As I am heading into the fifth week of quarantine, I am sitting down to complete this mini-series on the Corona crisis with a look into the future.
Our current narrative is broken
Over the last few weeks, I have been grappling with the enormity of the pandemic and its effect on our modern society. In the midst of a crisis, I find it challenging to take a helicopter view and put things in perspective. Newspapers seem to have decided already though, telling me that this is a historical moment: We are leaving the pre-Corona era behind and enter the post-Corona era. During the first weeks of the lockdown, I could not help wondering if it was all going to be that significant. Once we find a vaccine, won’t we return to ‘business as usual’ rather quickly?
I came to realise that right now, it is still in our own hands whether this will become a crisis of historical significance and in what way. Although the pandemic is undoubtedly most devastating for developing countries, it might well be more significant for the Western World from a systemic point of view.
For years, the developed world has been confronted with issues it cannot come to terms with. Increasing inequality, stagnating economic growth, massive environmental degradation, an influx of migrants on our borders. The Corona crisis comes at a moment people have never been more uncertain about their place in the world, the benefits of the economic system, and the efficacy of western democracy.
In that light, politicians thankfully use the current pandemic to jack up public trust in its governing bodies. Through daily updates with seemingly accurate numbers on positive cases and deaths, press conferences, strict lockdown measures, and economic packages, they are telling us “don’t worry, this time we have everything under control”. Wielding wartime vocabulary, our medical workers are staged as the heroes at the frontlines in the battle against COVID-19. Several countries imposed a curfew and the US employed its Defense Production Act. This us-versus-the-enemy narrative (the virus being the enemy) is extremely effective in bringing the populace on one line and pass extra-ordinary measures that might otherwise not be accepted by the public.
This narrative is hiding an ugly truth, though. The Corona pandemic is not the source of a crisis, but a symptom. The real issue is chronic underspending in medical infrastructure and healthcare, extreme pressure on wildlife, the absence of adequate food standards in many places in the world, etc. So, just like the other crises we face today, from growing inequality to environmental collapse, the origins of the Corona pandemic are internal to our socio-economic structure, not external.
Once you look at the Corona pandemic from that angle, it’s just the last in a long line of crises that we failed to address at its core. All of them have one thing in common: they challenge our current societal narrative. Neoliberalist economic growth promised wealth for everyone. It promised freedom. It promised happiness. It has not been able to adequately deliver – at least not for a very large group of people. And therefore, we can use this moment of disruption to rewrite the narrative that was failing us for years. We can use this moment to write a new story for mankind.
A good moment to quote late Milton Friedman, who had a lot of bad ideas, but also some good:
Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.
How could that new story look like? What alternatives to existing policies are we going to develop? As Canadian author Naomi Klein argued in a webinar organised by the Fridays For Future movement, it could go two ways.
The first scenario is what Naomi Klein describes as the ‘Shock Doctrine’, which she discusses at length in her eponymous book. It assumes governments and corporations will use the current state of emergency to push through controversial and questionable policies, while the public is too distracted managing the impacts of the lockdown. Citizens simply don’t have the time, energy, or means to develop an adequate response – if they even have the time to follow the developments. Many governments have expended clout in crisis times, during which the opposition and the parliament are in a weaker position.
Democratic control is more difficult than ever, with big decisions being made fast and behind closed doors. Two of the most important legal democratic tools to keep a government accountable, namely strikes and manifestations, are currently unavailable due to social distancing. And although some Belgian environmental groups like Extinction Rebellion are experimenting with digital activism, I doubt whether this can have the same effect as physical actions.
The Shock Doctrine is not just a hypothetical scenario: it is already starting to happen. A couple of weeks ago, the Trump administration appealed to the request of the American Petroleum Institute to relax its monitoring activities of environmental pollution and suspend its rules on pipeline repairments. In fact, the administration suspended the enforcement of environmental law altogether. This is like blank cheque for the oil & gas companies, as well as many other polluting sectors. With no end-date of this law enforcement in place, there is a real danger that the ruling stays in place long after the Corona pandemic is over. China, too, relaxed certain environmental standards now that it is trying to get its economy in full swing again. In my own country Belgium, transport association Air Cargo Belgium, appealed to policy-makers to drop rules that limit the number of night flights over densely populated areas in the vicinity of the national airports.
I am not saying that governments should not be able to act swiftly and with impact, and if necessary, via special rulings. The situation asks for it. But it is very important to watch our governments closely, to consider which policies are sensible and appropriate, and to make sure some of them are turned back at due time.
…or green transformation?
Let us turn to the second scenario, which is far more optimistic. In this scenario, we take the opportunity to turn the economic slowdown and the subsequent reboot in a direction that answers to the environmental concerns and social injustice of the current economic paradigm. Because, as Ann Pettifor said, “we can’t go back to normal, because normal was a crisis situation itself”.
As a matter of fact, we don’t have much choice. When it comes to the climate crisis, it is now well understood that we need to turn our economies around and be well on the way to a net carbon-neutral society by 2030, to have a reasonable chance to keep this planet habitable for human life. Since the relief packages proposed to deal with the economic downturn in the wake of the Corona lockdown are of a once-in-a-generation proportion, they have to be a ‘green bazooka’ at the same time. It is this money that needs to shift energy generation to renewables, completely reform agricultural practices, rewild and reforest vasts amounts of land, electrify transport and heating, and so on. If politicians fail to acknowledge that, relief packages will be but a vain attempt to save an economy driving fast towards the global heating cliff.
But besides tackling the environmental crisis, we also need to make sure we transition to a more just and fair society. After the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, governments bailed our banks and bankers with taxpayers’ money. What did we get in return? Harsh austerity in the form of cost-cutting in education, healthcare systems, and social welfare. Let’s not repeat that mistake once more.
Building on the experience of the financial crisis, a large group of US organisations prepared five principles for recovery and relief measures during and after the Corona pandemic: the People’s Bailout. I think they are very much applicable to the green transition as well and I think all countries should take notice. This is a summary of the principles:
- Health is the top priority, for all people, with no exceptions. This calls for a well-funded universal healthcare system, in which everyone has fair access to qualitative treatment. But also for measures to improve living conditions and reduce air pollution.
- Provide economic relief directly to the people. This entails the strengthening or development of a social safety net, in the form of unemployment insurance, childcare, food aid, and guaranteed access to basic services such as water and electricity.
- Rescue workers and communities, not corporate executives. Financial support for companies should be used to avoid laying people off or halting pay-out of wages. It should not be used for share buybacks or bonuses for the management (as some Airlines have been doing that are now requesting a bailout).
- Make a down payment on a regenerative economy, while preventing future crises. This principle calls for a holistic approach, in which the solution of the current crisis does not lay the seeds for a new one. This is possible in the form of a recovery characterised by family-sustaining and climate-friendly jobs for both low and high skilled people.
- Protect our democratic process while protecting each other. People must not be forced to choose between exercising their rights as citizens and protecting public health. Countries should not be able to abuse the current lockdown to prevent citizens from participating in the public decision-making processes or the organisation of fair elections, as the ruling party in Poland is trying to do.
The change starts with us
Despite the lockdown, despite the stress and the anxiety it might bring, despite the fact you are trying to save your business or homeschooling your children, we should all be attentive to what our governments are doing right now. And we should let decision-makers know which direction we want to go at this crossroads. It is time to prepare our wish list – the dirty polluters and multinationals already prepared theirs.
Change makes us vulnerable to tribalism and tempts us to cling to strong language and the illusion of control and certainty in an uncertain world. We have all seen rampant amounts of fake news, some innocent, some not so innocent, passing through our WhatsApp groups. People seem to indulge in drama, panic, to consequently cling to the first seemingly legitimate person sharing advice to get through the lockdown. Let’s stay critical, let’s keep using our common sense. There is an animal in all of us, let’s not feed the beast.
Instead, use this period of uncertainty to rethink your own position in society and the position of society in the natural world. We can do things differently. The green transformation can still take place, and it still is the best opportunity to make this world so much better. So let’s be stubbornly optimistic that we will take this chance – the last chance – to create a new world, to write a new story for humanity.
Take care and stay well!