What will the world be like once the coronavirus pandemic is over? We should be asking ourselves that question right now while we are still in the midst of this emergency. Because, as the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari recently wrote in the Financial Times, the decisions we make during the pandemic will also shape the changes in our societies once Covid-19 is over.
The storm will pass but we will inhabit a very different world. What that world will be like depends on the choices made in the midst of this emergency. Many of the measures put in place, from smart working to digital schools, will also have an impact on the future of work and education. We are forced by the exceptional nature of events to experiment much more, to act faster and be more enterprising, to remove or streamline red tape. This is a sudden acceleration which would not otherwise have happened and it may prove to be very useful for our future.
Nevertheless, Harari writes: “In this time of crisis, we face two particularly important choices. The first is between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment. The second is between nationalist isolation and global solidarity.” Governments actually have the means to monitor and when necessary punish those who break quarantine rules, thanks mainly to new technology. Data, tracking of movements, GPS: these emergency control measures have the potential to become permanent and turn into a fully-fledged state surveillance system. Temporary measures have a habit of still being in place long after the emergency is over. Harari cites the example of Israel, which has been in a state of emergency since its foundation. But we could just as easily take the example of France, which declared a state of emergency after the terrorist attacks on November 13, 2015 and to end it, then diluted most of these extraordinary measures into common law.
Harari reminds us that we should not be forced to make a choice between public health and privacy. We can have both by choosing to empower citizens – an approach also advocated by many in Italy calling for the population to obey the rules and trust politicians and science. The point, however, is that populations need to see the proof that they can trust public authorities and scientific institutions. This is not an easy path but in these exceptional times, we can start to build that trust.
In this time of crisis, we face two particularly important choices. The first is between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment. The second is between nationalist isolation and global solidarity.
The second important choice we face is, as already mentioned, between nationalist isolation and global solidarity. In an article in the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, journalist Danilo Taino observed that during this emergency, social distancing has gone right up to ‘the chain of command’ – Europe appears to be more divided than ever, national governments seem to be miles apart and there continue to be strained relations between China and the USA. “If this is the template to design the post-virus future of the world, then there are grim times ahead,” Taino continues. But it doesn’t have to be like this. History teaches us that from some of the greatest crises it is possible to move towards a better world. Finding common ground for cooperation is essential, not just to find a vaccine against the virus but also to restart the economy.
Globalisation was already faltering before the pandemic amid trade and technology wars and the hostile relationship between the USA and China. It is now in danger of going completely downhill. The risk is that the world will be left with no global leader, a world in which social distancing is the victor.
That is unless new leaders begin to emerge, as indeed happened after the Second World War. Leaders who give a new meaning to the rebuilding of a world order that can end the quarrels which were already very intense before the virus and have since spun somewhat out of control, Taino writes. “In the decades after 1945, the economy of the western world was rebuilt on new progressive foundations; there was a boost to the development of the various fledgling models of Welfare State; a free and liberal society was built and defended; the basis was laid for a new phase of globalisation.”
What guiding principles will the new post-pandemic future be built on? The fight against poverty will have to be much more effective and, consequently, economic growth more robust. Western welfare systems will probably be overhauled by taking a more inclusive stance (the pandemic has revealed growing inequalities). Healthcare systems will need to be strengthened by starting right now to design the future models best able to deal with an emergency. Science and education will be much higher up the scale of social values.
However, nothing good will happen automatically. Unless we take action now, the current tendencies towards isolation and conflict will continue – for the worse. What we will need are ideas and leaders with the ability to create a new world balance.