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Covid-19 and the Degrowth movement

While the Covid-19 virus first appeared in China and subsequently impacted Europe, this week the US has witnessed such an increase in the number of people affected that is has become the epicenter of the disease, surpassing China and Italy as the country with the highest number of confirmed cases. With hospitals becoming overwhelmed, the US is considering using the Defence Production Act to confiscate respiratory equipment made by Philips in the US, thereby blocking the delivery to European countries. EU member states, in turn, have taken similar measures to protect their own health sectors: Germany has prohibited the export of face masks and Ireland has nationalized private hospitals, with the Irish health minister explaining that there can be no room for public versus private healthcare during a pandemic. These events were not only unimaginable a month ago, but also demonstrate the weakness of international structures such as the EU, NATO and the UN in times of emergency.

Amidst the global economic and health crisis that is unfolding, one of the few bright spots was the observation that government-imposed lockdowns led to a notable improvement of air quality in China and Italy. This is a significant finding as research has estimated the number of yearly global deaths caused by air pollution at 8,8 million globally and 800,000 in Europe. In Venice, where nature is “taking back” the city, the lockdown is used to reflect on a future where the city and tourism can co-exist.

Although events triggered by Covid-19 are succeeding each other at an incredible pace and with far-reaching short-term consequences, it is also important to look ahead and assess their future impact. It is clear that the pandemic raises fundamental questions about the emphasis on economic growth and its relation with public health. Countries such as Iceland had already adopted policies that put well-being ahead of GDP growth before the Covid-19 outbreak. “GDP’s focus on economic performance”, according to the Icelandic government, “means it tends to undervalue quality of life and the social damage caused by inequality”.

In last year’s report Beyond Growth, the OECD already concluded that policy makers were still operating with the pre-2008 crisis model and suggested a more radical rethinking to cope with growing inequality, distrust of politicians, the rise of monopolistic companies and rapidly spreading automation. The report was described as revolutionary because it takes its inspiration from theories developed by “heterodox” economists. While this group was marginalized for a long time and spent much energy refuting the work of “orthodox” economists, the report represents a paradigm shift in that the roles seem to have been reversed. It is now for the orthodox thinkers to explain why the holistic and sustainable economic approach of the heterodox thinkers is wrong or unfeasible.

Commentators expect that this process is accelerated by the pandemic, as governments will turn to scholars like Herman Daly who concluded that we are inevitably heading to a “steady state economy” or circular economy due to resource constraints. James Lovelock has argued along similar lines with his Gaia theory, which the Oxford dictionary defines as “the global ecosystem, understood to function in the manner of a vast self-regulating organism, in the context of which all living things collectively define and maintain the conditions conducive for life on earth”. The Gaia hypothesis has inspired the rapidly developing area of Earth Systems Science – a transdisciplinary field aimed at understanding the structure and functioning of the Earth as a complex, adaptive system.

With governments relying heavily on experts to contain the virus and save as many lives as possible, this is epidemiologists’ finest hour. However, with ICU beds running out fast and with the economic impact of the global lockdown becoming more clear, it is likely that the attention will shift to an ethical debate on the distribution of scarce resources and the restructuring of the economy in a post-corona world.

Edited: Dr. Olivier Vonk

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