It is clear the response to Covid-19 will last for months. What we are getting used to now is the new normal, not a short term blip in the old way of doing things. To some extent, nature just hit the pause button on modern life. People are walking in parks, cooking at home, staying local, and slowing down.
With both an increase of people who have had the virus, and then eventually with a vaccine in place, more and more people will not be vulnerable to Covid-19, so the situation will keep changing, and in some ways improving. But for now it is right that we all stay at home — it is like hitting the brakes on a run-away car, and will hopefully slow the spread down enough that our societies can take stock and adapt, altering the way we run economies, manage healthcare, and protect key supply chains. At some point, the draconian social distancing measures will either be lifted a bit, or people will just get bored and stop them, and it’s expected that the virus will surge again.
So, until a vaccine has been tested, taken to market, produced in the billions, and distributed globally, everything we knew so far is set to change. It is quite incredible to think that this pandemic has done more to change modern society than anything else.
And that means there are some positives. Globally, governments and businesses have finally done a lot of what environmentalists have said needs to be done to slow climate change. Look up: there are almost no airplanes. Flying, a major contributor to global warming, has basically stopped. Because we are staying at home, and only travelling when necessary, car usage has dropped dramatically. Industry is slowing down, and factories are causing less pollution. The horrendously poluting cruise ships have become pariahs after nightmarish news coverage of people trapped on them in quarantine. The air is clear and rivers run blue. The planet is recovering from humanity, as humanity tries to recover from the virus.
And yes, this abrupt halt to the things that poison our air has and will hit GDP dramatically. But many people have been arguing that the single focus on GDP and Growth is what is killing the planet. In effect, what we saw in China is that if you stop poisoning the air, it reduces GDP by 20% in a month. Or you can look at it from another angle: if you reduce GDP by 20%, the air suddenly becomes clean. It seems obvious now, and will remain obvious later.
As this is not about the next few weeks, it is likely society will settle into new routines and establish new norms. People will have a chance to live with clean air, empty streets, busy parks, and it is unlikely they will welcome a return to polution and congestion. This will impact on politics, policies, and elections. It may even affect the policies of dictatorships, like China.
And our attitudes to privacy, formality, and interaction will change too. People are still in the very early stages of learning how to replace in-person meetings with video calls, but over the coming weeks and months we will all learn how to make video calls work properly, and how to adapt our social interactions and norms so that video calling becomes a more effective way to ‘meet.’ As a result of the virus, we are all seeing inside each other’s homes. What were formal meetings are now done in bedrooms and kitchens, with dogs and children around. We may all come out of this feeling closer, less private, and more authentic.
There is a good chance that after this crisis, people may not want to return to schlepping around cities all day to sit in noisy cafes and stuffy meeting rooms in order to talk to each other. We may do more online than before the crisis, again reducing the strain on public transport, reducing car journeys, and reducing pollution. We may also start to invite people to our homes more, having already been sitting in them all day through cameras and screens.
Where I live, a local WhatsApp group has already divided out into multiple groups for local clusters of streets, with people identifying at risk residents, offering support, sharing news. It is quite beautiful to watch people come together, offer and accept leadership, and become organised local social units. And businesses are pivoting and adapting. Our favourite cafe is now closed, but doing local deliveries, care packages, and is morphing into an online shop where you can buy their crockery, and meals to prepare at home.
Overnight, the world has at once become both more global and less global. The pandemic is global, and the response will have to be too, but at the same time life has become very local. We are travelling more like we did in the 1970s, when flying or going abroad at all was a rare luxury. Borders have closed, international tourism has stopped. We will have to holiday at home and get to know our local areas. Supply chains are breaking, especially after China’s lock-down, so businesses are having to think more locally. We are not the global society we were a few weeks ago in terms of movement, but we are more global in our response to a threat that ignores nationality and borders.
So at the same time that the economy becomes less global, the health response is by necessity becoming more global. Scientists have always been pretty good at rising above politics and working together, but the politicians are starting to realise that any response — basically any vaccine — has to be global otherwise it simply won’t work. To survive this, the populists and nationalists will have to put aside all the nonsense of trade wars and nationalism that has been consuming so much progress and effectiveness.
It is interesting also to see right wing governments, like those in the UK and US, adopt what in ideological terms is fairly extreme socialism. They are right to say, as the UK Chancellor did, that in times like these ideology goes out the window, and you do whatever is necessary. But it is curious that what is deemed necessary is a massive increase in state intervention, increased funding for healthcare, potential large-scale nationalisation of industries to stop the economy collapsing, and what is amounting to a universal basic income.
Right-wing governments who have fought hard against such ideas for decades, rubbishing their effectiveness and desirability, will now be forced to carry out the kind of political and economic experiments that their left-wing opponents could only dream of. They don’t represent a shift in ideology, and do suggest a commendable pragmatism. But they also unravel a lot of the arguments the Republicans and Conservatives, in the US and UK, have been making for years against their liberal opponents — when it comes to a major crisis, it is ‘socialism’ that solved it, not capitalism or the market.
Once this is all over, it may harder for those right-wing governments to argue against the very measures they had to bring in to carry society through this crisis. And once politicians feel it’s acceptable to take up the political fight again, for the left wing it will be hard not to say, ‘I told you so,’ and to use this as an endorsement of their ideas.
Meanwhile, the populism that offered quick and easy answers to complex problems, rubbishing of experts, and blaming others is floundering in the wake of a virus that requires complex solutions, cooperation, and experts. While these have been woefully lacking in Trump’s government, and slow to appear in the UK, the heroes of the Coronavirus will be the doctors, scientists, responsible broadcasters, and public services — the pariahs of the populist regimes who have been taking a bashing for years now in many countries.
This may lead to a resurgence of left and centre-left politicians and parties in the elections that will follow this crisis. We have had to embrace all the policies they were advocating, and liberal politicians tend to respect science and expertise more too. Or it may just force politics back into the centre, at least in terms of economic and social policy. However, it may also trigger a further rise in nationalism as the world gets used to closed borders, authoritarian government, and a fear of ‘others.’ Whilst liberal and social politics may come out stronger, and populist nationalism weaker, it could be hard for liberals to re-open borders that were closed down during the crisis.
But for me, the big one is the climate. Now we as societies and governments are doing what we were told we needed to do, and the air is already visibly cleaner, it should be both easier for that case to be made moving forward, because people will enjoy clean air and quiet cities, and it should be harder for governments and industry to roll things back to how they were before. We know we can do it now, and we know what it’s like. Yes, day to day life has become bizarre and that will go back to some sort of normal one day, but who will vote for the air to get dirtier, our streets more congested, and rivers filthy again?
One interesting factor in all this is that people with respiratory vulnerabilities who were most at risk from polution are also most at risk from Covid-19. Whislt polution related deaths will no doubt fall considerably this coming summer, sadly many of those people will die from Covid-19 instead, cancelling out the visible benefit in terms of recorded deaths. Unravelling what will become very complex data about sickness and death will require fast work and clear communication from the science community if they are to explain the true impact of Covid-19. Whilst many may die, there’s a chance the overall net deaths may be lower if fewer people are dying from climate-related factors. This will also be further confused by how deaths are recorded in different societies — if an elderly asthmatic dies from pneumonia as a result of Covid-19, will that be recorded as pneumonia or Covid-19?
What is certain is that life after Covid-19 will be very different. Politics will be reshaped. People’s attitudes will have changed, in many and potentially opposite directions. Societies will have become more local. Neighbourhoods will be better connected and more sociable. The world will be cleaner, and many people will be able to breath clearly for the first time in years. But we will also have to reverse controls on society that were thrown up without much review, and which incubment politicians may be keen to retain.
After World War Two, many great institutions were born, people had learned how to pull together, how to survive and endure appalling hardships. There was a greater sense of a global community, and a greater sense of what that community did and did not want moving forward. I think the virus may do something similar, and out of the long and unknown battle ahead, we may emerge stronger and better.