How often has it been said that ‘the world will never be the same again after the COVID-19 pandemic’? If so, the question is, how might it change? Might it not change much at all? The questions have given rise to speculative debate, with optimists and pessimists offering their predictions.
On what grounds do the optimists look to a future in which social justice, environmental sustainability, and reduced inequality are prioritised?
First, it is argued that the pandemic has exposed neoliberalism’s failure to provide an adequate response to the twin health and economic crises. During this pandemic governments pursuing neoliberal policies have departed from norms, making interventions in the economy and healthcare in order to limit the dire human and economic consequences of COVID-19. This, say the optimists, is a lesson for the future – the market shown to be an inadequate mechanism for tackling the most fundamental problems facing humankind.
Second, the pandemic has highlighted the need for greater international cooperation in addressing global crises. The optimists say that the pandemic has revealed the necessity for a global response, and that in the future such a response should extend to address other crises, particularly climate change and inequality.
Third, the pandemic has starkly exposed the failures of elected right-wing governments to tackle the pandemic – the US, UK and Brazil being the most obvious examples. Opinion polls have shown the approval ratings of these governments to be falling significantly. Surely, therefore, voters will punish them at the polls and opt for alternatives with social democratic inclinations?
The overall optimist view has been stated pithily by one analyst – there can be no return to normality after the pandemic, because normality has long been the problem. Before the pandemic Nobel laureate in economics Joseph Stiglitz offered a sharp assessment of what is wrong, pointing to three major crises in the world: inequality, climate change, and the crisis of democracy. The latter crisis, he argued, is that democracies are not tackling the other two crises. The optimists hope the pandemic will force a more concerted attempt to address these global challenges.
The pessimists, on the other hand, hold out little hope for a more progressive, internationalist, post-pandemic future.
First, they see corporate power being little diminished. They recall how optimists believed that the 2008-2009 financial crisis would bring fundamental change in its wake, but in the event the neoliberal order survived. Surely, say the pessimists, the same will happen again?
The continuing power of the market is shown up in two recent, telling US economic indicators, which viewed together seem utterly bizarre. In April the US stock market recorded its biggest monthly gains since 1987. In the same month US unemployment rose by over 20 million – the largest monthly rise since the 1930s. It is estimated that during the months of the pandemic the wealth of US billionaires has grown by a staggering $565 billion, while the total number of unemployed in the country rose above 42 million during the same period – bearing out French economist Thomas Piketty’s view that the surest means of accumulating ever greater wealth is to possess wealth in the first place. If this trend can occur during the height of the pandemic is it not likely to continue in its aftermath? The free market is geared to profit-making, not to confronting human tragedy.
Second, pessimists foresee the continuing rise of right-wing, populist nationalism in more parts of the world, as currently evident in countries such as the US, Brazil and India – a trend characterised by xenophobia, racism, and the scapegoating of those deemed responsible for the pandemic.
Third, with the rise of nationalism will come anti-internationalism. Trump is showing the way with his scorn for international organisations like the World Health Organisation. Some observers fear what is being called ‘vaccine nationalism’ – the country that first develops an effective COVID-19 vaccine denying access to it for perceived enemies or rivals.
Which is more likely?
Which is the more likely: the optimistic or the pessimistic scenario? Any firm prediction is clearly impossible. There are variables to be considered, the chief one being the length of time it takes to bring COVID-19 under control. The longer it takes, the more far-reaching the economic devastation.
The overall death count will not itself be a major driver of change. An underlying, callous ageism may give rise to the view, not openly articulated of course, that the vast majority of those who have died have been the aged and infirm, doomed to die anyway in the near future. The loss of this cohort would have a minimal economic impact – in cold, materialistic terms such people are expendable. This kind of thinking is probably already guiding Trump’s cavalier approach to the pandemic.
A full-blown economic depression, however, would have far-reaching consequences, bringing massive unemployment and social discontent, bankruptcy, and heavy government indebtedness. In such a context the predictions of the optimists and the pessimists become possible – a government response along the lines of Roosevelt’s New Deal, or a slide into fascism? Maybe one or the other in different parts of the world? Or perhaps neither? Will there be austerity programmes, with cutbacks in social security prioritised? Might there be a progressive approach, with heavy taxes on wealth and a clampdown on tax havens, as recommended by the likes of Stiglitz and Piketty? Will countries wholly prioritise their own recoveries, neglecting the plight of poor countries?
The likelihood is that there will be a drive on the part of political and economic power-holders to return to normality. While they largely succeeded following the 2008-2009 financial crisis, it will be more difficult to do so in the post-pandemic world. Welfare cutbacks are harder to implement in a context of widespread poverty. At the same time, corporations, backed by media allies, will surely resist tax increases for big business and wealthy individuals. While such increases may become unavoidable if the pandemic is not soon brought under control, one should expect austerity measures to take precedence, placing the greatest burden on the poor and working-class during the recovery period.
The pandemic has given rise to a polarisation in public opinion in many parts of the world, especially in the US, where a vocal right-wing minority resents lockdown measures that restrict their ‘freedoms’ (including their freedom to infect others), while also showing themselves to be receptive to conspiracy theories, disinformation, and anti-scientific ideas. At the other pole are those who adopt a humanist perspective and bow to science.
This polarisation will likely continue in the post-pandemic world. Online media will persist in feeding nationalist, populist sentiment with ideas and disinformation directed against targeted scapegoats, including foreigners, immigrants, racial and religious ‘others’, and liberal elites. At the other pole, progressive opinion will continue to push for policies and practices that make for a more sustainable, egalitarian future.
Which pole is likely to prevail? Outcomes will likely vary in different parts of the world, but it is quite probable that for the most part neither will predominate. Expect the centre-right (as embodied in a figure like Joe Biden) to prevail. It is hard to envisage fascist regimes emerging as in the 1930s. Nor is there enough high-level support for a progressive agenda. Democratically elected governments tend to think short-term, afraid to bear the economic disruption accompanying a radical socio-economic and environmental transformation – costs that could endanger a ruling party’s electoral prospects.
The eventual outcome will depend on the extent to which the pandemic makes ‘business as usual’ an impossible eventuality. Be sure, though, that political and economic power-holders will strive for just such a return to pre-pandemic ‘normality’. The prospect of a political economy geared towards meeting human need, rather than feeding human greed, looks to be as remote as ever.