Here are a few thoughts about coronavirus and Covid-19. They are coloured by being written from a British perspective. I’ve tried to stick to things that may be generally applicable and haven’t written much about health and social care systems as they will doubtless be subject to evidence-based reviews, as well as campaigns and lobbying with a mixture of influences from national self-interest to philanthropy. I’ll try to write a more detailed post on one or two aspects soon. I’ll start with the most obvious.
- It Is Significant
Be prepared to rewrite all your strategies in the coming year or so, and probably more than once. Former US Treasury Secretary Laurence Summers, has called coronavirus a ‘hinge in history’. Writing in the FT he said:
‘The Covid-19 crisis is the third major shock to the global system in the 21st century, following the 2001 terror attacks and the 2008 financial crisis. I suspect it is by far the most significant’.
‘9/11’ and the 2008 recession will, he argues, ‘fade over time from popular memory’ but coronavirus will not. Like Munich in 1938, the 1914 assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and the 1929 crash of the stock market, it’s significance will lie in what happens next.
He’s probably right, and we don’t know what happens next but one might think about it in three big ‘buckets’: the impacts of the pandemic itself, in waves or as a chronic problem or both; the consequences of lockdown and other direct national government responses; and those of the recession, possibly depression, which is now unfolding.
- Values Differences Will Be In Play
A sign that appeared near the end of my road
The more severe and sustained the sense of threat the more we all embrace Settler-type priorities: safety, security, belonging. As Guardian journalist Nick Cohen wrote in a critique of the Boris Johnson government’s response
‘the British were locking themselves down days before the government finally accepted the realities of the pandemic. We did so because one aspect of human behaviour remains predictable: we don’t want to die’.
So if you now have society-wide visions for ‘post-covid’ society, the broad order of priority to gain social and political space and traction is first Settler, second Prospector, third, Pioneer priorities: meaning the tests are (does it help?) lives and safety, then jobs, opportunities and prosperity, then the bigger picture and a better ‘new normal’. I’ll unpack this in a longer post but the ‘values rules’ in the 2008 blog ‘Campaigning Your Way Out Of Recession’ broadly apply.
An interesting minor values tweak is that Britain’s Boris Johnson is now on the horns of a bit of a values dilemma, having successfully united libertarian Pioneers and security driven Settlers in opposition to the EU over Brexit, and is now experiencing their opposing reflexes over relaxation of the covid lockdown: much the same dynamic that Pat Dade wrote about dividing the US Tea Party.
- Political Lessons Will Be Drawn
National politicians will also be anxious about survival, prosperity and vision: especially their own. The first round contest will be virus related: the excess deaths in national epidemics. Some will be judged to have had a good outbreak – probably New Zealand, maybe South Africa, so far South Korea. Others, at present led by countries like the UK but maybe to be eclipsed by the US, a disastrous one. The second round is underway and concerns lockdown and management measures and will be a blame-game war. The third will be about political ideas and models (ie political fashion).
UK PM Boris Johnson is unlikely to become an international political role model on covid. He has managed the unlikely feat of uniting right and left wing commentators (here Piers Morgan and John Sweeney, May 19) in criticism. 62,000 dead is closing on the 67,000 civilians who died in Britain WW2.
Will a green sustainable recovery be the new big default idea? Will populist nationalist isolationism and exceptionalism (as per Johnson, Trump) be seen to have succeeded or failed? Will we (politicians) “all be interventionists now”? Or will neoliberalism survive in a form of New Interventionism? Maybe none of these but a new default truism is very likely. It will be chosen by politicians based on what is seen to have worked in political terms.
- New Behaviours Will Outlast Interruption Better Than New Ideas
It’s well known that unavoidable interruption of an old behaviour is one of the most powerful factors facilitating the uptake of a new behaviour. People then take on ‘new ideas’ which are rationalisations of their new behaviours. They are much less likely to take a new idea, rationalise it and so adopt a new behaviour. So while ‘lockdown’ is a massive interruption of business as usual and one of its effects is to give people interested in issues a lot of time and space to come up with new ideas, few of them are likely to lead to sustained new behaviours if they have not become established by the time a ‘new normal’ sets in.
This is why it was a canny move for city mayors to quickly start narrowing streets for cars to give more space for social distancing among pedestrians and to allow more cycling. Once locked in, such changes are unlikely to be reversed. The message for campaigns is ‘act now’.
Many people in developed countries have experienced increased awareness of nature and a cleaner environment during lockdown but unless this new perspective is translated into behaviours that outlast relaxation of lockdown it may evaporate, leaving just a wistful memory.
- Some Things Will Die Or Never Recover
Not just people but businesses and whole economic sectors and while countries may not ‘die’ some may not recover at least for generations. Custom and finance is the lifeblood of business and if the drought is too long, businesses die and if enough die, sectors vanish, other things attract the money, and grow in their place. These ‘structural’ changes are mostly independent of individual behaviour change but will change ‘choice architecture’. Some will create windows of opportunity for change in the public interest, others may close off funding streams to NGOs.
When Zoom was reported to be worth more than seven of the world’s largest airlines combined, and Shell cut its dividend for the first time since WW2, it made headlines around the world. Set alongside widespread working from home and reports of companies seeing no fall in productivity, and struggling airlines, it’s easy to imagine that global tourism as well as business air travel and the market for conventional office space could be severely impacted. On May 1 the FT reported that a PwC survey found 25% of CFOs were ‘already thinking of cutting back on real estate’ and half of US office searches were on hold. Convert unwanted office space to renewably powered vertical farms?
- A Green Recovery Is Not Inevitable
A chorus of calls from economists (eg Joseph Stiglitz and 200 others), often echoed by financial commentators, have endorsed the idea of a ‘green recovery’. They want governments to take the dislocation effect of shut-down and the increased appetite for intervention as an opportunity to speed up a green transition and discourage fossil fuel use. In April the EC’s Frans Timmermans pledged that all EU covid-recovery spend will be green, and the French government tied airline support to cutting carbon emissions.
But quiet fossil fuel lobbying may be having a big effect behind the scenes.
The UK has just approved the largest new gas-power station in Europe and eight EU states have voiced support for the “role of natural gas in a climate-neutral Europe”. As it stands, environmentalists will no doubt win the ‘air war’ on this but may lose the ground war inside governments.
Adding more fact-filled arguments from economists in favour of a green recovery may make no difference. Qualitative research to translate the very Track 2 analytical arguments of learned economists into Track 1 intuitively understandable public propositions would be a good and urgently-needed investment. (And a lockdown is a very good time to do such research as respondents are more available online or by phone).
- There Will Be Idiosyncratic Winners
We may come to remember the pandemic by some singular but for now esoteric changes, such as emblematic technologies, like the ‘non-stick frying pans’ (not now seen as a great thing environmentally) cited as a ‘spin-off’ from the Space Race. Copper is perhaps too obvious an example. Whereas in one study Covid-19 survived for up to three days on plastic or stainless steel, it lasted only four hours on copper. The metal (and to an extent alloys like brass) has been known as a cleaning agent for centuries and kills bacteria such as MRSA. Expect to see a (return-to) trend for copper on high-touch surfaces like handrails in hospitals and mass transit.
ehealth.eletsonline.com ‘world’s first anti-microbial copper train’
HEPA filters and personalised air space in public auditoria, ships and aircraft might be another, and of course a whole string of redesigns in hospitals (a comeback for physical isolation hospitals?) and in health settings. But it will probably be something else that gets remembered as an ‘explainer’, probably something that becomes familiar and needs an orgin, or something that vanished ‘because of covid’. Some suggest it will be e-bikes.
- Knowledge Politics May Finally Be Plucked From Obscurity
Because the pandemic has dominated news coverage for such an extended period and the virus is an invisible foe understandable only through science, normally obscure areas of study such as epidemiology and the nature of scientific ‘uncertainty’ have been gradually exposed to wider audiences.
Covid has tested the relationship between science and politics. The UK and US have struggled because Johnson and Trump have cultivated a populist base fed on simple solutions to complex problems. Covid trapped them both in an issue where evidence could not be gainsaid by using values dog-whistles, and unlike Germany’s Angela Merkel, both floundered.
Merkel covid lockdown strategy explainer subtitled by The Guardian
Trump’s wildly erratic positions on covid have been partly driven by his frustration with unavoidable engagement with the alien rules of science. Johnson’s slow response to covid which lost time and cost lives was underpinned by his conflicting commitment to the Brexit project, for which the chief risk was probably seen as a recession, and in which rejection of expert advice was a core selling point.
Michael Gove explains why we don’t want experts, during the Brexit campaign
In the UK, ‘scientific expertise’ has had to be politically rehabilitated by Johnson at least for theatrical purposes, with government scientists pushed forwards in press briefings like the shield-wall of Roman testudo (tortoise), designed to deflect incoming fire.
David Frei, Wiki, Creative Commons – Roman Testudo
Boris Johnson flanked by Chris Whitty, Chief Medical Officer (left) and Patrick Vallance, Chief Scientific Adviser at a press briefing (photo news.sky.com)
Johnson’s pact with science may break down as details emerge in any forthcoming Public Inquiry but reliance on science is unavoidable in many other ‘issues’ where risks exist that are hard if not impossible to understand or even recognize without scientific knowledge. Modern politicians need the ability to interpret and evaluate that knowledge, it’s force and its limitations. GM crops, nuclear waste and radiation, fine-particle air pollution, climate change and the emerging debates about the social risks and benefits of AI are all examples of such ‘risk politics’. Ulrich Beck may finally be discovered by the Anglo political class.
- Zoonoses and Changing Perspectives
Ebola, bird flu, swine flu, rabies, HIV and covid-19 are all ‘zoonoses’ or animal diseases that jump species. It’s a moot point whether politicians will now come to terms with the reality that while these are inevitable (and the ultimate source of many human diseases), if we are to avoid a series of ‘disease-X’ pandemics like the current corona-virus, we need to stop the expansion of human settlement into what remains of natural ecosystems. Over a million candidate viruses are out there in nature.
This is a messy, granular, diverse, difficult problem, multiplied by the fact that the first human hosts are usually the poor and dispossessed: all good reasons, in normal times, for most politicians to try and ignore it. Are there political leaders who can change that? I hope so. A lot has been written about this and more will follow. This short piece is one of the best.
Note that it although not exactly a ‘popular’ piece, it follows the values priority sequence outlined in #2.
To enable politicians to get traction with this issue it seems to me that campaigners and popularising scientists need to find a frame which nails down a category of interactions in time and space as the definition of the problem. As well as disruption of nature such as in encroachment on forests, this has to include intensive animal farming and wildlife trade, both human-made laboratories for uncontrolled transmission. Simley Evans of the University of California calls them ‘spillover events’ – so we need action on Spillover Zones ? See more at www.ecohealthalliance.org and this article.
In different dimensions, in some countries the impact of covid may provoke a re-evaluation of how we deal with age and the value of life. Another effect has been to make many people in rich countries reassess what’s ‘essential’, particularly ‘essential work’. Once the top priority is survival, food, health care, water, power and law and order suddenly seem much more important. Yet we discover that our ‘Essential Workers’ are all too often also classified as ‘unskilled’, are low paid, low status and insecure.
Could covid prove to be a social reformer, the twenty-first century equivalent of Charles Dickens? Where Dickens exposed the inequities of industrialising C19th Britain, in some rich countries the impact of coronavirus is exposing the inequitable arrangements of post-industrial nations. A great many of us have become used to high personal discretionary spending. It has come at many costs including to our common environment and the working poor. If covid is to provoke social reform, it will need a story-teller on a par with Dickens.
From The Independent. Picture of unsustainable prosperity quarantined by covid?
- Extinction of Rebellion ?
A curious side effect of ‘covid’ has been the effective silencing of protest by Extinction Rebellion, which last year seemed almost omnipresent. As I explored in a previous blog – probably at too great a length – this may be no bad thing. The original XR strategy, while brilliant in some ways, was also fatally flawed and ran a real risk of becoming counter productive. The ‘movement’ needed time to rethink and was busy doing that when covid struck. New social priorities and then social distancing put XR effectively on hold, and also removed Greta Thunberg from the headlines (perhaps a good thing for her too in the short term).
Of course climate change has not gone away and the spectacular fall in carbon emissions caused by lockdown has made no impact on rising carbon levels in the atmosphere – a salutary indication of the huge task we have yet to seriously start on if we are to tackle the climate threat.
Slide from a Carbon Brief webinar – the (top end estimate) 8% ‘covid windfall’ decline in 2020 emissions would need to be repeated every year for a decade in order to hit the ‘safe’ 1.5.C temperature-rise limit. In an optimistic reading there is a good chance that emissions may have peaked in 2019.
What’s needed to make this happen? Many things but one of them is concerted and direct engagement between civil society actors such as campaign groups, possibly also the ‘new climate movement’, and the carbon-cutting industries, and politicians. That requires focused pressure to implement practical solutions, not just protest by disruption.