It’s a natural impulse. All around the world, people want to hit rewind and go back to the way life was before the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread in early 2020. They want to see friends and family again. They want their old jobs back. They want to return to bars and concerts. They want to get back on planes and cruise ships. They want to stop worrying.
In short, they want things to return to normal.
But that’s not going to happen. And it shouldn’t. The novel coronavirus has fundamentally changed the world. And the pre-pandemic world was far from “normal.”
COVID-19 was a wake-up call for humanity. Before the pandemic struck, the planet was hurtling toward a climate catastrophe, the threat of nuclear war loomed, the global economy was unsustainable and grossly inequitable, and tens of millions of refugees were on the move because of regional conflicts, economic necessity, and scarce resources. In addition to causing nearly a million deaths so far, the pandemic illuminated these horrendous pre-existing conditions.
This summer, the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC brought together 70 of the world’s leading thinkers and activists to assess the impact of COVID-19. In eight wide-ranging conversations—on the global economy, a Green transition, coronavirus authoritarianism, rethinking migration, budget priorities, a global ceasefire, international civil society, and multilateral cooperation—the participants began to chart a new path out of the crisis.
The resulting book, The Pandemic Pivot, will appear in e-book form from Seven Stories Press in mid-October.
The participants agreed that there’s no going back to the status quo ante, that a true pandemic response will require significant structural change and not tinkering around the edges. But what should the “new normal” look like?
The pandemic has been an accelerant, speeding up or aggravating developments that were already underway. Consider the fossil fuel industry. Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, the oil and gas industry was already facing significant challenges. The price of oil was dropping. The fracking industry was overwhelmed by debt. A growing market for renewable energy was cutting into Big Energy’s profit margins.
The news wasn’t all negative for the industry. The global trade in coal was still growing. Large energy companies were still exploring new sites for drilling. But the trends were converging on what some industry analysts predicted in 2018 would soon be peak fossil fuel demand.
Then the pandemic hit. People stopped flying. Factories ground to a halt. The price of oil plummeted. By the end of August, ExxonMobil found itself kicked off the Dow Jones after 92 years on the stock index. The energy giant is expected to lose $70 billion in 2020. The British energy giant BP, meanwhile, has executed its own pivot to survive in this new era. It announced in 2020 that it would cut oil production by 40 percent and make a concerted effort to convert to clean energy. Even as carbon emissions have begun to increase again with the reopening of economies, the pandemic is contributing to an important shift in the energy sector, though one that is neither large enough nor fast enough to avert climate catastrophe.
Indeed, the entire global economy is undergoing change as businesses and governments try to adjust to the new pandemic reality. After protesting for years that they didn’t have the resources to invest in large-scale projects – to address climate change or economic inequality – governments managed to find trillions of dollars for bailout packages and stimulus plans in the wake of COVID-19. Given the disruptions in the global supply chains, businesses are taking a much more critical look at the outsourcing of manufacturing. The impact of the virus on the workforce is accelerating an ongoing trend toward automation.
The pandemic has revealed serious gaps in the social safety net. Even countries with much-vaunted hospital systems, like the United States, were overwhelmed with cases. COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on people of color in the Global North and the poorer areas of the Global South.
Despite the funding shortfalls that the pandemic exposed, most countries have not transferred funds from military to civilian spending. The United States passed a modest increase for the Pentagon this year. European countries are raising their spending to meet the 2 percent of GDP requirement for NATO members. China announced in May 2020 a 6.6 percent increase in its military budget. India is looking at a comparable increase while Pakistan has announced a 12 percent increase and Brazil an unbelievable 48 percent boost in military spending for 2020.
In 2020, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, global military expenditures rose to nearly $2 trillion. The global trade in arms has also continued to rise.
The pandemic should have prompted a major rethinking of national security. After all, despite the trillions of dollars spent on “protecting homelands,” a tiny virus easily evaded all of the border controls and military checkpoints. In the United States, COVID-19 has already caused more casualties on the home front than the United States suffered in combat in World War I, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined. The Pentagon was obviously not doing its job very well of protecting American lives.
The United Nations made an effort to force a change. On March 23, for instance, UN Secretary-General António Guterres issued an appeal for a “global ceasefire.”
“To warring parties, I say: Pull back from hostilities,” Guterres said. “Put aside mistrust and animosity. Silence the guns; stop the artillery; end the airstrikes. This is crucial…To help create corridors for life-saving aid. To open precious windows for diplomacy. To bring hope to places among the most vulnerable to COVID-19.”
It was a sensible suggestion. Yet, although 171 countries supported the ceasefire resolution in the General Assembly, wars continued: in Yemen, Afghanistan, Libya, Cameroon, and elsewhere. In addition to the death and destruction these wars have caused, they also continue to displace millions of people, contributing to the greatest refugee crisis since World War II.
Since it is so obviously a global problem, the pandemic should have prompted greater international cooperation. That’s how past pandemics, like SARS and MERS, were defeated, with governments and scientists and health professionals sharing information and complying with international guidelines.
But COVID-19 has not generated a new spirit of internationalism. In fact, the pandemic has accelerated an earlier trend toward nationalism. It’s not a coincidence that the four countries facing the greatest number of COVID-19 infections and death—the United States, Brazil, India, and Russia—are led by right-wing nationalists. They neither coordinated sufficient domestic response to the disease nor cooperated with other countries to contain its spread.
President Donald Trump, in particular, interfered with global efforts to contain the virus by withdrawing funding from the World Health Organization and then pulling the United States out altogether.
Meanwhile, authoritarians around the world have taken advantage of the pandemic to assert more executive power, suppress civil society and independent media, and increase their states’ surveillance capabilities.
None of the changes that have taken place so far in the pandemic era add up to a pivot. The government bailouts have largely propped up the old economy. The shift to a more sustainable economy is too slow to arrest climate change. Wars continue, as does out-of-control military spending and arms transfers. The global community has not risen to the pandemic challenge, which bodes ill for solidarity in the face of future challenges.
But it’s not too late to learn the lessons of COVID-19.
Several factors suggest the possibility of a major change in global direction as a result of the current pandemic.
First, the right-wing nationalist leaders of countries that have so poorly handled COVID-19 will have to face a reckoning from the voters. In the United States, Donald Trump is running for re-election. The polls suggest that he will lose decisively, in large part because of managerial ineptitude surrounding the pandemic and its economic fallout. The removal of Trump from office will send a strong signal that the current wave of authoritarianism sweeping the globe is not unstoppable.
Second, when the bill for the economic impact of the pandemic comes due, some countries will continue to ignore basic common sense and continue to lavish funds on their militaries. But pressure will build for a reallocation of money to plug the holes in the social safety net that the pandemic exposed.
Third, even when the pandemic fades, plenty of pressing problems will continue to plague the international community. And these problems–climate change, weapons of mass destruction, global poverty, future pandemics – cannot be solved without international cooperation. The world experimented with nationalist solutions such as trade wars, the scrapping of international agreements, and the building of border walls. These solutions either made the problems they were supposed to address even worse or they completely ignored imminent threats (like pandemics).
Of course, none of these factors will by themselves produce a true pandemic pivot. Such a pivot will depend on serious governmental action. A Global Green New Deal will require a major inter-governmental effort to restructure economies away from dirty energy, retrain workers in the new economy, and offer the Global South a way to leap-frog into sustainability. For such a plan to work, it will necessitate unprecedented international cooperation. Funding for such a transformation must come at least in part from the military-industrial complex. And the energy now devoted in so many parts of the world to destruction—through war and resource extraction—must now be redirected toward economic reconstruction.
Most governments won’t voluntarily sign on to this kind of transformation. It will require public pressure. And that’s where international civil society enters the picture.
Cross-border cooperation has fundamentally changed the world. Activists cooperated across the Atlantic to end the slave trade in the nineteenth century. Environmental activists and scientists worked together globally to save the ozone layer with the passing of the Montreal Protocol in the 1980s. Peace and human rights activists played a key role in ending the Cold War in Europe, bringing down the apartheid regime in South Africa, and securing the independence of new countries like Timor-Leste.
Today, civil society activists face many obstacles. It’s not possible at the moment to gather in international meetings. The pandemic has put enormous strains on local communities, which motivates many activists to turn away from international organizing. Authoritarian leaders are suppressing civil society organizations and threatening their funding.
But it’s critical that peace, human rights, environmental, and economic, social, and racial justice activists overcome these obstacles to create together a new spirit of internationalism that can animate the pandemic pivot.
Gone are the days when sectoral international was sufficient: pushing for a single environmental protocol or ending one specific conflict. The new internationalism has to encompass big-picture change.
Where governments focus on piecemeal and short-term tweaks, a more globally linked civil society must keep the world’s eyes on the prize of a fundamental shift in humanity’s relationship with the planet.
COVID-19 speaks to the inadequacy of the status quo and the insufficiency of reforms at the margin. The world has been given a second chance. It must take the opportunity of the pandemic to pivot toward something new. The planet depends on it.
John Feffer is director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Insstitute of Policy Studies.