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The politics of pandemics

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I was a little distraught over the weekend. With absolutely no warning, the Polish government closed the country’s borders. All flights and train travel banned. No inbound access at all, unless you are Polish or could provide Polish residency. No outbound access and, if you do leave and return, immediate quarantine for two weeks.

Like many out there, I’m a global traveller. My business depends on global connections and access. To find that shut down without warning gave me the heebie-jeebies. What does this mean? What do I do? Why am I living in such a right-wing autocratic country? Get me out of here!!!

I then started debating this decision online with my partner and friends, and realised something. The main realisation came from watching this clip of Donald McNeil, Science and Health Reporter for the New York Times, talking about how China dealt with the coronavirus:

As Mr. McNeil states, we all watched the outbreak in China and the lockdown in Wuhan and were bewildered. I saw some clips of people being dragged forcibly from their homes in China by health police, and felt it was extreme and could never happen here.

Nevertheless, a version of what we saw in China is happening here. Denmark, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and now Poland have closed borders. Italy is in lockdown. Germany, France and Spain are all feeling a major impact from the pandemic. America has shut down all flights from Europe for this reason, and we are all worried about our futures. Not just our health futures but our financial futures. With global trade in lockdown, how will you pay your bills?

Meantime, I bring myself back to the extreme actions of some governments. China’s lockdown was major, but now they’re through the worst, as is South Korea, Japan and Singapore apparently. Europe is more difficult as Europeans are used to the ‘free movement of peoples’. It’s a core tenet of the Union, and the reason why the Brits voted for Brexit.

Which brings me to the Brits. It amazes me as someone travelling and living in Europe to see the UK being so lackadaisical about their response to the coronavirus. We’ve just moved from the contain to the delay mode, and this means that instead of keep calm, carry on and wash your hands it’s now keep calm, carry on, wash your hands and don’t go to the footie phase. Great.

I’m talking to folks in Britain and they don’t see this as serious yet. My mum (91 years old) was saying she’s wondering whether she should still go on her bridge holiday to Torquay in two weeks. My Polish friend’s daughter who lives in London is still going on holiday to Scotland because they paid for it and it’s booked, with their small child. Amazing.

It’s even more amazed when I look at the American way. America has been continuing as normal, in most instances. Sure, Europeans are banned from flying over there, but the lackadaisical Brits can still come over along with other friends. Meantime, if you’re sick, we can’t test you … but you could get tested if you can afford to pay for it. Oh, and the freedom of movement is still fine, as long as you can accept that the basketball games are over (reluctantly).

This is changing admittedly, but very, very, very slowly. What’s the issue? I guess CNN sums it up well:

Many of these choices drive at the heart of what it means to be American. Individual freedoms that many Americans hold onto so dearly will need to be compromised. Freedom of movement, to assemble and protest, and the right to privacy could be among liberties first to go in the battle to control the virus.

Well, I’m sorry America, but you are no longer the land of the free. You’re the land of the lockdown in the face of a global pandemic.

And this is where my big realisation came in. Poland announced their lockdown with 68 coronavirus cases and one death; Italy and Spain announced their lockdown after reaching 1000’s of cases and deaths (on Friday, Spain’s cases increased by 1,500 in just 24 hours); Britain has this “keep calm and carry on” attitude whilst suffering 1,140 cases and 21 deaths; USA is allowing free movement, apart from Europeans, whilst suffering 2,340 domestic cases and 51 deaths.*

The British and American way is that we must not infringe on the individuals rights; the Polish, Chinese and Singapore way is lockdown before the borders are breached; the Spanish, Italian and European way is lockdown after the borders are breached.

Take note that the political alignment towards keeping a healthy economy plays a key factor here. Europe, Britain and America purely have this keep calm and carry on attitude because they want everything to keep going as though there were no issue. It is only as they realise the seriousness of the issue that they wake up and start to shake up.

This is a time like no time we have ever seen in our lives. Get ready to stay at home for the next two months folks. Lockdown is coming.

Oh, and move your cheese a bit in the meantime (just a small reminder).


* these figures are from Saturday March 14 2020

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Chris M Skinner

Chris Skinner is best known as an independent commentator on the financial markets through his blog,, as author of the bestselling book Digital Bank, and Chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club. He has been voted one of the most influential people in banking by The Financial Brand (as well as one of the best blogs), a FinTech Titan (Next Bank), one of the Fintech Leaders you need to follow (City AM, Deluxe and Jax Finance), as well as one of the Top 40 most influential people in financial technology by the Wall Street Journal's Financial News. To learn more click here...

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