Publicado el Juan Gabriel Gomez Albarello

Save the Ship or Jump to the Lifeboat: Political Thoughts on the Covid-19 Crisis

Two metaphors help us to think about the crisis caused by the spread of the Covid-19 virus: one, Save the Ship; the other, Jump to the Lifeboat. Neither of these metaphors contains a precise prescription of what we should do. However, each provides the imagination with enough references on which one can formulate a course of action. Each metaphor has relevance both globally and locally; each one gives us a template how to go about both at the micro and macro levels.

I will not go into the details of the history of each of this two metaphors. Here I will limit myself to the fundamental propositions to which each one gives rise. The Ship (the nation or the planet) metaphor evokes the idea of interdependence and cooperation on a grand scale; the Lifeboat metaphor (the individual, the family or even the country) the idea of self-interest and self-sufficiency.

According to the Ship metaphor, we all have a common destination, not in the sense of having the same destiny but in the sense of sharing the same means of travel and, ultimately, of survival. One of the main effects of the Covid-19 crisis would have been to make apparent our belonging to a set of conditions that was always in the background and on which we have always depended. The Covid-19 would thus be the reminder of the common world that we build with our actions every day. Scarcity compressed that common world; it reduced the spaces in whose amplitude resided the relative abundance that allowed us to dispense with the collaboration with everyone else. Now, by cramming ourselves onto the deck of the ship, we should become aware that our own survival depends on joint effort.

MS Roald Amunsen, first cruise ship powered by electric energy.

The Lifeboat metaphor points in another direction. The main consequence of the Covid-19 would have been to reveal the harsh reality of our situation, as opposed to the illusions that we nurture in periods of abundance. Ideas such as the universality of the rights of every human being, including the very notion of humanity, would have been shattered by the evidence that, at the moment of truth, each one depends on oneself and on no one else. The forcefulness of the Lifeboat metaphor stems from a fundamental moral principle: no one is obligated to the impossible. Discounting the case of malignant narcissists who have no scruple in affirming their priority to save themselves, many of those who resort to this metaphor refer to scarcity as the basic fact that makes it necessary to discriminate between those who deserve to have access to the limited resources and those who do not. Everyone’s conception of wealth will dictate who could be saved and who could be abandoned on the high seas. At the micro level, if one thinks that wealth comes primarily from one’s own capital, then that person will dispense with any relief measure for their workers during a crisis like the current one. At the macro level, if people think that wealth come from their national regime, their businesses and workers, then they will prohibit trade in all those things necessary for the survival of the nation.

Lifeboat with survivors from the Titanic, 1912

In each of these metaphors, there is a grain of truth. I am not saying this because I am leaning towards eclecticism, which often leads to the fallacy of equidistance. I say this because each one of these metaphors reveals an aspect of reality, specifically, of our moral reality, that is, of the bundle of moral notions, sometimes in conflict, to which we appeal to regulate our actions. To reason on the basis of one and only one of these metaphors leads to foolish results.1 In formal terms, our reasoning can be impeccable. However, starting from unilateral premises, our conclusions will be vitiated by the bias present in our premises.

To start with, I think the Ship metaphor may be much more forceful than the Lifeboat one. The pandemic does not stop with the social demarcations that usually protect the privileged. The news that Charles, the Prince of Wales, has acquired the virus highlights the fact that ‘no man is an island’. Similarly, it does not matter that a country is geographically an island; economically speaking, no country has such character anymore – except, perhaps, Bhutan. Being connected to many more countries by treaties of various kinds and commercial ties, the fact that a country closes its borders only makes sense as a way of enforcing quarantine, not as a way of indefinitely guarding against the effects of contagion. So there is no use entrenching oneself at home or in one’s own country as if one or the other were a lifeboat. The virus can knock on everyone’s door at the least expected moment.

This said, the most appropriate metaphor is that we are all aboard the Planet Earth Space-Ship and, consequently, that we all have an obligation to contribute to stopping the spread of the virus. To the extent of the possibilities of each one, we must all also contribute to defray the costs of containment measures. One of the implications of this proposition is that those of us who have sufficient income must contribute to providing shelter and food to all those who do not have a job or have lost it during the Covid-19 crisis.

It is worth noticing that this is a measure in which both the principle of solidarity, which evokes the Ship metaphor, and the principle of self-interest well-understood, which is at the base of the Lifeboat metaphor, coincide. There is no way we can contain the social effects of scarcity, when it suddenly puts many individuals in a situation of destitution. These effects are of different kinds. They may be civil, as is the case of people who protest because they are hungry during the crisis and ask the authorities for attention to their situation. They can also be incivile, as is the case with assaults on supermarkets. In a scenario of social catastrophe, one could not rule out assaults on houses for the purpose of stealing food. The effects can even be of a third type, i.e. merely fortuitous: they concern the probability that those who are in a situation of extreme vulnerability, because they lack shelter and food, will catch the virus and, through an unsuspected route,2 will infect one or more of their loved ones. Consequently, providing income or food to those who do not have a job or have lost it is a quite sensible measure. It is the best way to ensure that the vast majority of people will comply with the quarantine and we will be able to flatten the spread of the virus.

Without contradicting what I have said so far, we can use at least one element of the Lifeboat metaphor to understand and resolve our current predicament. In the extreme situation of a shipwreck, one would like to make room for two types of people in their Lifeboat: their loved ones and those who can contribute with their effort so that the boat stays afloat and reaches a safe shore.3 I will make abstraction of the criterion of the affective bond, to concentrate on the second criterion which, in my opinion, is that of merit, not merely that of utility.

Forced to choose between two people of the same age as there is only room for one of them in a Lifeboat, the balance is most likely tipped towards the most capable person. In other words, one will have a tendency to choose the person who is most likely to earn merits during the journey. Apparently, the criterion stated here is purely instrumental – I would have only expressed a relationship of means to ends. However, the expectation that the chosen person will make all the efforts that are expected of him is what makes moral the mentioned criterion of merit. One hopes that the chosen person deserves his place in the Lifeboat.

Let us now consider a hypothetical case of having to care for people infected with Covid-19 as it illustrates the relevance of the merit criterion. Two people of the same age and similar ability arrive in critical condition at an emergency room to be treated by the Covid-19, but there is only one respirator. One of those people has observed the quarantine and the other has not. Based on the above information, the emergency physician decides to put the respirator on the person who has observed the quarantine. I think few reasonable people would have disagreements about this hypothetical decision. We would say that the person who complied with the quarantine deserved to live because that person made merits for it. I believe we tend to leave unstated the last part of the previous proposition. The point I make here is that refraining from interacting with other people requires active engagement from all of us in quarantine. Honoring the obligation to stay at home gives us an indefinite merit, but merit in the end, from which various implications can be derived, such as the one considered in this hypothetical case.

We can now consider the way in which the implications of the Ship and the Lifeboat metaphors intersect with each other and become even mutually reinforcing. We have an obligation to provide shelter and food to those who have no job or have lost it. At the same time, like everyone else, those who receive help from society to survive during quarantine have an obligation to comply with it. Admittedly, the «give and take» is not very clear: those who do not comply with the quarantine will be fined, but that does not mean that they have to be deprived of food and shelter. However, intuitively it makes a lot of sense to reciprocally demand people who receive help from society to fulfill what society expects of them.

To put in place a system based on such principle would require the implementation of a census of people, resources and needs, as if we were in a war – in fact, there is a number of leaders who have resorted to this metaphor (Emmanuel Macron, for example); there have also been scientists who have appealed to it in order to justify more resources for the health system than for the military one. The census of people, the distribution of resources and the assignment of tasks does not have to exclude the market as a means of social coordination. Ideally, helping unemployed people can be part of a universal basic rent program. With money in hand, each person, including heads of household, will find in a regulated market the basic goods for their survival. I am not advocating here measures such as freezing prices, but measures that limit the quantity of goods that everyone can buy and the punishment of hoarding and speculation.

In national economies of medium or low income, according to the United Nations classification, in the absence of a universal basic rent program, aid to the unemployed may take the form of survival baskets (such as those offered by the Éxito – Carulla chain, those we colloquially call mercados in Colombia) that could be distributed at home. This is especially relevant in the case of those who are not part of the formal circuits of the economy and are not registered in any public social aid program, as is the case with many Venezuelan refugees in Colombia. During the quarantine, the exchange of any of the goods included in the survival basket should be prohibited. After the quarantine, this restriction loses entirely its validity. There should be no objection to an unemployed person exchanging with other goods included in their survival baskets. What should be punished is to obtain more than one basket fraudulently, as that would constitute an illicit enrichment.

Without a doubt, the devil is always in the details: the distribution of aid and the activation of a social market economy based on the principles of solidarity and merit is exposed to the risk of corruption, which makes it necessary, simultaneously, to encourage citizens to acquire oversight and control capacities. This, however, is already another matter.

In addition to helping unemployed people, through public institutions, society must provide aid to firms affected by the Covid-19 crisis. Apparently, there is no need to tell a government like the Colombian such a thing for it is in more often in touch with business associations than with the rest of society. Aid to companies is a message precisely for that rest of society that views with apprehension the role of those business associations and of the government.

The point to retain is that each firm is not merely an accumulate of capital but also of efforts and learnings whose loss for society may be more or less costly. Some may be quite inefficient and therefore should not be artificially maintained. Their fate would be sealed by the market, even without the current crisis. Therefore, the cost of losing firms of this type would be very low. Some other firms are merely inefficient because they do not invest in innovation and do not adequately use their human resources.4 They stay in business thanks to the fact that the market works in more distorted ways than we would be willing to admit. However, the cost of losing them would be much higher since, among other reasons, they are the ones that provide many people with employment. Hence, it makes all the sense in the world that governments open lines of credit that allow them to survive during the quarantine and recover in the immediately following period. However, such lines of credit should be granted with conditions: the main one, to ensure the permanence of the largest number of workers. Put more succinctly, the use of public resources to help companies must serve to protect not only capital but also labor.

Globally, most countries operate with a Lifeboat mentality, which is evidenced by the ban on exports of health equipment. At first, Germany ignored its membership of the European Union and put into effect a general ban that affected even the other members of that confederation. The outrage caused by such a restriction led to it being amended and remaining in effect for the rest of the countries that are not part of the European Union. This measure, in turn, was approved by the European Commission so that none of the countries that are part of that Union can export medical equipment to other nations. With a similar mindset, the Colombian government went a little further and included soap and toilet paper in the list of prohibited export items.

From a cosmopolitan point of view, all these measures generate a deep feeling of disappointment. In Europe, solidarity has so far been very low, something that make it clear that the union process is still very superficial. As Nils Minkmar wrote it in an article in Der Spiegel on March 18, the image that we Italians will remember after the crisis is not of planes coming from Frankfurt, Paris or Brussels with medical help but from China. Things on the American continent can be even worse. Donald Trump’s isolationism and his equivocal messages, such as that of exclusively obtaining the Covid-19 vaccine from a German laboratory, are undoubtedly the worst reference that other countries can have.

The Colombian newspapeer El Espectador recently reported that arms sales skyrocketed in the United States. The reason for this has to do, apparently, with the idea that many Americans have that the pandemic will lead to a major social crisis, so that each one will have to defend one’s own. This Lifeboat mentality is the one replicated globally by the US government. If this attitude were to spread, it would lead us to a defensive and isolationist spiral that is the exact opposite of what we need right now: a coordinated response at the global level. As Bernhard Zand wrote it for Der Spiegel on March 19, “Social distancing is the medical solution to the spread of the virus, but in global politics we need the exact opposite.”

Fortunately, there are social forces that push the world in a different direction. The announcement by the mechanical engineer Mauricio Toro that his team will be able to produce a low-cost mechanical respirator and that its design is available online for all other teams in the world who want to copy and improve it, expresses eloquently the spirit of Saving the Ship. Like many Colombian companies that have decided to keep their workers on their payroll (Mario Hernández, Arturo Calle, Hoteles Estelar, Bancolombia and many others), those that support Mauricio Toro’s project are also in tune with the same spirit.

These forces, on their own, will not be able to contain the illusion of isolation and self-sufficiency, an illusion that could be magnified during the post-quarantine period by populist politicians. For this reason, the fact of interdependence and the advantages of large-scale cooperation should be emphasized. Today, political leaders bear a great responsibility, since the decisions they make during this crisis will set a course that would be difficult to change. Indeed, today’s decisions will make decisions about other global challenges –whose effect is already in sight, such as global warming– become easier or more difficult to take.

1In this regard, I recommend taking into account the theses advanced by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1999) in their book Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought. New York: Basic Books.

2This is precisely one of the premises of the film Contagion, directed by Steven Soderbergh.

3This hypothetical situation is different from the actual shipwreck of the Birkenhead frigate, which gave rise to the «women and children first» rule. The Birkenhead ran aground and sank two miles from shore, so prioritizing women and children made sense since their survival was very likely.

4See, Eduardo Lora (2019). Economía Esencial de Colombia. Bogotá: Debate, pp 71-72 y 125-128.