Q: What is trending now is that there will be a “new normal” post-COVID-19. What do you envision this “new normal” to be? Currently there are also issues faced by certain societies with no access to houses. How to stay home, then? Clean water, soap, and food, for example, for asylum seekers, refugees, etc. Perhaps you can comment on that.
A: That’s a very good question that doesn’t have an easy answer. I read a fascinating piece in the context of social distancing. Someone made the observation that in the context of many developing societies around the world— this author was talking about India—social distancing is a luxury; that most people in the developing world can’t afford to social-distance yourself or to stay at home because for many people around the world it means that their children don’t eat. So for many countries I think what’s happening right now.
This “new normal,” if you will, where we in the U.S. just sort of stay at home and work on the Internet, that’s a function of advanced economies with high levels of economic production and higher standards of living. But when you start thinking about the consequences of this pandemic in poor societies, where people live day to day and they don’t have the option of staying at home, then you’re looking at a catastrophe. I’m leaving the health consequences of the pandemic aside. I’m talking about economic activity. People just can’t stay at home.
In crowded societies, in refugee camps, what does social distancing mean, in the context of a Syrian refugee camp in Turkey or in Idlib province? There is no social distancing. So if the virus spreads there, that means that thousands of people will be vulnerable. So I think what we’re seeing here, the point that I’m trying to convey, is that we are just at the beginning of a potential global catastrophe. The tens of thousands of deaths that we’re seeing in Europe now and in the U.S. is going to pale in comparison if this virus spreads in large parts of Asia, large parts of Africa. And it’s also going to have this drastic economic effect, where people are going to start to starve because they can’t make a living anymore, there’s no economic production, and they can’t feed their families.
This is going to put a huge burden on the governments, governments in Indonesia, in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, in Egypt. Egypt has a population of 100 million people now. What happens when the virus spreads there? How long can people actually stay at home and quarantine themselves? A week, two weeks? But what happens after that? So I think there is a lot to be concerned about here. And the prognosis, unfortunately, from my vantage point, does not look very good.