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History has its eyes on us

The United States now has a president who understands the deep interactions between public health and economic health – and the value of looking back at history for guidance on how best to act today in the face of a global pandemic and many other challenges.

Newsletter from 22 January 2021

Wednesday’s regime change in the United States was greeted with a sigh of relief around the world, not least for the new administration’s commitment to a comprehensive programme for tackling the pandemic both at home and abroad. The American plan for rescue and recovery shows clearly that we now have a president who understands the deep interactions between public health and economic health: ‘We cannot rescue our economy without containing this virus.’

Thinking through the dual threat to lives and livelihoods from Covid-19, possible trade-offs between health and wealth, and appropriate policy responses has been a recurring theme of contributions to the Economics Observatory. And like President Biden and the star turn among the pageantry and performances of the inauguration, poet Amanda Gorman, we’ve acknowledged the value of looking back at history for guidance on how best to act today.

Last week, Guido Alfani examined the effects of past pandemics on poverty and inequality. Earlier contributions include Eleanor Russell on the impact of past pandemics on business; and Chris Colvin on policy lessons we might draw from the influenza pandemic of 1918-19, commonly known as the Spanish flu.

Division or unity?

This week, we’ve returned to history to explore what determines whether a society tends towards greater violence or greater cooperation in the aftermath of a pandemic. In a fascinating piece ranging from the Black Death in the 14th century to recent experiences of HIV and Ebola, Remi Jedwab and colleagues ask why some past plagues have created conflict while others have promoted social cohesion.

Understandably, their answer is that it’s a mix of things: partly the nature of the disease – how fast it spreads and who it kills – and partly the social and economic context – notably the extent of existing divisions within society by income, class, religion or ethnicity.

In considering the lessons from history for today, Remi and his co-authors worry most about a third set of factors: the state of scientific knowledge, public beliefs and the communication of information, misinformation and outright falsehoods – and how these can drive the social outcomes of pandemics.

Clearly, these are very much current concerns. They have been explored in several Observatory pieces, including on who follows advice on social distancing measures and how public messages can promote compliance; people’s willingness to get vaccinated; and hate crimes against immigrants and ethnic minorities during Covid-19.

And they are echoed in another of our deep dives into history: an account by Patrick Wallis of the long-run consequences of pandemics – and how when they occur in societies already under stress, they can provoke wide-ranging and long-term changes in attitudes, culture and institutions.

Joe Biden’s inaugural address touched on the dangers of falsehoods in this time of crisis: ‘There is truth and there are lies. Lies told for power and for profit.’ He also referred to the potential for longstanding divisions undermining efforts to recover and rebuild after the pandemic: ‘the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear, and demonization have long torn us apart.’

What the new president called ‘the sting of systemic racism’ features in another of our contributions this week, an account of two conversations at Bristol’s Festival of Economics on whether economics needs to be ‘decolonised’.

Amid wider calls for university curricula to get to grips with colonial legacies – including a new online course on ‘decolonising education’ – the authors of our recent piece (Caroline Alves and Ingrid Harvold Krangraven) call for a radical restructuring of how economics is taught and researched to address the discipline’s problems with race and Eurocentrism.

Coping with crisis

Elsewhere on the Observatory, we have a couple of new pieces on coping with the educational and economic effects of coronavirus.

First, with schools across the UK once again closed, disadvantaged children desperately need laptops and better internet connections to access remote education and avoid further learning losses. But as Laura Outhwaite at the Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities notes, parents can also do their bit to support home learning: the key, she says, is to make their children’s wellbeing the priority and focus on the quality of learning experiences, not the quantity.

We also have a piece on small firms around the world. These have been hit especially hard by the crisis and will face even tougher times if lockdown drags on and, as is feared in the UK, business support measures are withdrawn. The authors show that while governments have mobilised substantial resources in support, many measures have had limited effect, in part due to smaller enterprises struggling to access information on relief loans.

Finally, colleagues at Queen’s University Belfast have examined reports of empty shelves in Northern Ireland’s supermarkets, explaining this setback for the local economy as a result of the interaction between the end of the Brexit transition period and the region’s high level of market integration with the rest of the UK. Difficulties have not been limited to supermarkets, with smaller traders struggling to source goods from suppliers in Great Britain, and online retailers cancelling or pausing orders due to disruption to parcel delivery services.

This is the first of what will be a series of Observatory analyses of the emerging economic damage to certain sectors and regions of the UK arising from the country’s departure from the European Union. While President Trump is now history, Brexit – the other unexpected result of a vote in 2016 – remains very much part of our present and future.

Romesh Vaitilingam, Editor in Chief
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash
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