Wednesday, 11 March 2020

The wages of complacency

In more ways than one Britain has had it too good for too long. Nothing like Coronavirus has occurred in my lifetime. We're not used to reacting to these things or planning around them nor do we even anticipate them. Now that we are looking at a pandemic we find we are not prepared or equipped to handle it. Most of us don't even think about these things. When they do happen, be it SARS or Ebola, it's always in a far away land in places where these things happen - and could never happen to us.

Very soon we're going to have a lot of experts on what we should have done - and should do next time. This time, it would seem, we are going to have to learn all the lessons the hard way, not even learning from Italy, two weeks deeper into the crisis.

One could go to town here on the parallels with Brexit. There are sensible things we could be doing, could have done sooner, and should have seen coming, but ultimately the power is not ours. It's all in the hands of Number Ten locked into their own ideas with no intention of listening to anyone outside their immediate circle. With Brexit they don't seem to care whose livelihoods they destroy, and with Corona, they don't seem to care who they kill. In both instances, the last people to know what the plan is, is us.

Luckily for us, we can guess this time. The plan to stop Coronavirus is to do absolutely nothing. They're just going to waste a lot of money on adverts telling us to wash our hands. There are several problems with this. For the most part it certainly doesn't hurt to wash hands but as a policy it overlooks the fact that people are generally quite sloppy and lazy and even if they did follow government advice they wouldn't be particularly good at it, particularly with modern hand dryers which are now known to make things worse.

Worse still, with Cornoavirus being aerosol spread, washing hands is next to useless, especially in modern buildings. Modern buildings (the location of much contact between infected and well persons) typically are sealed and have central heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems.

The HVAC system could disseminate infectious organisms as it moves air through the buildings. Air is delivered through ducts to spaces and returned to the HVAC system where some amount of outdoor air is added, and the air may be filtered and conditioned for temperature and humidity. The extent of air exchange depends on outdoor temperature, building design, and building management. Building ventilation codes are grounded in standards based on comfort but not on health considerations.

This is the inherent complacency in the system. Japan builds skyscrapers with a certain resilience to earthquakes because they have earthquakes, but it's a long time since the UK had anything serious that has stayed in the government and collective consciousness. Where we do design with hygiene and sanitation in mind, we are very often working to standards but with no real understanding of the intellectual foundation for them, and with inspection being deskilled all the time to become a box checking exercise, things often get missed.

Between modern buildings and public transport, hand-washing comes nowhere close to a preventative measure. This virus is going to spread like wildfire and though there are things we could have done, quite simple things, we're not going to do them and people are going to die because of it. There will be long lasting political and economic fallout.

When this all blows over, though, bio-security considerations will very much be back in the public consciousness and everything we do politically will be looked at through a bio-security prism. This is going to change the face of trade, politics and international relations. It will have a similar effect to airline procedures and markets the same way 9/11 did. No doubt it will add onerous red tape and costs to business which make life that little bit more expensive. We saw this in the wake of 9/11. The Authorised Economic Operator (AEO) scheme the ultra Brexiteers are so fond of was introduced into the EU as a response to the need to secure international supply chains.

Corona will also bring into question the preparedness of the NHS. Italy does not look to be faring particularly well with the elderly being turned away for treatment. With the NHS being the national religion, the opposition can easily play the austerity tune, pointing to legacy cuts, while also exploiting the current mismanagement of the crisis. The Tories could be fighting for their political lives on a number of fronts come the next election. even the Bojo fanboys might think differently when Grandma is left to die. 

If we thought Brexit was a transformative event, this is going to be era defining. It may even make Brexit an irrelevance - a tedious administrative background chore that nobody even notices. This government will be keen to blame as much Brexit fallout on Corona as possible - and they might even get away with it.

But then we must also recall that, unlike Brexit, this is a global phenomenon, and in these such circumstances all behavioural norms, individual and national go to the wall. Very possibly we will not see the same levels of cooperation or interoperability. The zeitgeist is already turning away from integrated economies and "free trade" and new alliances based on regional stresses may emerge. The EU may have reached the limits of its usefulness and may now be headed toward the graveyard of obsolete ideas.

To say that all bets are off is something of an understatement. In all likelihood the next round of Brexit negotiations will be suspended, and there may yet be an extension to the transition, depending on the government's blame avoidance strategy. Everything is now timing. Until we know the scale of the Cornoavirus fallout, everything is up in the air along with all the deadly pathogens. 

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