JOHN KAMPFNER: The world that awaits beyond the coronavirus
- Credit: Nigel Sutton
A look from JOHN KAMPFNER at what will be swept away by the COVID-19 pandemic - and what will remain.
Only one in 5,000 people survived, scavenging for food, searching for loved ones, for anyone who could keep the world going. The biggest concentration of the living was to be found in the Scottish Highlands, where 150,000 started a new community by farming and making tools.
I was a small boy when the BBC's 1970s series Survivors hit our (black and white) television screens. I can still remember aspects of the dystopian drama as if it was yesterday.
The sense of despair and hopelessness. The return to the roots of Man's existence. The fact that the globe was all but destroyed by a virus released accidentally by a Chinese scientist. (Donald Trump take note).
Mercifully, we are not on course to turn the plot or death toll from that popular show into reality.
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But as the UK belatedly joins other countries in a lockdown, we will see more clearly than before how the coronavirus has changed every aspect of contemporary life.
Everything is unlike before, and we have barely begun the process of isolation – politics, economics, individual priorities and relationships, societal norms, health systems, use of technology, our interaction with climate and nature, the role of the state and individual, and what to do when the toilet paper runs out.
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Nobody yet knows for how long, how deeply and how irreversibly our lives and behaviours have been altered.
Nobody can predict how societies will recover from this shock and from the recession or even another Great Depression that will follow. We can at least attempt to outline the parameters of life AC, After Covid-19.
The most obvious starting point is the economy. Almost every country will, at one fell swoop, have become deeply indebted.
Decades of rules and regulations have been jettisoned. The basic law has switched overnight from growth to resilience – or rather to prevent social collapse.
From now on, governments will be required to see their primary concern to protect citizens financially rather than make them better off.
Both the supply and demand sides will take years to revive. Even with government intervention, many businesses that were fundamentally sound will go under.
Jobs will be lost, but also the definition of a job will need to be reassessed. It had become a commonplace of contemporary neo-liberal society to describe all work as productive, but the explosion of gig labour in the first two decades of the 21st century has put paid to that idea.
What measures will be put in place to change business models that rely on making the precariat even more desperate in order to maximise profits?
A number of trends were already in evidence before corona struck. One that has been brewing is pressure to introduce a universal basic income for all citizens.
Advocates say its time has come and that governments will quickly realise that not only is such a system more equitable, but it also ultimately saves money by reducing homelessness and cutting back on other health and social care requirements.
Even if such a provision, or variant, were introduced will societies become more equal? Are the days of neo-liberalism, winner-takes-all culture coming crashing to a halt? The answer is likely to be a little yes, but mostly no.
Tax rates will certainly rise, with a greater burden being shared by the better off. But will the super-rich, the globally mobile tax avoiders, really be collared this time around?
Many governments have gone through the motions of tackling the problem, but none has got close to solving it.
That would require determination and cross-border coordination, both of which have been in short supply.
So many of our future challenges will be better met by collaboration. Yet the initial assumption is that the pandemic will increase the process that has been seen in the last few weeks of states turning in on themselves. Nationalism, it is confidently stated, will triumph over internationalism.
While the World Health Organisation has been at the forefront of combatting the virus and has earned plaudits, bodies such as the United Nations and European Union have been eclipsed by nation states.
The crisis has exposed the fragility of the globalised economy. Long and complex supply chains and just-in-time manufacturing are only as strong as their weakest link. When they break, the edifice crumbles.
Governments and corporations have been shaken into thinking of self-sufficiency and self-reliance as strategic goals.
It may be distasteful to talk of winners from tragedies such as these, but every crisis provides an opportunity for some.
While all but essential shops have been forced to close, supermarkets are recruiting at pace.
Online services have never been busier, with the tele-conferencing service Zoom and the delivery behemoth Amazon grabbing most of the headlines.
While global markets have crashed, Zoom's shares have soared. Its market cap is now bigger than most airlines (which admittedly now is not saying that much).
The digitisation of business will accelerate in the long term as people have got more used to e-working, e-learning and e-health.
But in the first few weeks and months, such will be the sense of release from domestic claustrophobia, most workers who have an office will be desperate to return to it.
How much will a latent sense of social solidarity survive once the scare has passed?
Many people can cite examples of volunteering and other good works in their neighbourhood: the elderly and frail being helped; rough sleepers being housed.
Some of that may endure, and not before time. But big change requires bold decisions. The heroes of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, in New York were the firefighters. This time it is the health service professionals, who are being applauded from balconies in countries like Italy and Spain where lock-ins are already the norm.
For all the risks they take and the incredible work they do, they earn a pittance compared to many in the private sector. It is quite normal for nurses and other NHS workers to commute for more than an hour into London and other expensive cities just to start their shift.
For all that to change, for them to be rewarded commensurate with their contribution to society, the debate about health service spending will have to begin from scratch.
Perhaps it will, but, even then, a reasonably generous increase from not very much is still not very much. Will this be the opportunity that advocates of a bigger state and much better-endowed public services finally seize? Will society begin to respect and reward public service again?
The instinct of governments around the world has always been to ramp up security and criminal justice measures at the first sign of threat. Terrorist attacks have invariably led to clampdowns on civil liberties. The pandemic may present an invisible enemy, but the response is no different.
Indeed, in many countries, notably the UK, politicians, trade unions and citizens' groups have criticised ministers for not going far enough. There seems little opposition anywhere in the world for the 'whatever it takes' message. As there shouldn't be, such are the circumstances.
The problem begins when the health scare dies down, as it inevitably will. Many governments will use the continued threat of a resurgence of this virus or the mutation into another to keep their special measures in perpetuity.
Once they get into the habit of postponing elections, they use emergencies as a convenient fall-back when their popularity wanes. And who beyond the civil liberties community will argue against them?
When all this is over, global economies will in the short term see a frenetic burst of activity. As citizens look to make up for lost time (those who can afford it), they will be jumping on trains and planes, visiting theatres, eating out and piling into the shops. Stock markets will bounce back. People will relish the return to normality.
Nobody can yet say, however, what the new normal will look like. Whenever great ruptures happen, from wars to revolutions to financial crashes, some behaviours change, but not necessarily those that were predicted.
The only unqualified positive to come out of the pandemic so far has been the improvement in air quality levels, starting in China's clogged big cities and now spreading elsewhere as most activity ceases.
Coronavirus has been a dress rehearsal for the climate emergency, demonstrating that draconian state intervention can alleviate, if not reverse, some of the damage that the climate emergency and extreme weather have caused.
So far there has been little evidence that voters are prepared to make the sacrifices required to tackle the environmental crisis – unless governments force them to.
So far, the issues of climate and viruses have been seen as separate threats. In a recent piece in the New York Times, Peter Daszak, a disease ecologist, argued that they are inextricably linked. Deforestation, industrialisation, and globalised travel and trade 'make us supremely susceptible to pathogens like coronaviruses', he said. 'Pandemics are on the rise, and we need to contain the process that drives them, not just the individual diseases. Plagues are not only part of our culture; they are caused by it.' He calls for a transformation in the way humans interact with the natural world.
After 9/11, two wars were launched and anti-terrorism measures introduced, but nothing serious was done to deal with the causes. After the financial crash of 2007-08 banks were bailed out and the financial system was propped up, but nothing serious was done to deal with the causes. Will anything be different this time?
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