COVID-19 Is Scary, But the Worst Is Yet to Come

The world is in a frightening place right now. The global public has largely lost trust in government institutions and the media, and as populist sentiment grows, our societies are becoming increasingly fractured at a time when a world-spanning crisis threatens our well-being. Then came a pandemic. Crises famously bring out the best and the worst in people. COVID-19 is showing us plenty of examples of both. Unfortunately, with governments the latter is arguably prevalent and in our largest democracies a fractured public is ill-equipped to hold them to account.

From the United States to Afghanistan, national and regional governments are struggling to coordinate healthcare responses in a meaningful way. In vulnerable countries—like Afghanistan, Mariam Safi tells us—these struggles can lead to more death and economic cost than decades of conflict. The pandemic has laid bare frailties in our economic systems, which leave officials and the citizenry debating whether economic well-being or physical well-being are more important. This fractious debate is made more contentious and damaging to our social fabric by the proliferation of disinformation—which, Allyson Berry argues, is not only worsened in times of pandemics but reaches into every social grouping with dangerous results, from your relatives’ Facebook feed to refugee camps.

While the citizens of the world struggle to separate fact from fiction (and often disagree violently with their peers about what is true and meaningful), many governments aim to misbehave. In Poland, the government is aggressively shoving through a legislative agenda that before social distancing restrictions would have led (and in previous years similar attempts did lead) to massive country-wide protests. In Sri Lanka, the government is accused of using the pandemic as cover for further censoring the country’s media. China and Russia are purportedly embarking on disinformation campaigns, which suggest the U.S. is behind COVID-19, or is at least “hiding something.”  

Meanwhile, the most vulnerable segments of our global society are suffering (and in the aftermath almost certainly will continue to suffer) the lion’s share of bad outcomes. “Essential” workers and healthcare front liners are exposed to excessive viral loads and likely to become far sicker than most inflicted with COVID-19. Noah Dowe reveals additional hardships visited on women and minorities during pandemics, while Dr. Dichter paints a bleak picture for post-pandemic recovery among the less resilient countries in the underdeveloped world. The most frightening thing about this is that, for many of the most vulnerable, this only looks like a more extreme iteration of trends we’ve talked about but done little to correct for years. Jonathan Gregory argues most of the trends we can observe during this time of the pandemic are merely iterations of trends that existed before. This in turn suggests even a world-spanning pandemic isn’t enough to catalyze meaningful change and that not only will the most vulnerable be worse off, but the most advantaged will be even better off after the pandemic.

Are you depressed yet?

Worst-case scenario estimates of potential aftermaths of COVID-19 are frightening. More likely, however, is that things will continue to get incrementally worse post-pandemic—following trends that have been developing for the past decade. Such an outcome is far more frightening because it would suggest something ugly about us. Here we face a world-spanning crisis—undeniably the greatest in living memory for nearly everybody reading this—and we as a global community are responding with a collective “meh”. In recent memory periods of great structural change—post-WWII, post-Cold War—governments took decisive action to reform old institutions or build new ones to meet emerging challenges. Today, many of our governments are taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to erode institutions meant to protect us. Businesses, civil service organizations, and common citizenry have the capacity to force better out of their governments. However, the deep fault lines wracking our societies and growing fundamental distrust of governance institutions make this seem vanishingly unlikely.


Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic locked down the world, we were living in an age of paradoxes. We produce enough food to feed the entire world but people still go to bed hungry. Healthcare innovators are hacking aging and extending our lifespan, but people still die from preventable diseases.

Now, the novel coronavirus is spreading an even more dangerous strain of inequality. Those with higher incomes are still getting paid and can work from home, while the working-class and poor are far more likely to have to keep going to their workplaces and face greater risk of infection. Underlying diseases that make COVID-19 more dangerous and fatal predominantly afflict poorer populations (who were already dealing with obesity, heart disease, and other non-communicable diseases at epidemic proportions). Government aid was already painfully inadequate for those most in need (or in most cases never arrived), but now desperation is climbing faster on the charts than infections.

We’ve been tested before and rise of populism nearly everywhere in the liberal democratic world has made it clear that our worldview is being tested. This pandemic is simply accelerating the test of what kind of a society we want to be.

Life After the Pandemic is the first of several special bookazine editions by Diplomatic Courier’s vast trove of multi-disciplinary and multi-generational global experts. They are industry leaders, policy and diplomacy experts, as well as students. They have a strong grasp of the issues we are facing together as a society. More importantly, they aren’t afraid to not make sure this crisis won’t go to waste.

We made a call to action to hear their thoughts during the height of the lockdown. We asked for scenarios for a world remade. We didn’t quite expect a fast “vaccine” but what we received certainly gave us hope. You will feel this optimism while browsing through the “Building Resilience” section of this anthology.

Call us opportunists, but here are but a few of the big pivots the pandemic can help us take, once and for all.

We start with Dante Disparte’s essay on the emergence of post-pandemic institutions. Just like the post-war era gave rise to the international institutions that maintained peace and advanced multilateral collaboration in the 20th century, the post-pandemic era will give rise to new and improved institutions. “The fastest institutions to bend or break with the onset of the pandemic should be the first ones to fix in the post-pandemic world,” he explains.

What better system to improve than healthcare itself? We know it’s broken but up to now have been lazy to fix it. This is a perfect time to improve existing institutions like the World Health Organization as well as put in place the global health governance mechanism we are lacking. Irina Bokova, Hakima el Haite, George Papandreou and Joël Ruet make a very compelling argument on how to do this in their essay.

And as for going it alone? The very thing that brought this virus to our doors—our interconnectivity—is the very tool that will help us overcome it. Without diplomacy, sharing of science, data, and technology we will suffer. Anna Tunkel and Elizabeth Cohan are architects of multiplier partnerships. In the post-pandemic world, they say, we have no other choice but to join forces. Partnerships between private sector, governments, and individuals will ensure that we are quite literally addressing these challenges together and that no one is left behind in solution-making.

Does this sound like a pie in the sky? “Societal expectations of the private sector have never been higher and what companies do during the COVID-19 will have direct implications on their global reputation and license to operate—both locally and globally,” say our authors.

Simply put, what do we want the legacy of COVID-19 to be? It’s up to us to call the shots now.


The Editors

Washington, DC

May 2020

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