Economics is an esoteric science that can seem as immune to morality as inorganic chemistry.

Human life is reduced to inputs and outputs, and jargon keeps the messy, exploitative reality of wealth and poverty at bay.

It’s not a financial crisis, it’s a credit crunch. It’s not printing money, it’s quantitative easing.

Even “austerity” is a euphemism because it implies there is a choice, a choice to dispense with frivolities and pare down to the essentials like a Victorian matron who has done away with bows, lace and superfluous joy for the sake of her mortal soul.

The reality is that there has been no choice and austerity has robbed some even of the essentials, leading to the Dickensian spectacle of reliance on food banks.

Austerity was a bitter medicine, we were told, but we’d all be better for it. Demonstrably, that wasn’t true. Austerity has claimed many casualties. Those who had the least in the first place have of course suffered the most and British society has been left scarred by even wider inequality.

Endless reports by think-tanks and charities have detailed the impact.

Life expectancy improvements have stalled in almost all areas of Scotland and indeed across the UK; in some of the poorest places, it has actually gone down.

In 2018, the UN rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Philip Alston declared that poverty is a “political choice”. His comments, particularly those comparing Tory policies with 19th century workhouses, infuriated ministers who accused him of bias.

But his intervention shone a light on a shameful truth we’ve become inured to, that in the world’s fifth largest economy, a fifth of citizens live in relative poverty.

Spending on working-age benefits will have shrunk by a quarter next year compared to 2010, a cut of £37 billion, according to estimates by the House of Commons library. Spending on local services has been slashed by billions. There are 600,000 more children living in relative poverty now compared to 2012, according to the Government’s own figures, which Boris Johnson was called out by the English Children’s Commissioner for denying in the Commons this week.

Now a new debt mountain is forming, and once again, a Conservative Government is making the key decisions on borrowing and repayment.

God forbid that austerity should happen again.

For the UK Government to go back to austerity after this would be “disastrous”, according to Caroline Gardner, who leaves office as Auditor General for Scotland this month. She should know. For the last eight years, she has had a close-up view Scotland’s public services. She recently noted how the incoming Coalition government of 2010 did “a very good job” of instructing the nation that there was “no alternative” to austerity to pay down the Government’s debt, a debate, Gardner observes, that became “very narrow”.

It did. The media largely went along with it, and many opposition politicians accepted the orthodoxy too for fear of being branded irresponsible if they didn’t.

Arguably it did not help that the main anti-austerity advocate to emerge was Jeremy Corbyn, whom most voters did not trust to manage a parish council.

There were eminent economists of course who magisterially dissected the Government’s approach, including Professor Brian Ashcroft of Strathclyde University.

But it was hard for all sceptics to counter the power of simplistic logic. “Live within our means”, “mend the roof while the sun is shining”, “Labour spent all the money”: never underestimate the power of a cliché, particularly not one deployed by as shrewd and calculating an operator as George Osborne.

Osborne believed that investor confidence would be boosted if spending was held tightly in check. Others argued and still do that austerity made the recovery more sluggish.

Either way, the damage to public services and low-income households is still being felt. The question now is: will that hawkish obsession with driving down debt surge once again to the fore?

Boris Johnson had pledged to turn on the spending taps to “level up” struggling areas of the UK, apparently indicating an acceptance that holding large amounts of low-interest debt isn’t quite so bad after all.

But with hundreds of billions now having been spent on the furlough scheme and other Covid contingency measures, it would be rash to assume that pressure within the Conservative Party to slash spending again will be kept at bay.

Perhaps anticipating this, Scotland’s Finance Secretary Kate Forbes has just asked for enhanced borrowing powers from the Treasury, temporarily, to raise £500 million for the recovery in Scotland; she has also asked that the furlough scheme be extended to prevent job losses.

She is right to do so. This is only the beginning. Higher levels of government spending than the Treasury has been used to are likely to be needed for years to come.

The Fraser of Allander Institute reports that the economy could take 18 months to recover at best and could take as much as four years. Over the summer we can expect “a raft of redundancies and business closures”.

People and businesses will continue needing support.

But the recovery is also an opportunity, a chance to change unhealthy and damaging features of our economy and society – if we are prepared to take it.

Benny Higgins, former Tesco Bank chief and now chair of a group advising Scottish ministers on the post-Covid recovery, is one of those calling for this crisis to catalyse “new bold, radical interventions that transform Scotland’s economy”.

And then there’s climate change. The recovery must turbo-charge the creation of a sustainable economy because this is our last chance.

There are oh-so-many challenges, not least Brexit, which the Government is irresponsibly pushing ahead with.

And debt cannot simply be ignored. It must, eventually, be tackled. But the question is when and how quickly.

Generous public spending is an investment in economic recovery as well as a bulwark against human misery. We could co-opt this crisis and bend it to our will, using it to accelerate the transformative change that we all know is needed. That will require more borrowing and spending. Further down the line, it may also require some changes to taxation.

Or we could contemplate more austerity, with the huge risk that carries of widening inequality and leaving us ill-equipped to deal with the challenges ahead.

All our futures depend on that decision.

All columnists are free to express their opinions. They don’t necessarily represent the view of The Herald.