Wars vs. pandemics – rhetoric and reality

At the beginning of the current coronavirus outbreak, and as the seriousness of the situation was beginning to sink into the awareness of decision-makers, one could hear speeches comparing the pandemic to a state of war. World leaders hope to ride the crest of popularity that accrues to wartime leaders, for political gain.

But war and pandemics are not similar, in fact they are opposites. War brings in-groups together (admittedly to fight other groups), while pandemics isolate people. Wars increase production and employment, pandemics decrease both. War increases social mobility by conscripting the strong and talented from all social strata and mixing them together, while pandemics freeze people and lock them in their neighborhoods, closing educational opportunities.

But political gain is only one part. Using the ‘wartime’ leaders pass laws permitting privacy and rights violations by governments unthinkable in peacetime. Tracking, restrictions on movement, etc.

Pandemics are also riskier for politicians in the sense that as time goes by and the reality sinks in to more and more of the populace just how much they have given up (in limited freedoms, missed economic opportunities and restricted physical and social mobility) without any corresponding gains in solidarity and opportunity that might have otherwise occurred in conventional wartime, unrest will grow. This is the real reason for the latest legislative moves to grant governments more emergency powers: not to fight the virus, but to prepare to quell civil disquiet and even sporadic insurrection.

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