Compass Counterpoint

29 February 2020

COVID 19: Absenteeism —
the absent word

The world’s media coverage of the potential political and social consequences of the pandemic so far has been painfully inadequate in sharing the most essential and pertinent information that should be the public’s right to know. We should all be armed with a clear idea of how individuals, communities, and the world might be impacted, and what forward planning entails. The WHO seems to be buckling under political and economic pressures rather than fulfulling its mandate. The US CDC’s responses have been ambiguous, as they kow-tow to politicians and bankers rather than focusing on the public’s well being. The media seems to be sorely lacking in investigative chutzpah. And, most surprisingly, there is one immense implication that is glaringly absent in today’s narrative:

Absenteeism.

While we’re hearing how absence from work is already impacting on economies and the stock market, the full potential impact of absenteeism is not being touched upon. Of course human deprivation under quarantine and travel restrictions is important. So are job loss, debt default, economic recession, the difficult trade-offs between human freedoms and new restrictions, and much else. We’re now seeing the deaths of a few doctors that remind us that our ultimately fragile medical infrastructures are geared for diseases we know — not mass treatment of diseases we don’t know. The tipping point would be if besieged healthy medical staff increasingly walk away from their work, deeming the risk too great.

So why would absenteeism — simply not showing up for work — ultimately transcend every other concern?

Because nothing would be more dramatic or crippling to our global infrastructure. At every workplace on the planet, when enough people don’t show up for work — even if it’s a one-man band — essential services and production stop.

In today’s hyper-connected, unimaginably complex globalised world, we’re already seeing the early consequences of absenteeism. A number of large manufacturers have announced that they will be closing their factories owing to a shortage of essential components. China manufactures components for just about everything that is made today, and is in virtual lock-down with a large percentage of its factories at every level of the world economy. But where does the greatest danger lie? Most everybody by now has heard the term “just in time”, which refers to the fact that these days very few goods are overproduced and warehoused. Instead they’re made on demand, with little or no regard to surge capacity if the need arises. The just-in-time policy is very efficient and cost-effective when everything is running smoothly. Then along comes a new virus and in no time the entire system can be knocked off kilter. Globalisation means that just enough bits-and-pieces for everything are made and shipped everywhere.

Through the carefully modulated media, the public is being prepared to anticipate some short term shortages of pharmaceutical products, and other goods, and told that it might not be a bad idea to buy a few extra jars of peanut butter and packets of rice when you next go to the supermarket. If we look a little deeper into the daily news, we’ll see that instances of food hoarding and looting are already taking place in areas under quarantine situations. Panic is starting to overwhelm rational thought and civilised behaviour.

Things would really begin to get critical if essential social services and infrastructures started to break down, and basic necessities became scarce or unavailable. Societies function because of a tacit obedience to the Rule of Law. Without it comes anarchy and chaos. The same dynamics apply to supply chain disruptions that start, say, by creating a shortage of vehicle parts and medications as we are seeing today. Unfortunately, this also applies to power grids. These comprise millions of pieces of manufactured goods, large and small, that are constantly being repaired and replaced on a daily basis. They extend in an infinitely complex web all around the planet. For the lights to stay on, the water to keep flowing in the pipes, and the toilets to keep flushing, these millions of parts and millions of workers need to be on hand. If the parts don’t show up just in time, all the dials aren’t tweaked, and all the buttons aren’t pushed, because enough workers are not on the job, the system collapses. If the trucks and cargo ships were to come to a halt, so would shipments of oil and coal that are essential for power. The internet, incidentally, is as fragile as the energy grids. It would take little to knock it over, and to lose our medical and banking records and, of course, very much more.

If many factories closed, businesses failed, and primary goods couldn’t be delivered, the consequences would be catastrophic. However, those of us who remained to pick up the pieces would eventually create new societies. But we must not forget the 450 operating nuclear power plants around the world. What would happen if their highly-specialised workforce, with scant redundancy, didn’t show up for work? A nuclear power plant can’t be disabled with the flip of a switch. The effects of a rogue shutdown would have repercussions that would last orders of magnitude of time longer than that of bacterial decomposition or the molecular breakdown of cement, steel and plastic.

Radioactivity would create dead zones, continuing to contaminate for tens of thousands of years.

It’s worth talking about the worst case scenario as we face — or don’t face — what may turn out to be the greatest challenge our civilisation has ever seen.