IT all started when some geek warned that computers were not programmed to handle the simple matter of date rollover from 1999 to 2000. It created massive fears that arising from this one flaw in all the world’s computers – airliners will crash, accounts and financial records turn to gobbledygook, heating and air-conditioning in buildings will fail, people will die trapped in elevators, and your microwave oven will not express-cook your steak.
Hundreds of millions were spent across the globe to renew their computer hardware. Companies had to report how much money were spent to address the threat, and auditors, whose purpose in life were often questioned, were asked to verify whether computers in use by businesses were Y2K compliant. Nothing happened after midnight on 1st January 2001. Apologists will say disaster was averted because of timely Capex on new computers and the re-writing and updating of computer programmes. But pockets of anarchist computer communities all over the world who refused to be taken in by the madness, sailed through into the new millennium without being inconvenienced by neither the misbehaviour of their non-compliant computers nor exploding micro-wave ovens. That was Y2K – an exercise in the unnecessary.
1. Now to the matter at hand: Covid-19. With the benefit of emerging statistics, there has to be questions asked whether the world has inflicted upon itself excruciating, lasting but quite unnecessary pain? According to various studies including from WHO, the Covid-19 flu is particularly harmful to the vulnerable, quite inconsequential to everyone else. The vulnerable group can be broadly defined as those over 65 and those with prior health issues such as high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes or damaged lungs. Significantly, children who are susceptible to other infections and diseases do not seem to be affected after infection by Covid-19. Equally interesting are the various mortality rates of affected persons within the other age groups (see graph below).
Those statistics are likely to be exaggerated by the fact that health authorities are looking for the virus, whereas in normal times these fatalities would more likely be classified as deaths within the categories of pre-existing health conditions.
3. Treating the 65-plus as vulnerable and the under 65 as less so, as suggested by the statistics, rather conveniently fits into the broadly active and mostly retired components of the population. It would seem the logical approach is to lockdown only the 65-plus, who are already mostly in retirement and therefore less economically productive. The rest can be left to look after themselves and get on with their lives. Of course, they should be suitably armed with good medical advice and information on how best to minimise infection to themselves and how not to spread to others. Life would have remained normal for everybody with the exception of the vulnerable group of 65-plus. Nurseries, schools, universities, offices, factories, hotels and restaurants can remain open. Public transport and government departments can continue serving the people.There will be no disruption to the daily lives of the larger part of society. A sense of normality can prevail. Only granddad and grandma have suddenly become inaccessible, but that is easily explained. As you would why they are not included in night-club or white-water rafting outings – because they are too old and vulnerable!
4. The way Covid-19 has been reported borders on fear-mongering and irresponsible hype. This creates an environment of panic, leading to the rush to empty supermarket shelves of masks, medical gloves and, curiously, condoms and toilet rolls. The sense of threat and imminent danger, driven by aggressive testing for infected people and a loose-tongued media, have placed hospital beds and facilities under severe stress. Are any of these necessary? People regularly catch the common flu or become affected by hay fever. When they do, they hardly ever go to see their GP never mind seek hospitalisation.
Below the 65-plus line, the fear-mongering has exaggerated a mild problem into a real challenge for health authorities everywhere. It is this induced sense of life threats to non-vulnerable infected people that is putting unbearable loads on hospital beds and ventilators. While the fatality statistics coming out of Italy have been quite disturbing, the perspective must not be lost that Italy has the oldest population in Europe and smokes the most. Old people will succumb sooner rather than later, and if they don’t die of Covid-19, they will die of something else not far down the road. Sadly, the irrefutable truth is, life is a terminal disease.
5. Interestingly enough, there are countries and governments that have responded in more considered and calm manner. Russia, Israel, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and Japan are cases in point. All of these countries have refrained from imposing extreme measures on their citizens but instead have been more targeted in their response, to avoid the lockdowns and cessation of economic activities and public services. Their populations remain in gainful and productive employment. In Tokyo, the non-vulnerable members of Tokyo society are out in significant numbers to celebrate the sakura season. Their societies have largely remained to be culturally and economically alive. Ours, regrettably, have not.
6. When governments decree restricted movement orders and city- or nationwide lockdowns, effectively the major part of the population is taken out of the economic equation. An individual under lockdown is now suppressed in his needs and constrained in his productivity. At the macro-level, that will translate into a huge impact on global demand and global supply. With India joining the imposition of nationwide lockdowns, a significant portion of the world’s population will no longer be fully economically active. The one question that remains of global recession is only how severe.
7. The argument for mass as opposed to targeted lockdowns is ensuring to the spread of infection from a novel virus is restricted. The world has seen a few of these viral outbreaks in recent times with Ebola, SARS, avian flu, H1N1 and MERS. The lesson to be learnt from all of these is that the epidemic cycle is generally limited in duration, and the disease runs out of steam fairly quickly without killing tens of millions of people as happened over the the various plague outbreaks in centuries past. For whatever reasons, the novel virus outbreaks over the last 30 years were reacted to and brought to heel relatively quickly and without the overwhelming reaction of the present threat. Some comfort and good lessons should have been gained from these recent experiences. Unfortunately we have not. Even WHO, against the evidence of its own statistics, has beaten the panic drums to established its newfound multi-faith religious status!
8. The broadly held view is Covid-19 may yet prove infinitely more harmful to the global economy than to global health. The economic damage has to be blamed on governments and politicians. Through a process of scare-mongering, intended or otherwise, on an unprecedented scale and ill-conceived measures to address the fears induced by the scare-mongering in the first place, capital markets are collapsing, workers are thrown out of productive employment and the global economy goes into a tail-spin, with future recovery imperilled.
9. In Malaysia, we are seeing government efforts to intervene and relieve businesses of the impact of Covid-19 and government imposed lockdown. Loosening of liquidity to ensure businesses have access to credit over the crisis period is a good start. But restricting business from laying off staff or executing consensual salary cuts must be viewed as unnecessary micro- management by the State. While revenues are drying up and factory production seriously curtailed, business should have the room to restructure its cost structure. There are businesses where wages and salaries constitute the single largest component of cost but whose revenues have declined to nought – think hotels, airlines and manufacturing. If government insist on intervening for the good of business, they should start by letting workers back to work.
10. A RM250 billion budgetary allocation has been announced to respond to the Covid-19 threat and its economic ramifications. This appears to be an executive over-reach of startling proportions. A nation still reeling from the excesses of 1MDB and the attempted one-man rule by the last prime minister demands that constitutional checks and balances be seen to be respected. Parliament should be recalled and the proposal debated and approved.
11. Man-made disasters are nothing new. We have a recent precedent for this one, although some of us going into the vulnerable age group may suffer too much from failing memory to recall and those in the less vulnerable group may be too young to remember. But 20 years later, we may just be having another Y2K moment!