‘The gap between rich and poor can’t be resolved without deliberate inequality-busting policies, and too few governments are committed to these’ (Oxfam India CEO Amitabh Behar).

THERE is a post doing the rounds on Facebook, ‘$6 472 200 000 000 – that’s how much we can seize from the billionaire class … without even reducing the number of billionaires.’ Its first redistribution suggestion is the eradication of world hunger for 216 years. All it might take is for those 2 153 people to stump up … imagine, for a moment.

As we look ahead to a post-Covid future, some commentators wonder if this is an opportunity to ‘make the world a better place’. In the heady days of the first UK lockdown, cleaner air gave hope of dealing with climate change; the furlough scheme, a refreshing departure from years of funding cuts, kept some jobs open; the homeless were given roofs over their heads. Some have wondered if this is the time for an imaginative overhaul of the education system, especially with regard to testing. The pandemic has provoked renewed interest in a universal basic income, and people not in power advocate the virtue of citizens’ assemblies and proportional representation

Of course we are watching the gap widen between rich and poor. 828 000 jobs have been lost since last March (Independent, 27 January), many of them low-paid and in hospitality, retail and leisure. This figure is likely to rise when the furlough scheme ends. More people will make fewer ends meet when the £20 uplift on Universal Credit is taken away. Meanwhile, government contracts for Tory pals continue in plain sight: for example, a £198m contract to Computacenter (founder, a significant Tory party donor) resulted in overpriced, virus-ridden school laptops without sound drives, reminiscent of Chartwells’ £30 food hamper containing £5 worth of food. (Incidentally, the government has declared that ‘finding out whether they acted lawfully in channelling hundreds of millions or billions [of public money]to their VIP associates is not in the public interest’ (Good Law Project, 28 January).) Even the Daily Telegraph reports (14 January) that the gap in educational opportunities between state and independent schools, wrought by the pandemic, ‘has never looked wider or more shameful’.

As hedge fund managers have made money out of Brexit, and small businesses now begin to count the cost, so the ‘haves’ exploit the pandemic, palming off substandard goods to the ‘little people’. Oh, and climate crisis denying Cumbrian county councillors with mining interests have approved the opening of a new coal mine.

Right now the global ‘haves’ face a challenge. Warned by the World Health Organisation of a potential ‘catastrophic moral failure’, richer countries are being urged by the WHO to slow their own vaccination programmes and adopt the goal of ensuring that 2bn doses are evenly and fairly distributed globally to those at greatest need. The Covax scheme calls on wealthier nations to contribute financially to this end – both the UK (£548m) and US (£2.93bn – one of Joe Biden’s first acts) have done so, but more is needed. If we don’t take this opportunity to ‘make the world a better place’, we face an own goal.

Extra interesting reading:

World’s billionaires have more wealth than 4.6 billion people | Oxfam International

What can moral philosophy tell us about the Covid ‘vaccine nationalism’ row? | Vaccines and immunisation | The Guardian

Penny Merrett, Sheffield

THE FIRST lockdown was as novel as the virus – and we understood why we had to shut ourselves off from other people and we did so in the hope that things would get better soon. We had great hopes of track and trace; ‘containing the virus’ was the buzz phrase. During the first lockdown we were grateful that we were tucked away in a quiet corner of France, with very little reported illness.

The second lockdown came after a summer of relative freedom – and people travelling to our quiet corner of France bearing the virus with them. It was depressing having to revert to confinement when we had tasted some liberty. But now there was hope of a vaccine, a cure, and scientists were sounding hopeful about it being in our arms soon.

Maybe the second lockdown has never ended, but I certainly feel we are in the third wave now. Though the relaxation of rules at Christmas was slight in France, people were allowed to travel around the country again and that they did. Schools have stayed open as have non-essential shops, though bars and restaurants are shut. However, our infection rate is as high here now as it is in the rest of France, no exception to the rule anymore. The illness is in our village, maybe in the people we pass as we walk the dogs in the morning.

This time novelty is non-existent and we follow well-worn paths – we walk the dogs, we work at home, we shop once a week. We see two other couples socially, but only in the daytime as there is a curfew at 6 pm and we can only be out after that if we have a valid reason. And we don’t meet often.

Now the vaccine has been licensed in Europe and France, is being manufactured and is being distributed. Or is it? I just heard from a friend – in the first, most vulnerable group – that she has an appointment for an injection in … wait for it … April! She is well ahead of me in the queue yet her vaccination is set for 2 months’ time. At this rate I will be getting it in the summer, if I am lucky. Many people in France are angry that the rollout of the vaccine is slow to imperceptible.

At first the government’s excuse was that too many people were reluctant to be vaccinated and they required all those vaccinated to have a lecture on the possible side effects and then sign a disclaimer. That has been dropped, thankfully, but the current argument from our leaders is that this is a marathon, not a sprint, and we need to pace ourselves. It would be nice to see the race start! As I write, 600 000 people in France have received a vaccination, in our departement 69 000.

In the first lockdown we were sort of optimistic because we were naïve and thought we could beat this. In the second lockdown we found it tough as the optimism had faded, but we knew the scientists were making progress. At the beginning of the year we thought there was light at the end of the tunnel in the form of the vaccine.

The government is apparently considering a third lockdown. At least we know what the scientific targets of the government are in terms of infection rates and hospitalisations – and we can follow this in real time on the Covid app. We know why we cannot lift any of the current restrictions and will have clear evidence as to why we need to go into lockdown.

But as far as the vaccine and a way out of this pandemic is concerned, it seems we are looking at a light that is not getting any brighter or any nearer.

Jonathan Merrett, Sallèles d’Aude

LAST March the South African government imposed a heavy-handed, five-week Covid-19 lockdown. Much of it was related to the ANC’s penchant for command and control. A number of people were killed by security forces and some of the regulations were farcical. Prohibitions on the sale of cooked chickens and short-sleeved T-shirts, and on open-air, physical exercise, as means to counter an epidemic are still the stuff of ribald comment.

We are now back at a lockdown level last seen in mid-2020, the result of a second wave and a virulent variant of the virus. The government has faced this new crisis in a more mature fashion and sidelined some of its more ideologically deranged Cabinet ministers. By contrast, even though we now know a great deal about Covid-19, the public has behaved in increasingly irresponsible ways.

It should by now be widely recognised that people are the prime transmitters of the virus, particularly in crowded and poorly ventilated spaces. So the current level-three restrictions focus on gatherings or factors that bring them about: celebrations and funerals, and alcohol, although its obsession with beaches is hard to justify. Wisely, the government has left most economic activity intact.

Ironically, funerals are super-spreader events. People die, mourners gather before and after (officially restricted) funerals, and yet more people die. Satisfying the ancestors in African culture can be a death wish; and a vicious downward spiral.

The sober lesson of 2020 is that people don’t learn even when their own self-preservation is at stake. It is officially accepted that the second wave kicked off in Cape Town and on the KwaZulu-Natal coast as a result of matric raves: uncontrolled gatherings of the privileged offspring of well-off parents. The variant virus was first recorded after one of these supremely selfish, mindless events.

The new danger was well known by November, but this did not deter people travelling far and wide over Christmas. Socialising is strongly discouraged, but carries on regardless. And social distancing is a joke: the Department of Home Affairs is cutting its services despairing of non-compliant queues outside its offices. Having walked through central Pietermaritzburg twice on consecutive days recently, I have a sense people feel that if they are wearing a mask they can ignore other health precautions. Masks may protect; but also breed indifference.

Like many moderate and responsible drinkers I resent the alcohol ban, but now accept it as a price to be paid for the current crisis in a country of too many grossly irresponsible people. I’m even coming round to the idea that much tougher measures about drinking will be necessary in the long-term. But my new public spiritedness hit a snag. A few days after the renewed ban, pictures were shown of the trauma ward at Chris Hani Baragwanath hospital in Soweto. It was empty. See – prohibition works! We know there is a flourishing illicit trade in alcohol. Yet, apparently and stretching credulity, alcohol-related hospital cases can be turned off just like the tap on a barrel of beer.

It’s hard to feel any optimism about the public health situation in 2021. But the government, either by accident or design, does seem to be doing a better job. Its messages are unequivocal and it has taken some decisive action. By and large, in effect it is letting people make their own choices. And by now they should be well enough informed to recognise the most sensible ones.

Christopher Merrett, Pietermaritzburg