Moments of crisis have often been turning points in history, for good and for ill. COVID-19 and the social and economic earthquakes it has triggered have all the makings of an era-defining cataclysm. In the midst of the disaster, it’s impossible to know what the world that emerges will look like, but experts say one thing is clear ― its shape depends on the decisions leaders make now.
The pandemic could lead us down a dark path of authoritarianism, nationalism and mistrust ― the road mapped out, for example, by President Donald Trump’s attacks on the World Health Organization and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s tightening of his grip on power. But there’s another path, too, a more inclusive one beginning to emerge in places like Amsterdam, where leaders are embracing a philosophy that prioritizes residents’ well-being over economic growth, and South Korea, where President Moon Jae-in’s party won a landslide election victory on promises to weave climate action into its coronavirus recovery plans.
Internationally and domestically, the spread of COVID-19 has exposed and exacerbated many societies’ deepest fault lines. How leaders respond to the crisis ― how they shape their countries’ recoveries, whose agendas they seek to serve ― could permanently shift the economic and political bedrock. Their choices may strengthen the tide of populism, racism and anti-immigrant sentiment that was already rising before the pandemic, or redeem liberal democracy’s failings and adapt it for a more equitable, resilient future.
“We’re at a crossroads,” said Åsa Persson, research director at the Stockholm Environment Institute. “There is a battle at the moment of these different world views, and time will tell what will be the outcome.”
Both paths have precedent in history. The trauma of World War I and its aftermath led to fascism, genocide and an even greater global conflagration. More recently, the financial crisis of 2007-08 helped usher in the current era of populism, authoritarianism and nationalism.
On the other hand, World War II prompted a wholesale remaking of the international and domestic landscapes, from the creation of the United Nations and a rules-based global order to the federal initiatives that laid a foundation ― albeit a racially exclusive one ― for the growth of the American middle class and decades of relatively low inequality.
“The moments where a lot of what we thought we knew starts falling apart are often very fertile moments for fundamental reboots of our basic narratives,” said Alex Evans, founder of the Collective Psychology Project. Much depends “on whether we deal with this crisis as a larger ‘us,’ where we kind of come together, or a polarized ‘them and us,’ or indeed an atomized ‘I.’”
That, in his view, will be the biggest factor in determining whether the pandemic “leads to a breakthrough where we come out of this with a higher capacity to confront collective threats,” or a breakdown, where societies splinter and turn against one another.
As COVID-19 hammers economies, spreads fear and upends daily life, it’s too soon to know which future we’re heading for. But there are worrying signs.
“It clearly could get nasty,” said Cameron Hepburn, professor of environmental economics at Oxford University’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment.
Even as they cast doubt on the realities of the viral spread, authoritarian and hard-right populist leaders are using the crisis to further unshackle themselves from the constraints of democratic accountability. “In a crisis, people want what they perceive to be strong leadership,” Hepburn said.
Figures like Chinese President Xi Jinping and Phillipines President Rodrigo Duterte see a chance to turn that dynamic to their advantage. After initially downplaying the pandemic, Duterte has since threatened martial law and ― after slum-dwellers staged protests over their lack of food ― said he had ordered police to shoot troublemakers dead. Xi has silenced whistleblowers and is now pushing for sweeping new laws in Hong Kong to crack down on the pro-democracy movement. Hungary’s Orban secured indefinite, emergency powers to rule by decree, expanding his control of political life.
While hunger and unemployment spiral, such leaders are advancing the interests of the wealthy and powerful, rolling back environmental regulations and handing other lucrative giveaways to industry. The Trump administration has all but suspended enforcement of rules on water and air pollution, while weakening auto mileage standards and pushing forward an opening of public lands to oil and gas drilling.
In Brazil, destruction of the Amazon is accelerating, with satellite imagery showing 55% more rainforest was cleared in the first four months of this year than in the same period in 2019. President Jair Bolsonaro was opening the region to more mining, agriculture, and oil and gas exploration long before COVID-19 hit, and critics say he has given loggers tacit approval to step up their pace.
Meanwhile, an upsurge of nationalism threatens to shred multilateral cooperation. Trump slammed the WHO as a “puppet of China” and is threatening to make permanent his temporary freeze on American funding to the agency. Given the United States’ historic leadership role, his decision to stay away from a virtual summit in which world leaders pledged money for research on a vaccine and treatments for the coronavirus was “staggering,” said Judy Dempsey, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe.
With Trump and Chinese officials trading incendiary conspiracy theories about the origins of the virus, the pandemic is setting the stage for what looks to be a new cold war between the two superpowers, said Michel Duclos, a former French diplomat and special adviser at the Institut Montaigne, a policy think tank.
The pandemic is also unleashing what UN Secretary-General António Guterres called a “tsunami of hate and xenophobia, scapegoating and scare-mongering.” In India, far-right Hindu nationalists set off a wave of violence with claims that Muslims were spreading the virus, sometimes accusing them of doing so intentionally as a form of holy war. Anti-Chinese and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories have also proliferated online.
The United States is clamping down hard on immigrants, and countries around the world are barring visitors, at least for now. There are real epidemiological rationales for many travel restrictions, but if they last for months or more, even those based on data analysis rather than prejudice could be damaging for cooperation and the economy, said Thomas Wright, director of the Brookings Institution’s Center on the United States and Europe.
“We could see a scenario where countries start to discriminate against each other on the basis of COVID-19 response,” with those that have contained it refusing to trade with or allow visitors from those that haven’t, said Persson.
Still, for all the dark portents, there are also hopes that the pain of the pandemic may bring the chance to build a fairer, healthier future. For starters, the strongmen trying to exploit the crisis could soon find its contours don’t fit comfortably with their style, said Robin Niblett, director of the London research institute Chatham House.
“COVID is very difficult as a challenge to wrap around a nationalist agenda,” he said. If those with an authoritarian bent cannot control the virus, it will end up highlighting the limits of their power, he said. “It starts to expose the weakness of emotive, short-term responses.” Russian President Vladimir Putin is experiencing that already as deaths spike and his popularity sags.
Conversely, the pandemic makes clear the value of steady, effective management. Democratic Taiwan has done better at containing the virus than authoritarian China. New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern demonstrates empathy and accessibility, and has kept infections in her country low. Her success, said Hepburn, shows a strong leader “doesn’t have to be a macho bully.”
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) is another exemplar, Duclos believes. “Transparency, honesty, good will, cooperation” and a rejection of extreme partisanship all characterize his response to the crisis, Duclos said. “People like him are the right answer to populism.”
In Turkey, the mayors of Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir have played a similar role, he said. Their pushes for aid to the needy and lockdowns to slow the virus offered a counterpoint as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan resisted a full shutdown and denounced his critics a as “media and politics viruses.”
COVID-19 may also give leaders an unexpected opportunity to repair the damage wrought by the 2007-08 financial crisis ― the years of economic pain, and the stark inequality that have sharpened the pandemic’s impact.
“This is a chance for democracy to redeem itself now, post-COVID, having failed in the leadup to 2008 and also failed the period post-2008,” Niblett said.
That starts with confronting the consequences of ideology that elevates the market above all else. Trickle-down wealth is exposed as a failure that has left millions living on the edge, Niblett said. “People are starting to realize that’s not just a risk for the precarious.” If supermarket staff can’t afford to stay home when they’re ill, or overcrowded housing speeds viral spread among immigrants, everyone pays the price. “It’s a systemic risk,” he said.
Compared to previous crises, “this time around, it feels like there’s a lot more progressive thinking that’s ready to be put into play ― the universal basic income, the Green New Deal,” Evans said. “These are big ideas where there’s a story there, there’s the deep policy research, and maybe if we can organize to seize this moment we can do better.”
Amsterdam is starting on that path already, embracing a concept called “doughnut economics” to prioritize human and environmental well-being over economic growth.
Cities from London and Milan to Mexico City and Bogota, Columbia, to Oakland are rethinking transportation, closing roads to traffic in order to make space for cyclists and pedestrians. They hope doing so will ease mobility while the virus keeps people off public transportation, but it may also help make lockdown-induced air quality improvements more lasting, and nudge carbon emissions downward.
Similarly, more than a dozen European governments are urging the European Union to put its Green Deal climate plans at the heart of virus recovery efforts. Countries including South Korea and New Zealand are working on their own green stimulus packages.
The money governments must spend to avoid economic catastrophe offers an invaluable means of accelerating a shift to clean energy at a time when the need to do so is urgent, said Hepburn.
“We’re kind of out of time on the climate,” he said. “This moment, this turning point, is decisive.”
Carbon emissions have dropped sharply as lockdowns brought economies to a near-halt. If green recovery efforts keep them falling even as the crisis abates, then 2019 could turn out to be the year emissions peaked, Hepburn said.
“That would be an amazing example of seizing the opportunity to actually do something good out of this tragedy,” Evans said.
Climate action could also help turn a dark moment into something more inspiring, particularly for young people, said Persson. “This is quite a difficult time we’re going through, so there will be a need for these positive storylines. What are we aiming for as societies?”
Failing to take big steps to address the weaknesses the pandemic has exposed “could toxify our politics even more,” but bold change holds the potential to usher in better times, Evans said. “So much depends on what happens next.”
“We’re going to have it tough, but I have a lot of hope for our ability to rise from this and emerge with more coherence” and the ability to work together, he said. “I’m not counting us out just yet.”
Beth Gardiner is the author of ”Choked: Life and Breath in the Age of Air Pollution.”
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