Will the pandemic transform everything?
Probably not. Past crises have changed some parts of life while others return to normal. Don’t plan for an inevitable revolution next year.
Firstly, the crisis does not prove every pet theory you’ve ever held. It will not automatically bring into being the society you’ve been longing for.
Those on the right will feel vindicated that we must cut regulation to unleash entrepreneurial energy. Those on the left will point to the critical role of government in coordinating the response. Those who value freedom will look to the streets of Stockholm; those who value effectiveness will share videos of hospitals being built overnight in China.
Secondly, beware the hard rebound. While we may find we can do without some of the things that have been lost, we will find that we miss others. It is not inevitable that we will all work from home after this. Many of us will discover that we miss the office; even the routine of commuting. Social gatherings may become more precious. A crisis can reinforce as well as destroy, trigger nostalgia as much as progress. Could we see reactionary trends germinated in these times?
If you are hoping for something to be permanently different as a result of this difficult time, if you want to make something of the sacrifices, you will need to work to make it so. We will conduct many experiments. Most experiments fail. Fight for what you want to preserve.
Although it will only reveal my own biases, here are some forces that may be at play.
- Crises that require a collective response do tend to embed collective behaviours and expand the role of government. Consider the extensions of the welfare state after the world wars. What will government keep doing that it has not done before?
- Crises that cause economic damage can be followed by austerity. Things become scarce. Debt looms large in decision making. There’s a big recession waiting.
- Crises that cause labour shortages can change the pattern of who does what and for what pay.
- Crises can accelerate a shift in the balance of power. Someone loses and someone gains. Consider the demise of the Liberal Party following the First World War. The seeds may have been planted before. Who is on the rise? Don’t assume it’s your side.
- Crises can inflect trauma on some groups while others remain insulated. There may be a damaged group of people who do not receive the respect and support they deserve.
- Crises can stimulate technological change of course.
- Gratitude doesn’t last half as long as it ought to. Don’t rely on a better deal for public servants and key workers afterward.
- Disease and infection are highly emotive topics, but they resonate with some people much more deeply than with others. Some world views will be profoundly changed; while others will not understand this shift. Where’s the next ideological dividing line starting to form?
If you do want to see something very different, how will you work with or fight these trends? Although there is much to deal with today, and sadness to come, planning for the recovery begins in the middle of the crisis. Someone else is certainly making their plans.
Much of our historical experience of crisis has been created by war; even some past pandemics have been associated with conflict. There are lessons that can be learned (certainly plenty of my examples above come from those times) but there must be differences between pandemics and wars. There is no human enemy this time. There are no spoils or reparations. There is no territory to divide. For once, we are all on the same side. That’s at least one thing new in the world.
The full crisis collection.