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CLARIN

Coronavirus And The Limits Of Free-Market Economics

If the pandemic has taught us one thing, it's that no one is safe until everyone is safe.

Coronavirus has exposed economic equalities in Argentina and around the world.
Coronavirus has exposed economic equalities in Argentina and around the world.
Rubén Torres*

-OpEd-

BUENOS AIRES — Faced with perhaps the greatest global crisis of our generation, the question on all of ours minds is: How long will this last, and how much will it affect us in terms of deaths and the economy? For now, most people prefer caution to claims that "poverty kills more people than the virus."

It may be true. It's also worth pointing out that poverty has structural causes unrelated to the quarantine. We are perpetually angered by poverty, and yet, culturally, we accept the idea that wealth really doesn't come from work. It seems to come, rather, from illicit activities, corruption in office or through some magic "niche" in the market, and when that wealth is obscenely flaunted, we don't really condemn it.

If we believe living frugally is a better life, then let us renounce abundance and embrace limitations. We cannot permit an élite of officials — not to mention some of the two-bit revolutionaries we see here — to entrench themselves in the shadow of power.

In choosing alternatives, we must ask how to overcome the immediate challenge and think about what kind of world we shall be living in once the storm is past. For most survivors, it will be a different world.

The pandemic is a social leveler and proof of citizenship.

To extinguish this epidemic the reproduction rate (R0) must be low, and the only way to attain that is through physical distancing of the general population and isolation of the infected. Relaxing these measures could benefit the economy, but at the cost of many premature deaths.

The economic impact is bound to be harsh. Many emergency measures will become permanent elements and change life after the pandemic. But we also need to pay attention to what the virus has revealed: The half-collapsed public health services, paralyzed economies, and the deaths of the most vulnerable among us all speak of the world we have built.

The pandemic is a social leveler and proof of citizenship in the divided and unequal country that is Argentina. It is demanding of us unprecedented unity, if we are to face down its challenge. We are not suffering a haphazard event or tremendous bit of bad luck. It's the result, rather, of our way of life. The crisis came to tell us what a spoiled society refused until now to hear. We have discredited the institutions and resources that sustained our societies: trust in authority, credibility for public life, being able to count on a decent job, etc.

In Argentina, the armed forces feed the people abandoned by coronavirus. — Photo: Paula Acunzo/Zuma

The criticism of conservatives or sectors of the middle class is that universal medical attention necessarily means worse quality and government rationing, and in a free economy, people should be able to choose. But these arguments fall apart when thousands are rushing to hospitals that must then ration their ventilators and free beds, and when doctors have to decide who can access those and who must make do with palliative care.

With such heart-rending calculations, even countries with universal healthcare have had to make assignations of their limited resources. The state of public health care has become a matter of life and death, even for the privileged. When people lacking access to medical services, regular wages or proper accommodation fall ill and cannot confine themselves, the virus spreads faster to everyone. Those stuck in overcrowded housing cannot practice social distancing, and contagion happens through the people society has neglected.

The pandemic has updated the complex debate on the relations between economic cycles and public health care.

We have long tolerated a discriminating health care system, with fairly poor results for the many and good attention to those at the top.

For the fortunate few, the ugly, unfair part of the system was always someone else's problem. But now, Argentines of all classes are competing for the same, limited health care resources. Your premium health insurance is now unlikely to give you quicker access to the heaving emergency ward. Hospitals are being forced to postpone cancer and heart treatments. The richest can always find alternative solutions and celebrities access tests most easily, but nobody is safe from this virus until everyone is.

The pandemic has updated the complex debate on the relations between economic cycles and public health care. Economic elements may well influence health, but beyond a certain level, wealth will not better your health or life chances.

For some years now, the trend has been to prefer personal choice over the public interest. It is a consensual idea that must now be annihilated, amid a pandemic that has shown how some people's precarious conditions will threaten everyone.

The pandemic has also shown, fortunately, that social solidarity will stop a virus that thrives on socio-biological weaknesses, like selfishness. Britain's late prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, liked to say there is no such thing as society, just individuals. Is that true? Or could she become another Cassandra, the soothsayer whom Apollo punished by making her utterances incredible.​


*Torres is a physician and dean of the ISALUD technical university in Buenos Aires.



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