Pandemics Have Changed History, and This One Will Too

The Covid-19 pandemic is shaking virtually all aspects of the world, from geopolitics to the economy and the environment. Courthouse News asked some experts in which directions they think the world might fall. In part one of the series, we delved into the history of plagues.

Death leads the way in this 1490 fresco by Johannes de Castua in the Holy Trinity Church in Hrastovlje, Slovenia.

(CN) — The Covid-19 pandemic is changing history before our eyes. But how will it change it? This is the mammoth, and scary, question consuming economists, philosophers, historians, political scientists, sociologists and politicians, and leaving a murky mess for everyone, whether billionaires in penthouses or subsistence farmers living in huts.

What will the world look like in 10 years? Plagues have been battering humans since prehistory and have altered the course of history in radical ways. There’s reason to believe this pandemic will do the same.

The Roman Empire fell after being weakened by plagues. Europeans swept over the Americas as they infected the natives with measles and smallpox. The age of feudalism tottered to a halt and the Renaissance was foreshadowed by peasant revolts after the Black Death, which gave a newfound sense of power to the serfs who survived the ravages of the bubonic plague, and suddenly had lords bidding for their service. The Great Influenza of 1918-19 helped end World War I.

Ben Tonra, of University College Dublin.

“[The Covid-19 pandemic] is feeding into a pre-existing conversation over the collapse of the neoliberal order, the end of capitalism, conversations about the nation-state,” said Ben Tonra, a scholar of international relations at University College Dublin. “It puts into hyperdrive conversations that were already going on.”

Alexander Clarkson, of Kings College London.

Alexander Clarkson, a political scientist at King’s College London, added: “The basic foundations of what we have, what has been built up over the last 40, 50, 60 years isn’t suddenly going to disappear. The people who say there is going to be some sort of revolutionary moment and it is all going to be turned on its head — that, I think, goes a little bit too far. But of course, something like this will affect a whole set of dynamics within the structures that we have at the moment.”

Courthouse News has reviewed numerous scientific and historical papers, analyses and opinion pieces from thinkers in many disciplines and conducted interviews to capture a sense of where history may be heading. Here in summary are various scenarios suggesting how the world may change. Most likely, the future will be a blend of these scenarios and many more.

Forensic investigators look at the body of a man who collapsed on the street and died of Covid-19 in Quito, Ecuador, on May 5. (AP photo/Dolores Ochoa)

GEOPOLITICS

Scenario One: Globalization and the neoliberal order, under strain even before the pandemic, are rolled back and there is a rise in the strength of the nation-state as countries fortify borders, stop flows of people and repatriate industries and services previously outsourced. This scenario sees increased competition between global powers and requires smaller states to choose alliances. As happened after the influenza pandemic of 1918-19, the world retreats into protectionism.

“[The pandemic] reminds us why borders were important,” Tonra said.

Clarkson said many countries and companies are likely to reassess the fact — or problem — that their supply chains depend on China.

“I think it’s strategic thinking now,” he said. “What this is about is saying we’ve got to limit our exposure to places on the other side of the Earth and move substantial parts of our supply chains back close to areas that we control. That can’t work with everything; there will still be substantial trade and massive movement of goods back and forth between China and the rest of the world.”

Scenario Two: The United States and China wage a second Cold War. The world’s two superpowers drift farther apart and clash over geopolitics, technological dominance, ideology, patents, trade and economics.

The European Union is caught in the middle and is forced to take sides on a growing number of contentious issues. Russia becomes a staunch ally of China. Other world powers, such as India, find themselves having to choose sides.

Niall Ferguson, historian, of Stanford University

“I argued a year ago that we were already in Cold War II and it was time to stop beating around the bush. I think the pandemic has revealed that very clearly,” said Niall Ferguson, a prominent Stanford University historian and author, in an online interview with John Anderson, a former Australian deputy prime minister.

“Anyone who thought we would be joining forces against a common enemy [the virus] has been sorely disappointed by the conduct of the Chinese government,” Ferguson said.

Scenario Three: China and the United States — perhaps because of a new president in the White House — defuse tensions and the pandemic fosters cooperation between global powers as they try to eradicate the deadly coronavirus, share medicine, help the world’s poor overcome the pandemic and reinvigorate international treaties and world agencies such as the World Health Organization and World Trade Organization. The pandemic highlights the urgency of tackling climate change through international efforts.

“Dealing with these global challenges brings the United States, the European Union, China and other states together,” the Atlantic Council, a U.S. think tank, said in a report laying out possible scenarios. It called this scenario, its most optimistic, a “new renaissance.”

“They can agree they all have a mutual interest in combating climate change and future health crises,” the report said. In this future, the United States and European Union “convince China to wrap its Belt and Road scheme into a larger U.S.-EU-China ‘Marshall Plan’ for struggling countries in the developing world.” The Belt and Road initiative is China’s overarching foreign policy strategy to build a “New Silk Road” linking Europe with China through railways, ports and other infrastructure.

Scenario Four: China is badly weakened as liberal democracies turn away from it and decide to reduce their dependence on Chinese production of essential goods. The pandemic shows that China cannot be relied upon in a crisis, not least because its medical gear was faulty. In this scenario, the production of pharmaceuticals, fertilizers, medical gear and semiconductors migrates away from China. China’s growing influence around the world is challenged. The Chinese Communist Party is put to the test at home as protests demanding democratic change grow.

The United States supports those protests, covertly and overtly, weakening the Communist Party — and increasing tensions between the superpowers.

“I see China coming very badly out of this pandemic,” Tonra said. “The thing came from China, so there is an inevitable sense that China owns this pandemic. I don’t think China comes out of this as a stronger actor.”

Scenario Five: The United States, weakened by the pandemic economically and politically, sees its dominance eclipsed by China. China’s top-down approach works, and expands its influence around the globe as it invests in poorer countries, buys up critical infrastructure in Europe and elsewhere, and becomes the world’s financier.

China’s authoritarian and antidemocratic structures are emboldened and replicated around the world, with grave consequences for democratic and humanistic values. China keeps in place a system of global trade that depends upon its goods and labor.

“A downturn in Western economies could boost a rising China,” the Atlantic Council said in its report. “The United States also risks a severe decline in soft power if it is seen to be struggling to manage the virus or failing to provide help to partners abroad.”

Professor Clarkson said: “Trump already shook confidence in the stability of U.S. leadership; Trump’s response to coronavirus is shaking confidence in the idea that we can rely on the U.S. It’s the idea that Europe needs a fallback.

“The Chinese and the Europeans are both saying right now: ‘What do we do if the Americans can’t lead at all?’”

Clarkson said a lot depends on whether Trump is re-elected in November.

“I don’t necessarily believe it’s good for the world to have a U.S. that’s too strong; but to have a U.S. that’s too weak would be bad as well. That would be destabilizing.”

Shuttered businesses in Philadelphia on May 7. (AP photo/Matt Rourke)

ECONOMICS

Scenario One: The pandemic radically changes free-market economics as countries add trillions of dollars of debt to stimulate their economies. Neoliberal capitalism is rejected and government intervention in the economy becomes commonplace as unemployment soars and demand grows for more local production of essential goods. Major Western economies enter an extended period of slow growth and decline in their economic power as they introduce concepts such as universal basic income.

Big government programs, such as socialized health care in the United States — already present as Medicare — survive attacks from the right. But the power of multinational corporations grows as the depression wipes out small businesses and governments become ever more reliant on large corporations.

“[The pandemic] reminds us of the importance of social democracy, the social contract, of community, of national infrastructure and of why people are properly paid and respected for their work,” Tonra said.

Clarkson said: “Some people think, ‘Oh, this is the end of market forces.’ That’s not going to happen. But there is a readjustment away from what you’d call Anglo-American neoliberal models, which are very, very strong in Europe, toward something that is still very free-market capitalist, but with a much, much bigger role for the state. That’s the trend you can find in the EU.”

In an April 23 discussion paper, “The economic impact of Covid-19 on the EU: From the frying pan into the fire,” the European Policy Center said “the delineation between the public and private sectors will become increasingly blurry.” It said governments are likely to provide “strong, strategic leadership in the future, influencing or directing many private sector decisions” and that even state “ownership will be much more commonplace.”

Scenario Two: The economic depression caused by the pandemic ushers in an era of slimmed-down, nimbler governments that rely on technology to bolster democracy and free markets. Instead of government solutions to economic problems, the economy becomes driven by libertarian economic models, backed up by an increasingly individualistic and technologically advanced society. The power of multinational corporations may be weakened in this hyperglobalized and tech-based economy that sees local and individual solutions as key.

“I see a future for a slimmed-down, smarter government, capable of dealing with problems,” Ferguson said.

Scenario Three: The economic depression forces governments to impose strict spending limits to rein in debt. Governments cut spending on social and environmental programs, pensions, infrastructure, education and health care. Concentration of wealth and inequality grows as fiscal austerity is extended far into the future. Many parts of the world fall into economic depression and disorder, causing a dramatic growth in the number of people forced to flee disaster, authoritarian regimes and war.

“With millions of people losing their jobs or working and earning less, the income and wealth gaps of the 21st-century economy will widen further,” wrote Nouriel Roubini, an economics professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, in an April 29 article for The Guardian looking at the economic fallout from the pandemic for Project Syndicate.

“We must avoid a situation like the last crisis [the Great Recession], where the vast bulk of the gains were quickly funneled to the top 1 percent with minimal political scrutiny, exacerbating the current situation we have today,” Marshall Auerback, a market analyst and commentator, wrote for Counterpunch on March 20.

Health officials spray disinfectant to prepare to reopen a high school in Seoul on Monday. (AP photo/Lee Jin-man)

SOCIETY

Scenario One: The pandemic gives rise to a wave of popular unrest as people demand better government and leadership. People become more politically engaged and scared by what the pandemic has revealed about human vulnerability. They force governments and the financial elite to become more humane and fair. The pandemic spawns a mood of solidarity and unity. Workers — such as nurses, truck drivers, meat-packing processors and janitors — gain a sense of their power and demand better wages and working conditions.

The world sees turmoil akin to the 1960s and anger about inequality, injustice, poverty, exploitation and racism breaks out into massive uprisings across the globe.

“There is strong reason to believe that once the health crisis ebbs, there will be a new surge of global protests, perhaps even greater in scale and political consequence,” said Samuel Brannen, a researcher at the Center for Strategies & International Studies, a U.S. think tank. “These protests could play a determining role in setting national and global agendas post-Covid-19. Or they could simply deepen the disorder now gripping the world.”

Cathy O’Neil, CEO of the algorithmic auditing company ORCAA and author of “Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy,” told Politico she envisions a future in which the public demands change.

“The aftermath of the coronavirus is likely to include a new political uprising — an Occupy Wall Street 2.0, but this time much more massive and angrier,” she said. “Once the health emergency is over, we will see the extent to which rich, well-connected and well-resourced communities will have been taken care of, while contingent, poor and stigmatized communities will have been thoroughly destroyed.

“Moreover, we will have seen how political action is possible — multitrillion-dollar bailouts and projects can be mobilized quickly — but only if the cause is considered urgent. This mismatch of long-disregarded populations finally getting the message that their needs are not only chronically unattended, but also chronically dismissed as politically required, will likely have drastic, pitchfork consequences.”

Scenario Two: The pandemic and economic depression that follows see history repeating itself. The 2020s mirror the 1930s, when suffering and anger led to the rise of dictatorial leaders and political cults such as Fascism, Communism and Nazism.

Nationalism comes into fashion: Along with it comes a rise in racism, prejudice and a closing-off of societies. Personal liberties suffer as authoritarian regimes impose age-old forms of oppression, and citizens, fearing instability and threats to their lives, willingly give up their personal freedoms.

This new fascist state is tech-savvy, and the Big Brother society becomes ever more real as artificial intelligence, surveillance, face recognition and other technologies are turned on the citizen.

Clarkson said he fears far-right policies are becoming mainstream in Europe.

“It’s literally acceptable now to speak of drowning migrants, refugees, or blowing up ships, or doing airstrikes against smugglers,” he said. “Really ugly stuff, really nasty stuff.”

Clarkson said acceptance of violence to keep people out of Europe is “going to be accentuated by fear of plague and illness.” He said similar trends are taking root in the United States and China.

Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg. (AP photo/Michael Probst)

ENVIRONMENT

Scenario One: The pandemic intensifies concern about the unfolding tragedy of nature and the planet, leading to global consensus to rein in fossil fuels, coal consumption and exploitation of natural resources. “New Green Deals” take shape and are funded, spawning an explosion in renewable energy. People who saw pollution dissipate and rejoiced at the sight of wild animals on city streets during the pandemic don’t want to return to smoggy cities and a world without wildlife.

“Environmental protesters are watching closely how governments respond to Covid-19, including rapid and unprecedented changes to the economy and society — changes these same governments considered unachievable when posited by environmental protesters arguing that governments are responding too slowly to an existential threat,” Brannen said in his analysis for the Center for Strategies & International Studies.

Francesco De Pascale with the Italian National Research Council and Jean-Claude Roger at the University of Maryland said in a recent paper: “At the end of this story, the prevention lessons we should learn are precisely ethical: Stop the deforestation, invasion and disruption of the natural ecosystems that host wild animals; ban the commercialization of wild animals anywhere in the world; conserve the nature and restore the damaged habitats to preserve our health and wellbeing. It is necessary to put environmental ethics before economic interests and to adopt an integrated and multidisciplinary perspective to solve the great challenges related to the global change.”

Scenario Two: The economic depression caused by the pandemic puts fighting climate change on the back burner and a world in chaos where superpowers are in conflict for resources and rejection of international standards makes it impossible for countries to find a common approach to environmental problems. Commitments under the Paris climate accord, already rejected by the United States, go to the wayside as countries desperate for economic growth encourage development and polluting industries.

“A recession is likely to complicate the politics of environmental policy, as it will drop in priority relative to the economy,” Ruben Lubowski, chief natural resource economist at the Environmental Defense Fund, told Reuters in a March 12 article.


TECHNOLOGY

Scenario One: The spread of technology through society accelerates and it becomes ever more common to work from home, attend online classes, allow your smartphone to be used as a tracking device and embrace telemedicine. Technology is seen as a benefit and is widely accepted. Simultaneously, governments become more transparent and citizens take more control of their digital lives.

“While the world continues to rely on classic public-health measures for tackling the Covid-19 pandemic, in 2020, there is now a wide range of digital technology that can be used to augment and enhance these public-health strategies,” according to a March 27 article in Nature Medicine.

“The immediate use and successful application of digital technology to tackle a major, global public-health challenge in 2020 will probably increase the public and governmental acceptance of such technologies for other areas of healthcare, including chronic disease in the future. As the saying goes, ‘a crisis provides an opportunity;’ this first great crisis of 2020 provides a great opportunity for digital technology.”

Scenario Two: As technology becomes ubiquitous it becomes disruptive. Companies see an opportunity to not rehire workers laid off during the pandemic and replace them with automation. Intrusive digital tracking becomes commonplace as people accept under-the-skin technology that monitors their bodily functions. Cyberattacks become common and more damaging as global conflict increases.

“It is setting a dangerous precedent by making it normal to use digital surveillance of a population for a crisis,” said Sophie Pornschlegel, a senior policy analyst at the European Policy Center, a Brussels think tank. “It might become totally normal to use digital surveillance of citizens even if you don’t have a Covid-19 crisis.

“Once public authorities like police have had access to these data they can use arguments which often say, ‘But we need to use it because of blah-blah-blah, X-Y-Z,’” she said.

“People say, ‘I don’t see an issue because I have nothing to hide.’ Yes, you have nothing to hide until you have an authoritarian leader who might use this to crack down on the opposition.”

The Atlantic Council wrote in its report: “A large proportion of those let go by large firms at the height of the pandemic are not rehired by companies that are finding it difficult to return to profitability without cutting their labor force. It is an opportunity to expand automation, including the use of robots.”

Roubini wrote in his article, which predicted an increase in cyberwarfare: “Because technology is the key weapon in the fight for control of the industries of the future and in combating pandemics, the U.S. private tech sector will become increasingly integrated into the national security-industrial complex.”


AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE

“We are still in the middle of this. No one has written the final chapter,” Tonra said. “The conclusions have yet to be drawn.”

But he doubted that the pandemic will alter the basic global order, based upon global trade.

“Frankly, I don’t think global populations are willing to make the sacrifices needed to return to the nation-state,” he said. “I think globalization is too baked into the way” societies function. “Borders are still important, but we still aspire to the wealth and comfort that globalization can give us.”

He continued: “We are going to see heightened political times. Where it ends up, I don’t know. Who wins in this heightened political atmosphere is unknown.

“I think what the pandemic is doing is amplifying what was already there. The authoritarians are more authoritarian: [Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor] Orban has done what Orban was going to do. China is doing what it wants in Hong Kong. In the U.S., Trump is being more authoritarian.”

Hieronymous Bosch, “A Vision of Hell,” ca. 1500.
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