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GDP didn’t save nations from COVID-19

The terrifying global development of COVID-19 in the past year is likely to shake long-held assumptions about the benefits of prosperity and industrial technological development. Estimates of which countries were best prepared for a pandemic fully demonstrate these prejudices: The 2019 Global Health Security Index, jointly produced by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and the Nuclear Threat Initiative, ranked the United States at the top the United States Kingdom immediately behind, then the Netherlands and Sweden just a few rows further; New Zealand comes in 35th; and Africa is red blocked. A Washington Post report on the index when it was released expresses patronizing surprise that "a number of middle- and low-income countries outperform some wealthy countries."

A comparison of these assessments with reality shows how imprecise they were. A map of COVID-19 deaths per hundred thousand people shows almost the opposite of the on-call map: the United States, Great Britain, and most of Europe are dark with total deaths, while most of Africa and Asia have had far fewer deaths.

Certainly some wealthy countries like New Zealand have contained the pandemic well. But also places like the Dharavi slum in Mumbai, one of the densest and poorest places in the world. And while Africa is facing a second wave – and rich countries' reluctance to share vaccines and the technology to build them – the numbers on the continent are still far better than in the United States or the United Kingdom, though There are a number of different theories that explain this success – including leadership, civil society, epidemic experience, demographics, and successful implementation of the guidelines recommended by the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – and none of them include them buying a way out.

National wealth and national power, combined with the enduring soft power of colonialist philosophies that labeled non-industrialized places as inferior, greatly affect the way we perceive governments and countries. But these properties didn't protect people from COVID-19. Living in a wealthy country also doesn't protect people from the effects of hurricanes or unusual temperatures, poorly built fireworks, or toxic tap water.

GDP is a useful measure, but not the only one. Why does the international community still consider narrow economic growth to be the goal all countries should work towards, even at the cost of planetary viability and human rights?

The world needs a new approach.

I am not suggesting that success in preventing the spread of COVID-19 should be the only measure of whether a nation is doing well. China has contained the virus fairly well since the first outbreak, but its abuse of Uyghurs, to name just one example, disqualifies it from serving as an example of governance goals.

But the failures during the pandemic have made it clear what even economists have been telling us for some time: the current measurements of a country's success are inaccurate. GDP or economic growth rates are not a useful indicator of good governance or a good quality of life. Sometimes, if at all, they are hostile to it.

Current international or national development efforts almost always aim to mimic the status of rich countries, either explicitly or implicitly. Instead, they replicate patterns of environmental degradation and growing inequality, with promises of prosperity and ease, security and prestige that always shine ahead like a Hollywood-fueled illusion.

This supposed success story is not possible for every country. For example, remote islands, where transportation and information costs are high, are unlikely to benefit from trade and industrialization. At this point in history, it may even be impossible for any country: the rules have changed since the last leaps in development – most of them are powered by the Marshall Plan or similar amounts of foreign aid or cheap oil – and those that are are in power will tilt the field further to prevent others from questioning their status.

The more important question, however, is not even whether this goal is possible, but whether it is desirable. Does the world need more extractive industries like tourism and gambling or manufacturing based economies with competitive advantage based solely on willingness to exploit people and natural resources? Do they need more cities in which financial, real estate and work structures increase inequality and legitimize prosperity year after year?

The promise was that economic growth will slow down and permeate, which will lead to better politics and a burgeoning middle class (for some reason the middle class keeps growing up), and that the quality of life will improve for all. However, we have seen that such claims do not work in so-called developed countries. To the extent that rising GDPs are beneficial in the context of exploitative industries, they also create significant human and environmental costs. And apparently they don't leave national governments enough budget or political will to protect their citizens from disasters, whether naturally triggered or as a by-product of the very industrial processes that are supposed to bring prosperity.

To be clear, I think everyone should have access to clean water, excellent education, modern health care, leisure and disposable income. I think wealthy countries should provide more aid to poor countries than they do now, and middle-income countries should provide resources to reduce poverty. Macroeconomic growth isn't the only way to get there, however – it may not get us there at all.

The international community needs to change the metrics used and, most importantly, its vision of what success looks like. And while wealthy, and therefore influential, people are likely to continue to advocate the idea that wealth is the most important criterion of everything, the introduction of new measures of governance may begin to destroy that assumption and encourage disparate behaviors.

There are some models of how we could change. We could focus on inequality rather than growth. The degrowth movement prioritizes social and environmental well-being over economic indicators. We could re-focus on governance, measuring transparency, accountability, responsiveness and human rights, and possibly taking some pointers from the Accountability Lab's programs to promote integrity among civil servants. (Full disclosure: the lab's founder is a friend, and I have an ongoing donation there.) We could strengthen environmental stewardship. We could look directly at the indices of happiness, quality of life, and satisfaction. While these informal measurements do not have the academic accuracy or legitimacy of economic indicators. But that can be built up. And at least such benchmarks could point us in the right direction.

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