(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.
“[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, 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.
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.
“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.