The remarkable thing about the C-19 pandemic is its sheer multi-dimensionality: its effects touch on every thinkable facet of human life. For a story characterised by a plethora of unknowns, only one thing is for sure: the political, economic and social ramifications will endure a lifetime.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s how thin the veneer of civilisation is; the chaos of being is ever-present. However, there is a lot to be hopeful about — the coming years could be a crucible for change.
First, some observations about the pandemic so far. The act of suspending life as we know it to protect fellow humans was magical. It speaks to a shared, cross-continent compassion that defines much of what it means to be human. Emulating a war-time spirit of the past, the economy, culture, ideology, and politics were all temporarily sidelined to battle a common foe. That’s special.
Also remarkable was the demonstration of intergenerational solidarity. A virus that does not affect the young any more than a common cold did not stop them from turning their lives upside down to protect the vulnerable. Boris Johnson got it right when he uncharacteristically said, “there really is such a thing as society”.
I echo his words because they are true. What we all witnessed in late Spring of 2020 was society at its finest: whether it was the NHS recruiting an army of 750,000 volunteers, or retired nurses and police officers returning to service in droves, or the countless small acts of mutual generosity and neighbourly assistance, or the free taxi rides and communal bikes for care staff. We should never forget.
A pungent community spirit morphed into a palpable national unity — most powerfully felt during the weekly clap for the NHS. That unity carried politics with it in a short-lived abandoning of partisan dog-fighting — the likes of which we haven’t seen since Churchill’s government of national unity in 1940.
Some other obvious short-term perks of lockdown included but were not limited to: temporary respite from a sleep loss epidemic; more time for hobbies, and a re-found appreciation of nature. On the latter, reduced noise pollution allowed the echoes of birdsong to be heard; fewer cars on our streets cleansed the skies above our cities.
However, it wasn’t all sunshine and roses. More time at home has provoked an increase in domestic abuse, precipitated a decline in mental health, sparked a loneliness upsurge, widened the attainment gap, and disrupted routines.
The headmaster of Eton alluded to the more significant landscape shifts underway by predicting the following: “When historians look back at the events of 2020, they are likely to identify COVID-19 as the trigger for profound change…It will usher in change akin to the societal transformation that followed the two World Wars.” WWI transformed attitudes about women, creating conditions for franchise extension and more female labour participation. WWII fundamentally altered the relationship between state and economy — it spawned the welfare state and the NHS. What will COVID-19 usher in? What gems can be salvaged from the mud?
A saleable political outcome of the collective response to the virus may well be a more involved state. 2020 has unleashed the greatest expansion of state power in decades. The Government induced vast swathes of the economy into a coma, shouldered the bulk of millions of private-sector wages, and restricted individual freedom to a few selected essential activities. It certainly feels like the once inconceivable is now the rule — the path to more lasting collectivism has undoubtedly been paved, and walking it will only be a matter of will.
Socialists will be hoping this change will become permanent. After all, in the words of Milton Friedman, “nothing is so permanent as a temporary Government program”. If the Government can successfully avoid a second peak, stabilise the economy and restore normality, then the electorate’s faith in state solutions will only grow. Demands will rally for the state to tackle x or y challenging problem in the future. Just as victory in WWII gave license to a post-1945 Labour government to enlarge the state, so too could victory over the pandemic post-2020.
It’s worth tempering any idealistic speculations with the sobering possibility that governments only *borrowed* from socialism because its attributes made it efficient for dealing with a pandemic. What is necessary during a war is scarcely desirable in times of peace.
And with debt growing to unprecedented heights (as we stare a deep recession in the face), there are fears the Right will weaponise deficits to hammer through more austerity.
But if we are to salvage any lessons from the last crisis of this magnitude — WWII — let it be that stimulus can offer a faster route out of economic dislocation than austerity. Tossing the children of our last crisis (the NHS and social-security system) onto the chopping block would be self-defeating.
Exposed so nakedly during the ascendancy of the first wave, was the acquired vulnerability of the very public institutions that we relied on so desperately. A vulnerability cultivated by a decade of brutal cuts. Given that virtually half of us now receive a form of state hand-out, there is a realisation that our welfare state exists not as a burden, but as a necessary support system in times of acute need; and that anyone can fall victim to rapidly-changing circumstances beyond their control.
During the height of the crisis, there was also a potent realisation that our maintainers (nurses, carers, teachers, bin-people) are worth vastly more than our innovators; for it is the former which makes the latter possible. In Scotland, they have been rewarded with a £500 cash grant; in England, with a wage increase.
This crisis dropped a nuclear bomb on every stratum of society and culture. The tectonic plates of politics and economics are shifting like never before. Therefore, when we emerge from the debris, it must be with an acceptance that there is no ‘going back to normal’. Normal is gone. Normal is a foreign land. They do things differently there.