"Change and decay in all around I see,” as Henry Francis Lyte of Kelso put it in his hymn Abide With Me, which often features at funerals, to the similarly terminal tune “Eventide”, by William Henry Monk.

The second law of thermodynamics, which maintains that the total entropy of any given system cannot decrease, makes the same point in a more technical way; or, as we all know, it’s much easier to knock things down than to build them up. This seems to apply to almost anything, from landscapes and cities to domino toppling. Construction takes ages, but destruction is a matter of moments.

It will take some time before we know how much economic damage has been done by the global coronavirus outbreak, but there are already credible estimates that recovery will be a matter of years, if not decades. But not all damage is a matter of straightforward arithmetic.

Despite the widespread (and at the moment, pointless) speculation about the ways in which the world will change after the immediate threat posed by this crisis recedes – much of which seems suspiciously to chime with the ambitions or preconceptions of those doing the predicting – most things will probably return to the status quo ante, even if that takes quite a long time.

Leaving aside the important bit, which is the human cost, many of us will be worse off, but there will be recovery. Individual firms will fail, but their industries probably won’t. People will still want and need to eat, travel, acquire things, be entertained and all the rest of it, even if we find that our priorities are rather different in the future.

There is one area, however, where the destruction wrought by what’s happening just now is going to be much harder to reverse. That is where value is measured not simply in terms of the balance sheet, but in reputation.

Companies and individuals whose response to this worldwide emergency has been to look out for their own interests have made a gigantic error; and one that is likely to be more costly to them than their immediately quantifiable financial losses.

The reaction of the vast majority of the public in the face of this calamity, it’s heartening to discover, has been compliance, forebearance, altruism and sympathy. And the reaction of almost all the authorities (not just government, but opposition politicians, the civil service and public bodies of all sorts) has been to pull out all the stops. Whatever shortcomings you may feel there are in public policy and no matter the mistakes which, with hindsight, we are bound to discover have been made, it cannot really be argued that the resources and spending being wheeled out indicate any lack of intent.

The general atmosphere of goodwill, solidarity and gratitude for those who are doing so much is precisely why there will be so much opprobrium directed at those who demonstrate the opposite. Hence the howls of rage at Premier League football clubs which have suspended (low-paid) workers in the knowledge that the state – which means you and me, through our taxes – will pick up most of the bill, while continuing to pay players weekly wages that are twice most households’ average income. Or the contempt people, quite correctly, feel for businessmen like Sir Richard Branson, who seems to think that the taxpayer should bail him out.

It is right that the Government should support businesses at the moment. This is not, as is usually the case with state interventions in the market, a matter of shoring up failing enterprises with public money; it’s trying to stop sound firms from going under when they are threatened by unprecedented factors outwith their control. Normally, taxpayers’ money going to private enterprises creates perverse incentives, or camouflages poor management, or discriminates against consumers by preventing new entrants to the market. None of that applies just now.

But given the Government’s pretty generous underwriting of 80 per cent of employees’ salaries, it’s hard to see why Sir Richard or Sir Philip Green (both with a net worth of $5 billion or so) should require special treatment, while the minimum-wage employees of Sports Direct or Wetherspoons have to lump it.

Oddly enough, it is some of the industries most often vilified by the Left which seem to be emerging with credit from this crisis: automobile manufacturers have repurposed their factories to turn out ventilators, pharmaceutical firms are working with frontline medical staff (which, as our sentimentality about the NHS often makes us forget, is the norm in most developed countries). British American Tobacco, surely the ultimate corporate supervillain for those who think of themselves as “progressive”, is working on a potential vaccine.

Corporations devote enormous resources to maintaining their reputations; tens of thousands of books have been written on the elements of brand value; whole industries – advertising, public relations, marketing – are dedicated to the subject. But what it boils down to is the public’s opinion of the company: which in financial terms, means the sum total of the extra they are prepared to pay, or number of times they will use the services of one firm rather than another.

The point about a market is that it is not driven by price alone. The customer might choose to buy a commodity (table salt, say) on the basis of what’s cheapest. But the whole industry of salt manufacturers, distributors, packagers and retailers is built on offering something more than just the commodity; that differentiation – perceived quality, reliability, familiarity, the degree to which you trust, or admire the brand – is what creates the value.

Given the enormous effort and expenditure that goes into creating those attitudes, it is astonishing that some businesses should have misjudged their responses so badly. It’s possible, indeed quite likely, that some of the worst offenders, should they survive or even come out financially in front from this period, will face punitive responses – taxes on abnormal profits, the attention of regulators – from governments.

But the most damning, and damaging, retribution will come directly from their customers. People are properly noticing the heroic efforts and sacrifices being made by many during this catastrophe, but that makes the rare instances of poor behaviour the more obvious. And I suspect they won’t be forgotten.

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