Rich world covid and the story of our risk shifting (4 minute read)

This is a story about how I minimised my covid risk. It is also a story of how I put that risk onto other people. Some are in the UK. Others are hidden across the world. It is probably your story too. It has taken me a long time to realise the risk shifting I have been doing. I have no easy solution. But the least I can do is to discuss it openly. So here goes.

Lockdown and working from home

My income is above the median UK income which is roughly £30,000.  I can work from home. I save money and I protect myself. But overall in the UK only around a quarter have worked from home (nearly 50% in London). Those of us who do need those who do not work from home.  I produce virtually none of the material things I consume. They are delivered to me in one form or another.  They are produced on oil fields, farms and in factories to which people must go to work. This means that as my risk goes down the  risk of the workers who supply me remains the same or even rises.  

In the UK some of the people who supply me have high incomes and big homes. Most do not. They produce, they work in distribution, they clean up. They are in the front line while I am at home. Usually they  combine a high work and home risk. I combine a low work and home risk. It’s a double gain for me. Its a double whammy for them. The diagram shows how this works.

Covid and the Containers

I am supported too by a mass of people around the world.  UK ports before the pandemic took in 486 million tons of which 60% were bulk goods and 170 million tons in containers. That is roughly 2.5 container tons person.  Some 14,000 lorry units a day move in and out of the UK. Some contain components going backwards and forwards. But a lot of them contain food and final goods for the likes of me and you.

‘Zero covid’ Australia could not survive for more than a few days without trade. The weight of its exports is huge. Raw materials like coal and iron ore go out. Millions of tons flow in – including over 3 million cars.  New Zealand too is only isolated in terms of the direct movement of people. In 2020 it imported $600 million of goods from Vietnam alone. Electronic equipment was the biggest item and shoes the next.

The conditions under which things  are produced in poorer countries remain controversial. I often turn a blind eye. I can also argue that I am giving these workers jobs.  Their work even allows them to send money back to their poorer families in the countryside.  Not convinced? Well covid now adds an additional element.  I have stayed at home. They have had no choice but to go out to work.

All that PPE

I can afford masks and other protection. I have access to tests. The medical staff who treat me may have problems but they are the best protected in the world. But where does all this stuff come from?

The supply chains are complex. But ultimately most of the world’s PPE is finally produced in poor countries by workers who cannot afford to use it or supply it to their families.  The medical staff in these countries will be more poorly protected too.

Although production has increased there is not, and will probably never ever be, enough to go around. No worries we are at the head of the queue and they at the back. The more we buy, the less there is for them.

Take masks. I am not interested whether they work – just the inequity in production and distribution. If we are lucky, globally we are producing 1 poor quality mask person per year for the 8 billion of us. If every US child were given a single use top quality N95 mask for 300 days a year that would require 22 billion masks for them alone. Crazy idea isn’t it?

At the start of the pandemic China produced 50-60% of the world’s masks, 40-50% of eye protection, coveralls and aprons, shoe covers. Malaysia produced 65% of the world’s gloves and Thailand and China another 30%. Of the advanced countries only the US made a big contribution before the pandemic. What would we think if we were workers in these factories in the poorer world?

First in the queue for vaccines

Vaccines are saving our lives but there is a global shortage.   You can talk about tomorrow but you cannot vaccinate people who need protection today with vaccines produced next year.

Those of us in the advanced world are ‘lucky’. We got the vaccines first. Now there is an argument about boosters and that low-risk rich world children should be vaccinated. But most of the rest of the world remains unvaccinated no matter what their vulnerability.  

Vaccines to keep our stores full?

It is worse. People in the poor world need to be able to supply us to live. That is why extraordinary efforts and risks are loaded on them.  In Vietnam, for example, workers have been locked in factories to keep producing. It is cruel but it makes sense – remember how even New Zealanders like their goods?  If they cannot produce in Vietnam, the economy weakens more and no money can flow back to the villages.

We can imagine a different world but to say that there is no trade off with the economy in the world we live in is stupid.

And when the vaccines get there who are you going to give them to? They may, of course be sold but how would you allocate them? To the most medically vulnerable or to those working in the supply chains that need to be kept going.  Look at the tweet from someone in Vietnam. Can you blame them?

What is to be done?

Who knows? But we need stop deluding ourselves that those of us who have locked ourselves in and worked from home have made the world a fairer place.

When historians look back they will certainly see the billionaires whose wealth has increased. They will also see us, our risk shifting and delusions of virtue.

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