Unless you are Jeff Bezos or a shareholder in Zoom, the past 11 months are likely to have inspired a mix of fear, despair, grief and confusion. The pandemic has touched every aspect of life and mostly not for the better: bringing death, disease, joblessness and isolation, and deepening social and economic inequalities.
Globalism is under pressure from nationalism, as countries have closed borders, hoarded protective equipment and bartered over vaccines. Geopolitical alliances are being reshaped. The US seems in disarray; China appears emboldened. The world sometimes feels as if it is spinning in the wrong direction, although the vaccine rollouts offer a glimpse of hope. For those whose heads are aching at the enormity of it all, three books offer different but surprisingly congruent ways of processing the pandemic and looking ahead to the world that might emerge.
Many will empathise with the title of Ivan Krastev’s slender, European-focused offering: Is It Tomorrow Yet? Krastev, who fled to a friend’s house in the Bulgarian countryside in March, notes that epidemics “reset our world in a similar way to wars and revolutions, yet these other things stamp themselves on our collective memory in a manner that epidemics somehow do not.”
Numbers bear him out. The Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918-1920 killed between 50m and 100m people, possibly more than the first world war (17m) and second world war (60m) combined. It is a staggering toll for a single event, which also saw a third of the world infected. Yet, while you can browse perhaps 80,000 books on the first of those wars, there are just 400 or so about the Spanish flu.
That perverse perspective arises not only because it is easier to count those killed in war than those felled by a virus, but also from the narrative of disease. It is impossible, Krastev points out, to frame a pandemic “as a clash of good and evil. It lacks a plot and a moral.” Dying from illness instead of a bullet is not an exercise in patriotism or heroic sacrifice, and no deeper meaning can be extracted from it.
Nonetheless, he does try to arrive at some meaning by ordering his thoughts into seven paradoxes. For example, the rapid jet-enabled spread of the virus shows the downside of globalisation while unifying us in common experience. The pandemic has accelerated the trend towards deglobalisation by making countries strive for self-sufficiency, while at the same time exposing more clearly the limits of nationalism. The virus has also strengthened a sense of community in many societies while also widening political, social and economic divisions.
Covid-19 has, Krastev argues, put the future of the European project in the balance. The pandemic revealed the EU’s shortcomings: when Italy begged for urgent medical supplies, no member state responded. Even so, this failure is, also paradoxically, spurring closer integration; the bloc, in a pushback against deglobalisation, might well end up with more common policies and greater emergency powers for future crises.
Its future is also constrained by what is happening beyond the continent. When the EU looks towards the US, it sees a broken society that cannot be relied upon (although that might change with new US leadership); neither can it gaze too adoringly at China, which harbours its own hegemonic ambitions. He forecasts that the “globalised nature of Covid-19, combined with the realisation that 19th century economic nationalism is no longer an option for small and midsized European nation states, may give rise to a newly configured, EU-centred, territorial nationalism . . . If the world is going protectionist, effective protectionism in Europe is possible only on continental level.”
This is a good primer for the first post-pandemic, post-Brexit dinner party (if we can ever be bothered to go back to them): big ideas in small doses that are sufficiently intriguing to impress companions but not so committed as to offend either nationalists or globalists.
If reading Krastev is equivalent to enjoying a short, informal supper, signing up to Fareed Zakaria is like booking a 10-course dinner with a chef who takes his gastronomy very seriously. In Ten Lessons For A Post-Pandemic World, the international thinker, author and CNN host lectures us on how Covid-19 will upend such certainties as markets, globalisation and digital living.
Covid-19, he asserts, is the third major post-cold war shock to hit the global order, after 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis. Each was an “asymmetric” threat: a cataclysmic change triggered by the flutter of a proverbial butterfly’s wing. In the case of coronavirus, the wing belonged not to a butterfly but to a bat, possibly somewhere in Hubei province. “What began as a healthcare problem in China . . . prompted a simultaneous lockdown of all business across the globe, resulting in a Great Paralysis, the cessation of economics itself.”
That is because we live in an inherently unstable system: everyone is connected but no one is in control. The world is always in overdrive, with a relentless acceleration in human development over the past two centuries. We are living longer, producing more, consuming more, devouring energy and space on an unprecedented scale — and generating waste and emissions in tandem. He describes the pandemic as “nature’s revenge” on our voracious species, as we build roads, clear land, build factories and dig mines.
One of the most interesting chapters, or lessons, examines the role of national governments in managing the disease. Zakaria is persuasive that the quality, not quantity, of government, is the key to triumph. Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore coped well, tackling the virus early and limiting any lockdowns. These are “small-state” governments with relatively low public spending. But “big state” countries such as Germany, Denmark and Finland also earn plaudits for steering their national ships comparatively calmly through the viral storm. The common factor, he says, is a “competent, well-functioning, trusted state”.
That phrase cannot, he laments, be applied to America and Britain, who reaped the chaotic consequences of being more anti-government and starving domestic agencies in the name of efficiency and austerity. It was a false economy. In the UK, the private sector has struggled to deliver at a time of national crisis, despite enormous sums being thrown its way. No wonder Zakaria entitles the lesson that follows “markets are not enough”.
But while there are statistics, quotes and reports aplenty to scaffold his ideas, he is less convincing on digital life and inequality. There is scant mention of how the pandemic has divided us into the exposed poor and the shielded rich, or the role of the so-called gig economy in perpetuating this schism.
If Zakaria serves up the post-pandemic musings of an affluent, educated global elite, who might speak for the unwashed masses? Arise Pope Francis, who has broken with papal tradition by penning, with biographer Austen Ivereigh, a response to a major crisis.
Let Us Dream is part homily and part manifesto for profound social change — and, aside from the quotes from scripture, utterly in tune with the secular post-pandemic narrative. “We cannot return to the false securities of the political and economic systems we had before the crisis,” Pope Francis warns. “We need economies that give to all access to the fruits of creation, to the basic needs of life: to land, lodging and labour. We need a politics that can integrate and dialogue with the poor, the excluded, and the vulnerable, that gives people a say in the decisions that impact their lives. We need to slow down, take stock, and design better ways of living together on this earth.”
While he offers spiritual soup to the souls of believers, he also discusses fiercely contemporary ideas such as the unsung strengths of female leadership. He notes, as others have done, that countries led by women have generally tackled coronavirus more successfully; he cites the perspectives of economists such as Mariana Mazzucato and Kate Raworth, who question the use of gross domestic product as the ultimate measure of economic success. He points out the limits of neoliberalism (“ethics and the economy have been decoupled); speaks approvingly of universal basic income; and despairs at the environmental crisis (he is offsetting the carbon emissions associated with the first edition printing, by purchasing credits from water and cooking projects in Guatemala).
These are cross-cutting themes that could reasonably crop up in any socially minded discussion of the post-pandemic global order. Take, for example, the disapproving observation that some risky, high-reward investments are now being offered with firm guarantees, to ensure a floor for the post-Covid economy. The policy benefits the well-to-do with money to spare and will “the policy serves to hypercharge wealth inequality”. It brings to the author’s mind a verse from the Gospel according to Matthew: “For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” These financial guarantees, he concludes, amount to “socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor”.
The lines in the previous paragraph sound like something that Pope Francis, a social justice warrior, might have written — except that Zakaria got there first. That is the striking thing about these three books: starting from diverse perspectives, they converge to similar conclusions as to how the world could or should change, whether it is living more harmoniously alongside other species or scrutinising more thoroughly the competence of those who rule us.
Whether any of these idealised futures will actually emerge is another question. Vaccines, our best exit strategy, have been sold as a means of restoring normality. We are crawling out of this crisis shaken and exhausted — and nostalgic, perhaps, for the way things were. Some may long for the post-pandemic world to look exactly like the imperfect world that preceded it.
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Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World, by Fareed Zakaria, Allen Lane, £20, 320 pages
Is It Tomorrow Yet? Paradoxes of the Pandemic, by Ivan Krastev, Allen Lane, £10.99, 96 pages
Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future, by Pope Francis, Simon & Schuster, £10.99, 160 pages
Anjana Ahuja is a science writer