Taking a timeout

Financial Lessons to Learn From COVID-19

By Ilan Preskovsky

At the time of this writing, registration has just opened for those 60 years of age and over to receive their COVID-19 vaccine in the coming weeks, and we’ve miraculously avoided a third wave despite the Pesach and Easter holidays being a hotbed for large gatherings. A post-COVID world looks brighter and more tangible than ever. Indeed, despite people still wearing masks and social distancing, it looks for all the world like things are almost back to the way they were. Shopping malls, restaurants, coffee shops, and other places that were big-time no-goes during lockdown are buzzing, and, tragically, the Joburg traffic is back in full force – though the Sandton area, mercifully, is still more manageable than before.

When you consider how wearing face masks, sanitising one’s hands, and avoiding close physical contact with those outside one’s immediate family have become second nature to most of us, our “new normal” has just become…normal. This normalcy, however, is for so many of us, an illusion. Perhaps, even a defence mechanism. At best, it’s proof positive of the perseverance of the human spirit in the face of tremendous obstacles.

Still, according to the reports, some three million people have died from the virus, including more than 53 000 South Africans and numerous people from our own community. Many are still recovering from the after-effects of falling ill with COVID-19 and many families are still shattered by the loss of loved ones. Perhaps its most widespread impact, though, is economic.

On a global scale, the economic fallout from the pandemic has been called the “Second Great Depression” and even if it hasn’t actually reached such calamitous levels and the stock market has somehow weathered the storm far better than anyone could have guessed (probably something to do with tech stocks benefiting from everyone being indoors), experts seem to agree that things are going to get worse before they get better. And this is only on a countrywide, almost esoteric level.

For so many individuals and businesses, the pandemic has already obliterated their finances. Worse, there seems to be a “second wave” of financial devastation as this financial year-end has revealed that many businesses have been hit harder than expected by the past year, resulting in even more cost-cutting, which inevitably means more closures and more layoffs.

Obviously, this doesn’t apply equally to everyone. Some have lost their source of income entirely. Some have had their pay and/or hours of work slashed. Some have been fortunate enough to keep their jobs and are proceeding as normal. Some industries have actually benefited from the pandemic, most notably manufacturers of face masks and sanitisers, as well as home-entertainment and tech companies.

And, of course, while so many in the middle, working, and lower classes are pulled further into poverty, the ludicrously wealthy have only become ludicrously wealthier. It has been said that if Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos, gave each and every Amazon employee – from warehouse workers to drivers to upper management – a $100 000+ bonus, he would still come out wealthier than he was before the pandemic. If that doesn’t make you feel queasy, at least a little…

Still, for all that the economic effects of the pandemic have been overwhelmingly awful to so many people, they do actually have some valuable lessons to teach us all. As Victor Frankl learned and then preached: there is great meaning to be found in even the greatest suffering.

A Time to Take Stock

There are pragmatic, financial lessons to be learned from COVID-19, but before even approaching those, the greatest lessons that both the pandemic and its economic aftershocks have to teach us are far more fundamental.

However horrible those first few months of the pandemic were, there was something exceptionally positive about them too. Modern life may not be rubbish, as ‘90s britpop band, Blur, might suggest, but it is a runaway train on a never-ending track. The arrival of COVID-19 on our shores and the hard lock down that followed brought that train to an unexpected stop. It may have hurt, but it was also a relief: a breather from the proverbial rat race and the perfect opportunity to take stock of one’s life, one’s priorities, and one’s relationships.

It was a time when the phrase “we’re all in it together” went from being the slogan of a particular left-wing American politician to the slogan of people across the world. It was a time when there was a new-found appreciation for those offering essential services. It was a time when the world stopped and took stock of its priorities, especially in terms of climate change, communal life, and personal relationships. And it was a time when so many of us came face-to-face with financial insecurity and had to re-evaluate – sometimes evaluate for the first time – our relationship with money.

The extent to which the pandemic hurt people’s wallets was, as noted, extremely varied and it often showed just how profound the wealth inequality gap really is across the globe. What is universal, though, is that few people were completely unaffected by the economic changes brought on by the pandemic.

The super rich, predictably, got richer, and the poor, no less predictably, got poorer, but even those who retained their employment and their income were stuck at home, often with young children or completely alone, and being asked to work from an environment that isn’t always conducive to productivity. Indeed, for many of us who work from home anyway there wasn’t much of an adjustment – though, it’s interesting to note how creative people responded in such diametrically opposite ways to one another as they either landed up increasing their work a hundred-fold or found it impossible to so much as form a coherent thought. Nevertheless, for most everybody else it certainly was an adjustment.

The luckiest of the lucky ones were stuck with plenty of disposable income and not much to spend it on, which gave them plenty of opportunity to fix up some of their finances, to pay off debts or even, with the low interest rates, to put down money on a house or a car. Or, you know, to blow it on online shopping, takeaways, and home entertainment – albeit with the intensely restrictive early lockdown, they sometimes had to wait a bit.

On the other hand, the significantly less fortunate were at least given a brief reprise from extra spending while stuck at home, but were often left to desperately draw up a new budget that keeps them just about afloat even as it sinks them further and further into debt or would have them needing to rely on welfare for the first time in their lives. For them, the already hefty psychological toll of lockdown itself would only be compounded by new anxieties about, in the most extreme cases, putting food on the table and keeping a roof above their family’s head.

Even if the context was wildly, and I mean wildly, different, the lessons to be learned were basically the same. First and most: simply, stop taking things for granted. It’s a lesson that Judaism itself constantly teaches, as every day we are told to sanctify the mundane and elevate the physical, but this was a powerful reminder that surely awakened even those of us who have been sleep-walking through life for years. Secondly, and directly tied to the first point, our hopefully rediscovered appreciation for so much of what we take for granted also gave us the perfect opportunity to re-evaluate our priorities and identify the things that really matter most to us. And this certainly applies to our approach to money: how we manage it, what we spend it on, whether we save it, and how we relate to it.

Obviously, this is a rather rosy way of looking at things and no doubt for many the simple realities of having to home school their kids or the blood-curdling terror of unemployment, very much got in the way of taking a breath to gain a new appreciation for their life – quite fairly too – but they are lessons to be learned regardless. Ironically, once things start to return to “normal” and, hopefully, employment opportunities start presenting themselves, it becomes both much easier to take a step back and evaluate things and much easier, once again, to start taking things for granted.

But then, that’s the kicker about life in general, isn’t it?

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