’t need a virus to slow life down and make it more difficult. Barriers to flow are par for the course. Inadequate or dilapidated infrastructure that blocks things from moving smoothly – roads, railways, electricity lines, water supply systems, and so on. Sluggish bureaucracies that dam up public service provision. Supply chains with key nodes missing.

In a way, with the onset of the pandemic and its accompanying precautionary polices, populations in developed countries, especially the poor and marginalized in these countries, have been experiencing a taste of low-income country lifestyle. That is, how inconvenient and difficult life can be when movement is inhibited. (A key difference, generally speaking, is that in low-income countries the poor form a much larger part of the population than in high-income countries.) Asian and African countries, meanwhile, are coping quite well, occupying the bottom half of the country list of fatality cases per population. Senegal is doing much better than the US.

It is hard to see how Western nations will come out of this crisis better than before. Combined with the massive recessions sweeping the world, we may be witnessing a convergence, of sorts, between the Global North and, Latin America excepted, the Global South.

Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on September 30, 2020 on Evaluate This, a website featuring commentary by Nils Junge, an independent consultant working in the field of international development. It was reproduced here with the consent of Mr. Junge.

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