In a post-COVID-19 world, the choice to regress, reform, or reset

On one side, a lawnmower; on the other, a leaf blower. There’s an electric fan and a space heater. And a laptop, on which to write or WhatsApp or Zoom. And in the age of COVID-19, I’m constantly aware that I am one of the very luckiest ones. I’m healthy. Unlike millions around the world, I’m able to self-isolate. I can work remotely. So can my wife. We have running water, electricity, Wi-Fi. A home of our own.

Yet even so, our life has changed beyond recognition. And the whole world has been thrown into flux – not just by the pandemic, but by a cacophony of social, political, and economic crosscurrents – at a time when the old post-World War II order and institutions were already under unprecedented pressure.

I wonder how many of the changes in my own life will prove lasting. And far more importantly for the world, how many of the COVID-induced changes, in public health and education, in race-relations and climate change, will persist? Could the recent trend toward populism and narrow nationalism give way to some form of resurgent international cooperation?

And will today’s single most important international rivalry – between a United States that has been in diplomatic retreat and an increasingly assertive China – become more starkly adversarial in the wake of heightened public sparring over the coronavirus?

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Odd though this may seem, given the enormous number of lives and jobs tragically lost to COVID-19, an issue-by-issue look into the post-pandemic future offers reason, if not for unbridled optimism, at least for cautious hope.

Many of these potentially hopeful strands emerged in a Monitor series, beginning early this year and concluding with this article, called “Navigating uncertainty.” Planned well before the first coronavirus cases emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan, it drew on our writers from around the globe and sought to delve into the ways that, even before COVID-19, our world had become untethered from decades-old institutions and alliances, and from basic life assumptions.

The series explored the many forces pulling nations, and sometimes citizens, apart from each other. It covered the growing ambitions abroad, and authoritarianism at home, of China under leader Xi Jinping. It looked into the appeal of strongman populist leaders like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, and at the way technology and social media have become powerful tools for right-wing extremism.

But it also told another story, one that seems especially relevant and hopeful in a world that was changing dramatically as the series unfolded, influenced by COVID-19 and by the international wave of popular protest in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in the U.S.

That other story was one of remarkable human resilience. It was about individuals and communities taking ownership of problems they faced and pressing for their resolution. And it was all the more striking because it seemed at odds with a powerful trend that has fed polarization and populism in many countries: a loss of trust in government and a loss of the sense of agency that anything they could do as individuals could really change the course of events.

A number of examples in the Monitor series stood out. There were the “citizens’ juries” discussing and debating, learning and listening, and recommending policies at local or national level to confront climate change. The extraordinary determination of human-rights activists in Egypt and Gulf states to keep pushing, at potential risk to their liberty or even their lives, for the values that inspired the Arab Spring a decade ago.

There were major business figures trying to refashion and reform a capitalist economic system that is increasingly favoring shareholders and top executives over the interests of employees, customers, and society as a whole.

And there was a whole country, or an almost-country. Somaliland split itself off from Somalia in 1991 during that country’s civil war. It remains desperately poor.

Yet in the decades since declaring itself a state, it has established and maintained peace. It has built a working democracy. Through assiduous efforts to secure financial support from diaspora Somalilanders in the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere, it is staying afloat. And all of this without international recognition as a country – or, crucially, the access to international aid funds that such recognition would bring.

It might well be said, of course, that the prospect of any of this leading to real change remains daunting. Progress on climate change is still going to require international action, not to mention short-term costs that may prove particularly unappealing amid the economic downturn from the pandemic. The Arab Spring has given way to an Arab winter, with old-style authoritarian rulers back in command.

For business leaders, talking about reform is easier than actually changing the way they see their bottom line. And the prospect of international recognition for Somaliland remains roughly zero: The international community is wary about setting a precedent for other potential breakaway states.

A changed context

Still, the context for these examples of resilience, of human agency in action, has changed dramatically over recent months.

One reason is the pandemic itself. It has put governments worldwide through an unprecedented stress test, and revealed a lack of any coherent, truly international response. It has shone a glaring spotlight on issues like climate change and gaping economic inequalities. Most significantly, it has interrupted life-as-usual for millions upon millions of people; it has freeze-framed our world, forcing us to stop and look afresh.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Demonstrators protest near the White House in Washington June 6, 2020, over the killing of George Floyd as he was detained by police in Minneapolis. In the wake of George Floyd’s death, polling shows dramatic movement in Americans’ opinions on police brutality and racial injustice.

The wave of protest against racism and police violence following George Floyd’s killing is more than just a rekindling of human agency. With at least some policy changes at local or state level already announced, it has validated and vindicated it. The protests have also served as a reminder that the power of social media can be put to work by anybody, not only far-right political parties or populist politicians. It is an indispensable communications tool for individuals or communities on all sides of an argument.

Ultimately, though, any major political change will require action by governments or other established institutions. On that score, the prognosis so far is mixed.

While COVID-19 and economic shutdowns have heightened awareness of climate change and of the human causes of carbon emissions, it’s not yet clear whether the world will adopt new, greener investment strategies wholesale.

The European Union does seem committed to a “green new deal”; Britain has announced new investment in green infrastructure. But other countries, including the U.S., Russia, Canada, and France, are devoting more of their economic recovery budgets to the fossil fuel sector than to renewable energy sources.

In business, the signs are more positive. A number of major American companies have embraced the anti-racism message of the protests that followed George Floyd’s death. Some have even taken a step unthinkable just a few months ago: They’ve paused advertising on Facebook, the most powerful social media platform on earth, to protest its handling of hate-speech and conspiracy theories.

International connections

Geopolitically, it’s too early to say whether the enormous human cost of the world’s failure to coordinate its response to COVID-19 will prompt governments to breathe new life into international institutions and alliances.

But in Europe, at least, a shift appears underway. Initially, European countries abandoned ideas of continental solidarity, and each followed its own policies. Now, though, the European Union is poised to bridge a longstanding divide between wealthy, fiscally conservative northern states and its more indebted, harder-pressed southern members. Germany, the largest EU economy, is leading efforts to raise financing for a single, central fund to support all member states in their recovery from the economic effects of the pandemic.

It’s also conceivable that the COVID crisis could prompt some voters to rethink their support for populist, strongman leaders. The two leading exemplars, President Donald Trump in the U.S. and Brazil’s President Bolsonaro, who have both played down the seriousness of the pandemic, preside over the two nations that top the death toll rankings.

Still, with politics across the world still in unprecedented flux, the exact shape of a post-pandemic world can only be guessed at.

So why the cautious hope?

Come back to my garden shed. Since my wife and I are both of an age that qualifies us as “COVID-vulnerable,” we’ve been in self-isolation for months, since before Britain declared its formal lockdown in late March. Within days, all across London a group of younger people formed and got in touch to volunteer their help with whatever “self-isolators” like us might need.

One young woman had been helping us for weeks, picking things up from local shops – sometimes at scandalously short notice – when I texted her to say that I hoped my wife and I would be able to take her out for a post-pandemic dinner to convey the depth of our gratitude. Her answer: “Not at all! It’s not a big deal for me, and while I can do it, I like to help people in your position.”

Our shared shut-in experience has also led to a new, closer relationship with our neighbors, who’ve always been friendly enough, but who now draw less deeply on their well of English reserve.

This may all sound trivial. But it seems to me part of a genuine rekindling of simple human connections that I fully expect to outlast COVID-19.

And another social change with far wider implications – the rekindling of individual agency, of engagement across different communities and countries, races and age-groups, to promote change by tackling shared problems – seems likely to last as well. COVID-19 has amplified social problems and accelerated political movements; people are readier to confront and talk bluntly about race, climate change, corporate responsibility, and other issues of our age.

Grassroots activism alone will not solve the major domestic and international challenges that confront us. It cannot, by itself, disentangle the “uncertainties” mapped out and investigated in our Monitor series.

But it has profoundly changed the landscape in which established institutions – governments, businesses, and international organizations – will have to address them.

And whatever else may settle back into the old normal once the worst of COVID-19 has passed, “people power,” in one form or another, seems here to stay.

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