This crisis has the capacity to be apocalyptic

Covid-19 heralds the end of our interconnected world. We'll need wise leaders to navigate what comes next.

A deserted inner-city highway in Wuhan, China
A deserted inner-city highway in Wuhan, China. Credit: Getty Images

One of the greatest challenges that emerged from the Covid-19 crisis was the difficulty of decision making. ‘There is no historical model,’ said the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel at the end of April 2020, when talking about the problems of trying to tackle not only the virus, but the precarious economic situation facing a largely shut down world. China’s leader Xi Jinping, who was speaking on the same day, was more optimistic about the lessons that could be learned from the past. The Chinese people, he said on a visit to Xi’an, had ‘grown and matured by learning from the experiences of difficulties and deprivations.’ The pandemic had a silver lining, he remarked. ‘Great advances in history have come after great catastrophes.’

He may well be right. The pandemic has led to many transformations already – from the way we communicate with each other, cope with lockdowns and queue when (and if) we shop. The world is changing in front of our eyes.

Office life may never be the same again, with Barclays Chief Executive Jes Staley pondering whether ‘putting seven thousand people in a building may be a thing of the past.’ After many false dawns, education may now move decisively to online learning. Fashions may change decisively, with face masks becoming as common in Britain as they are in some parts of Asia even after the crisis has passed: Chanel, Burberry and Louis Vuitton have moved quickly into helping design masks and gowns for healthcare workers – presaging the fact that more stylish versions could become a staple on fashion show runways and the new ‘must have’ item in new collections.

But one of the most striking trends that has emerged during the pandemic is the pressure that freedoms are being put under all around the world. In some cases, this has led to extensive repressive measures. The pandemic saw newspapers shut down in the Middle East, social media controls enhanced in Turkey and fines and even hefty prison sentences threatened in China, Russia as well as in several other countries for sharing gossip, rumours and fake news about the coronavirus.

In Kazakhstan, sweeping new powers gave the President, Kassym-Jomart Tokaev, the ability to intervene in everything from legislation on health to public procurement, from currency regulation to the implementation of international obligations. In Hungary President Orban claimed the authority to rule by decree with no time limit imposed, leading to howls of protest by some leading European politicians like Norbert Röttgen, tipped as a future German chancellor, to demand censure by the European Union.

More than eighty countries declared a state of emergency as a result of the virus, according to the Centre for Civil and Political Rights. In some cases this resulted in impassioned debate about the erosion of civil liberties, for example in Israel, where the government approved a controversial measure in March to digitally track those who had tested positive for coronavirus.

In Britain, meanwhile, the 329 page ‘Coronavirus Bill’ was passed in a single day – suspending the requirement for councils to meet the eligible needs of the disabled and vulnerable people, amongst others, as well as the right to cancel or re-arrange elections and to close ports and borders. Police releasing drone footage of walkers in the Peak District, officers reprimanding people for using their own front garden, or Thames Valley police issuing appeals for local residents to inform on each other if they suspect they are ‘gathering and then dispersing back into out communities’ during the lockdown show that the relationship between citizens and the authorities has changed dramatically in a matter of a few weeks. The new mantra of our pandemic and post-pandemic world is best expressed by Thailand’s Prime Minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha – a general who himself took power in a coup in 2014: ‘right now it’s health over liberty.’

There are, of course, pockets of resistance, such in the US, where armed militias gathered on the steps of some state assemblies to demand an end to lockdown. Ironically, they were encouraged by President Trump who issued a series of tweets effectively urging civil disobedience: ‘Liberate Michigan’, he tweeted; ‘Liberate Minnesota !’Liberate Virginia !’ But even in the complicated and contradictory United States of 2020, things have not been straightfoward, with Trump asserting that his powers are not so much presidential as dictatorial: ‘When somebody’s the President of the United States, the authority is total, and that’s the way it’s got to be,’ he said in a press briefing in mid-April – a few weeks after he had boasted that ‘I have the right to do a lot of things that people don’t even know about’, before a bilateral meeting with Irish Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar.

The push away from democratic norms to autocratic measures is framed by the justification that the crisis is so severe as to require emergency measures that usually reflect a war footing. So it is no surprise that so many leaders around the world have referred to the coronavirus as a ‘war’, nor that wartime parallels are the ones we turn to in order to make sense of the situation: it is no coincidence either that the death toll from the Vietnam War contextualised mortality figures from the US, or that those of the height of the Blitz in the twenty eight days to 4 October 1940 were set against those to Covid-19 in the four weeks to mid-April.

The sheer scale and extent of the problems that the pandemic has brought individual countries and the global economy more generally go some way to justifying the search for such dramatic analogies: employment figures released in May showed that almost 40 million Americans lost their jobs in just eight weeks. When taking account of those aged 18-65 who are students, homemakers, sick or retired – who make up around a third of the workforce in the US – this meant that over half of the working age population of the richest country on earth were heading into the summer not earning a wage.

Many economists have looked to the Great Depression that followed the Wall Street crash to draw comparisons about the loss of jobs and the collapse of GDP. But while the impact of the crash of 1929 did have a global significance, its effects were much more limited. In the world of today supply chains span not just multiple countries but multiple continents.

A report released by the International Labour Organisation put matters in stark terms. About 50% of the entire global workforce are in ‘immediate danger’ of having their livelihoods destroyed. Richer countries that are supporting jobs through furlough schemes may not have the resources be able to do so indefinitely; but no safety net at all exists for the majority of those with jobs in other parts of the world. As the ILO’s Director General, Guy Ryder, put it: ‘no income means no food, no security and no future.’

The consequences have the capacity to be apocalyptic. The World Food Programme warned that ‘we could be facing multiple famines of biblical proportions’ by the end of 2020, with the impact most acute in the poorest parts of the world where food insecurity was an issue long before the authorities in Wuhan first identified a new emerging infectious disease. We are facing a ‘perfect storm’, said David Beasley, Executive Director of the WFP. Economic pressures, a fall in foreign exchange earnings in the developing world, export restrictions and collapsing food supply networks alongside a devastating series of locust storms in East Africa and South Asia may result in death tolls that dwarf those of the Covid-19 crisis. It is possible, said Beasley, that ‘300,000 people could starve to death every single day over a three-month period.’

It all looks so unfamiliar to a world where just less than two weeks before the UK was locked down (belatedly, as it turned out), the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, delivered a budget that talked of economic growth and of an increase in public spending. At that time, discussion was centred on a controversial new third runway at Heathrow rather than about bailouts to secure the future of airlines and whether even the biggest carriers would survive the year. The lack of engagement with the reality of what was happening was best captured, as usual, by President Trump, who interrupted his Alez Azar, the Health and Human Services Secretary, who had finally managed to secure a slot to brief the president on coronavirus, only to ask what he thought was a more pertinent question: namely when a ban on flavoured vapes would be lifted.

Instead, in the first half of 2020, we found ourselves walking into a time that will be profoundly difficult, where inequalities will sharpen and, as Angela Merkel warned, democracy itself will be challenged. The timing could not have been worse. Even before the current crisis, democracy was in trouble. As a study by the Cambridge Centre for the Future of Democracy has found, not only was public confidence in democracy already at the lowest point on record in the United States, as well as many countries in Western Europe, Latin America and Africa at the end of 2019, but that dissatisfaction was particularly pronounced in high-income countries. The equation now becomes more complicated. As well as keeping the dissatisfied happy, governments will need to protect the disenfranchised during the long road back to the living standards we have come to expect and which will decline at least in the short term.

This is particularly important because disease and pandemic aggravate inequalities. Covid-19 has already done just that, in multiple ways. First there is the disproportionate impact that the virus has had on those from minority backgrounds in the UK, and on African-American backgrounds in the US, where mortality rates are significantly higher than on the white population. The most deprived boroughs in London have been those hit worst by the pandemic. Educational inequalities have widened, with schools in deprived areas struggling to teach as efficiently as those in other parts of the country for a variety of factors, including availability of computers and access to high-speed internet. The digital divide has already had a major impact across society as a whole, with recent research showing that those with access to higher levels of income and good broadband services were less likely to break lockdown and thus less likely to put their lives – and those of others – at risk. Mental health impacts have been unevenly distributed too, with evidence published recently suggesting that those who live alone face greater problems than those living with a partner, while those with young children at home have faced different challenges and difficulties than those with elder offspring, or those with none.

The correlation of disease with inequality is not just an important one: it is one that helps us better understand the world around us. Throughout history, infectious diseases have been the leading killers of the poor: even in modern times, before coronavirus, they were responsible for the deaths of around two thirds of those living in sub-Saharan Africa. Parts of the world affected by extreme poverty are disproportionately those where infectious diseases thrive.

In turn, areas that suffer from a high disease burden are typically caught in a poverty trap, where economic productivity is low and generating resources to improve the situation becomes impossible. Disease therefore not only has a close link to long-term poverty but also to illiberal, autocratic politics. Elites are usually reluctant and unwilling to share the benefits of rising wealth, and often have to be forced to do so. The European experience over the last three centuries, although chequered, has been instructive: widening of participation in the political process has been accompanied by the development of institutions, laws and protections to distribute rights more widely.

It is no coincidence, then, that the most rapid progress (albeit imperfect, given how recent religious, gender, sexual and other equalities are in reality) correlates closely not so much with climate and geography as with the lack of prevalence of infectious disease. Britain’s last experience with plague, for example, was in the 1660s – which was not the case, for example, in Russia and the Ottoman empires. Likewise, malaria, typhoid, cholera, yellow fever had much less impact on cooler northern Europe than on the south of the continent, and certainly much less than in many parts of Africa, Asia and the Americas where they thrive, meaning not only a different economic and demographic experience to other parts of the world but a different political trajectory too – not only more democratic, but more tolerant, more open and less fearful of strangers and of travel.

As is becoming increasingly clear, more worrying than the medical emergency caused by Covid-19 is the disease’s long-term economic and social after-effects. It will take time before international travel resumes and returns to the way it was before the outbreak spread from China. That in turn affects how young people who would have gained experiences back-packing, or those who had yearned to see the Silk Roads for themselves, see the world around them. We will hear fewer languages, have fewer opportunities and be exposed to fewer ideas as a result.

And pandemics bring long-term consequences too. Rumours spread widely during the 1340s as the Black Death took hold that the disease was the result of a conspiracy by Jews to kill off Christian populations by poisoning wells and importing poison from abroad. In many towns and cities, Jews were persecuted and murdered in large numbers. Astonishingly, attacks on Jews in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s were six times more likely to happen in towns and cities that saw pogroms during the late Middle Ages. Deportations of Jews to camps from 1933-44 was statistically far higher from these places than from other towns too – suggesting that long-term memories are not just forged but maintained across centuries: xenophobia, fears of strangers and suspicion of outsiders are all by-products of large-scale outbreaks of disease.

A key question in the short term will be related to the elites whose position is strengthened after the current pandemic. Unlike after the Black Death where vast numbers of mortalities amongst the workforce meant a fall in the supply of labour and thus a rise in wages, Covid-19 will not do the same – as there will be no similar massive reduction in labour. In fact, the opposite will be the case, with a surplus exacerbated by the digital revolution, the rise of robotics and AI – which provide competition for human labour and new opportunities in many industries that favour those at the top of the income pyramid and are detrimental to the majority of workers, taxpayers and citizens. Rather than providing a possible springboard, as has been the case in the past, the timing of this pandemic may serve as a stone around the neck of social mobility.

In contrast, it is not hard to see how the pandemic may herald a new era of feudalism, where more and more assets are concentrated in the hands of the few. Last year, Oxfam estimated that twenty six people owned more than half of the world’s population – and the rise in fortunes will now extend this imbalance further, creating the same processes that have held back social, economic and political development in places with long and recurring experiences of disease.

This is shown by a report by Forbes in May 2020: despite unprecedented state borrowing, extraordinary pressures on jobs and growing concern about the implications of a very major contraction, the wealth of America’s six hundred billionaires had gone up by more than $400bn since the start of the pandemic. That provides considerable food for thought – or should do – for governments in developed countries where democracy and social mobility have long been cornerstones of progress and enlightenment.

These now risk being put under considerable pressure even if the pandemic of 2020 quickly becomes a thing of the past – something that is not lost on other political systems, not least China’s, which presents a different model that is at least in part based on defining itself against the way that the West behaves, does business and treats its citizens.

Just over two hundred year ago, Immanuel Kant wrote an essay entitled ‘What is the Enlightenment?’ in which he sought to argue why granting citizens more rights and freedoms benefited the state, as well as the population at large. The answer, he argued, was that we must ‘dare to be wise.’ This seems to be a very fitting motto as we ponder what lies ahead of us today; and I suspect that states which are fortunate to be ruled by leaders who are both wise and brave will emerge better off in the short and the long term.


Peter Frankopan