There’s a question Covid19 allows us to ask that we haven’t been able to ask since the end of World War 2: can we all just co-operate to get along – as a species?
It takes a mighty interruption to allow us to think as if we all have something worth saving, namely: ourselves.
Every crisis emerges from unique conditions (nice simple teacher’s version here),
and has different results.
But here’s the redemptive promise. All those institutions that set out with great intent after the end of the last world war included elevating diplomacy into a competitive sport to talk with each other as countries, agree to rules to balance imbalances and injustices, and institutions that set out to earnestly and effectively promulgate those ideals into making the world a better place. They were all set up with united and good intentions to build a better world.
What we had at that time was a moral lesson. That global evil would be brought to justice.
That every single person on earth had inalienable rights.
That the shackles of colonialism and implied racial superiority would be dissolved as peoples made their own self-determined collectives.
It was a world propelled by the ideals of modernism: that impetus to build permanent ideals into the kind of state that had been necessitated to respond to the Great Depression and to World War 2.
Of all the crises since that enormous outpouring of human and humanist solidarity, Covid19 is shaping up to be the largest by death and disability that has hit the whole human world near-simultaneously since World War 2 (I sure ain’t saying that World War 2 caused prosperity though. That’s stupid).
Few modern crises have caused such human mayhem as Covid19. Worldwide the Covid19 death count is nearing 7 million, more than double the reported number of 3.24 million.
While that’s still a ways off from about 20 million killed in World War 1, or 50 million from the Spanish Flu of 1918-19, Covid19 is not finished with us yet.
Many states including our own have successfully responded to this crisis, but Australia and New Zealand policy responses stand as two of the best and highest in the developed world:
The budget Australia has just passed is staggering: there are deepening projected budget deficits from spending and giving away to its citizens more than the extra revenue from the faster-than-expected recovery including the $1,000 tax rebate.
New Zealand has spent tens of billions on corporate welfare, personal and family welfare, and job-forming projects. Our own budget coming up will pile more support still. Christchurch’s rebuilds, Think Big, and the great infrastructure builds of the 1960s and 1970s were small in comparison.
The state is expanding as we haven’t seen in half a century in the United States,
and our trade partner China is all steam ahead with a projected 18% growth rate in GDP.
We’ve been wondering what a re-energised collective will of the people would look like. Well it looks like this.
They aren’t moral lessons: they are instead institutional reform lessons.
A re-energised collective will of the people as government looks like this.
I have a sneaking suspicion that other states will follow the strong-state rebuild into the 2020s, whether they are democracies or not.
New Zealand is renationalising its entire health system, among other things.
I have a sneaking suspicion that energy is next, more than most have imagined to date.
Along with all other successfully recovering states, Covid19 has re-written a social contract with the people to turn on a dime, suspend their individual rights and subsume that into a great collective of survival, and rely for full social continuity on the state far far more than before.
It’s made global heroes of leaders who defy self-interest and communicate with idealism and clarity,
and challenged leaders who rose on pure ethnic nationalism. Some indeed have fallen because of it. It’s a political earthquake.
Covid19 has made politics and political leaders interesting again because of the speed and scale of effect between political response and public health outcomes. That’s new. It’s even outpaced the speed of social media.
We don’t yet know if the effects of Covid19 will renew global solidarity. Or form new and effective institutions. Or indeed endure.
We don’t know if moral clarity will re-emerge in the world just as those founding United Nations declarations did.
We don’t know yet how much this will shift the world.
Perhaps it will confine its primary statist effects to public health, national borders, and limiting human tourism, immigration and human globalisation itself.
Perhaps it will expand into something more ambitious for COP 26. Let’s see.
We do know however that the state and the relationship of people to the state has been renewed and refreshed in successful countries, and it’s continuing.
That is sure no reason to conveniently equate the deaths of millions of people and untold deep suffering as some cruel Malthusian deliberation.
And plenty on the hard right will project that this is yet another example of the Leviathan state growing its power through crisis and taking freedom and never giving it back. That ideological contest won’t end as if Covid19 were the cosmic catalyst for the end of history itself, and nor should it.
But what will grow out of this, as it did in 1945, is the renewal of a force that all this death and suffering must mean something, some good be renewed and built, something actually noble. That impulse will last for many, many years to come.