How will we live, or be forced to live, after the pandemic? “I don’t know” is—according to Paul Collier, the famed development economist—the most honest answer to this question and others related to the cause, rise, treatment, and decline of the current pandemic. This is, after all, an unprecedented disease of rare speed and communicability, for which there is no cure and no agreed political and social response. Yet, contradicting himself within weeks, Collier wrote a similarly powerful essay in which he argued that centralisation had failed, and devolution from those who pronounce from on high to those who practice on the ground is necessary. Perhaps he was merely demonstrating that, in this maelstrom of conflicting arguments, no-one, no matter how distinguished, can wholly know his own mind from day to day.
In any case, agnosticism is as unwelcome to journalism as it is to governance. And journalists, who operate under fewer constraints than governments, can at least consider some likely alternatives, while remaining alive to the possibility that unknown unknowns will continue to turn up, just as the coronavirus itself did. These alternatives tend to be split between a future that is better and one that is worse, with a majority predicting the latter.
In the first place, many believe that the future will benefit authoritarians, and that present circumstances have already done so—even the most liberal and democratic states have placed their citizens under a kind of house arrest, a policy enforced by the threat of detention and by neighbourly spying and social censure (not all authoritarians live in the presidential palace). Lisa Hilton, a British historian living in Venice, has written that “one friend was denounced for taking a box of vegetables to a neighbour’s doorstep, another for going outside onto her own terrace to smoke a cigarette. The next time I passed beneath the woman’s balcony, she screamed that I should ‘go back to where I came from.’” Those of us living in democracies assume—or bet—that the restrictions placed on our liberty are temporary, and we are probably right. Neighbours’ grudges may last longer.
Bernard-Henry Lévy, the French philosopher, foresees “a China that will presume to give us lessons on how to manage a health crisis.” This is certainly a dismal prospect. China, which suppressed early warnings of the outbreak, has since repositioned itself with serene chutzpah as the saviour of the world, by sending specialist doctors and (often useless) protective clothing to European countries hit hardest by the virus. China’s aim, most powerfully articulated since Xi Jinping became president in 2013, is to spread its influence and power as widely as possible. The more it is perceived as a global leader in the fight against the pandemic, the warmer its welcome will be in those countries to which it makes soft power overtures. It will also attract less international obloquy when it threatens hard power against Taiwan or Hong Kong, or manoeuvres to control the islands and large oil and gas reserves in the South China Sea—a passage of vast economic and strategic importance, parts of which are claimed by the Philippines, Indonesia, Taiwan, Vietnam, and others.
Kevin Rudd, the former Australian prime minister (2007 – 2010), is a Mandarin speaker well acquainted with China, and he is now a hard-line pessimist regarding the pandemic’s global fallout. “Neither a new Pax Sinica nor a renewed Pax Americana will rise from the ruins,” he predicts in a May 6th article for Foreign Affairs. “Rather, both powers will be weakened, at home and abroad. And the result will be a continued slow but steady drift toward international anarchy across everything from international security to trade to pandemic management. With nobody directing traffic, various forms of rampant nationalism are taking the place of order and cooperation. The chaotic nature of national and global responses to the pandemic thus stands as a warning of what could come on an even broader scale.”
Others despair of the abdication by the US of its world leadership position, and worry that China will indeed benefit from the vacuum. China’s rise predated the election of Donald Trump in 2016 by at least a decade, but former US assistant secretary of state for Asia Kurt Campbell and Brookings China expert Rush Doshi argue that the Trump administration has greatly aided it. “The status of the United States as a global leader over the past seven decades,” they write, “has been built not just on wealth and power but also, and just as important, on the legitimacy that flows from the United States’ domestic governance, provision of global public goods, and ability and willingness to muster and coordinate a global response to crises. The coronavirus pandemic is testing all three elements of US leadership. So far, Washington is failing the test.”
It is failing because, consistent with the rest of his presidency, Trump has relied on vindictiveness and spite towards those who disagree with or challenge him at a time when the country has sought reassurance, or at least a display of competence. He has repeated demonstrably false claims about the early steps he took to protect Americans as the pandemic spread, promoted untested miracle cures from his podium, and has applied considerable pressure to American states to end the lockdown and restart both production and the service economy. Much of the world, especially America’s allies, had grown accustomed to looking to the US for a lead. But global leadership will not be forthcoming from a Trump presidency, because he is simply unable and unwilling to provide it.
The upside of this is that countries will necessarily become more reliant on their own judgement and resources, which arguably should have happened some years ago. The democratic states have long ceded suzerainty to the United States, usually with good reason. Now, those countries which value their freedom must act as a cooperative, not as a platoon following a leader. It’s a posture which should continue after Trump, no matter who succeeds him. As the Obama presidency showed, if more rationally, a retreat from global leadership is now embedding itself into US governance, as well as popular choice.
Meanwhile, authoritarians everywhere have used the crisis to fortify their dictatorial powers. Some of the new measures enacted by these regimes are not dissimilar to those passed by democratic legislatures, but others go further, and citizens fear that they will be difficult to repeal after the ostensible reason for their enactment has passed. On March 30th, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary obtained assent from his parliament for a package of laws that allows him to ignore that same parliament in future, while punishing those—journalists mainly—who “distort facts” or circulate “false information” with jail sentences of between two and five years.
Even more threatening is the recent (though not entirely unexpected) turn to despotic rule by Narendra Modi, prime minister of India, which will soon be the world’s most populous state. There, journalists, opposition activists, and NGOs are routinely harried, threatened, beaten, and in some cases imprisoned. Siddharth Varadarajan, a former editor of the left-wing Hindu daily and founder of the Wire news and opinion website has been charged with offences that could earn him up to 20 years in prison. On April 21st, he wrote in the New York Times that, “Across India, the pandemic and lockdown have provided an occasion for the free play of authoritarian impulses.” Many observers in India and abroad fear that Modi’s anti-Muslim bias will be aggravated by the crisis. It was already strong in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and even stronger in the paramilitary Hindu nationalist organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) that is close to the BJP. Modi worked for the RSS for nearly three decades, until his election as chief minister of the state of Gujarat in 2001.
Leaders like Trump, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko have either belittled the pandemic, or flatly denied it (“a little cold,” declared Bolsonaro). They are unlikely to change, though may be replaced by elections. The puzzling exception among the autocrats is Russian President Vladimir Putin—a man who has loved to display his impressive fitness in horse riding, ice hockey, and (his speciality) judo, and who was always careful to underscore his position at the summit of power. In the last two months, however, he has become curiously passive. One of Russia’s most penetrating commentators, Lilia Shevtsova, writes that, “Putin demurred from addressing the nation for several weeks, refusing to play the Leader-Saviour role that fits the normal pattern of personalized rule in Russia… video appearances from his bunker paint a surreal portrait, as if the leader were talking from a different planet, his subordinates afraid to return him to reality. When Putin finally addressed Russians on April 29th, he presented them with a startling statement: ‘Most important are people, their lives’—a principle he has never lived by… An authoritarian system reluctant to use authoritarian instruments? This is highly unusual.”
The authoritarian approach—active or passive—is unlikely to be used for longer than necessary in liberal democratic states, where leadership is reliant on, and increasingly subject to, sharp changes in public mood. This has been most obvious in France, where President Emmanuel Macron appeared to be wildly popular when he was elected in 2017, only to become wildly unpopular in 2019 and into this year. The gilets jaunes, a populist movement of the working and lower middle classes, successfully developed a radical rejection of Macron as arrogant, out of touch, and favourable to the wealthy. His approval rating subsequently dropped to under 20 percent. However, Macron’s handling of the pandemic—a warmer style in presidential addresses, discreet self-criticism for being too remote in the past, combined with the boost a leader usually receives during a national crisis—have helped his ratings climb into the mid-40s. The attraction of a gentler, even paternal style may continue into the future.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and South Korean President Moon Jae-In are having very “good” pandemics, relatively speaking, shepherding their countries through the coronavirus with many fewer deaths than elsewhere. At the time of writing, they are announcing the reopening of their economies. These reputations are likely to last—unless a second wave hits more ferociously than the first—and are already providing models for other leaders. In the UK, meanwhile, Prime Minister Boris Johnson provided personal drama by surviving a very grave case of the virus and, on April 29th, he celebrated the birth of a son by his partner, Carrie Symonds.
Johnson’s previous career as a journalist put him—somewhat erratically—on the small government, economically and socially liberal, and Eurosceptic side of the Conservative Party. The last of these positions will remain, but since assuming the office of premier—and since his release from hospital and two-week convalescence, in particular—it seems that a different man has emerged. The manifesto on which Johnson ran last December resulted in a large majority and the humiliation of the Labour Party (and the Liberal Democrats). The Conservatives promised investment in neglected areas in the North of England and the Midlands, and deprived areas in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. It was, at least in economic terms but also in rhetoric, a centre-left programme. The lifesaving care Johnson received from the NHS is likely to reinforce his emergence as a social democrat of some sort, notwithstanding his elite education at Eton and Oxford and his membership of the very select, all-male dining and drinking Bullingdon Club.
The cost of fighting the pandemic will be huge, and there are few upsides available here (though not none, more about which in a moment). Forecasts vary widely, and tend to increase sharply over quite short time periods. For example, an early May outlook from the Bank of England saw a 14 percent slump in the UK’s GDP this year, with an unemployment rate of eight percent. The Fitch rating agency had forecast a much lower figure of 6.3 percent GDP decline on April 22nd. The US economy is expected to substantially collapse in the present (second) quarter, with a decline of over 30 percent widely forecast; the Credit Suisse estimate that it will be 33.5 percent is only a little more pessimistic than most. Yet a “V-shaped” recovery in the second half of this year is also widely predicted (or hoped for)—Credit Suisse also forecasts a huge surge of animal spirits in the third quarter of 19 percent, and 11 percent in the final quarter of the year.
The European Union’s official prognosis for the EU area is a more cautious 7.5 percent fall in GDP over 2020, with an “uneven” recovery in the second half of 2020 and a growth of six percent in 2021. The same forecast sees EU unemployment rise from its pre-pandemic 6.7 percent to nine percent this year, falling back slightly to eight percent in 2021. These figures may conform to Collier’s view that the most honest prediction is “Don’t Know”—but they converge on a general agreement that the slump will be huge and unprecedented in modern times.
In all of these states, and across the world, debt will rise to levels previously thought inadmissible except in war. Worse yet: “As grim as the economic outlook appears,” the New York Times reported on May 7th, “the greater danger to the world economy may be the risk that the Euro common currency could be undermined by the deepening rifts between its members and their leaders.” The EU has certainly not had a “good” pandemic; it has been much slower than nation states to react, and the “rifts” to which the New York Times refers are largely those between the northern economies, including Germany, and the south, including France. These are presently obscured somewhat by a common effort to show solidarity, but they remain and will reappear in time, perhaps deeper than ever.
The severest effects of the current crisis will certainly befall those on lower incomes, since they tend to have fewer savings, fewer skills, and more precarious circumstances of employment. Joel Kotkin, executive director of the Urban Reform Institute in Houston in Texas and a regular contributor to Quillette, has written an excoriating prognosis of the US economy for Tablet entitled, “Who Will Prosper After the Plague?” Kotkin sees the highly educated and technologically expert gaining, while the poor suffer badly—“In our increasingly feudal society, the small property owning yeomanry who operate the local businesses… are already under threat and will be squeezed further by both the pandemic and its aftermath. But even more hard-pressed will be the growing, propertyless serf class that includes laid-off workers and the roughly 50 to 60 million workers in essential jobs… roughly 70 percent of these workers are in low-wage professions, such as food preparation, and often, despite their increased risk, often lack health insurance from their employers.”
Some 27 million Americans have no health insurance, and therefore no right to hospital care except in the most pressing emergencies. The world’s greatest economy, and one of its richest states, has large archipelagos of poverty and desperation, which increasingly sclerotic and dysfunctional political and bureaucratic machines do little to relieve. Columbia history professor Adam Tooze’s 2018 book Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World offered an extraordinarily detailed and illuminating narrative of the post-2008 universe. In a recent essay for the London Review of Books about the pandemic’s likely effect on the global economy, he writes, “What we are witnessing in the American response to the crisis, more than the flame-out of Trump, is the gulf between the competence of the American government machine in managing global finance and the Punch and Judy show of its politics. That tension has been more and more glaring since at least the 1990s, but the virus has exposed it as never before. It has forced an apparent choice between economic performance and mass death which, not just in America, is profoundly shocking to the prevailing common sense.”
That’s in America, where social protection is lower than in Europe, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. The Anglo-American economist Jonathan Portes argues in Prospect that austerity—cutting public services and spending—must be avoided in Europe, if the weight of the crisis is not to fall disproportionately on the poor. He recommends active labour market policies such as job creation and increased training, and more generous welfare and spending on health services. He adds, however, that “None of this will be easy; and all of it will cost money. Some of us—especially the better off… whose incomes have held up well during this crisis—will need in due course to pay more tax. But this time we should focus not on short-term fiscal targets but rather on building a genuinely resilient economy—and society.”
The degree to which post-pandemic societies can avoid austerity remains to be seen, however. It may be that Mediterranean states and those with even more fragile economies, in particular, are doomed to a season in economic hell similar to that experienced by Greece over the past decade—rising unemployment, deepening poverty (nearly one-third of Greeks remain on or below the poverty line) and vast debt. The worst, for most of Europe and the US, is just beginning. For much of the rest of the world—in Africa, the Middle East, in much of Latin America—it has yet to begin.
There is, however, at least some good news amid the gloom: a sharp drop in manufacturing and air travel has produced a corresponding decline in air pollution, which is itself a major global killer. Levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2)—a noxious gas which the World Health Organisation says causes “significant inflammation of the (human) airways”—are sharply down from February. NO2 exacerbates existing health problems, and is likely to expedite the spread of viruses—possibly including this coronavirus. Its reduction is unlikely to compensate substantially for the present level of fatalities (though it’s likely to contribute somewhat)—but it may provide an unsought sketch of a future, healthier environment. Paul Monks, professor of air pollution at the University of Leicester, asks, “Are we looking at what we might see in the future if we can move to a low-carbon economy? Not to denigrate the loss of life, but this might give us some hope from something terrible. To see what can be achieved.”
How then will we live? Some shifts seem all but inevitable. Working from home has its disadvantages, but these will diminish as and when we are finally able to move about freely once more. We’ve discovered that many office tasks can be performed just as efficiently at home, where frequent hand washing and self-isolation is easier. Medical visits for non-threatening issues can be done by teleconferencing, or even over the phone. Volunteering, a warm surge of humanity in many states, may continue at a higher and better organised level. This may help the elderly, especially those who live alone, to avoid care homes, which have often turned out to be death traps during this pandemic, and could become them again if a second wave breaks. Much of this is on the good side, or should be. On the other hand, domestic violence has spiked in most countries during lockdown, and home working for two partners may keep it at a higher level.
Much of the prognostication about the future’s outlines, especially the more dire forecasts, assume that we will change, or be changed, greatly. But will we? Richard Haass, a former director of policy planning in George W. Bush’s first administration, now president of the Council of Foreign Relations wrote in Foreign Affairs in April that:
The world following the pandemic is unlikely to be radically different from the one that preceded it. COVID-19 will not so much change the basic direction of world history as accelerate it. The pandemic and the response to it have revealed and reinforced the fundamental characteristics of geopolitics today. As a result, this crisis promises to be less of a turning point than a way station along the road that the world has been traveling for the past few decades…
[T]he world that will emerge from the crisis will be recognizable. Waning American leadership, faltering global cooperation, great-power discord: all of these characterized the international environment before the appearance of COVID-19, and the pandemic has brought them into sharper-than-ever relief. They are likely to be even more prominent features of the world that follows.
From phone and Zoom conversations, I gather that those of us who have obeyed our leaders and stayed at home are reluctant to go out into a world that suddenly feels more threatening. But we will. And when we do, the future will be the one that we help to create.
John Lloyd is a contributing editor to the Financial Times and co-founder of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. His latest book is Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot: The Great Mistake of Scottish Independence (Polity Press).