Can ‘Techs and Drugs’ save us from our Great Depression?

After 4 months of global corona-virus chaos two things are becoming apparent; the global economy is in disaster territory – especially with regard to unemployment, while millions will need significant help to recover from the mental health effects of isolation, deprivation, depression and anxiety. Can a fusion of responsible tech investment, pharmaceutical innovation and drug liberalization lead us into a brighter future, or will a conservative ‘business-as-usual’ approach choke our escape route?

Technology

The surging role of the big tech players (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google, Microsoft and many more) cannot be understated as we’ve locked down. Social media has kept us connected, software has allowed many to work from home, while Amazon’s octopus-like infrastructure has helped to channel goods and services around the world. Some commentators believe that the corona era will accelerate tech development and investment by around 5 years in the space of just a few months. Without doubt, our future is going to be increasingly tech-infused, so accepting that reality while dealing with the ethical implications head-on is a socio-economic priority. Unlike the disastrous austerity policies post 2009/10, governments who have the means, must now look to invest in tech infrastructure that can jump-start economies out of the very deep financial crisis that we find ourselves.

Intriguingly, while global stocks languish 5-10% below February levels, the tech driven Nasdaq is already 20% higher (than pre-corona levels). It remains to be seen whether this rally can continue, but investors clearly believe that tech innovation can provide solutions to many of our most pressing needs, from track and trace apps to smart support for macro climate change projects. It would seem to be the ideal time for clear and bold thinking that can create jobs and opportunity, rather than just accepting a fate of disastrous unemployment and economic stagnation.

Medical Innovation

At the same time, the last 18 months has seen a sea-change in attitudes to two key areas of drug liberalization and research: cannabis and psychedelics (such as LSD, MDMA and psilocybin). As I’ve previously commented, the politically motivated ‘war on drugs’ has been a policy catastrophe. Used as an unwieldy and immoral tool for social control, $billions have been wasted, millions incarcerated and countless more deprived of life-changing medications.

Cannabis-based products are now being tested in the treatment of anxiety, stress, depression, pain, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, chemotherapy side effects and more. As the industry, supported by clinical trials, gains global acceptance – there is an opportunity to create an extra life support system for our struggling economy, as well as well-tolerated medications that can improve the physical and mental health of millions. 

Meanwhile, research into psychedelics, which was prematurely halted by Nixon’s draconian social control measures in the early 70’s, are now also making a comeback. It’s early days, but life science companies and psychologists are recognizing the massive potential of their use in treating depression, PTSD and other mental health conditions.

Again, if governments, scientists and pharmaceutical companies can create a clear road map, the potential to improve the quality of life for millions of people could be within reach. Given that the current isolation we have been asked to endure creates extreme mental pressure for our naturally social species, now is surely the time to pursue creative solutions that can help our collective recovery.

Responsible Capital

However, in embracing this ‘techs and drugs’ revolution, systemic changes are needed to protect us – and to ensure much greater responsibility from some of the supranational organizations that we depend on. One of the most obvious and visible implications of the pandemic is how the health systems of even the world’s most developed countries (let alone the least) have creaked under the strain. Government borrowing will also reach unprecedented levels in keeping us all afloat.

In contrast, many of the world’s largest tech and pharma companies are accused of manipulating loop holes to minimize tax take from the huge profits of their global operations. It is front-line health workers and warehouse workers (among others) who have kept the global arteries pumping, but who don’t have tax accountants to relocate their money to off-shore havens. If we are are truly ‘all in this together’ than the world’s largest corporations need to be held to account and pay their ‘fair’ share. It is the infrastructure that governments provide, and will need to provide even more of, that allows these companies to flourish. Fair (not excessive) taxation is the biggest single building block in providing the national and global building blocks we all rely on.

Every major crisis represents an opportunity. The end of WW2 brought the dismantling of colonial empires and ushered in two generations of democratic growth and increasingly egalitarian societies. However, in recent years we have forgotten that in order for society to function effectively, it’s both the entrepreneur and the care home worker that are needed.

The neo-liberal monetization of everything has severely limited our collective compassion and needs a hard re-set. Hopefully this recent period of introspection will lead to both dynamic innovation in technology and open-minded drug development; and that both of these focus on our collective prosperity and happiness, not just the enrichment of the 1%.

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