Paying the Piper In the Midst of a Pandemic
In the German folk tale, The Pied Piper of Hamelin, the leadership of a small village made a verbal contract with a mysterious flute-playing exterminator to rid the village of rats. Once the rats were successfully removed, the village leaders refused to pay. They came to regret that. From this old tale came the saying, “pay the piper” which acts as a warning. It means you better pay the true cost, or something sinister will happen.
In the Pied Piper of Hamelin tale the village lost their youngest generation, in the current COVID-19 scenario, it is our oldest generation most at risk. The question to ask ourselves today is have we stopped paying the piper? Have we lost our fear of existential risks. Have we as a society come to believe we no longer must pay the cost of risk prevention? Have we come to value short-term profits over safety and the lives of our most vulnerable?
Our lack of fear is a new thing. Throughout history humans have been very fearful for good reasons. Life was mostly short, exhausting, violent and full of suffering. For example in 17th-century England life expectancy was only 35-years old. In the early Colony of Virginia it was only 25-years old. Out of the 270 men on five ships in Magellan’s fleet, only 19 survived the voyage. Yet today we seem to believe that we are safe, in control and there is no longer the need to pay the piper.
In March of 2020 the markets crashed. Why? Investors never anticipated existential risks like COVID-19, although there have been 8 pandemic’s in the past 70 years. Investors never built the risk of a global pandemic into their financial models — and when the risk of COVID-19 had to be priced into their models in February and March of 2020, our global markets collapsed.
The United States’ entire defense budget for 2020 is $738 billion. Yet in comparison we now find ourselves pumping trillions into the US economy in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. We are now paying the piper, but on his terms.
I hope we learn from this. I hope we decide to pay the piper in the future. I hope in years to come we invest in finding and stopping pandemics early, creating vaccines and the means to produce them, have teams of experts trained to lead fights against pandemics, establish a reserve of life support systems to respond to outbreaks, and accumulate large stockpiles of protective equipment to enable our healthcare workers to provide the care we require.
Let’s pay the piper.