The Health and Wealth of Nations after the Pandemic of 2020

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

Adam Smith (1723-1790), the author of The Wealth of Nations (1776) that gave birth to the academic discipline of economics, is known to have painted a rosy picture for the future of humankind that comes with the accumulation of wealth. Smith wrote, in the first chapter of Book I, that: “It is the great multiplication of the production of all the different arts, in consequence of the division of labour, which occasions, in a well-governed society, that universal opulence which extends to the lowest ranks of the people.” Economic development for the past two and half centuries, though it has not extended the universal opulence Smith predicted to the lowest ranks of the people, has steadily increased the material standard of living for those people who are endowed with capital of one form or another.

While Smith emphasized the role of “wealth” for the people’s wellbeing, Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881), who served twice as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (1868 and 1874-80), argued for the importance of “health” as a key aspect of the people’s wellbeing in a well-governed society. Disraeli introduced the Public Health Act of 1875 in order to improve the unsanitary living conditions that threatened the people’s health, and stated in a speech he made in 1877 that: “The health of the people is really the foundation upon which all their happiness and all their powers as a state depend.” Such concern for the health of the people as stated by Disraeli was behind the introduction of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations, whose Article 25 states: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.”

Turning our attention to what is happening in the world now, we are encountering a serious threat to the health as well as to the wealth of the people all around the world in the form of COVID-19, a pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. The words ascribed to Hippocrates, “Health is the greatest of human blessings,” sound so painfully convincing now that COVID-19 has claimed so many victims around the world since it begun in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. And the great multiplication of all the different arts that has brought about increases in the material standard of living for most people in developed countries, if not the universal opulence which extends to the lowest ranks of the people as Smith predicted, is breaking down, presenting a serious challenge to the sustainability of the wealth-producing machine called “global capitalism.”

While we are used to wild swings of financial markets as one of the inherent features of global capitalism, we are also witnessing a few signs of the breakdown of the great multiplication of all the different arts due, for example, to disruptions in the global supply chain in the production of manufactured commodities. With disruptions in the global supply chain, many manufacturing industries are forced to shut down, or severely curtail, their production activities around the world. As the government is heavily involved in the management of capitalist economies, governments all around the world are making their frantic efforts to maintain the viability of their economies with timely unemployment compensations for those workers who have lost their jobs and one-time stimulus payments for the general public to simulate their consumption activities.

Granted that a well-governed society is needed for maintaining the health and wealth of the people, we do not have to be libertarians to be warned about the way the government is increasing the scope of its influence on the way people conduct their daily affairs such as the restriction on the freedom of assembly and movement and the discouragement, if not the negation, of the way people interact with each other with hand shakes and hugging. “Our ideas of normality, of public life, of social interaction—all of these are being put to the test as never before,” as Chancellor Angela Merkel stated in her March 19 televised address to the German people. The people in a democratic society do not live by the forced constraint imposed by the government, but by the voluntary observance of the rules of good conduct. However, the kind of worldwide crisis we are in, which presents a serious challenges to the health and wealth of the people around the world, demands that we figure out and observe the rules of good conduct that are over and beyond what are expected of us under normal circumstances. Neither the blind observance nor the bold defiance of the constraints imposed by the government is helpful in maintaining a well-governed society.

It is ironic in a way that the natural environment around us is getting a break in the form of lower emissions of carbon dioxide from the slowdowns and shutdowns of economic activities around the world. The restrictions imposed on travels on the road and in the air also imply lower emissions of carbon dioxide that contribute to global warming. Whether this is the trend that will continue to be observed after the pandemic subsides is still too early to predict. However, to the extent that the great multiplication of the production of all the different arts, in consequence of the division of labour, is taken over by robots that do not need to commute to their workplaces, we may expect to see the trend continuing after the pandemic subsides. The same can also be said of the increased reliance on telecommunication networks that will replace direct human-to-human communication in economic activities.

All these changes we are witnessing today in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic will have far-reaching implications on the way societies are organized and the people behave when the crisis is over. Will the government go back to its traditional role as the guarantor of civil liberties and individual rights? Will the economy go back to the manic drive towards globalization that has been the characteristic feature of global capitalism up until the world was hit by COVID-19? Will the people go back to the traditional mode of social interaction where intimacy was defined in terms of close physical contact? Some commentators have already started to speculate what the answers might be to these questions. In a letter written to W. Lutoslawski in 1906, William James (1842-1910) wrote: “Great emergencies and crises show us how much greater our vital resources are than we had supposed.” It is certainly our hope that James was correct in his assessment of our human potential as we try to ride out the great emergency and crisis that are testing our vital resources.

COVID-19: Another Century, Another Pandemic

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

“Nous sommes en guerre.” We don’t expect to hear these words, “We are at war,” coming from the leader of a country, except when it is actually involved in a war against another country. In fact, France is not involved in any war against another country in 2020. Yet, these are the words President Emmanuel Macron used—not once but multiple times—in his televised address to the French people on March 16 in which he announced a nationwide lockdown enforced by police. Why did President Macron use these words? It is because, as he put it, “The enemy is there,” and “The enemy is invisible and it requires our general mobilization.”

We all know by now what the enemy is that President Macron is referring to. It is the coronavirus that is spreading around the world, claiming many human victims. With patients infected with this novel virus found in well over 100 countries around the world, and with the number of deaths climbing every day, the World Health Organization (WHO) was compelled to issue a warning on March 11, saying that COVID-19, the name given to this novel virus, is a pandemic that threatens the lives of people all around the world. It actually took a few months before the WHO finally decided to use the word “pandemic” because initially COVID-19 was an epidemic that threatened the lives of people living in one region of a country when it started in Wuhan, China, in December 2019.

It was 2018, just two years ago, that we marked the centenary of what is now known as the Great Pandemic of 1918. What was initially a local outbreak of influenza among farmers in Haskell County, Kansas, the influenza spread worldwide from the US to France, to Spain, to countries on the African continent, and even to New Zealand, a country in the Southern hemisphere. Though estimates vary, some put the number of human lives lost in the Great Pandemic as high 100 million, or 5% of the world population at the time.

Like the Great Pandemic of 1918, which is believed to have started from hogs in rural Kansas, COVID-2019 is also believed to have started from animals—the live and slaughtered animals sold on the Wuhan seafood wholesale market. Scientists now know that a virus can jump across species from animals to humans. The 2013 outbreak of influenza, H7N9, in China is believed to have started from contact with birds. The 2013-2016 outbreaks of Ebola virus disease in West Africa are suspected to have started from contact with bats.

How a disease initially started becomes less of a concern once it begins to spread around the world and becomes a pandemic. Once a virus jumps from animals to humans, it begins to be transmitted from one human to another in a variety of ways. Hence, the key question in our fight against “the invisible enemy” like the coronavirus is whether we can figure out the transmission mechanism among humans.

History tells us many examples of human-to-human transmission of viral diseases. One well-known example to historians was the Smallpox brought over to the New World by Spaniards after the initial expedition by Columbus opened up the sea route from the Old World to the New World.1 It was in 1519 that Cortez landed on the coast of Mexico with 66 Spaniards. One slave infected with Smallpox who arrived in the following year from Spanish Cuba spread the virus, resulting in the death of nearly half of the Aztecs. A similar devastating effect on the native population also occurred with another Spanish expedition a decade later. Pizarro arrived on the coast of Peru in 1531 with 168 men. By then, Smallpox had wiped out much of the Inca population with the virus traveling overland from Mexico to Peru.

It does not take much imagination to see that human-to-human transmission of diseases is facilitated by the development of transportation networks, whether overland or over the seas. Smallpox outbreak known as the Plague of Antoninus that killed millions of Romans between 165 and 180 CE is an example of overland transmission due to the development of world trade routes by the Romans. On the other hand, Captain Cook’s expedition to the Pacific islands is another example of transmission of diseases by seafarers, similar to the Spanish expeditions. Smallpox did not reach Hawaii until 1853, but the population of Hawaii had already plunged from about half a million in 1779 when Captain Cook arrived to about 80,000.

We are now living in the age of global travels, with transportation networks covering the entire globe. Globalization of human activities, for business as well as for pleasure, facilitated by the development of global transportation networks has opened up many channels of human-to-human transmission of viral diseases. What is worrisome is the fact that most cases of transmission take the form of what researchers today call “stealth transmission” in which people without symptoms of a viral disease unwittingly spread the virus to people around them. This is certainly the case with the novel coronavirus that is spreading around the world.

Is the novel coronavirus the enemy to be conquered and destroyed, as President Macron suggests? While the threat to humans is real and needs to be dealt with, we also need to examine the question of how we have allowed it to spread all around the world in such a short period of time. This is so because, as Robert G. Webster, a world-renowned virologist, has already told us in a book published in 2018 that another pandemic like the Great Pandemic of 1918 with a deadly and disruptive impact on our lives is not only possible, it is also a matter of time.2

  1. For this and other examples of transmission of diseases in history, see: Diamond, Jared, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The fates of Human Societies, New York: WW. Norton, 1998, and McNeill, William H., Plagues and Peoples, New York: Anchor Books, 1976.
  2. Webster, Robert G., Flu Hunter: Unlocking the Secrets of a Virus, Otago: Otago University Press, 2018.