In these strange times I have been thinking a lot about the meaning and consequences of it all. I’m not alone. With so little else to do in lock-down many others are thinking about the effects of Covid-19. Alas this effort is as unproductive as so much else that is going on right now.
For contrasting ideas compare these two pieces. In the New Statesman philosopher John Gray explains Why this crisis is a turning point in history. For him it marks the reverse of globalisation and the return of the nation-state as the dominant idea in political and economic organisation. On the other hand in The Times there is Matthew Parris who explains why We say everything will change but it won’t. For me Mr Parris is much more on the money, but then I have never liked Mr Gray, a very clever man who somehow always seems to miss the point.
The remarkable thing about almost all the predictions of change is that they are expressions of wish fulfilment. Environmentalists say that we will stop travelling by air and learn to value the environment we have so despoiled through largely pointless economic activity. Socialists say the crisis is a vindication of socialist organisation at the expense of markets and capitalism, and that we cannot return to “Neoliberal” ways. Nationalists say that it is all the fault of outsiders and countries will raise borders and expel foreigners. Critics of the European Union say the crisis proves its uselessness and will prove terminal for it. The Economist suggests that the crisis will be good for big companies and herald a period of consolidation and takeover (to be fair that newspaper does not openly advocate such consolidation as a good thing, but its bias in favour of bigness is very evident). Critics of Donald Trump say the crisis means his presidency will end this year. And so on. Perhaps with the crisis having so badly disrupted people’s expectations for how the year would progress, there is some kind subconscious compensation mechanism which leads them to conclude it will hasten what they were always advocating. There must be a silver lining to all those dark clouds.
A lot of these thoughts have merit, but we need to adjust the seasoning. One of the deepest instincts of humankind is conservatism and a desire to recreate better times in the past. When all this is over there will be an overwhelming wish to go back to how things were before, which will be seen as a sort of golden era. This may take a little while to emerge, as a lot of people have been genuinely scared by the idea they could be contaminated by their neighbours. But a lot of infrastructure is simply falling into disuse rather than being destroyed. The planes and airports are still there. Many airlines will go bust, but their assets will be bought up on the cheap by stronger airlines and new ones. Dirt cheap fights will be on offer and, alas for those of us who think it is mainly pointless and destructive , things will get back to something like what they were.
Still, a number questions are worth posing. The first is whether we will treat this affair as a nightmare to be put behind us and forgotten, or whether we will take real steps to make ourselves less vulnerable to future pandemics. Much of history points to the former conclusion, as Mr Parris points out. But one of the interesting things to emerge is how much better East Asian countries have proved to be at handling the pandemic. This applies as much to China’s Communist dictatorship as to Taiwan’s and South Korea’s vibrant democracies. The reason seems to be that they have had major scares before, such as SARS. So perhaps western societies will learn too. Also it may prove very hard to beat this virus. An effective vaccine, the silver bullet we seek, might prove elusive. That would mean that we would have to build longer-lasting systems to fight it, and in particular tighter surveillance of people’s health so that outbreaks can be detected and isolated quickly. This will not be dismantled so quickly.
A second question is how the world’s financial systems will cope with the surge in government spending required to confront the disease and to soften its economic effects. Each of three pillars of the world system is going to be put under immense strain: the US dollar as the world’s principal currency for reserves and international transactions; the Euro and the European financial system; and China’s opaque and highly manipulated system. Here in Britain our financial system looks a lot healthier than it did during the great financial crisis, but it cannot fail to be impacted if these other pillars start to falter.
And then there are things that people should be pondering but are not. The first are lessons about the most effective structure and governance of the state. Here in Britain we are seeing a lot of muddle, and many missed opportunities. A lot of these derive from excessive centralisation, which stops the government from making the most of many smaller organisations that could help unblock the bottlenecks in the supply of tests and personal protective equipment, for example. Instead people will probably conclude that the system was not centralised enough.
There is also a deeper philosophical question about our society. The lockdown shows how little of our economic activity we actually need to keep ourselves alive. Most economic activity is only of marginal worth when set against the big issues of life and death. Perhaps we should rethink our obsessions with economic growth and productivity, and instead try to build a society that is safer, more resilient, more sustainable and happier. But if that thought ever starts to get traction it will soon be crushed in our desire to put the nightmare behind us. I can’t yet see much of a silver lining to this cloud.