Happy New Year
Riots in Washington, UK covid-related deaths topping 100,000, the hardest of hard trade deals as the UK leaves the EU – what’s happy about it?
Yes, it all feels quite gloomy at the minute, but I do wonder if there is an element of the dark before the dawn?
On the very day when supporters of President Trump stormed the US capitol building in Washington DC, Raphael Warnock became the first ever African-American senator to be elected in the state of Georgia. As he said himself of his mother, Verene, the 82-year-old hands that used to pick somebody else’s cotton went to the polls and picked her youngest son to be a United States senator.
In the midst of all the chaos, that’s the American dream, alive and kicking, right there.
And then there’s covid. Right at the point where the government and its scientific advisers are telling us that the NHS could be overwhelmed, and that this the most dangerous point, the most incredible feat of science and capitalism in action is unveiling before our eyes.
As I write, more than 2.6 million people in the UK have received their first dose of vaccines, vaccines which have been developed from a standing start in under a year. Even if everybody would prefer that the recommended two doses were administered, I’m sure we’ll get to that stage. In the meantime, even one dose gives 70% protection and will be effective in getting the transmission rate down, and the virus under control.
You can be proud to have been a part of that.
Yes, really. ‘Big Pharma’, oft maligned and sometimes rightly so, are public companies and they need capital to develop any new product, including vaccines. Some of the funds in which your pension or ISA or whatever are invested are shareholders or bondholders in these companies – they have contributed capital to them. Some of your capital. Without the collective power of that capital, vaccines would not have been developed at warp speed, and rolled out in the quantities needed.
The scientists have done a truly amazing job. If you haven’t done so already, the BBC Panorama documentary about the race to a vaccine is worth a watch.
I can think of two other occasions – the Manhattan Project and the Apollo Programme – when science, engineering and private capital were spurred on by government to goals which at the time most people would have considered unachievable, and in the case of the A-bomb, to help combat a serious threat to human life and civilisation, just as with covid.
The difference is that Robert Oppenheimer, one of the lead scientists on the Manhattan Project, on seeing the destructive power of the first nuclear test detonation at Yucca Flats in Nevada, was moved to remark, Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds. In contrast, the efforts of all those involved with developing and manufacturing covid vaccines, especially directly but even indirectly, have been involved in saving lives.
Capitalism gets a bad reputation betimes, and sometimes rightly. Change in the way it works is needed, and rapidly at that. Mark Carney argued in the 2020 Reith Lecture series that we, all of us, societies must urgently redefine how we value investments and the returns they generate if we are to successfully combat social inequality, deprivation and climate change. We need to think about returns in terms of not just financial value, but also societal values (the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive, by the way).
But sometimes capitalism produces something amazing. This is one of those times.
We should celebrate it.
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