After COVID-19: What New Normal?
Moments of global crisis are also turning points - so how will this pandemic change the world?
We all yearn for the moment the world will be free of this virus. That may come through a vaccine or possibly - I shudder at the thought - when most of those who are vulnerable have been infected. We may then imagine that everything will go back to normal. But it won't.
A pandemic which has reshaped the lifestyles of most people on the planet, and which has hobbled every major economy, isn't just going to disappear without trace. Moments of global crisis and rupture are often a catalyst for, or accelerator of, social, cultural and political change. That was true of both world wars - and it's likely to be true of this global epidemic too. There will be a new normal after COVID-19.
It's much easier, of course, to assert that this virus will leave a lasting legacy than to spell out what that will be. But let's try!
First of all, the tide may turn against insular, xenophobic right-wing populism. Donald Trump was sliding towards election defeat before COVID surfaced - but his woeful handling of the pandemic, his bluster, his disdain for the experts and open defiance of measures designed to limit infection, have greatly worsened his poll prospects. There are two weeks to go before the presidential election and a lot can change, but it looks as if President Trump will suffer a double whammy: brought low by the virus both personally and politically.
Other right-wing populists have also had a bad pandemic: Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Boris Johnson in Britain both contracted the virus themselves and both have suffered a drop in popular approval (in Bolsonaro's case redeemed by huge emergency assistance pay-outs). It's tempting to wonder whether the brash bravado of populist politics is losing out to a more consensual, compassionate political style, with an emphasis on empathy and good governance.
That seems to be why New Zealand's prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, has just been re-elected with a resounding majority. And why Scotland's first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, is riding high in the opinion polls.
And there's something else happening here - a swing of the pendulum away from the mighty nation-state to a type of political localism. In designing, introducing and encouraging compliance with the measures designed to stem the spread of COVID-19, leaders that feel close-at-hand and in tune with those they represent have done better than distant political overlords in far-away national capitals. The pandemic could prompt a greater decentralisation of power.
In global terms, the United Nations has had a dismal year. When nations have been so pre-occupied by their domestic response to the virus, it was perhaps hoping too much that they would act together. But the UN has failed to provide leadership, and its Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, has lacked the profile and authority to galvanise member states into a concerted effort to limit the pandemic.
The World Health Organisation - while not deserving of President Trump's scorn and contempt - has also been found wanting. Its reluctance in the early stages of the crisis to endorse restrictions on international travel seems, with hindsight, to have been a grave mistake.
Even if economies bounce back after the pandemic, the road to a full recovery will be slow. The businesses which have closed, the shops which have handed back their leases, the office blocks which have been mothballed, will not simply come back to life. City centres may remain hollowed out for a decade; home working is like to expand in scope; online shopping will continue to replace in-shop purchases; and there may be a population drift away from the cities to areas which are still well connected and offer a better quality of life.
The most profound issue will be about jobs. Those seeking to enter the labour market - above all, the young - will find it much more difficult. British experts have this week warned of the danger of a 'lost generation', their education disrupted and career prospects blighted, but still having to meet the financial burden imposed by the enormous increase in public spending to combat the virus. That may well breed a burning sense of resentment which will find expression in the political landscape - it's difficult to know how, but it will.
Having said all that, I think back to 9/11 and just how flawed our crystal ball gazing was in its immediate aftermath. In the hours after the attack, I was asked by the BBC to head to New York - and spent about 48 hours at a London airport, with dozens of other journalists, waiting for the skies to re-open and our charter flight to take-off.
Some of us wiled away the hours imagining how the atrocity might remould the world: a concerted drive to redress Palestinian grievances and the other issues which gave oxygen to Islamic radicalism (wrong); an end to building the ultra-tall skyscrapers that were the principal target of the attack (wrong); a trend away from air flights to other forms of long-distance travel (wrong); much stricter security at airports and on planes (partly right); and an outburst of xenophobia and Islamophobia (sadly, all too true).
So we don't really know what our new normal will look like once the virus is vanquished - except that it won't be the old normal.