You argue that scarcity and inequality have played a major part in the spread of the coronavirus. What exactly do you mean by that?
“Lower economic strata are a breeding ground for pandemics. Living in a cramped space, being dependent on public transport, working essential jobs – these are all things that put you at greater risk of contracting and spreading a virus.
“Take students, for instance. Generally, they can’t travel in a safe bubble such as a car, and they live right on top of each other in large halls of residence, not to mention the fact that they don’t have the best jobs. They live in a completely different world from the one I, a professor, live in. For me, the switch to online teaching wasn’t that big a deal. This is why it’s vital that we make some changes in terms of, say, urban planning, thus preventing people from having to sit right on top of each other in the Vondel Park when it’s nice and sunny outside.
“Normally, economists will tell you that a free market is the solution to shortages, but that is not true during a pandemic. You see, in the healthcare industry, demand has nothing to do with pricing, because if you’re sick, all you want is to get better. So during a pandemic, unfortunately, medical services must be rationed. In the future we may wish to appoint certain hospitals that focus completely on the pandemic, so that other hospitals can go on providing medical services as usual, without having to postpone any procedures.”
You had some critiques about how poorly prepared we were for the current pandemic. How can we do better in this regard in future?
“In the next ten to fifteen years we will have to prepare quite thoroughly for pandemics, on all levels imaginable – individual people, companies, regions, countries, et cetera. We’ve seen in the current pandemic that you can’t trust other people to be sensible or comply with the rules, so we must be prepared ourselves. For instance, it’s a good idea to have some products at home in the event of an emergency, just in case people decide to empty the shelves at the supermarkets. In this way, we can prevent unpleasant situations such as suddenly having to do without toilet paper. And another thing we’ve learned is that the only genuine protection against a pandemic is on the supranational level rather than the national level. And the world was unlucky in that Trump, who liked to thwart international agreements, was in power.”
What will our economy be like once we’ve finally emerged from the coronavirus pandemic?
“It’s hard to draw any conclusions at this stage about the impact of the so-called ‘fiscal bazookas’, which is to say, major public investment schemes such as the EU’s coronavirus recovery fund. The Netherlands does not need to be too pessimistic about its prospects for economic recovery. Industrial production levels dropped very significantly at the start of the pandemic, but then rose very significantly, as well. We basically saw a V curve.
“Governments have done something special: they spent a huge amount of money to allow people to continue to be employed. Take cafés and restaurants, for instance. The minute they reopen their outdoor seating areas, we will all go there. So I expect that industry to make a pretty quick recovery. People fear a financial crisis due to the experiences we had in 2008, but that really was a different type of crisis. And it should be noted that during past pandemics, there was a huge impact on the economy, as well, even without any lockdowns or closed businesses. During the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, sickness absence levels ranged between 25 and 50 per cent in the United States, which wasn’t particularly great for the country’s output.”
The pandemic isn’t over yet, and you’ve already written a book about it. That seems rather soon.
Van Bergeijk laughs and says: “I’ll often lie awake when something like this happens, and I need therapy of sorts to be able to snap out of it. That’s exactly what this book is. What made it easier is that this wasn’t the first time I reflected on the subject, because I’m on a team that issues advice on national security to the government. In a pandemic scenario drafted in 2012, we found that we didn’t have enough IC unit capacity, and that tens of thousands of people would die. That was a bit of a shock to me. In 2019 we updated those scenarios. But I’ll be honest: I didn’t expect the economy to shut down. One of the reasons I wrote this book is because we didn’t foresee that.”
What kinds of insights do you expect academics to present once the pandemic is over?
“It will take us another two years to really understand what happened during this pandemic. For instance, many medical procedures have been postponed. It will probably take that amount of time to determine the impact of that. The same is true for drawing international comparisons – it will take a while before we can analyse all the figures in a study. One thing is for sure: the next pandemic is on its way, and I hope we’ll be properly prepared when it gets here. I’m kind of optimistic though:. I didn’t think we’d have a vaccine – our way out of this pandemic – this quickly when I was writing the book. What our future will be like is up to us.”