Are we losing the moral high ground on Covid?

Not only must we never see more than five other people at the same time, we must report those who do to the police, says Merryn Somerset Webb.

People in Wuhan, China © Shutterstock
China’s lockdown: it’s getting harder for us to criticise
(Image credit: © Shutterstock)

At the very start of the pandemic, on a plane from somewhere to somewhere, I pulled a furious article out of the China Daily. The author was maddened by criticism of Chinese handling of Covid. The New York Times had accused it of “Mao Style Socialist Control”; Foreign Policy had gone for plain old “Incompetent”; and China Uncensored for “Authoritarian Crackdown”. But as far as the paper was concerned, the criticism was all about the West running a xenophobic anti-China campaign “because they really want you to hate.”

I kept it, then, as a reminder of just how Chinese and US relations were breaking down. But now it is also a trying reminder of how much less of the moral high ground the West is hanging on to than it was even in March. We aren’t exactly welding people into apartment buildings here. But there’s a nasty precedent in being told that not only must we never see more than five other people at the same time, we must report those who do to the police. So are we doing things the right way?

Time will tell of course. But part of the answer could come from James Ferguson’s analysis of the testing data in this week's issue. The other part might be about the damage caused by lockdowns: as James notes on our podcast this week, maybe we should stop talking about how Covid is wrecking lives and economies and start talking about how the response to Covid is wrecking lives and economies – turn to the best of this week's columnists page for the nightmare effects of lockdown on much of Africa.

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The idea that we are perhaps worrying a little too much about Covid is seconded by the latest Bank of America Global Fund Manager Survey. A second wave remains the biggest worry for managers. But it is being fast caught up by concerns about global trade wars (very valid – see above!), the US election and the rising odds of a “systemic credit event”.

There are also two new entrants to the worry list this month – inflation and a new tech bubble, both things I suspect MoneyWeek readers have (quite rightly) had on their worry list for some months now. We still worry about tech valuations but we don’t think the market as a whole is in bubble territory: the median price/earnings ratio of the S&P 500 is 17.5. Not cheap – but not a bubble either.

Elsewhere there are opportunities aplenty (but avoid pigeons – see this week's "Great frauds in history"). China is booming (for more, turn to the markets pages). And even after the extraordinary recovery since March, the shock of the pandemic has left some pockets of value. This week, we also look at how to invest in the end of oil – there will be a wave of money pouring into anything remotely green post-pandemic.

Want to feel good and make money at the same time? Here’s your chance. If the former is less important to you than the latter, look to the end of that story: we are only at the beginning of the end of oil so perhaps you should not entirely neglect the old industry players.

Finally for the genuinely contrarian, Matthew explains why to start buying Carnival on this week's Trading page. Cruise ships are pretty filthy (they mostly burn heavy fuel oil) and about as Covid-unfriendly a business as any. But, says Matthew, Carnival’s finances are pretty shipshape – and people will cruise again. They may even go back to their offices again – quite soon. Particularly if James turns out to be right, and normalisation is nearer than we think.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.