Climate Change, Environment, Health

Does the Pandemic have a Silver Lining? / Covid-19: What comes afterwards?

Mar 23 2020

Arthur Lyon Dahl*Seán Ó Siochrú*

Should we thank God for the Pandemic? It may seem weird to be thankful for a catastrophe. Human suffering is never something to be sought or revelled in. But the pandemic now sweeping the world, with its ultimate outcome still uncertain, may be a blessing in disguise or a cloud with a silver lining. Let me explain.

We have been working for decades to identify and address social and environmental challenges and to make plans and set goals for a sustainable society across the planet. I have personally been involved since the first Earth Day in 1970 and have contributed to many constructive processes, leading most recently to the UN 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals, as well as the Paris Agreement to address climate change.

However, along side this, governments have given priority to their national sovereignty, multinationals to their profits, and many world leaders to their inflated egos. Wealth is increasingly concentrated alongside growing inequality. Governments are failing to meet the needs of their people as they succumb to political fragmentation undermining democracy, when not already subverted to nativism, racism, corruption and despotism. A corporate stranglehold on the economy, feeding off a materialistic consumer culture, has escaped from all regulation or control. It is plundering the planet’s resources while driving us to a climate catastrophe and the collapse of world biodiversity as we drown in pollution. Nothing that we have done on the positive side has slowed this headlong drive to destruction.

As a systems scientist, I have often asked myself what it would take to slam on the brakes and slow the momentum of this material society out of control, before it takes us so far beyond planetary boundaries that it leads to the complete collapse of civilization. In our rapidly globalizing world, our economic, social and environmental systems have become increasingly interconnected, and while this has greatly increased human productivity and interaction, it also raises our vulnerability to a complex systems failure, with one problem precipitating many others like falling dominos.

For a triggering event, a third world war is an obvious possibility, but not very desirable, with most of the world’s population dying in atrocious circumstances. The Doomsday Clock has recently moved closer to apocalypse than it has ever been as reckless leaders re-arm in their desire for global greatness or domination. If nuclear arms are used, this could precipitate a nuclear winter and leave much of the planet uninhabitable for the survivors.

My preference leaned towards a financial collapse, as government, corporate and consumer debt grew into a giant bubble after the 2008 financial crisis. If currencies lost their value and global trade shut down, that might save us from a climate catastrophe and give us time to move to renewable energy sources.

A global pandemic was always another option, something resembling the Spanish Flu of 1918, but the emergence of such a threat, while probable at some point according to the World Health Organization (WHO), was unpredictable. Suddenly, it has happened. The situation could be worse if the coronavirus behind Covid-19 was more lethal, although it could still kill millions before it runs it course. The knock-on effects could be much worse, as populations are forced into isolation in an effort to slow the spread of the virus. Millions are losing their jobs and incomes. Education is interrupted. Whole sectors of the economy are frozen and driven towards bankruptcy. Supply chains are broken, including for essential medicines. Governments are doing everything they can to protect their populations, shore up their overloaded health systems, and preserve their economies. With such obvious priorities, worries about expanding debt are left for later. While it is too early to predict where all of this will ultimately lead, it is clear that the world will never be the same.

The challenge now, as we struggle through the immediate crisis, is not to plan to go back to business as usual, as most governments seem to be doing. We should see this as an opportunity to fix what is wrong in society. People are being forced to rediscover the benefits of a strong local community, with solidarity for those more vulnerable. Our addiction to material things and the consumer lifestyle is being broken, as we learn that getting along with much less in a simpler material lifestyle is not necessarily a disaster. The forced shift to digital communications technologies is stimulating creative new ways to maintain social ties and economic activities. Behind all of this is the need to rethink our basic values and our ultimate purpose as human beings. This period of forced isolation is a unique opportunity to read, study, reflect, pray and meditate on what kind of future we want for ourselves, our families, our communities, our nations and the whole world. With modern communications, we can still hold meaningful conversations with others, and help them to see the positive side of what we are going through.

We are also being forced to see the necessity of global cooperation and a multilateral approach to governance. A virus respects no borders. No country can solve this problem by itself. The rationale for an effective system of global government has never been clearer. We take it as normal that a national government has legislative, executive and judicial functions that apply to everyone. Our ministry or department of heath is at the centre of national mobilization to fight the virus, and extreme measures can be imposed immediately for the common good. Yet governments have failed to give the WHO this capacity at the global level to organize a coherent approach to the crisis, and many lives will be lost as governments fumble to find the best way forward. As we move beyond this crisis, reforming global governance should become a priority 1.

We also will be forced to reimagine how the world economy should work. We were on the verge of a major debt crisis before the pandemic started. The financial effort necessary to respond to immediate needs will leave an unmanageable level of debt behind. Many business of all sizes will be bankrupt. A financial system based on endless borrowing was never sustainable in the long term, and its collapse now seems inevitable. What will we put in its place? Should we go to a world currency? Should businesses be chartered to serve society rather than just their shareholders? How do we create meaningful employment for everyone? What mechanisms for the more equitable distribution of wealth would meet everyone’s basic needs and eliminate poverty?

Perhaps you now see why I am positive about the opportunities that the pandemic should ultimately open up. This could be the chance we need to make the paradigm shift called for in the UN 2030 Agenda and to accelerate our transition to a just, sustainable, climate-friendly civilisation in harmony with nature. Beyond the immediate crisis I see hope 2.

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1. See our book Global Governance and the Emergence of Global Institutions for the 21st Century https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/global-governance-and-the-emergenc…
2. In Pursuit of Hope: A Guide for the Seeker 
http://www.grbooks.com/george-ronald-publisher-books/social-and-economi…

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*Arthur Lyon Dahl, Ph.D., is the President of the International Environment Forum, A Bahá’í inspired professional organization for environment and sustainability based in Geneva, Switzerland. Article sent to Other News by the author on March 21, 2020.

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Covid-19: What comes afterwards?

By Seán Ó Siochrú* – Nexus

Who in Ireland – or anywhere – would have contemplated even a short month ago the sudden loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs, major industries on the verge of collapse, ‘social distancing’ creating choreographies of empty space, the evaporation of talk of government formation (we just had an inconclusive election), new laws of unprecedented social control – and all of this without a single public demonstration or rowdy public debate, with hardly a peep from unions, from industries, from civil society or the public? How could this happen?  How can such a massive shift into a “new normal” occur, so swiftly and imperceptibly?

A few things have made this possible. 

First, such a rapid and deep consensus is possible because Covid-19 represents an undeniable and immediate threat to our own lives – not to distant strangers, but to our family, our grandparents, our friends.  Covid-19, above all, is already a personal tragedy for some, and potentially for many more; and the collective empathy and community mobilisation is heartfelt and impressive –it draws on our deepest common humanity.

Second, the threat is imminent. It is not just now, as in “we must act now to save the planet” – it is NOW, NOW: before we think, before we deliberate, before we even know the consequences.  This means that whoever happens to hold the levers of power must tackle this, must take those decisions and move those levers. There is no questioning whether we might trust them or not – they hold the levers and they alone can act. They must do what has to be done; they must act now and worry about the consequences later. 

Third, while Covid-19 does seriously threaten some corporations, and will be extremely damaging for certain sectors, it does not overly pose a danger to the system itself. While industries are, not surprisingly, calling for government support, there is no threat to capitalism per se in the way that the 2008 crash was: Covid-19 does not point the finger at financial institutions and the greed of the system.

The crisis offers a huge opportunity for sitting governments to bolster their credibility. In Ireland, the pro-business Fine Gael party is the acting government. Recently rejected by the electorate but with a new government not yet formed, they must just hold their nerve and make sensible decisions on minimising the impact of the virus –we must all hope they succeed – and they come out heroes of the day. But, notwithstanding the human tragedies, much larger issues are at stake here. The Covid-19 pandemic, like the 2008 crash, will almost certainly have major long-lasting impacts on the future direction of economy and society.

Decisions being taken by governments right now are of several kinds.

First are those that directly tackle the spread and impact of the virus. These impact most on our daily lives, with life or death consequences for some, and so almost entirely preoccupy media and public, and private, discussion. Emergency measures to boost the medical services are accompanied by efforts to alleviate social and physical hardship caused for instance to older people in isolation. Others address the immediate impact on people’s financial wellbeing – short-term financial measures to support those suddenly out of a job or likely to fall into debt.

But beyond these highly-visible emergency measures, mostly reversible, is a second sphere of decision-making that reaches much deeper into economy and society. Large levers are being grasped that, when pulled, may lock into place. Tax suspensions are being devised, fiscal measures explored, bailouts being mooted. Measures to control free movement and assembly are being enacted that we can expect to be suspended later- but maybe not taken off the statute books.  These have, as yet, barely surfaced in public debate, and when they do, they are often dressed as emergency measures to combat the virus –the imperative is to act now, and work out the consequences later.  These decisions are gathering pace, at national and international level, in the backrooms of the EU and the boardrooms of corporations.

In the medium term, as the threat to life recedes and the suspension of critical judgement evaporates, when the world of competing social and economic interest returns and Covid-19 recedes into a surreal dream; by then the consequences of many actions taken during the crisis will already be surging through social, political and economic structures, nationally and globally, opening new possibilities and creating new realities. The elites will have well-rehearsed lines about measures that throw public money at corporate bailouts, why concessions must be given, why privatisations of public spaces and assets are unavoidable.

It is thus during the pandemic’s immediate aftermath that the really important lines will be drawn, in the minds of the public and in politics, and key decisions taken that will shape the future and consolidate into the “new, new normal”. This period will determine who is going to pay the cost of what has happened; who is going to gain from the rebuilding that ensues; who can take advantage of inevitable political turmoil.  The question, as ever, is whether the economic and political elites will further consolidate and expand their advantage; or whether the majority can build their solidarity to counter these moves and formulate and force through their own solutions.

The response of progressive activists and political parties must be two directions, and both must learn from failures after the 2008 crisis.

First, such a huge crisis creates an opportunity for real change, but effective action depends on – to trot out Milton Friedman’s phrase – “the ideas that are lying around”. Progressive groups do have lots of ideas lying around, but they have to be put together properly to tackle the complexity of what we face. Huge concerted effort is needed to understand the dynamics already unleashed and gaining impetus in the economic and political system, with new measures being introduced all the time.  Credible and innovative approaches and solutions will have to be devised and consensus built around them, that can address the specific circumstances and move in directions that support more fundamental change.

Second, the cynical maxim of the opportunist: “why waste a good crisis” has its more powerful, if less pithy, flipside: Let’s not let the terrible tragedies of Covid-19 further compound the injustices, inequalities and irrationalities under which we, and the planet, already suffer.

More urgent than economic and technical solutions is the need to win the battle of ideas and to build on the underlying human solidarity that was exposed during the crisis, the one that says:  If the Covid-19 crisis has seen us all pull together to achieve our goal, in the knowledge that the details can be sorted later, then why, in Ireland, can’t we do it for the homeless crisis; and for health system crisis?  Why globally, can’t we do it for the climate crisis? Why can’t we tackle the extreme growth in global inequality and wealth distribution, the migration crisis?

All of these have life or death consequences, every day, for huge numbers of people, but never merit the same approach as Covid-19.  Why not?

First-line answers are already above: Covid-19, unlike these issues, presents an undeniable threat to everyone and demands an immediate and unreflected response. In practical terms, confronting these issues, unlike Covid-19, would also quickly run up against the opposition of elites.

Yet something has changed. The almost surreal shift in our shared reality that so many people right now feel under Covid-19 teaches us one thing: things we take for granted can move. If enough people believe strongly enough, and if the evidence is clear enough, things can change, and change quickly, in previously impossible ways. The normal is suspended and quickly evolves into a new normal. While not comparing the gravity of the two, world wars had a similar impact: Women were no longer willing to leave the workplace and retreat back to the home; people demanded a reward for the sacrifices they were told to make for the greater good.

Covid-19 has already shown us that when faced with a crisis, what seemed impossible before is now  possible, because it simply must happen for the common good. That same human collective power, combining the emotional and rational, can be drawn upon to achieve further changes for the common good. Getting that point across to enough people – demolishing the fallacy that “there is no other way” when it comes to solving local and global problems of inequity and injustice, of planetary and species destruction – is the first and the most difficult step.  The right arguments are yet to be articulated by the majority, but at least we know now what is possible.

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*Seán Ó Siochrú. Nexus Research Cooperative, Ireland. Seán is a long-time communication rights activist, researcher and writer. Article sent to Other News by the author on March 22, 2020.

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