Five Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World.
A year that was largely defined by the Covid-19 pandemic finally ended, but challenges still lie ahead for the global community to deal with. During this year, after fighting with the first wave of coronavirus pandemic Covid-19, we entered the second phase of it. Covid-19 vaccines—some using innovative mRNA techniques, and developed by international teams at a breakneck pace never before seen—have begun rolling out. Therapies have cut the death rates down, and new and cheaper tests are being developed each month. There are still challenges of distribution and we must navigate a difficult winter. In this scenario, countries and organizations need to ramp up cooperative efforts to be better prepared for new waves of COVID-19 infections, seek recovery of the hard-hit global economy, and maintain stability in regions that have seen turmoil over the past year.
In his new book, Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World, CNN host and author Fareed Zakaria looks at the way in which COVID is speeding up economic, technological, environmental, cultural, and political trends. Here are five of those lessons for our post-pandemic world.
- Buckle Up
We now all recognise how a tiny viral particle, circulating in a bat in China’s Hubei province, has brought the world to its knees—a real-life example of the butterfly effect, whereby the flapping of a butterfly’s wing might influence weather patterns on the other side of the world. Small changes can have big consequences. In power grids or computer networks, if one tiny element breaks and then shifts its load to another, which then breaks, it can produce a chain reaction that grows ever larger, like a ripple that becomes a roaring wave. It is termed a “cascading failure”.
What exactly are the consequences of this pandemic? Some have suggested that it will prove to be the hinge event of modern history, a moment that forever alters its course. Others believe that after the vaccine, we will quickly return to business as usual. Still, others argue that the pandemic will not reshape history so much as accelerate it. This last scenario seems the most likely outcome. Lenin is supposed to have once said, “There are decades when nothing happens, and then there are weeks when decades happen.” The post-pandemic world is going to be, in many aspects, a sped-up version of the world we knew.
Our world, especially since the end of the Cold War, has been open, fast—and thus, almost by definition, unstable. We see this in the three great crises of the 21st century— 9/11, the financial crash and Covid-19—one political, one economic and one natural.
Pandemic diseases leaping from animals to humans are one form of backlash from a world in constant overdrive—species’ habitats shrink and they jostle up against human settlements. So too are hurricanes, droughts and wildfires arising from climate change. A 2019 UN report found that 75 percent of Earth’s landmass and 66 percent of ocean environments have been “severely altered” by human development.
Some on the Right and the Left have called to slow down growth or stop the global flow of people and goods. But it is neither feasible nor desirable to choose stability over openness and speed, and expect
A Look at Ten Lessons for a Post- Pandemic World
In “Ten Lessons for a Post- Pandemic World”, Mr. Zakaria helps readers to understand the nature of a world that emerges after the pandemic: the political, social, technological, and economic consequences that may take years to unfold. He does this by focusing on ten lessons:
- What Matters Is Not the Quantity of Government but the Quality
- Markets Are Not Enough
- People Should Listen to the Experts—and Experts Should Listen to the People
- Life is digital
- Aristotle Was Right—We Are Social Animals
- Inequality will get worse
- Globalization is not dead
- The world is becoming bipolar
- Sometimes the Greatest Realists Are the Idealists
The book offers a great look at history and the Catalysts that forced human action in the past. Whether COVID-19 proves to be a catalyst remains to be seen, as some believe it will be a hinge event that alters human history, and others believe it will accelerate, versus reshape it. Past events like the bubonic plague were in the former category, altering human history in a considerable way. As the author describes, it prompted an intellectual revolution. Many fourteenth-century Europeans asked why God would allow this hell on earth and questioned entrenched hierarchies – which had the ultimate effect of helping Europe break out of its medieval malaise and setting in motion the Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment.
The book delves into the origins of COVID-19 and the reasons that we can expect more of these viruses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that three-quarters of new human diseases originate in animals – and in many parts of the world, we are living closer to wild animals. The more we extend civilization into nature, the odds that animals will pass disease to us increase. Fighting disease takes global cooperation – something that is lacking in the current virus response. Compare and contrast the current virus with another historical comparison: the eradication of smallpox is a story that is only partly about science and mostly about extraordinary cooperation between rival superpowers and impressive execution across the globe. This was a story of cooperation between two rival powers (Russia, U.S.) dating back to 1958. By 1980, smallpox was eradicated. Global cooperation is an important theme throughout the book, as you cannot defeat global diseases (or deal with climate change, govern the path of AI, etc.) without some level of global governance.
Governance in the context of innovation does not mean slowing it down or blocking its path. Innovation will continue at incredible speed, and there is nothing we can/should do about that. Extreme events are likely to grow more frequent, and that phenomenon is mostly out of our hands as well. But the author hits the nail on the head when he says: “What we can do is be far more conscious of the risks we face, prepare for the dangers, and equip our societies to be resilient.” Education, awareness, and a willingness to think differently will go a long way towards realizing all three.
the world’s poorest billion to resign themselves to poverty. If human society keeps developing this fast, we need to buckle up and provide buffers offering security, resilience and anti-fragility to cushion the public against shocks—or else they will turn against the openness and dynamism that drive growth.
- Inequality will get worse
Since 1990, the decline in global inequality was in large part caused by sustained economic progress in China, India and other developing countries, which grew much faster than developed countries, lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. The pandemic could erase much of this progress. After initially escaping largely unscathed, the developing world suffered greatly from Covid-19.
In many developing countries, large segments of the population make just enough each day to feed themselves and their families. So governments faced a dilemma: if they shut down the economy, people would starve. If they kept it open, the virus would spread. Given that these governments don’t have the money to pay people to stay home or subsidise shuttered businesses, the wisest course, in retrospect, was probably not to impose full-scale lockdowns.
Even supposing, as seems plausible, that deaths from the disease are being vastly undercounted, this horrifying figure puts Covid-19 in perspective for the developing world. Though intended to save lives, the shutdown of nearly all activity led to economic collapse. This has caused untold hardship and, ironically, exacerbated many health problems, from hunger to depression. Was it worth it?
These are difficult decisions, but one cannot but think that in many developing countries, not enough thought was given to the calamities that would follow a lockdown. This is probably why, when cases spiked after quarantines were lifted, few developing countries even considered reimposing them. Even without further lockdowns, economic pain from the pandemic looks set to exacerbate global inequality for the foreseeable future.
- Digital life is life
Historically, cities always got emptied out, but then they always got repopulated. People would move, move out during the plague and then they’d move back in. The big difference, of course, now is you have this digital life. You have the ability to live a life digitally, to work digitally. So you have the ability to not have to come back to the city in quite the same way. Covid-19 will serve to accelerate the digital revolution—particularly the mobile revolution. The iPhone was launched in 2007, and smartphones now connect the majority of the world to the Internet. For most people, their phone is their computer.
Covid-19 came onto this stage and obliterated the one remaining obstacle to a digital future—human attitudes. Many people were stuck in their old ways. Some were still reluctant to send credit card information over the Internet. Others would never think of taking a class online. Most would not have agreed to a doctor’s appointment via video chat. The pandemic and the lockdowns that followed compelled changes in behaviour, and not just from people, but businesses too. Hollywood studios would never have dreamed of debuting a big-budget movie through a streaming service. Michelin-starred restaurants thought they were above takeout and delivery. Health clubs didn’t want to be in the business of creating YouTube videos. But all these taboos have been broken, the barriers crossed, and now new normal exists. It is unlikely that we will ever fully go back to the past. The pandemic served as a forced mass product testing for digital life—and, for the most part, our technological tools passed.
- Globalisation is not dead
Prior to the pandemic, globalisation was thriving, especially in the developing world. As economists Susan Lund and Laura Tyson write, “More than half of all international trade in goods involves at least one developing country, and trade in goods between developing countries—so-called South-South trade—grew from seven percent of the global total in 2000 to 18 percent in 2016.” But shortages of essential goods during the pandemic led many governments to consider restructuring global supply chains in favour of “reshoring”. Predictably, populist nationalists like Donald Trump and Narendra Modi approached the pandemic with a distrust of any kind of global efforts or multilateral solutions. Modi reminded Indians of the dangers of global supply chains and urged that they be “vocal for local”, buying and promoting all things Made in India. But tariffs and subsidies would be exactly the wrong measures at a moment when growth is slowing around the world.
A better, more targeted solution than protectionism would be strategic stockpiles of drugs, masks and other personal protective equipment, as savvy East Asian states created after SARS. The shortages are usually short-term, right when the crisis hits—after which the private sector ramps up to fulfil demand. This is exactly what happened during the Covid-19 pandemic. For a few months, face masks were running desperately low worldwide, prompting many governments to ban exports of protective equipment.
Beyond goods, consider the human scale of globalisation before the pandemic hit: 5 million international students, 270 million migrants, 1.5 billion tourist trips. Is all this movement going to be unwound? More likely is a specific decoupling from excessive dependence on China. The beneficiaries are likely to be other relatively low-cost manufacturers like India, Vietnam and Mexico that largely embrace globalisation.
We may be in for a pause or even a modest trend of de-globalisation, but it’s more likely to be a blip than a catastrophic plunge. Right now, globalisation is not dead…but we could kill it. After all, it has happened before. The conflict between economically intertwined great powers seemed irrational and self-defeating to European observers in 1913—but it didn’t stop World War I from ripping apart interdependent markets and hardening borders. Trade and travel did not return to their pre-World War I levels until the 1970s, 60 years later.
- Sometimes the greatest realists are the idealists
“Over more than two centuries, the United States has stirred a very wide range of feelings in the rest of the world: love and hatred, fear and hope, envy and contempt, awe and anger,” the Irish commentator Fintan O’Toole wrote in April 2020. “But there is one emotion that has never been directed towards the US until now: pity.”
Covid-19 and the United States’ abysmal response did not just accelerate talk about American decline; it did so in the context of concerns about the rise of China. But a post-American world is unlikely to be dominated by China. With the “rise of the rest”, this world would be more multilateral if not truly multipolar. A new multilateralism would come with advantages—it is based on greater participation for other countries, large and small. It recognises the genuinely global character of the international system. If it works, an international system that gives greater voice to more countries would result in a more vibrant democratic system. Let’s be clear. It all rests on a wager: that the ideas underlying the American-led international order can survive the end of American hegemony. The alternative, a restoration of that hegemony, will not happen.
But there is a reason for rational hope. The drive for multilateralism is not purely idealistic. The US, Europe, Japan, South Korea, and especially China, have gained immeasurably from being part of an open, rules-based system. All of them—even Beijing— would have every incentive to uphold that system rather than bring the house down. India and most other emerging powers should welcome a system in which China is constrained by a web of institutions and rules, even if it also constrains them. They will find greater stability and prosperity in such a world.
It is not a flight of fancy to believe that cooperation can change the world. It is common sense.
This piece has been extracted from Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World by Fareed Zakaria.