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Facing Corona’s Economic Fallout: If Not Now, When?

This is the moment to put in place a mega-chesed fund

 

The situation the world is facing now seems unprecedented — a worldwide epidemic that has closed down the world’s economy. However, the same universal interconnectedness that was so instrumental in creating this problem can also supply the means of recovery.

The greatest “achdus” the world has ever experienced — an example of nations working together — is the successful worldwide eradication of smallpox, a disease that had previously killed up to 35 percent of its victims and left others scarred or blind. In 1980, after decades of efforts by the World Health Organization, the World Health Assembly endorsed a statement declaring smallpox eradicated. The last case occurred in Somalia in 1977. This global effort was successful only because every last nation cooperated with the WHO, who tracked every last inoculation of the individuals exposed to the illness.

Just after the successful testing of the first atomic bomb, the physicist Niels Bohr saw an unsettling future. He reasoned that if the US could figure out how to make an atomic bomb, then Russia and other nations would also eventually get there, and when they did, the whole world would be subject to an arm’s race. He proposed an open exchange of information: Let the US share the secrets of the atomic bomb, on the condition that no one would build one. He argued that there should be positive unity — as in the case of the war on smallpox — instead of a negative unity. Because the bottom line is that, with countries caught up in a nuclear arms race, only the threat of mutually assured destruction — a hair-trigger dynamic — would keep the world from blowing itself up.

All very interesting, but why is this important?

Rabiv Akiva Eiger’s letter during the cholera outbreak some 200 years ago has lately been making the rounds. He speaks of restricting minyanim to 15 people, and having a policeman stationed outside to assure that no more would attend. Whether and how that letter or guideline applies to the current situation is not the focus of this piece.

I wish to focus on another letter written by Rabiv Akiva Eiger at that same time in which he speaks of how the epidemic wreaked havoc on the markets and caused the economy to collapse. He advocated setting up a community organization to address the fallout. The following is a rough translation of that letter:

“A considerable amount of money has been raised from generous people. Distinguished, special individuals with sterling middos have been appointed — referred to as the Commission Trustees — who will be involved with this matter. Primarily, their task is to distribute, each week, a large sum of money to the poor, and specifically to those who formerly had supported themselves in a dignified fashion and had donated to others, as they carried the burden of the public. But at this time, about a year after the collapse of the markets in Poland, the livelihood of the merchants and craftsmen has faltered. The little remaining merchandise has been consumed, because the plague has closed all markets — until the last loaf of bread. These individuals cry privately, but save face in front of others. The Commission members should analyze and supervise the weekly distribution, and interview each individual who shares their travails with them. They should keep the information private without revealing it at all. Chas v’shalom.”

Rabiv Akiva Eiger continues in this theme, discussing how in their desperation for the very basics, these formerly well-off individuals were forced to eat foods that only exacerbated their disease; the crisis had reached a point where there was a dearth of even the most basic necessities. This communal organization’s task was to ameliorate these ills.

Facing our current situation, I think the time has come to be proactive. This is the moment to put in place a mega-chesed fund to deal with all the economic ramifications of this pandemic. We cannot wait until businesses close and unemployment soars; by then it will be too late. Rather, this fund should make free loans available to tide people over, or offer stipends to keep people afloat.

I have no idea what the details should look like. But I do know that Klal Yisrael has been blessed over the last several years with untold wealth, so this is not a pipe dream. Let us be proactive, and ahead of the curve, and avert the suffering that will result if things are not propped up before they collapse. Let there be a proactive, positive unity instead of scrambling out of desperation.

We can do it and I know we will. Let’s do it earlier rather than later.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 804)

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