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Introduction: societal exit from the COVID-19 lockdown

Par Yves Moreau (KU Leuven), Olivier Servais (UCLouvain), Yves Cartuyvels (USL-B), Michel Gevers (UCLouvain), Alban de Kerchove d’Exaerde (FNRS/ULB), Olivier Klein (ULB), Marianne Lemineur (, VeronicThirionet (I. Care asbl), Dan Van Raemdonck (ULB-VUB), Justine Vleminckx (FNRS/UCLouvain).

Having appeared in China at the end of 2019, the COVID-19 epidemic has swept through the world at an astonishing speed. Never before in history had humanity been confronted with a pandemic while being so deeply interconnected as a “global village”. But the tragedy is that our ever increasing local and international physical interconnectedness has not been accompanied by a matching preparedness to the foreseen threat of rapid pandemic spread, and not even by the capacity to rapidly absorb the available information, exchange more precise information, and coordinate an effective global response. Unprepared for this foretold calamity, European states have been forced to implement the most far-reaching emergency societal intervention since the end of the Second World War: the lockdown of their population for an as yet undetermined period of time.

Now that the initial shock and disbelief have passed, it seems necessary to reflect on this choice and its consequences. First of all, it is necessary to posit that it is indeed a choice, even if, like many choices, it is forced. One of these constraints, and not the least of them, is also the spirit of the times: a mixture of pessimism about the future, fear of future cataclysm and, paradoxically, the impossibility of accepting death. The Swiss newspaper LeTemps fittingly recalled that, faced with similar threats in 1957-1958 and 1968-1969, European governments had chosen to mostly let the epidemic run its course. And there too, it was a kind of non-choice, which nobody questioned. Public policies are indeed not only based on “science” and factual data. They are also based on our choices of priorities, which come from the importance we explicitly or implicitly assign to different values and stakes. Therefore, to avoid “sleepwalking” through policy-making, we need to consider the consequences of the lockdown, of our policies to exit the lockdown, and of long-term societal changes resulting from these policies, in all areas: social, psychological, ethical, political and not only economic and medical. The crisis phase has been dominated by public health emergencies, followed by economic considerations. Even so, the focus on intensive care while a blind spot was developing over retirement homes shows that a broader societal vision is essential to deal with the epidemic. For what is coming ahead, it is imperative to take into account all aspects of human society when it comes to organizing the exit from the lockdown a well as the post-lockdown period. The contributions of the humanities and social sciences towards answering those questions are fundamental and lacking in the current propositions (1). Belgium and the world are going through a crisis that some people describe as unprecedented, apart from the parallel with the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression. While some of the expected economic consequences may stand comparison, it would be a mistake not to take into account the social evolutions of our hyper-modern societies and the consequences of this long period of confinement on individuals. The parallel with the shock of the Great Depression easily leads to focusing primarily on economic measures to urgently “restart the machine”, which would remain blind to the societal challenges that this crisis reveals. There are many of them.

From an economic policy point of view, political choices in recent decades have been guided by considering social security, and health care in particular, almost exclusively from a budgetary point of view. According to this logic, it was a question of costs that had to be reduced, giving priority to notions of economic efficiency, optimization, profitability, flow management, and so on. This logic led to the closure and/or regrouping of hospitals, the reduction of the number of available beds, the elimination of stocks and delocalization of production of mandatory medical products, such as masks and protective gowns, and the pressure to contain wages of hospital and nursing home staff. It is the same logic that allowed the explosive growth of the market” for nursing homes, private insurance, and other pharmaceutical economic developments. Companies, including multinationals, encouraged by our governments, immediately realized that this health sector represented a huge market, a source of considerable profits.

As Barbara Stiegler, Professor of Political Philosophy at the University of Bordeaux-Montaigne, rightly pointed out: “The idea conveyed for years is basically that our health system must put an end to the old clinical medicine, based on the patient’s suffering and complaint, just as it is supposed to be done with major infectious epidemics, involving assistance to vulnerable populations. This is the meaning of so-called 'proactive' medicine, driven by the promises of the digital shift and big data in health.[...] To our old medicine considered 'reactive', the proactive vision opposes continuous optimization processes, where it is the patients themselves who are supposed to manage their own risk behaviors in an optimal way. […] The idea is to increase the performance of individuals and their ability to adapt, including to a degraded environment.”

These policies of dismantling public services and massive budget cuts (3.5 billion euros per year for the public health budget alone under the Michel government) went hand in hand with tax reforms aimed at considerably increasing the wealth of multinational companies and very wealthy individuals. Not to mention Belgium’s constant opposition, at the European level, to the various measures aimed at reducing tax evasion. Under the previous government, the employers’ contribution to social security fell from 32.4% to 25%, and the tax rate on company profits was lowered from 33.9% to 25%. In February, the Finance Administration announced that 172 billion euros had left Belgium for tax havens in 2019. Finally, Judge Michel Claise, a specialist in the fight against financial crime, estimates that the losses to the state budget because of tax fraud and evasion are between 22.5 and 31.5 billion euros per year. By way of comparison, the Belgian health budget for the year 2020 is 27.6 billion euros. Recovering one year’s worth of fraud and evasion covers the entire health budget of our country!

The measures to be taken to get out of the coronavirus crisis are going to cost considerable sums of money, as the various texts in this report indicate. It will not only be necessary to repair the immense damage caused by this crisis in many areas (health, social, psychological, etc.). And to follow Stiegler again: “We must demand, from now on, that public health choices become a collective matter and not the preserve of experts and leaders”. Above all, however, it will be necessary to rebuild a new way of living together. Reducing poverty, reducing inequalities, really tackling the environmental crisis, restoring meaning and value to the jobs that have saved us in this crisis and which have long been devalued.

We must therefore, in consultation, with the massive participation of civil society and by listening to the scientists who have been ignored for so long, rebuild this living together on entirely new paradigms that will give priority to human beings rather than to the increase of wealth for the few. The good news is that the means are there. As Nobel Prizewinner Esther Duflot reminded us, this is a Keynesian moment: in times of low interest rates, there is limited reason to worry. All the more so as certain debts are never completely repaid, as the anthropologist David Grabber shows (2). To respond to extraordinary circumstances, extraordinary measures are needed: The Bank of England (BoE) has agreed temporarily to finance government borrowing in response to the COVID-19 crisis. While in ordinary circumstances policies such as “money printing”, modern monetary theory, or “helicopter money” might be dangerous for economic stability, they might temporarily be useful when facing deflationary pressures. In 2008, governments had no choice but to bail out banks and socialize losses after having privatized profits, which encourages moral hazard. By contrast, those experiencing the most financial distress during this pandemic hold no moral responsibility in this situation. Bailing out ordinary people might moreover be the best way to limit damages to our society and speed up social recovery. This would help us acknowledge that the primary function of money is not to concentrate wealth, but to coordinate human activity.

To help better understand and face this crisis, a large group of academics from most Belgian universities, who want to avoid an attitude of negative criticism, decided to urgently put together a document showing all the wealth of Social Science and Humanities expertise, underrepresented in the proposed governmental task force, that is available across the Belgian academic community. In the present document, which in less than 7 days has gathered contributions from a large number of academic and field experts, we present an inventory of the situation with proposals for developments that will make the lockdown and exit strategy, and their long-term consequences, more bearable for the population. Short-, medium-, and long-term proposals are formulated to meet the challenges that lie in front of us.

This document makes no claim to completeness, nor is it intended to lecture or suggest that experts are not doing their job. It is just a free and voluntary input from scientists who want decision-makers to be able to make choices in the best interest of most of the people living in Belgium. It is therefore only the search for the common good and the right decision that has guided the collective drafting of this document, which is certainly still imperfect. The authors of the different contributions only endorse the contents of the contributions they sign and do not necessarily share the positions taken in other contributions. The same applies to those who have taken part in the editing and coordination of this document. These positions are open for debate and could differ among experts, because science requires exchanges, discussions, cooperation, deliberation, and finally consensus. The experts listed here are fully available for any requests or advice from the authorities.

This document incorporates 50 texts from more than 120 experts, mainly in the humanities and social sciences. The text is structured around 7 chapters: policy and crisis, communication and technology, rights and justice, health, social issues, education and culture, and environment and production. Each chapter contains several expert opinions, each time structured in four parts: background and context, specific issues raised by the lockdown, recommendations for the future, and bibliography.

The experts gathered in this document make no claim of holding THE truth, nor do they claim any exhaustiveness. However, they felt it was essential to stress how essential all aspects of our society are in addressing the problems we face now.

(1) Gilbert et al. (2020)

(2) (2011). Debt: The First 5000 Years. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Melville House.

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