I had a sinking feeling yesterday morning as I read about the new B.1.1.529 COVID strain. We will have to see how dangerous and infectious it is, but the signs are bad, and the financial markets reacted accordingly and fled to safe havens, the money equivalent of pulling the duvet over your head and hoping the world will go away. I am not alone I suspect in carrying a sense of resignation and foreboding about this new development. But my word it really is getting boring now. There seems no end in sight. I have some sympathy with those that turn to conspiracy theories – sympathy only, not agreement – that there is something purposeful and sinister behind all of this. The vindictiveness of the way that this virus changes to kill all signs of hope, as we again contemplate lockdowns, and illness, death, even for those that have been vaccinated, even those that have had COVID, twice even is astounding.
The day carried on in more or less the same way as it had started. Difficult things to be done, delicate conversations to be had. In mid afternoon the weather changed in sympathy to my mood, dark clouds looming and lightning flickering over Salamina on their way to besiege Piraeus, rain hammering against the windows looking for a way in to disrupt my day further. But then the sun came out again, victory was snatched from the jaws of victory, and I went to teach my economics of sea transport class at the Institute of Chartered shipbrokers, still being chased by worries and phone calls along the way. No time in all of this to write a blog yesterday.
The class was a good one as it turned out – international trade, with a sprinkling of absolute and comparative advantage – but maybe because of the weather, or the fact that it was a Friday only the dedicated turned up, but this meant it became more of a seminar than a lecture, and much was discussed amongst all of us, from China, to iron ore, Nietzsche, wine, aeroplanes, cars, iPhones, ships, energy, emissions, Plato, trade wars, Trump and Biden, clothing manufacture, market systems in non-democratic states, George Orwell, brands of cars and many points in between, not forgetting the perfect possible night out in Athens (answer: it depends on the company). I was too tired however to carry on the conversation over a drink with the students despite their kind invitation – it was that kind of week – and so went home, and finally pulled the duvet over my head only after a few of the thoughts bouncing around my head had been soothed and placated by some red wine and music.
But something of the lesson, and the week, and the music, woke with me this morning. I still had this blog to write, but couldn’t settle on a theme, or indeed settle down at all. In any case I had to go shopping. I looked in the fridge – nothing – and pulled out some things in the freezer that could be used a basis for the weekend’s cooking. I then took my shopping trolley – I am nothing if stylish at the weekend – to go down to the street market down the road.
The noisy and concrete bound centre of Athens where I live is hardly a place you may think for gentle and soothing reflection, but today, a day fresh after more overnight rain, gave me a welcome sense of reconciliation with my place in the world. The density of the population here only served to highlight the buzz of activity and connectivity of the world: different shops selling all sorts of different things, businesses is the business of making, repairing and doing things, even on a Saturday morning. Housewives washing the dust of the city from their shutters and balconies, calling to each other across the street and down to neighbours walking down the streets, children chasing after each other on scooters and bikes, men carrying out their Saturday errands and duties with a serious purposefulness.
The street market was full of people buying and selling everything in season – the spinach, broccoli and cauliflowers looked especially good, although the oranges, lemons and clementines piled high on the stalls, little batteries storing sunshine from the long hot summer are a sure sign that winter is on its way. On my way up to the supermarket I saw glimpses of the wider city peeking through the gaps at the end of the streets: grey rain laden clouds a sullen backdrop to the sharp bright relief of Filopappou, the large blue and white Greek flag on the Acropolis peeping over the blocks of apartments, the massive frown of Imittos glowering in the background. My shopping done, I walked back home in a lighter mood, filled with hope.
Well of course, you may say, it’s Saturday, you are getting out and walking, and away from the daily grind, and doing and seeing things that give you pleasure. True, I would say in reply, but there is something else, an undercurrent, a force that I can almost feel today, a normal November Saturday in Athens, that makes my mood even better.
The world keeps turning, spinning on its axis, tipping one way or the other as the seasons come and go, bringing with them the fruits of nature and mankind’s labour. And the activity of human beings, whether purposeful or frivolous, malicious or kind-hearted, carries on regardless. We seem to be in a bad place at the moment, guilt-ridden with the damage we have done and are continuing to do to our environment, geopolitical danger on the horizon, at home or away, the mutations of COVID-19 causing further mischief to our way of life, and danger to the health and lives of millions of people.
But despite all the predictions of the end of the world, or less alarmingly supply chain disruption, onshoring, deglobalisation and a more simpler, and sinister binary black-and-white economic system, the world is becoming more complex, and interconnected, and is still growing, in interesting and hopefully better ways. Indeed it is trade that is helping the world keep going in these coronavirus poisoned times. When China announces that it is easing cabotage rules on container transhipment between Chinese ports to ease congestion and free up cargo and ship movement – even at the same time as blocking access to Chinese AIS data – this is a sign of hope. Hopefully the US may consider changing some of the more restrictive measures of the Jones Act but don’t hold your breath. But the fact that the pressure remains on freeing up trade routes, and removing the obstacles to trade themselves, of increasing interdependency, and connection, is a sign of hope.
Ships keep sailing, cargoes and goods are bought and sold. And everywhere you look, in the big and all small things, the beat goes on. Despite COVID, trade wars, and worse, human beings find a way through. The world cannot but keep going, and if that curiosity and desire, intelligence and enterprise, is still prevalent in the world, who am I to stand in its way?
The thought of a new and vicious version coronavirus passing through the world is so depressing because of the threat of further locking us down, restricting our movements and who we see. And as we now know, having lived through these times, and tasting freedom once again, we are extremely reluctant to go back to a lesser, narrower, life. Trade, the movement of goods, services, and people around the world is, I would argue, not just an instinct but the reason for the great leaps in civilisation and development in the world. That trade has been a necessary lifeline for our lockdown world should show us that without it, the world is a worse place. The beat must go on.