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The need to be open-handed

17 April 2020

IN HIS interview with Andrew Marr on Sunday, the Archbishop of Canterbury was invited to agree that the divisions caused by the Brexit wrangle, once so deep and intractable, seemed to have disappeared. It was Easter Day, and the Archbishop wanted to sound positive, and so spoke of “possibilities” and “optimism”, ending with a vision of “a better and a happier and a more wonderful country and a better world”. It is always possible, of course, that this is what the future holds, and it was not the moment for a Jeremiad. The Archbishop had, none the less, prefaced his positive remarks with a warning that, once the virus had receded, the world faced an economic wave of a similar gravity. It had a choice, he suggested, between working hard to mitigate differences caused by unemployment and debt, or just let the market rule — “in which case”, he said, “there will be enormous suffering”.

One forecast this week predicted that the UK economy could shrink by more than one third if the lockdown continues for three months, as seems to be likely. Such a plunge would un­­doubtedly deepen the recession in other countries, as the demand for imported goods and materials diminishes — and then risk being deepened by them, as the market for UK goods shrinks proportionately. Setting aside the usual harm caused by poverty and debt, this financial squeeze will also directly affect those countries’ ability to fight future waves of the co­­ronavirus (already seen in Japan and elsewhere) and increase the likeli­hood of reinfection of the UK and other developed nations from overseas sources. Thus the nurturing of the economy needs to be seen as the second phase in the battle against the pandemic.

William Drummond of Hawthornden, a 17th-century Scot­tish poet, wrote that riches “are like thorns, which laid on an open hand are easily blown away, and wound when closing and hard-gripping”. The lesson that has been learnt during the coronavirus pandemic is that the wealthiest and most privileged in society rely on the ministrations of some of the poorest paid: food suppliers, hospital cleaners, overseas factory workers, and the like. (They should, of course, have known this already.) If that lesson can be remembered once the threat of the virus has receded, the dead have been mourned properly, and the living have celebrated, perhaps improperly, then the economic burden of this episode will be shared willingly by those most able to bear it. If not, the wound will not be to the poorest only, but to the whole world.

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