Year 1 of the COVID plague

Angus Hanton, Co-founder of IF, raises the question of intergenerational fairness as we contemplate the possibility of emerging from the COVID-19 lockdown

We are only about three months into the first year of the plague but many people are still assuming it will be over in a few weeks and they talk casually of “when things get back to normal.” Indeed, at the start of World War One there was widespread talk that “it would all be over by Christmas.”

However, the experience of past plagues such as the Spanish ′flu (3 years) and AIDS/HIV (38 years and counting) suggests that this plague is not likely to end abruptly or soon and we will have to find ways to live with it.

If that’s right then there are big implications for intergenerational fairness: 

Four points for the intergenerational fairness agenda

  1. The idea of creating a fairer settlement for young people “when this is all over” is a mirage that will probably disappear into the distance. What young people need is a fairer settlement NOW and COVID-19 just makes that more urgent. If not now, when?
  2. Whatever ongoing accommodation we reach with the virus, we must be fairer on young people than we’ve been so far. Civil servants and politicians enjoy their secure salaries and older folk live on their guaranteed pensions, and they shouldn’t be allowed to get away with saying breezily that another lockdown might need to be imposed at any time. Without big changes, that would obviously be totally unfair on younger generations.
  3. A proper debate needs to be had about the benefits of a “herd immunity” approach such as that taken by Sweden. After all, it is possible to develop a herd immunity (perhaps over 85% of the population) where most of the immune ones are under 70. This might be a better way for the young to protect the old.
  4. We should consider what we will do if the virus mutates. It could, for example, change in its nature so that it has a higher mortality rate or so that, like the Spanish ′flu of 100 years ago, it kills many more working-age victims.

A new light on old contentions

One wonders whether the delay in ending the current (legally enforced) lockdown is about protecting lives or about allowing time for the NHS to use its £330m-a-day budget to get its act together on testing.

Or is it in practice about helping the public get used to the fact that we probably won’t be going back to “normal” any time soon?

In any event, the economic concerns of the young have been both highlighted and magnified by COVID-19: expensive housing, insecure jobs, unfair pensions, high tuition fees and reckless carbon emissions.

A friend said to me that the older generation seem prepared to cut out flying to save their own skins (i.e. in the COVID-19 crisis) but not to save the grandchildren (i.e. to combat climate change). Was that unfair?

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