Preparing for the next pandemic

Interview with Professor Peter van Bergeijk

There will come a day that we will have to deal with a new pandemic, that is a fact, states professor Peter van Bergeijk. His book De volgende pandemie - Een deltaplan voor overleving (The Next Pandemic – a Delta Plan for Survival, Walburgpers, 2021) appears this week in Dutch.

Van Bergeijk is Professor of International Economics and Macroeconomics at the International Institute of Social Studies. In this book he gives advice on how we, as a society, can be better prepared to deal with the next pandemic.  English readers can also have a look at Van Bergeijk’s previous book Pandemic Economics.

‘We don't know when the next pandemic will occur, it could be in one year, it could be in ten years, but we can be sure it will come’

I think most people are happy that we are slowly getting out of this crisis. Are we ready to think about the next one yet?

‘Now people still feel what it was like. And it is not over yet, but we have come a long way. A lot of people have been vaccinated. More and more places are opening up. We don't know when the next pandemic will occur, it could be in one year, it could be in ten years, but it's coming for sure.’

How do you know that?

‘History shows that it happens about four times a century. In the 1920s we had the Spanish flu. AIDS and Ebola were also close to a pandemic. The paradox is: as people get older and older, they become more vulnerable to these kinds of viruses. So we have to be prepared. Learn from what went well this time, but also from what went badly.’

Because, as you write in the book: ‘A pandemic is a ruinous problem; an event that you can easily survive once, but which, if repeated, can lead to collapse or extinction.’

‘Exactly.’

What went badly?

‘It was astonishing that in June all the festivals were opening, while not enough people had been vaccinated. In the eyes of economists, it was also strange that so much money has been pumped into businesses by the government, and for so long. The economy is doing miraculously well now. No companies have gone bankrupt. But that has a cost, according to figures of the CPB (Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis), of  200,000 euro per job.’

It is not a bad thing that the economy is doing well, is it?

‘It is, to say the least, strange if no companies go bankrupt. That is unhealthy for a market economy. By now we know that a lot of money has gone to companies that didn't get into trouble because of covid, but that were in trouble already anyway. If you function well as a company in a market economy, you can also function under difficult circumstances.’

‘It was also strange that so much money has been pumped into businesses by the government, and for so long’

In the book you also speak of 'compulsory social service' as a possible measure.

‘We have noticed that if many people fall ill at once, we cannot nurse them. We have to find a solution for that. In companies, for example, you often have a company emergency officer: there is always someone in the department who can give first aid. If we give a lot more people some kind of training to become nurses, they can do this work in case of an emergency.’

Could healthier living also be a good preparation for the next pandemic?

‘Possibly. I have also lost five kilos. But old age is a gift, not a right. Nature is nature, sometimes you are lucky and sometimes you are unlucky. We are lucky compared to a century ago. This is due to medical progress, but also to improved conditions such as better housing or cleaner water. There is still room for improvement in all of these areas. We can improve living environments and make them healthier. Organize society differently. The book is therefore called 'a Delta Plan'. It is about a long-term investment, a long-term plan, we have to redesign the whole of society.’

Can you give an example?

‘I am a professor, I have my own house and my own car. If you're a student living in a student house and taking the tram to work, it's harder to keep your distance. The way a virus spreads has to do with how we live and work. The pandemic therefore has a lot to do with inequality. People at the bottom of society live crammed in large cities. They often carry out essential professions that cannot be done via the Internet. The impact of a pandemic on this group is the greatest. Inequality creates vulnerability.’

‘Solving inequality is not a "leftist opinion: but a profitable proposition’

Inequality cannot be solved just like that?

‘People sometimes see wanting to solve inequality as a 'leftist opinion'. But on the contrary, it is a very efficient way to make life better for everyone, it is a profitable proposition. I see reducing inequality in a society as something business-like. Necessary.’

Who should read the book, the ministers?

‘I hope many people read it. It is not a scientific book. It is of interest to everyone, including people who are concerned with ethical or legal issues surrounding covid. And I hope that politicians read it, yes. There has to be a social debate on how to deal with the next pandemic, it can't go the way it did.’

Some things did go right, didn't they, this time?

‘People deserve a compliment for complying with the rules when these rules were very difficult. Three quarters of the people followed the rules well. That is quite a feat. And despite all the grumbling, the vaccination campaign went fast in the Netherlands. You also saw a lot of creativity in society, in shops and businesses for example. That gives hope. Maybe the unpleasant feeling still prevails, but in the end, it is still an achievement. We made it happen.’

What really has to change next time?

‘Closing the economy is very expensive. We could do this because the financial starting position was good. But this cannot be done over and over again. And one of the things I hope will change, is that we make European policy much stronger. Everyone can move freely across borders, but for covid-rules and vaccinations, each country had separate policies, which is inconvenient. In order to prepare for the next pandemic, we should abandon the focus on what happens separately in different countries.’

Professor

Professor Peter van Bergeijk

More information

De volgende pandemie - Een deltaplan voor overleving appears on 2 October (in Dutch).

Peter van Bergeijk is Professor of Economics at the Erasmus University. He previously worked in banking, at ministries and the universities of Groningen and Zürich. In addition to being an economist, he is a professional lithographer in The Hague.

His academic book Pandemic Economics was published earlier this year.

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