Coronavirus is infecting the whole world already, not with a flu that kills the elderly, but with fear. And if ever we needed a reminder that we have nothing to fear but fear itself, this global happening is surely our lesson. For the reaction is now close to panic in many nations and the consequences are set to be monumental.
For sure, I don’t want to get coronavirus by any means, but as our hotels empty, global travel grinds to a halt, and our stock markets tumble, just a few people remind us, every now and then, that this new virus kills fewer of those that get it than the flu.
To get that context straight, flu goes around the northern hemisphere every cold season and we don’t generally view it too gravely, though many have moved towards getting anti-flu vaccinations each winter.
Yet corona-fear looks set to create havoc. It has so far seen our stock markets drop trillions in value as shareholders have rushed to sell shares before the infection knocks corporate performance and consumer demand.
Someone sent me notes from Japan, where six people have died from the virus, and the government has closed dozens of museums, Tokyo Disneyland, aquariums and amusement parks.
Yet the moment that really brought the nature of corona-fear home to me was a single announcement from British Airways that it was putting staff on unpaid leave to alleviate losses caused by the virus.
Now airlines are being hit. Virtually every airline has suspended flights to China, most to Italy, and some to Iran. But British Airways has cancelled hundreds of flights to other places too, including between the UK and the US, where other airlines are still running theirs.
That’s not a safety issue. BA is collapsing the flights because it says they are carrying too few booked passengers to be financially viable. So are other airlines’ flights fuller?
Either way, BA’s staff have been put on unpaid leave, which is the PR way of saying their salary and work have been stopped without notice or warning. It wouldn’t be allowed on general business decline. BA would have to cover notice and redundancies. Instead, those employees have rents and mortgages that will still need paying this March and suddenly a zero where a salary was.
Yet I am realising that is likely to be how this plays in business, that the first to go down will be those that were already weak.
And that worries me a lot in terms of the disease’s impact in Kenya. We already have the worst locust invasion in 70 years. We already have formal businesses closing at the fastest rate ever following the newly aggressive approach of KRA to gathering funds from the just 300,000 registered to pay tax. We are already running debt at seemingly unserviceable levels and a budget we can’t meet.
And we are just about to start moving into that slowing of business that comes before an election and starts steadily earlier each time.
If our flights get cancelled, our horticulture exports won’t travel on them. In the UK, Britons are anyway being told to stock up with pasta and tinned foods ready for self-isolation, some kind of near-curfew ahead. They won’t be going to supermarkets to buy fresh Kenyan beans.
Our hotels must, likewise, be reeling. And all of that is bad. But when all the horticultural growers and hotels pay less tax and lay off staff, who then don’t pay tax, we are now so vulnerable.
Which is why we need our own government crisis team on this one, and their mission should be only one: ensuring our resilience. We are going to take more knocks. We are not so very strong right now.
How are we going to ensure the extra blows don’t tip us right over? Top team please, attention. Don’t make this like the locusts and something that runs as a permanent ‘next Tuesday’, ‘next Thursday’ procrastination until it’s all too late.
It’s time for smart government, and the smartest government of all will be the one that sees where to open the valves to keep us open until this virus recedes.