Vaccination is a blessing! Nevertheless, many things will be different.
Why our normality will be different even with a COVID vaccine -
and why that may even be good in the end.
An analysis and outlook by Reinhold M. Karner
The magic word is now vaccination. However, it will take longer before we have herd immunity against COVID-19 (CoV) through vaccination. Nevertheless, we should prepare ourselves worldwide for a different life in the future to the one before the pandemic. This means keeping a cool head and patience, especially if we want to counter the crisis's economic consequences. Moreover, the crisis is forcing us to change our attitudes, which is long overdue anyway. In the end, there could be positive consequences - for people, nature, the economy and the climate.
The most important thing is: stay away from all conspiracy theories, but also from all trivialisation. This is not about good, evil or morality. It merely is what it is, a virus (CoV). It came from nature, as nature evolves. Species disappear, others come, change. Humans and nature's coexistence is optimal in some places, suboptimal in others, or even heavily burdened.
No one in the world, no single politician is to blame; no minister bears responsibility for the fact that this virus exists. Yes, there would have been a possibility to quickly draw a kind of new Chinese wall around the largest outbreak site or even all of China at the very beginning. To achieve this, the world would have had to support China to the tune of billions of dollars, to put the whole country into total quarantine. But firstly, this would hardly have been enforceable and feasible so quickly. Secondly, a virus can ultimately leave a quarantine station; it cannot simply be locked up.
This virus also did not come for educational purposes, to educate us to throw away less rubbish or travel less, to consume less. The virus is part of nature - full stop.
The problem is that the coexistence between this coronavirus and us - unlike so many bacteria essential for our survival, e.g. in the intestinal flora - does not work. Statements or demonstrations for or against this do not change anything.
Instead, we should be very grateful that dozens of teams of scientists have been working day and night with international cooperation for many months, with maximum effort and the best intentions for humanity on the numerous vaccine developments. Many of them realised early on what this virus meant for the world. They knew that CoV could not be controlled without medical antidotes.
In the meantime, the first approved vaccines against COVID-19 (CoV) are available - thanks to the Herculean task of researching and developing them and making the products and logistics available in the breathtaking record speed of only about one year instead of 10-15 years, as before. All hope now rests on these vaccines to defeat the COVID-19 pandemic.
Government leaders like British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz therefore already held out the prospect of something like normality for spring/summer 2021. But that will not come so quickly and ultimately not in this way, despite the vaccines. There will be no normality like before the start of the coronavirus pandemic. And this is what we should prepare ourselves for, what our states and societies must prepare themselves for now.
Given the many losses of loved ones due to Corona and because of the harsh economic consequences for many, it may sound surprising - but we must not lose confidence, not panic, despite all the collateral damage. On the contrary, we should also objectively recognise and accept the developmental opportunities: It is wise now to soberly assess the changed framework conditions and implement the necessary change flexibly and swiftly with a steady hand, then it should still end well.
Herd immunity not achievable until winter 2021/2022
Of course, after the Corona waves and lockdowns, governments say they now see the light at the end of the tunnel. Without this political signal, people either go into aggression or depression. You can't want either.
It was and is a narrow tunnel, a tunnel of discipline, restraint, withdrawal into one's own four walls, into one's core competencies, a withdrawal into the most limited possible network of encounters that one can imagine, a renunciation of much, a minimisation of much. A departure from life, from the habits we thought, were normal. The weekend parties, the trips, the cruises, the spontaneous flights for city excursions, the eating out here and there, drinking coffee, shopping. What was our normality is no longer the desired normality at the moment.
That's why we live differently now. Incidentally, the way it was normal for many of our ancestors. At home in the closest circle, with relatively few distractions, with a lot of being thrown back on oneself and the very closest confidants, with a minimal network of relationships without globalisation.
After all, nowadays, we can use digital media for virtual presence around the world. But we recognise that to balance a life in or with virtual reality, we still need a real person's real hand, the real hug with a close confidant, the real tree, the real meadow, the real animal.
What is interesting about this is the learning process. We realise that life in the physical, material world is vital for all of us, at least to a small degree, but to an exaggerated degree, it is no longer so significant in any way.
At present, however, there are increasing signs that the tunnel will be quite long after all. The light visible at the end is initially less dramatic than in 2020, at least concerning 2021. Still, it is likely to be another year of modesty, despite many politicians' rhetorical reassurance pills.
We will undoubtedly see successive relief in Europe from Easter 2021 onwards. After all, the vaccines will already have been partially administered and available in ever more significant quantities. Further vaccine approvals are foreseeable. Finally, as of mid-December 2020, 222 CoV vaccine candidates worldwide had been registered with WHO, of which 56 were already in clinical trials and 166 in pre-clinical development. Over time, this should provide us with a wealth of alternatives, even if only a small proportion of these will make it through to approval. Likewise, slowly returning warmer weather in spring and summer will ultimately help to ease the situation.
But we will hardly achieve herd immunity by the winter of 2021/2022. By then, the situation should merely be less critical and hopefully, more manageable without other lockdowns. However, the virus itself is here to stay, and it is likely to continue mutating. After the EU approval of his vaccine, BioNTech boss Ugur Sahin estimated in an interview with the TV channel n-tv that the virus is becoming fitter and more resistant. No one knows today whether it is merely easier to transmit, like the latest, a more contagious mutation from Great Britain and South Africa; which is why even an 80% vaccination rate would be necessary for herd immunity, or whether it is more aggressive. In this respect, it is still utterly open whether the current tests and vaccines will work with coming mutations or whether adjustments will be necessary.
2018: New active ingredient against smallpox, which has been eradicated since 1980
In any case, CoV is now here, just like the flu, herpes and HIV viruses. We can only hope that it can be contained to 90 per cent in this decade and even to 99 per cent at some point later, like smallpox. But even then, the pandemic can always break out again somewhere in the world. Why should the coronavirus behave differently from older, now well-known viruses? Although smallpox has been eradicated since 1980, according to the World Health Organisation, a new active ingredient has been approved in the USA since . Even decades after the official victory over smallpox, the danger does not seem to have been totally banished.
Against this background, it seems like a naïve illusion that the coronavirus will soon be defeated entirely. Evolutionary-biological immunity of humans may be conceivable in a few generations. But until then, the question will always be whether and how the virus can be pushed back so far that it only exists in a laboratory as an evidence object like the plague bacterium.
Vaccines alone are not enough to achieve this state of affairs. They do not protect one hundred per cent - so far, the highest known level of effectiveness is around 95 per cent - and, above all, they are not suitable or approved for all groups of people, such as adolescents, pregnant women or those with severe allergies.
That is why there are two research types of machinery: Medicines or cures for the sick - which are not yet available - and the other for protection, prevention, i.e. vaccination.
These are all measures that are not intended to harm us, our community and society, but to help. Every effort is being made to provide us with these resources as quickly as possible, safely and in sufficient quantities at a reasonable cost.
A vaccine does not necessarily prevent transmission of the pathogen.
In this respect, the individual will continue to choose one of two ways to counter the pandemic and potential infections in the foreseeable future:
First way: no vaccination. Without vaccination, many people will continue to behave sensibly, disciplined, and observe all hygiene rules in order not to become infected. Just in case, they hope for a mild course of infection and the medication's effectiveness that will then be available.
Second way: vaccination. People get vaccinated as soon as possible and accept vaccination risks because they do not want to infect themselves or others or fall ill themselves. Whereas vaccination protects the vaccinated person to a certain percentage, it does not necessarily prevent them from continuing to get and transmit the virus. The situation could be comparable to the polio vaccine: the inactive polio vaccine (IPV) of 1955 immunises but does not prevent transmission; the oral polio vaccine (OPV) of 1961 prevents not only infection but also the infection of others. Immunisation means that only the vaccinated person does not become ill - he or she can still be a virus carrier. Therefore, whether vaccinations stop the Corona pandemic is questionable (Coronavirus vaccine: Biontech/Pfizer vaccine approved in the EU and Switzerland). Which is why vaccination in all likelihood does not exempt people from the obligation to wear a mask!
The difficulty with everything is the time we don't have. Indeed, research into vaccines and medicines continues apace, and the pace of approvals is enormous. What we can't test, however, are the long-term effects: Even BioNTech/Pfizer's approved vaccine cannot yet boast clinically completed Phase 3 testing, let alone Phase 4. These phases are planned for July 2021 with the completion of the tests for January 2023. Experience shows that it is rather unlikely that everybody will have no long-term effects at all with a vaccine.
The general public does not seem to be aware that the first vaccines are primarily intended to prevent the disease's outbreak or alleviate its course. Statements about efficacy, such as 95 per cent, also only refer to this. A completely different question is whether a vaccine can prevent the virus's spread by a vaccinated person, the transmission.
Nevertheless, every vaccinated person will ultimately make the world a little bit safer and more protected.
The severe course just as little risky as negative vaccination consequences?
The decision "to vaccinate or not to vaccinate" is left to the people by the Western world governments - politicians have so far assured that there will be no compulsory vaccination. Now we live - thank God - in a society and legal system where we are free to allow or reject interventions in our bodies, our health, and cannot be so easily forced. However, this freedom is also our responsibility for ourselves and others. That is probably why this topic is so hotly debated.
Of course, every intervention, every medication, every operation, even every vaccination may have a side effect or late effects on someone at some point, because a vaccination strongly challenges the immune system. This is also desired because it is supposed to give the body its own response to the virus. The body has a big job to manage with it. Compared to flu vaccines, there were more frequent side effects, but they were not dramatic in the tens of thousands of participants in phase 3 studies. The same applies in the case of illness as in the case of vaccination: the better the immune system, the better one is positioned, both in one's own defence against the disease and in dealing with a vaccine or medication.
The human being as an individual, usually insufficiently informed, is therefore faced with a choice: Either he or she allows himself or herself to be vaccinated with vaccines that have not been conclusively researched, in which case he or she can still be a carrier even if vaccinated, and in which case undesirable reactions can occur depending on the immune system and body constitution - but people are usually not aware of this. Or the individual does not allow himself to be vaccinated and thus does not contribute to herd immunity.
And so it is apparently the same for the fit and healthy citizen whether he or she gets vaccinated or behaves sensibly without vaccination. Without pre-existing conditions such as heart attacks, diabetes or lung diseases, the risk of an infection with a severe course is probably just as low as the risk of a vaccination's harmful late effects. So why should free citizens decide to get vaccinated? If CoV were as dangerous as dengue fever or Ebola, this question would not arise. The fact that CoV is less risky is, in a way, both, fortunate and the problem with vaccination willingness. That is why we afford ourselves the luxury of freely choosing whether and when to be vaccinated or not.
Those who prefer to wait and decide later on their vaccination decision should nevertheless avoid merely taking a black-and-white position. Precisely so as not to stab in the back the scientists who are highly committed to researching and working on our behalf to the point of exhaustion.
However, those who want - or need - to be vaccinated may also wonder which of the many vaccines is preferable. Because it looks like in the course of 2021 we will have to choose between at least five and seven, maybe even up to ten approved options, which according to the "accidental" leak by Belgian State Secretary Eva De Bleeker include (price per single dose - where at least two are needed per person).
- Pfizer/BioNTech (€ 12,00)
- Moderna ($ 18,00)
- AstraZeneca: (€ 1,78)
- Curevac: (€ 10,00)
- Johnson & Johnson: ($ 8,50)
- Sanofi/GlaxoSmithKline: (€ 7,56)
- EU negotiations with Novavax - now also in test phase 3 - still ongoing
This agony of choice shows how different vaccines and vaccine types can be: On the one hand, there are live and dead vaccines and, on the other hand, gene-based vector, mRNA or DNA vaccines. While the former category introduces weakened or killed pathogens - called antigens - into the body and has been researched and used for a long time, the gene-based, biotechnological vaccines administer only the genetic blueprint for an antigen into the body instead of a ready-made antigen. For example, the messenger molecule mRNA (the "m" stands for messenger and "RNA" for ribonucleic acid) stimulates viral protein production, similar to what most cold viruses use. The mRNA is not incorporated into the human genome. This protein triggers an immune response to protect the vaccinated person from the virus. The COVID vaccine candidate "Delta 19", by the way, will be administered by nasal spray, if it gets approval, and is supposed to protect not only against CoV but also against all types of flu. And against transmission as well.
A recommended overview of vaccines and the state of affairs as of the end of 2020 can be found here:: Corona: BioNTech, the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the vaccines and the vaccination landscape
Enormous vaccine diversity: genetic engineering and nanotechnology
Genetic vaccines are an exciting aspect. They have only been the subject of research for about twenty years. For example, in the course of his doctoral thesis in Tübingen (Germany) in 1999, CureVac founder Dr Ingmar Hoerr created mRNA technology from his discovery in the laboratory, on which great hope now rests. However, gene-based vaccines have been little tested so far. They have never been in widespread use, and never approved for humans, because there has hardly been an unproblematic, successful candidate among them. Genetically designed vaccines work entirely differently from conventional vaccines and therefore require new research approaches, which naturally take time. At the same time, pharmaceutical companies have an enormous interest in pushing these new biotechnologies through quickly. They see the current crisis as their big chance to do so and are lobbying intensively in public. A good argument is the approval of two biotechnological vector vaccines against dengue fever and Ebola. With AstraZeneca's vaccine against CoV, a genetic engineering vaccine's third approval is likely to follow soon in the EU.
mRNA vaccines also work with nanoparticles that serve as a drug delivery system: Pharmaceuticals are encapsulated in lipid nanoparticles via ultrasound. This is one reason why the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine requires cooling below -70 degrees Celsius and Moderna -20 degrees.
Nanoparticles are - see my article - a severe problem above a certain amount. According to pharmaceutical manufacturers' statements, these nanoparticles disappear quickly from the body after vaccination, but this isn't very likely. This is because nanoparticles know no barrier - there is no material smaller than them that could stop them. Thus, nanoparticles move around in the body. It cannot be assumed that all particles remain in the body only for a short time. Whether and when nanoparticles leave the body is unknown because it is not yet technologically possible to research this.
However, the number of nanoparticles that enter the body through vaccination is negligible compared to the amounts we ingest through shampoo, food, clothing and plastics. Vaccination does not make that much of a difference.
Waiting for lower-risk vaccines
All in all, it may be understandable that cautious, conservative-minded people prefer to wait for further vaccination options or prefer tried-and-tested vaccine types. This even so if such a vaccine - according to current test results - may not be as consistently highly effective as the new, respective more modern mRNA vaccines with their claimed up to around 95 per cent effectiveness, which, according to my extensive research, have an overall better effective system and are therefore easier to tolerate for the immunocompromised and elderly, and provide just as adequate quality protection for the young and immunocompromised. However, this matters relatively little because an improvement in protection from 0 to 70 to 80 per cent is still a significant improvement, even compared to approx. 50 to 60 per cent of the usual flu vaccine.
In this respect, it is understandable if many people outside the risk groups prefer to wait and let other people who need a vaccination more urgently go ahead to see how experience with it develops. Over time, in the coming months and years, it can also be assumed that there will be better criteria for vaccinations, for example for the elderly, for women, men, people of this or that provenance. At the moment, no one can say which or how many complications there will be and under what circumstances.
Ultimately, however, vaccination with one or the other active ingredient will be the best thing that can happen for all of us worldwide. So those who are undecided can wait and see, as there will soon be several alternatives, and then they will have a choice. The vaccines don't just disappear again. They remain just like the virus. The vaccines that have been professionally tested and approved in e. g. the EU are all safe according to human judgement. But to a certain extent, they also remain unsafe, because people are individuals. And what goes well for 9,999 vaccinated people may cause serious side effects or long-term consequences for the 10,000th, which is no consolation to the person who may be affected. That is the residual risk we all have to live with; life is also partly life-threatening.
The "proof of immunity" is window dressing.
This uncertainty causes insecurity. Given the many imponderables, people try to find their own answers to the questions that preoccupy them. For example, we increasingly hear the concern that vaccination status is the decisive criterion for how freely we can move around in the future. At demonstrations against the Corona measures, opponents of vaccination repeatedly wear replica "Jewish stars" with the inscription "Unvaccinated" - thus claiming for themselves the same quality of stigmatisation that affected Jews in the "Third Reich" from 1941 onwards. If we look past this questionable exaggeration, which is seen as a trivialisation of the Holocaust, stigmatisation or discrimination of the unvaccinated in the Western world is rather unlikely even if vaccinations are made compulsory in the future, as the airlines Qantas announced for trips to Australia and Korean Air for South Korea, for example.
Instead, there will be two options in the future, as the airline association IATA is also proposing with a digital passport: Either someone provides proof of vaccination or can present a current negative test result. This information should be stored in a digital passport alongside the usual data and be presentable at the airport. However, it should be clear that no vaccine is 100 per cent effective. Besides, depending on the type of vaccine - as mentioned - a vaccination does not automatically protect against transmission.
Although a supposed "proof of immunity" only appears to provide security and is ultimately window dressing, the idea that a vaccination certificate means someone is not contagious will undoubtedly continue to be pursued for a very long time. The same applies to the test, although a negative test result, in the absence of vaccination, will soon be commonplace even for invitations at home - although even a test is not one-hundred per cent certain. The development of quick and straightforward self-tests is also running at full speed.
If vaccination is compulsory, it will not be explicit in the West, but implicit. Vaccination is then not mandatory, but de facto freedom of movement is massively restricted without vaccination. Such a situation is theoretically conceivable for specific groups where many people sit on top of each other - such as in nursing homes, hospitals or prisons. But even that is unlikely to happen before 2023 because of the legal framework that needs to be created, especially since an implicit vaccination requirement is likely to face some legal hurdles in the Western world. Excluded people will sue for discrimination. The courts will decide based on fundamental rights to what extent discrimination against the unvaccinated would be legal.
We have a different situation in authoritarian countries: There, governments may realise how easy it is to undermine human rights. A pandemic, a threat scenario - and anything goes. Then a government can turn all laws upside down, muzzle parliaments and paralyse legal processes. And anyone who rebels against this is branded as crazy, as a threat. Such development is particularly threatening in countries with unstable leadership. Still, it can also become a temptation in established democracies. As a society, we have to be careful that the rule of law and democracy remains intact, especially since courts have already overturned numerous restrictions on freedom imposed by governments in Germany and Austria,for example, in 2020..
Some Western politicians seem to envy China because there decisions can easily be made over the people. You see: If China gets a better grip on the pandemic through inhumane and brutal measures, China has an advantage. Above all, an economic benefit, and also an advantage in public opinion. Success could prove the authoritarian regimes right if everyone says: we should do it like the Chinese, that's effective! Very quickly, the democracies' arguments - human dignity, human rights, the community of values - could fall into the background, because the economy is hardly interested in such ethically high standards under tremendous pressure.
Even our Basic Law is hard-won and not a matter of course; it didn't just fall from heaven. The fact that human dignity is inviolable is an outstanding achievement of culture, knowledge and intelligence. This must be lived, preserved and passed on to every generation.
That is also why Western governments are trying to do their best. That is why they are increasingly expressing concern and appealing to reason and personal responsibility. Western politicians realise very well that appealing, begging and pleading, constantly explaining things from scratch works far less well than acting with batons, walling in and handcuffs in other countries of the world. This is precisely why youth groups in Berlin-Neukölln celebrate New Year's Eve with forbidden alcohol and banned firecrackers, and police cars just drive by (Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg, Abendschau 1.1.2021), and this is exactly why 2500 people in Brittany can celebrate an illegal techno party for one and a half days over the turn of theyear 2020/2021.
And therein lies the danger: if at some point public opinion demands that the principles of the rule of law be restricted because of the many unteachable people and that authoritarian states like China be taken as a role model, then we will end up with a less democratic society - and within it, over time, an oligarchy would develop in which we buy our rights to freedom. Freedoms would then no longer be a human right, but something that one can afford or not. That would be the worst thing that could happen.
On the other hand, the best thing that could happen would be: The democratically run countries, their governments and citizens keep their nerve and residual sanity in their behaviour. In this way, everyone will contribute to a controlled containment of CoV starting quickly as early as 2021, the winter of 2021/2022 will be much better, and there will only be isolated virus outbreaks. This would be a strong signal for democracies, proving that the sensible can also be achieved without a "heavy hand". In this way, freedom and security could be saved at the same time.
Adapt to the new situation instead of excluding the unvaccinated
For the time being, however, there is no clear choice between these two perspectives, and too many people behave irrationally. That's why we have the debates about vaccination certificates and the like. Let's imagine an airline, possibly even state-supported in the CoV crisis, that excludes the unvaccinated: The public's reaction, apart from discrimination claims, could be a shitstorm including ongoing bashing against this airline, and as a result, an already struggling airline could row back. Airlines, in particular, will be happy for every single passenger. Hotels, restaurants and events are no any different.
Against this background, companies will consider other options and use technical solutions to create more security and thus trust, such as utilising UV radiation, special air filters and other improvements, which should be a clear competitive advantage over suppliers who do not adapt.
The virus is there, and it stays there, vaccines don't work 100%, they don't automatically make you immune. That is the situation, and people and companies should adopt. There is no reason to fall into panic and mistrust or to heat things up and charge them negatively. The best people to deal with this crisis will be those who prepare for it with a cool head and well thought out. This includes sensible behaviour that protects one's existence and thinking of others in terms of the risk of danger, exercising caution and always considering anew with whom one is meeting and why, whether the benefit is worth the risk. This includes keeping the number of direct contacts manageable and looking at which meetings - whether private or business - can be shifted to Zoom & Co.
In addition, there is another important aspect, our immune system: panic, stress, constant worry, lack of exercise, fitness, healthy food, light, air, nature and the joy of our determination in life will weaken the immune system. This is because it weakens our sovereign, self-determined personality. Therefore, we should do everything that strengthens our immune system; then we can also tolerate the vaccination very well.
Another reason to stay calm, to keep cool: It's going to be turbulent anyway. Inevitably. Even the development and sufficient production and distribution of vaccines and medicines will not be as easy as many people currently imagine. Organisationally and politically, it will still be chaotic, even if a part of the population accepts one vaccine or another. Some groups do not want to be vaccinated under any circumstances, and others are desperate to be among the first. For example, many young people who want to maintain their many contacts without restriction and party on thus will want to be vaccinated before the old. Then the economy has its interests; it wants to keep on earning, including the manufacturers of masks and the laboratories. There may still be fierce battles over the pharmaceutical companies' billion-dollar business around the vaccines. We should also be prepared for that.
Globalisation and mobility make vaccination a permanent condition.
Also, because of our high mobility, the CoV pandemic will continue for a long time, even if many now work in home offices. It is not only about us, but the virus is rampant worldwide. It is not enough to vaccinate everyone in our own countries or the entire EU. In our globalised world, we would have to stop mobility, which won't be possible ultimately. We would have to hermetically seal off places, regions and eventually the continent and prevent any exchange, as happens in China by order from above when the infection figures rise somewhere. In this sealed-off state, we would first have to wait and see how long the vaccinations' effect actually lasts as per today that is not at all clear.
And even without closure, the vaccination centres will continue to exist for a long time or even permanently. GPs will continue to vaccinate - as a sideline, so to speak - because people will always have to be vaccinated again, whether the protection is too short-term or whether the CoV mutates in such a way that the vaccines would have to be changed to be effective again. In this respect, it is relatively safe to say that vaccination will become a permanent institution.
The question of the long-term effect has not yet been answered. In the best-case scenario, vaccination would have the same effect for ten years as with the tetanus vaccination, which, by the way, is administered four times. An effect of ten years with two administrations of a COVID-19 vaccine would be great. If that were the case, the situation would be relatively relaxed. But suppose the vaccine only lasts half a year, three quarters of a year or a year, or even two or three years. In that case, vaccination becomes an organisational and financial problem.
And what is also clear to only a few is that anyone who is infected today with a first-generation CoV vaccine, which protects against the disease but does not prevent transmission, could be faced in a few months or years with the situation of having to be vaccinated again with a completely different second-generation vaccine, on which research is also working intensively, which will then also inhibit transmission.
There is also the problem of availability. Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in the USA believe that one in four people will not be vaccinated against COVID-19 until 2022 at the earliest. The reason is that rich countries with less than 15 per cent of the world's population claim about 50 per cent of the available vaccine doses. Low- and middle-income countries have to share the rest, even though they account for 85 per cent of the world's population.
In any case, the point at which the world breathes a sigh of relief because the virus has only been detected five times in some primaeval forest in the past three months - that takes years. The issue will not be over in 2021; even 2025 would be an ambitious horizon and breathtakingly fast compared to previous pandemics that lasted decades. Without ingenious international cooperation, this is hardly conceivable any sooner. More realistically, COVID-19 will challenge us for at least the rest of the decade. We should be aware of that, and we should be prepared for it.
The zombification of the economy
Another sword of Damocles in tow of the CoV pandemic that will occupy, burden and constrain us for many years and decades to come is the dramatic inflation of public debt. For the vast sums of printed wealth that are now being moved around the globe due to the COVID-19 pandemic have never been greater in human history.
However, the politicians have little room for manoeuvre; the economy cannot be allowed to collapse under the pandemic. Of course, there is also money thrown out senselessly, because these quick measures are more like shotgun blasts than flat shots.
Just take a look at the development of the overflowing money supply of the EU central bank alone in the euro area - other currency areas such as the USA with its dollar look even worse. And common sense says one thing: if there is always more of something, its value decreases and not vice versa.
In the euro area, the money supply developed as follows:
|Time||Trillion €||As amount (€)|
|Beginning of 1999 (virtual introduction of the euro)||0.5||500,000,000,000|
|July 2008 (the financial crisis caused by the Lehmann bankruptcy began in September 2008)||0.9||890,000,000,000|
|End of 2019, i.e. before CoV||3.2||3,200,000,000,000|
|June 2021 (forecast)||6.0||6,000,000,000,000|
|End 2021 (forecast)||7.0||7,000,000,000,000|
In other words, an alarming 14-fold increase in the money supply since the introduction of the euro! And this will hardly be the end of the line.
Apart from the CoV subsidies and rescue programmes, this is of course also directly related to the galloping national debt of some EU countries, which clearly exceeds the Maastricht limit of 60 per cent by far.
Overview of debt ratio from BMF Monthly Bulletin November 2020:
|Germany||59 %||80 %|
|France||98 %||118 %|
|Spain||95 %||122 %|
|Italy||134 %||159 %|
|Greece (despite debt haircut)||181 %||201 %|
How these states will ever repay their debts, some of which are significantly above 100 per cent, remains a mystery. Viewed soberly, a complete redemption is quite unlikely. One should bear in mind that interest rates have been kept artificially low for years; otherwise, things would look even worse. It shows a cardinal congenital defect of the euro not to create at least three euro zones with connected but different valuation possibilities.
Fuelled by years of the low-interest-rate policy, we are experiencing de facto inflation, even if this is taking place outside the statistical consumer goods price index, e.g. in the development of real estate prices.
This is shown, for example, in this overview of the development of real estate prices in selected euro countries since the Lehmann bankruptcy in September 2008:
|Germany in the countryside||71 %|
|Germany in cities||94 %|
|Germany in big cities||121 %|
Source for all tables above, Prof. Dr Hans-Werner Sinn of the Ifo Institute ifo-Institut (in German)
Together with the effects of the CoV pandemic, this can lead to a zombification of the economy - to a state where too many companies are only kept afloat by cheap loans. The zombification of the economy. As the Austrian-American economist Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950) pointed out in his famous macroeconomic concept 'gale of creative destruction', this leads to the impairment of economic innovation and the business cycle. Furthermore, it could lead to significant inflation or stagflation, tax increases and accompanying government spending cuts.
Or at some point, in one of the next decades, there will be a round table and a debt cut altogether, because this high level of debt in this global spread, which can hardly be deleveraged anymore, eventually no longer makes sense, and, as has happened so often in history with sovereign bankruptcies, a large part of the debt and some zeros in the currencies will be cut.
This millstone of this enormous debt around our necks is something we should also consider in terms of post-CoV normality. Fortunately, CoV will not destroy know-how, nor does it bomb factories, nor does it destroy infrastructure.
Keep calm and slow down.
In this respect, the best thing we can do now in the CoV pandemic
- To remain calm, patient and level-headed, to adhere to the rules of protection and hygiene and by no means to become an angry citizen. We should not let anything panic us, and we should remain unstressed, at least keep a quiet sense of humour and not lose our sovereignty.
This keeps us healthy and is about as important as vaccination. This is a mental vaccine, so to speak, that we can give ourselves. It is more sensible to act in a considered manner than in a hurried way. There is no real-time pressure in many matters because our hands are still tied at the moment, and we are dealing with a long-term perspective. It is crucial to keep this attitude because all those who do not manage to stay calm, and patient will find it quite difficult. They will either struggle with futility because they cannot find an answer to the why question or, on the other hand, they will be pushed down into frustration, despair, constant whining, chronic ill-temper or worry, and risking depression. Then they can no longer withstand the pressure, and they get flattened like bugs, then it becomes critical.
- Decelerate. The global brake caused by CoV also has its positive sides. We should reflect on our core needs and no longer do everything we want, but above all we need, what makes sense. Some renunciations can also lead to more fulfilment.
Of course, the second point may seem almost cynical to people who have found themselves in dire straits due to COVID-19. Ultimately, it means making a virtue out of necessity. Indeed, it is first and foremost a hardship to cut back on contacts and economic activities. And economically, countless companies and thus people suffer as a result. But we cannot change the situation in the blink of an eye. Even those who have been hit hard by the crisis economically have only one choice: to reorient themselves. Many previously successful business models, such as in the travel industry and retail, may not come back this way. And even if they do, now is the time to find interim solutions.
Reflecting on what is necessary also means, in practice, the best possible stop in spending and, as a result, lost income for providers of the products and services that we have so far indulged in out of great comfort or pure pleasure. The appeal that we minimise is nevertheless correct. It will ground our economy a little. We can also do it with less consumption, less travel, less partying, less networking and less jet-setting. For most of us, it is also enough to have a little less. In these times, we don't need so much make-up, mobility and a constant stream of new collections of brand-name clothes; we don't need a new car every few years or a new smartphone every year. Less will do.
And yes, sure: Classical business representatives are also throwing their hands up in horror here. Should we not buy cars? The whole point of the temporary VAT cut in Germany, for example, from 19 to 16 per cent from July to December 2020 was to boost consumption! But according to an ifo study from the beginning of 2021, this did not work - at all. Because in the crisis, people intuitively tend to focus on the necessary and sensible rather than on comfort and luxury. Even the in Central Europe widely known TV showmaster and businessman Frank Elstner surprised people when he clarified at the end of 2020 that after his rethinking due to the Corona crisis, 80 per cent of his trips were unnecessary, and the advantage was even time gained.
This is what will happen to a great to many people. And it is indeed the case if we are honest: Using common sense, no one needs a new car whose old car is still running reliably. Especially since an old car that has already been produced and is in use has a better ecological footprint than a new car, and at the moment it is unclear anyway which drive technology will be best in the longer term of the life cycle and investment to avoid a quick fall in value.
Foot off the gas pedal
So let's take our foot off the gas pedal a little. The technological and economic development of humankind over the past 150-200 years has basically been far too fast - too exponentially for an organic, dynamic, evolutionary development in line with human needs. That's why a lot of things have fallen by the wayside. It is not only the climate and nature that are now fighting back.
Nature loves this virus! In Germany alone, CO2 emissions fell by about 35 per cent in 2020 compared to 1990, i.e. 30 years ago, according to the annual evaluation by the think tank Agora Agora Energiewende.
The pandemic played a major role in this. Nature hasn't been doing as well as it is today for a long time; it is recovering somewhat because it is no longer all too human in all places in a completely superfluous and unnecessary way. So why not take the opportunity to downsize? It has something to do with breathing a sigh of relief, with letting go, with new freedom and quality of life that should not be underestimated! It's not about a return to the past, but a reorientation out of the hamster wheel of an utterly overdone consumer society. God forbid if the entire world population, including people in developing and emerging countries, were capable of the same consumption as we in modern industrial countries! No, the path must and will lead us to a somewhat more solid modesty society. It's about the freedom to say that we don't need so much and that we're doing well anyway. That will be the tendency. The economy, too, is likely to reorient itself over time according to these new standards.
Incidentally, the virus even had a peace-making effect in the US election: it significantly reduced Donald Trump's fighting strength despite his fake news and "alternative facts". Trump, who initially governed like a corona denier, had to change direction after people in his circle also became ill or had sufferers in their families. The rising insecurity made Trump give in, and his belated realisation probably cost him the election victory.
Is it a question of existence or quality of life?
Now one can say: Well, let's pull ourselves together for a while, make it as difficult as possible for the virus, and at the latest when everything is over around 2025, assuming optimistic assumptions, we will return to the old order. Of course, a part of the population and the business may say, as soon as the end of the tunnel is within reach, everything will go back to the way it was, march on, march on, let's go on as before. And those who see a regained freedom even try to make up for it by not booking just one or two cruises a year, but three to five. However, even this would die down after some time and return to a level below the old normal before CoV.
But in the meantime, the division in the population will grow, the tension between the young and the old on the one hand and the increasingly pressing climate issue on the other. Undoubtedly, in the long run, the young will ultimately have to bear the bulk of the immense CoV-related government spending and the debt burden for the past excesses of a financial and environmental policy that was sacrilegious in many countries as well as an often reckless industrial and consumer society. Whether they or alternatively the pensioners, will put up with it so easily that they have to tighten their belts is questionable; this is not likely to be an easy distribution struggle.
That is why we will experience a change: Many people will get back to basics and accept that it is also possible without a weekend booze party by plane to Mallorca with an exaggerated CO2 footprint at a bargain price. Instead, a workout in the great outdoors or a nice hike in the neighbourhood or countryside will do. In the foreseeable future, many people will no longer want the high-speed pre-Corona normality. I'd estimated that the share of primary consumption- and fun-oriented citizens will gradually decline from about 90 to 50 per cent, and the percentage of people who live more consciously will increase accordingly. This will also find its trend-setting reflection in politics.
In general, besides the question of affordability, two criteria will increasingly count for people's consumption and behaviour: Is what we want existentially necessary, or does it enhance the quality of life?
And as the number of sustainably aware people increases, there will be a tailwind for existential concerns and desires that increase the quality of life, and far less or even a headwind for unimportant things and environmentally harmful comforts and luxuries. This creates a kind of a personal, internal obligation to justify. Besides, perhaps also an external one, as the debates about SUVs' social justification have been boiling up since 2019. The growing number of "grounded consumers" will presumably also gain as much weight and share as the "unrestrained consumers" and will watch the others with a wary eye, but increasingly have the arguments on their side.
You will get used to following different measures, and there will be a little less of everything. A little less live in clover, a little less travelling, a little less luxury, a little less big gigs, parties and events. It will all become a bit more hand-picked, more exclusive.
So the future normality (post-COVID) is more likely to be baking smaller rolls overall, one of the smaller dimensions.
Frugality and reflection on the essentials
One lesson from the pandemic for those who have tried to play God might be to realise that they are reaching their limits.
The contact diet imposed on us by the coronavirus will leave its mark. Diets generally have the problem that if no sustainable dietary change follows, the yo-yo effect usually strikes. It is similar to CoV because it is not a lifestyle diet, but a lifestyle change. Every week, every month more, we restrict ourselves from the fear of the virus, even in lockdown, creates more habit. And more habit makes more sustainability.
The new frugality and reflection on the essentials will also take hold of the economy. Companies will scale back their demands and become a little more modest - it will perhaps be a bit like after the Second World War. People will be satisfied with less: huge profits are no longer so easy to make and to justify; it will then be the smaller profits that provide fulfilment, the smaller steps, the smaller groups, the somewhat scaled-back demands.
Moreover, because the virus will not merely disappear soon, there will continue to be economic ups and downs despite the vaccine and not only in such hard-hit sectors as travel and tourism. A lot will change in all industries, and that - curiously enough - is also the best climate protection we can do. Because protecting the environment also means protecting resources - and vice versa. Protecting the environment while at the same time focusing on growth is simply mutually exclusive, it doesn't work. Merely hoping for technological and scientific advances and a few more regulations, or turning a blind eye to them, is not enough to restore the necessary balance. Everyone knows that, but many people don't want to admit it. If we continue as before, the price that future generations will have to pay will only increase, and the social divide will accelerate.
The necessary change of attitude does not even require convincing but is logical. Reality as a result of COVID-19 forces us to do so anyway. As a side effect, other values will also become more important again: the value of family, friendships, stable relationships. There will be a shift away from volatility, flexibility and mobility towards more mindfulness, quality and substance, and more sustainable use of resources.
An ethically formulated conclusion for post-CoV normality considerations could be: Low motives demand a high price in the future, high motives require a low price. In the long run, it makes more sense, and it is better for all of us, for nature and the earth, for every single human being at every age, to act according to high motives than according to low ones.
There are two sides to every coin. Thus, in addition to its many tragic deaths and devastating economic effects, the pandemic has at least had the positive impact of bringing us down to earth by abruptly slowing us down, making us realise many things and rethink them. Therefore, in the future, as a breeding ground for robust success, in many cases a new value system will emerge, a different level of innovation and instead of the business maxim of profit maximisation, a comprehensive understanding of the motto "through minimum to a maximum" will take place. Only in this way will the change towards more coherent, so to speak "happiness-bringing" business and leadership models for the post-COVID zeitgeist, the 21st century, succeed—an exciting topic with immense potential.
Reinhold M. Karner
© 4th of January 2021
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