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ICSW Europe President's Message: "A Black Swan is Here!"

Ronald Wiman
European President, ICSW

A Black Swan is here! Already the ancient Romans used the expression “a Black Swan” to refer to something that is so rare that it hardly exists. All swans anybody had seen were white. As no one had seen a black one it was not considered to exist. However, in 1697 Dutch explorers spotted black swans in Western Australia. While the previous assumption was proven wrong in the biological arena the expression has stayed with us to refer to something very very rare but having eventually high impact, and nevertheless being natural or understandable – but only afterwards.

After the 2008 financial crisis, a number of good “forecasters” popped up – after the fact sayng “it was expected”. Also, now it has been too easy to say that “of course a pandemic like COVID 2019, caused by a new nasty virus, would have popped up one day”. But very few experts or decision makers attached a high enough probability to such a Black Swan that proper (expensive) precautions would have been taken. Neither the health nor the social protection system was prepared, at all. What about the economy? Did the financial crisis teach anything about the economics of Black Swans?

Now unprecedented restrictions of peopleˈs everyday life rights and freedoms have been introduced on the spot – without much discussion of eventual alternatives – or even the reliability of data concerning their effectiveness and costs. Quarantine, the ancient “preventive medicine” has been applied to various extents. It has a history going back to the Black Death of 1340s: vessels arriving from plague infected countries were not allowed to land until 30 days had passed (Italian “trentino”; later the isolation period was established as 40 days, quarantino).

We are facing a novel, unknown, unprecedented, unbelievable worldwide threat we never wanted to imagine. Most countries realized that they were not prepared for anything of this kind. Mostly discussion has been about unpreparedness from medical and epidemiological perspective. Also the criteria for choosing right responses have been predominantly based on medical or health criteria and the carrying capacity of the health care system. Very relevant and very necessary – but not sufficient.

Every week it becomes more and more clear that the challenge is systemic, societal. Therefore decisions must consider also other values and other criteria: ethical, social, economic, juridical etc. For instance, the isolation of people 70 and over does have some, only some, medically factual justifications, but lumping together one sixth to one fifth of the population into one homogenous “risk group” to be isolated/quarantined for 40 days – or even “to the end of the year” (as suggested by an EU leader) is not the most accurately targeted action. Protecting “the vulnerable” becomes too easily an accepted act of discrimination. Protection must not turn to exclusion.

There are benefits in the so called “social distancing” – but also much collateral damage has followed in terms of physical, mental, social and economic impacts of this kind of “social distancing”. While the good intention was to keep and enforce physical distances it has indeed become human and social distancing, for instance of older people from their loved ones. In some cases, it has led to full isolation at the end of their lives as family is not allowed to enter the residence of the old person even at the end moments of her/his life. Also (even young) people with disabilities have often been kept in full quarantine in their residential care units. Inhuman rules, in the name of protection.

While such exclusion has ruled over a month, now some units have innovated and put in place safe meeting arrangements.

There are many sides in this gamble. There are no simple recipes. A very encouraging indication is that now facts and research have gained ground as justifications of decisions. Most solutions may create winners and losers, but this must be known and weighted. But many relevant variables in this equation are still unknown. Therefore, it is vitally important to involve in the dialogue all the stakeholders, especially those who are most seriously affected. And to involve them in the implementation of accepted measures as part of the solution and not only as part of the problem.

Furthermore, as usual, those worse off are worse off also in this situation. Both locally, nationally, and globally. In this situation that puts everyone under new health, social, and economic risks the gaps of social protection systems have become visible. The lone entrepreneurs, own account workers, people in unconventional employment have fallen through the safety nets into zero income, loss of livelihood and will fall into poverty. Temporary solutions have been introduced in many countries, however.

It is amazing how rapid, flexible, and resilient European democratic societies have been. The civil society has introduced many countermeasures to alleviate the isolation and the ill-being of the excluded. ICSW Europe would still invite members to contribute with good examples. You surely do have such good examples that can provide ideas to others. We will continue to publish those in the next newsletter(s).

ICSW has been advocating for the rights-based, universal, and affordable health coverage, universal social protection including right to paid sick leave. Clearly such basic social guarantees have proven to be essential instruments of society for cushioning the impact of the crisis that has hit us all. Universal and equal right to access health and social protection is the best guarantee for all. No one is safe until every one is safe.

Read more on United Nations Human Rights – Office of the High Commissioner.