Coronavirus, the biggest challenge to face

The aim of The Fashion Retailer blog has been to provide an updated overview of the  artistic and scientific approach to the business of Fashion, from design to operations. Fashion is a form of social expression, and today that millions of people are staying home because of the coronavirus disease, it´s time to make a pause. Miuccia Prada said “What you wear is how you present yourself to the world, especially today, when human contacts are so quick. Fashion is instant language.” Many of us have temporary lost a part of our identity, the possibility to communicate face-to-face in the real world. We didn´t know how lucky we are and many learned that freedom (freedom of movement in this case) is an essential need.

PART 1:

In December 2019, an infectious desease was identified in Wuhan, a traditional manufacturing and logistics hub in China. But, this article is not about the origins or characteristics of Covid-19, the so-called disease, because this is not my area of expertise. These are thoughts on how we got to the current situation. The first part, from a sociological approach. Next Covid-19 related article (part 2) is going to cover the impact on the business of fashion.

It is difficult to remain neutral as we tend to interpret events inspired by social factors like education, socioeconomic status, location, culture, religion, …, and individual, psychological factors like confirmation and attribution biais, just to mention a few that influence our perception. So, this is a point of view.

From a sociological point of view, while disease was progressing, the “virus of prejudice” was spreading around, not only in Europe but also USA and other countries. “Chinese like to eat wild animals”, “Chinese are dirty” or “Chinese are uncivilized” are some of the comments you may hear. In Florence, a man challenged pedestrians to hug him to protest discrimination against Asians. Fear caused the “exodus” from chinese restaurants and stores. A few weeks later, this fear happened in Spain not only in relation to Chinese businesses but Italian restaurants too. Many thought that “any Chinese or Italian could have coronavirus”. Today, the virus is also “Spanish”…

Prejudice virus Coronavirus Europe Milan

“I am not a virus, I am a human being, free me from prejudice” – Florence, February 2020

In february, GSMA cancelled the Mobile World Congress 2020 that takes place every year in Barcelona. In Spain, on March the 7th, the Government cancelled the Barcelona Marathon because 50% of runners where foreigners and “could bring the virus”. But, maintained the feminist marches on the 8th during International Women´s day. Demonstrations brought out an estimated 350,000 protestors in Madrid and 200,000 in Barcelona. On the 7th, FCBarcelona was playing in Camp Nou, a stadium with a 99,000 capacity. And many other matches were played.

Covid-19 was confirmed to have spread to Spain on 31 January 2020, when a German tourist tested positive for in La Gomera, Canary Islands. So, the disease was already spreading up in Spain during those events. The virus does not distinguish or respect borders, ethnicities or nationalities… Not only the Spanish Government, but also Johnson in UK, Trump in USA, Bolsonaro in Brasil, amongst many others, are examples of lack of action, bad decision-making and how governments underestimated the threat of coronavirus.

How different countries are dealing with Covid-19? Some countries bet on containment, others on suppression. Policies include voluntary home quarantine, social distancing of those over 70 years old, social distancing of entire population, closure of schools and universities, closure of retail stores (except pharmacies and grocery stores) and restaurants… Outdoor sports activities, such as walking, jogging or cycling, are allowed in some countries.

To summarize: different solutions, different implementations and limited collaboration between countries. Covid-19 looks like a new sports competition, like the Olympic Games, but instead of medals, we have cases and deaths. See below an example of “medal” table, even if it´s not clear how countries report cases and deaths (e.g. France only records Covid-19 fatalities in hospitals)

Coronavirus by Country - 29th of March

Confirmed Cases and Deaths by Country, Territory, or Conveyance – Worldometer. March 28th

This type of rankings see stereotypes, discrimination and prejudices emerge again as humans tend to create shortcuts while developing systematic cognitive biais… Looking at the above list, you could raise the question: why Germany has relatively few deaths from Coronavirus? Search about it on the internet and you will find hundreds of articles asking the same question (see The New York Times). Prejudices about Germans include “cold, reserved, less-friendly” while Spaniards and Italians are “loud, lazy and chaotic”. Similar prejudices emerge when explaining how China is battling the virus: “China is a dictatorship”, “Chinese are obedient and disciplined”, “China´s coronavirus figures are not reliable”… It would be wrong to use those prejudices to infer why Italy and Spain have so many deaths, Germany fewers or how China could control the virus.

Why Germany fewer deaths from coronavirus

These behaviour patterns can help people that are uneducated, ignorant and narrow-minded to justify the above results. Even if every country could have specific characteristics, globalisation homogenized the world´s cultures and lifestyles. We have more similarities than differences. Coronavirus deaths can´t be explained only by attitudes or cultures.

Factors that could explain these differences are political, economic and sociologic: Age-gender pyramid, Household size and composition, Weather, Political Authority, Form of Government (e.g. Welfare State), Religion, Beliefs (romanticism, liberalism…), Social Connection, Lifestyle, Population density, Capacity of health systems, Number of Beds & ventilators or Testing, to mention a few.

Coronavirus social conseuquences similar consumption patterns western societies grocery stores

The Toilet Paper Phenomenon. Similar consumption patterns during coronavirus. (source: The Economist)

These factors can explain how people reacted before, during and after the state of alarm was declared. But this is not only about individuals or attitudes. This is about how leaders and governments are managing their budgets, their economy and planning for its survival. Coronavirus is a Black Swan (an event that comes as a surprise, has a major effect, and is often inappropriately rationalised after the fact with the benefit of hindsight_Wikipedia), but what happens when the event is repeated at different times in  different places? It´s not any more a surprise…it´s a lack of anticipation.

Solidarity

I would like to mention a sentence from Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, on European coordinated response to the COVID-19 outbreak. “When Europe really needed to be there for each other, too many initially looked out for themselves. When Europe really needed an ‘all for one’ spirit, too many initially gave an ‘only for me’ response. And when Europe really needed to prove that this is not only a ‘fair weather Union’, too many initially refused to share their umbrella.”

During a Crisis, we can see the dark side of human nature. Covid-19 is not a “Kung-Flu”,  as a White House official referred to the virus, but a global virus. Coronovirus is going to kill far more people in NYC during the coming days than 9/11. Collaboration between territories, sectors and disciplines is the only solution.

What are the limits of solidarity?

Solidarity has a clear limit in regards of the #stayathome request: TIME.

What is the household savings rate in your country? Do you live in a modern welfare state? What is the unemployment rate? How big is black market? How many people live in poverty? What is the household size and composition (Family is an economic unit)? Questions like the ones mentioned could give you a response about the probabilities of rebellion. How close are we from the tipping point? A month, two months…?

Just make the following assumption. You are living in poverty and you deal in the black market (e.g. A gardener or waiter with no employment contract). Suddenly, you are obliged to stay at home. How do you survive? Now, think you are not the only one. Note that in 2017, shadow economy as a percentage of GDP was 19.8 in Italy, 17.2 in Spain or 5.4 in USA. Many others could find themselves in the same situation. It´s the spark that could light the fire.

This is only the starting point. It´s not science fiction. If this could happen in the richest countries, what is going to happen in developing ones?

Would be the cure worse than the problem? Closing borders and blocking the economy for a long period of time is not the solution in a global ecosystem with an economy based on consumerism. This doesn´t mean that the system was perfect. In fact, this is a historic opportunity to embrace a more sustainable economy.


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