The COVID-19 pandemic has something for everyone. Where conspiracy theorists identified a hoax or a biological weapon, nativists saw yet another reason why borders ought to be hermetically shut to prevent the spread of “foreign” diseases. President Trump’s critics have focused—not without reason—on the lack of preparedness of the federal government, Euroskeptics are pointing out that the EU has taken a back seat to national governments, and there was an obvious lesson for those who demand universal healthcare coverage in the United States as well.
Nobody is immune to the Rorschach test—and certainly not big-picture thinkers who seem convinced that the pandemic is a turning point. “This is not a temporary rupture in an otherwise stable equilibrium,” writes John Gray in an intriguing piece in the the New Statesman. “Yes, the storm will pass, humankind will survive, most of us will still be alive—but we will inhabit a different world,” Yuval Noah Harari writes in a widely quoted article in the Financial Times, in which he outlines the stark choices facing humankind after the crisis: between the surveillance state and citizen empowerment, political parochialism and global cooperation.
With the pandemic at a relatively early stage, issuing confident forecasts of its lasting effects is a bit like opining about the postwar international order in the spring of 1940. Yet if anything is clear, it is that SARS-CoV-2 is indifferent to all ideological agendas, motives, or loyalties. It infects, without favor or prejudice, authoritarians and democrats, free marketeers and statists, Christians and Muslims, Americans and Chinese. The disease itself does not prove anything, does not illustrate any broader point about economic and social organization, nor predicts any specific shift in human history. If such shifts occur, they will be driven by the decisions of our policymakers, by their leadership and ideas—and by perceived popular demand.
The expectation of radical changes sits oddly with the sentiment prevailing all around the world: a desire for normalcy. We want workplaces, shops, and restaurants to reopen, and social life, travel, and business to resume. The political ramifications are, of course, uncertain—the short-term bump in support for all incumbent leaders, regardless of ideology, might not outlive the crisis as voters may desire to turn the page once the drama and the self-isolation are over. But it is far from obvious where the constituency for radical political, social, and economic dislocation will come from as the world starts to recover from the fallout of the pandemic.
Before we even get to that point, it is necessary to address the underlying epidemiological problem. In an era of stark ideological and partisan divisions, it is comforting to see that what needs to be done, by and large, is not a subject of great controversy. A hard stop is needed to stop the exponential growth of cases requiring hospitalization, followed, as my AEI colleague Scott Gottlieb and his co-authors suggest, by a soft, cautious restart of national (and state) economies at an appropriate time, after capacities for testing and tracing have been ramped up, alongside improved hygiene, restrictions on some forms of social interaction, and mask-wearing—all to remain in place until a vaccine comes along.
While COVID-19 has caught much of the world, including Western democracies, off guard, it is not anything that should spell doom for our system of government. If anything, there are strong reasons to expect that, because of the free flow of information and political accountability, democracies will be able to avoid the spectacular Chernobyl-like mismanagement seen in Wuhan.
The potential for bungling things up is large, and not all democratic governments will come out of this covered in glory. Those without competent, data- and tech-savvy bureaucracies will end up with much higher death tolls or will have to have recourse to far more heavy-handed and economically damaging policies in order contain the spread of the virus than, say, the Nordic countries, Taiwan, or Singapore. The early signs from the United States are not encouraging—not a surprise for a “great, unwieldy body,” as John Adams famously put it. “It is like a large Fleet sailing under Convoy. The fleetest sailors must wait for the dullest and slowest.” However, those keen to extrapolate a few weeks’ worth of data and write America off might end up surprised by its world-class medical and pharmaceutical research.
Today, national governments are firmly in the driver’s seat of organizing a response to the pandemic, mostly because they are the only organizations that can mobilize the necessary resources. Indeed, borders and international travel have been shut down—and they will inevitably be scrutinized as vectors of disease spread in the years to come. Complex international supply chains in certain sectors will also be seen as sources of vulnerability, as the discussion over the current ventilator shortage suggests.
At the same time, the pandemic is no more a consequence of globalized commerce than the Black Death was God’s punishment for the exuberance of the Silk Road. Instead of predicting the end of globalization, now is the time to stand up for it—and to make sure that humankind’s long-term prosperity does not become collateral damage. Of course, there is a legitimate debate to be had about the resilience of supply chains that are critical for security or public health reasons, including in defense industries, pharmaceuticals, telecommunications, and others. And given China’s role in the origin and spread of the pandemic, its influence over the World Health Organization, and its ongoing propagandistic efforts, it is time to revisit the naive form of multilateralism, which treats autocracies as responsible stakeholders in the international economic order.
Yet that debate does not entail binary choices. When the pandemic is over, most of us will want to go back to the 21st-century world with all its amenities—not to remain trapped in the present dystopia, where one’s ability to travel or do business across borders is dramatically restricted. The recovery from the extraordinary economic shock that we are living through will be dramatically slower if crude protectionism makes a comeback into the repertoire of policy tools used by policymakers—just like Europe’s recovery after 1945 would have been much slower had it not been for the trade liberalization that ensued.
The crisis is exerting an extraordinary degree of pressure on already overstretched public finances on both sides of the Atlantic. In the United States, this will bring forward some hard choices about the sustainability of existing entitlement programs and leave very little space for ambitious policy ideas advocated by the progressive left. At the same time, without sizable outside assistance, Eurozone countries on the Mediterranean periphery will be left literally bankrupt once the pandemic is over—much like the 13 American colonies after the War of Independence. But whether that can provide an impetus for the EU’s Hamiltonian moment, for its demise, or for some form of muddling through remains to be seen, though both the federalization and disintegration scenarios now appear less likely by the day.
On the upside, one can expect potentially exciting developments in biomedicine, remote work, improved hygiene, and more investment into preparedness for future pandemics. The most important economic question is whether our economies can rebound quickly after current lockdowns, or whether, if the hiatus is long, too much organizational capital will be destroyed and labor markets reshaped in ways that will leave lots of Americans and Western Europeans behind—with unknown political and social consequences. That uncertainty should serve as impetus for bold leadership, pro-growth reforms, and investment into state capacity—not for efforts to revive stale ideas that we know from history are dead ends.
The effects on the human psyche and our shared culture are even harder to pin down than the economic effects. This may be yet another step in the direction of the loneliness crisis, with corrosive political effects. Counterintuitively, though, the ongoing collective “mobilization” in the form of individuals staying at home can provide a shared experience that will cut through ideological and partisan lines and reinvigorate our civic interactions once the era of self-isolation ends. Already, many of the key conflicts animating our political life in the recent past—from President Trump’s impeachment, through Brexit, to identity politics—seem insignificant in comparison to a disease that can kill millions of people worldwide. Most importantly—and this is as much a wish as a prediction—the horrors of the pandemic might lead to the reverse of the scenario described by Francis Fukuyama in The End of History, where the “prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started once again.” After months of seclusion, ubiquitous death, draconian restrictions, and the heroic efforts of health workers around the world, the boredom of normal life might become a rather attractive proposition.