The World After COVID-19

by Ali Minai

Like most people who have time to think in these stressful days, I have been thinking about life after the COVID-19 pandemic has passed – mostly at a personal level, but also a little about the world at large. This essay is an attempt to put some of these thoughts down as a time-capsule of how things appear from this perch in May of 2020, the first year of the New Plague.

The most important lesson that the current calamity should teach every one of us is humility, though it will surely fail to do so until it is too late. The armchair thinker, however, has the luxury of indulging in the vanity of speculation without risking anything more than a proverbial dish of crow – delivered, one hopes, untouched by human hands and at a safe distance. But the time for that will come later, in a different world with different delicacies and intimacies. This is a message from the “here and now.”

So what will the world come to?

The biggest – and totally unknown – factor that will influence the answer to this question is the future course of the pandemic. Broadly there are four possibilities:

  1. An effective vaccine or prophylactic is found by late 2020 and is deployed worldwide by next spring, resulting in virtual eradication of the SARS Cov-2 virus sometime in 2021.
  2. No vaccine or prophylactic is found soon, but a post-infection treatment is developed by early 2021 so that COVID-19 becomes a treatable disease – possibly at significant expense and/or inconvenience.
  3. Finding a preventive or treatment takes much longer than a year, resulting in a second, third, and more waves of infections before something usable is found or herd immunity develops everywhere.
  4. No preventive or treatment is found, and herd immunity fails to develop for some reason.

Possibility 4 is the stuff of apocalypse, so let us assume that it is extremely unlikely. Possibility 1 is conceivable given the scientific firepower being directed at the problem, but seems rather optimistic. If it does come to pass, most things will probably go back to the way they were in November 2019, leaving behind a detritus to bankrupt businesses, lost jobs, disrupted lives, and a deep economic recession. Possibility 2 has similar prospects, but would lead to more significant changes in areas such as work patterns, wearing of masks, large gatherings, etc. The more realistic possibility is number 3, which will have a profound effect on humanity. Going through such an extended trauma will alter life in ways that defy imagination. While humanity waits on science, uncertainty will grip the world. Everything – social interaction, work, education, healthcare, entertainment, sports, travel, politics, business, the media –will change so much during this time that it will be impossible to return to earlier ways.

But the changes will not be the same everywhere because the conditions and cultures vary so much across the world. It is impossible – even for a relatively ignorant armchair thinker with no skin in the game – to look at all the possibilities, so I will confine my wild speculations to geopolitics with a brief nod to cultural and social norms. Of course, if some sort of economic ventilator can be found to keep the world economy breathing until a solution emerges, things may go very differently, but that is the dull stuff of management and policy. This piece should be read as an exercise in imagination – a synopsis for a semi-dystopian novel that will never be written.

Dawning Realizations

To my mind, there are a few clarifying realizations that will be most salient in shaping post-pandemic geopolitics:

  1. The realization by advanced and relatively advanced countries that radically globalized supply chains – often rooted in China – represent an existential risk to their own economies and societies.
  2. The realization by poorer developing countries that they live in a world even more dangerous than they thought before the pandemic – a world where they face complete destruction unless they can rely on a savior.
  3. The realization by policy-makers everywhere that many of the institutional structures and norms they rely on were developed for an earlier world, and are dismally unsuited to the new reality.
  4. The realization by strategic thinkers that problems in the new world will require globally-coordinated decision-making on an unprecedented scale, but such cooperation is nearly impossible within the current international framework.
  5. The realization that the inequalities already apparent in the economy of December 2019 are rapidly going to become more extreme and more disruptive because of the variable ability of individuals and governments to address a catastrophic crisis.
  6. The realization by enterprising people everywhere – especially younger ones – that many old solutions to human problems have suddenly become obsolete, and what looked impossible yesterday may need to become inevitable tomorrow.
  7. The realization by ordinary people everywhere, but especially in poorer countries, that their governments cannot really protect them from the existential hazards they face in the new reality.

Each of these will, in itself, lead to great changes, and their interactions will lead to even greater ones, some of which are discussed below.

Two other (related) things are worth noting in this regard.  First, the hazard unmasked by the pandemic has been building up in the world for decades or more, creating an ever more critical system where existential catastrophes were becoming increasingly probable, and required only a trigger to ignite one. How such risks build up and why they do not become apparent until it is too late is a profound issue having to do with the nature of complex systems and their evolution to a critical state. I will say more on that elsewhere. Second, the realization of the general fragility of human society was going to occur in any case due to climate change; the pandemic is just precipitating it. Indeed, in retrospect, the pandemic may come to be seen as an early, indirect effect of the same practices that are causing climate change – notably, habitat destruction and rampant industrialization leading to a hyper-connected world.

It is impossible to work through all the ramifications of the realizations listed above, but a few speculative possibilities are interesting to consider.

Global Realignment and a New Cold War

Probably the biggest casualty of the pandemic will be the unbounded globalization of the last 30 years. As developed countries in North America, Europe, and elsewhere realize that depending on supply chains and factories in Asia makes their own economies vulnerable to existential dangers, they will inevitably pull a lot of activities – especially manufacturing – back into their own territories. In the worst case, this could result in near-total isolation of economies, but that is unlikely. It is far likelier that economic alliances among like-minded developed countries and a few threshold ones such as Brazil or Mexico will result in a more sustainable interdependency footprint than the current one. At the same time, the already growing trade tensions between Western countries and China will be exacerbated by the feeling that China’s secretive negligence was ultimately responsible for unleashing the pandemic on the world. But as the developed countries pull away from China, the collapse facing most poor countries will force them to seek a powerful patron who can help revive their economies, build needed infrastructure, provide technocratic expertise, and have their back in conflicts. The choice, inevitably, will be the US or China. Thus, a situation that was developing slowly towards a global rivalry between the US and China could escalate rapidly into a new cold war, with countries all over the world tying their fortunes to one of the two powers. Given China’s recent success in establishing deep economic relationships across the developing world, it is quite possible that, ten years from now, the world will be divided into a tight, rich, self-sufficient Western bloc and a world of poorer countries on three continents that are utterly dependent on China. There will surely be a few notable exceptions such as Russia and Japan, and the countries of Southeast Asia may form their own bloc bridging the two main ones.

The burgeoning cold war split could be exacerbated further because richer countries will raise ever higher barriers to both legal and illegal immigration. This will put intolerable pressure on the societies that migrants have been fleeing in search of better lives. In a few places, this may lead to changes that make the situation somewhat better, but in most, it will lead to a breakdown of all civil order, creating large lawless regions of extreme socioeconomic instability – probably controlled by a patchwork of warlords, mafias, and gangs, much as is the case today in parts of Central America. The urgent need to avoid this will further push governments around the developing world into the arms of a global patron such as China or the United States. If the US still has its current isolationist posture, i.e., if Donald Trump is still President, China could end up with decisive hegemony over large parts of Asia, Africa and even Latin America (though any adherence to the Monroe Doctrine should preclude that in principle.)

However, there is a paradox in this scenario. If the West does indeed withdraw from China, the process will exact an economic cost on both sides, but the cost for China will be far greater. The so-called Chinese Miracle is built on the back of cheap manufacturing for a global market. When supply chains uproot from China and that manufacturing bonanza shrinks, so will China’s revenues – and, as a result, its ability to project power and influence. Things will be complicated further by the fact that China holds a large percentage of U.S. debt (well over 5% of all debt and above 25% of all foreign debt), which spells peril for both sides. The U.S. government – and many other governments – are already embarking on a systematic effort to blame China for the COVID-19 debacle and turn it into an international pariah. And China has already been dumping U.S. treasuries since mid-2018 in the face of Trump’s trade war. Things can easily get uglier, and, rather than getting a cold war-style balance, the entire Chinese program could come crashing down. All sides will get hurt in that, but China could suffer catastrophically.

So which will it be? A new cold war or a reassertion of American hegemony at the expense of China? Or some third, messier possibility? Paradoxically, China’s best bet for emerging stronger in the post-COVID world is for Donald Trump to be re-elected. The next few years are likely to be a time of great danger and opportunity for China. A strategically capable administration in Washington could well take advantage of this and set China’s ambitions back decisively. But the oafishly inept Trump coterie is incapable of such strategic maneuvering, which, among other things, will require strengthening a lot of international relationships that Trump has destroyed willfully. A Biden administration may or may not do any better, but at least its actions will be dictated by some strategic calculus.  This is one reason among many why the 2020 presidential election has exceptional significance for the world at large.

A New Monetary Structure

The first response by the United States and Europe to the pandemic was to provide virtually unlimited loan guarantees and liquidity to companies, banks, and markets through their central banks. But most countries don’t have that option. The vast majority of countries have limited assets, and any injection of liquidity will lead to massive inflation. Much of the world could end up looking like Zimbabwe in 2008. The easing of loan repayments and aid from the IMF and World Bank can help, but not nearly enough. At the same time, countries such as the US and China can potentially sustain much more printing of money because: a) They have immense underlying assets and resources; b) They have much more control over their own economic fate; c) They have greater military power and economic influence; and d) There aren’t too many options to find a relatively safe harbor in a world where all currencies are fiat currencies (no, Bitcoin is not the solution). For the US, there is the added benefit that the dollar is still the world’s primary reserve currency. However, advanced economies – especially the US and China – may have to contend with each other viciously, which will put immense pressure on the world economy and could escalate to mutually assured destruction. If that happens, it will be the beginning of a new historical age. But a more likely scenario is that some sort of Cold War-style détente – economic rather than military – will be worked out by the economic hegemons, reinforcing the political cold war scenario laid out above, and with the Yuan emerging as a co-equal world reserve currency rather than a relatively minor one as it is today (less than 2% of world reserves are in the RMB).

If this situation comes to pass, several countries such as Russia, India, Brazil, Turkey, Malaysia, etc., will have interesting choices to make in terms of which bloc they go with. Perhaps we will see the emergence of an economic “non-aligned movement”, but the threat of surprise global catastrophes may force even proudly self-assured countries to rethink their approach and go with one side or the other.

A New Capitalism

After the Keynesian interlude of the mid-20tyh century, the move in the United States and the UK has been towards more laissez-faire. The Reagan-Thatcher era clearly established a conceptually antagonistic relationship between business and government, even if in practice, big business has never removed its greedy maw from the trough of public largesse. This hostile relationship was already shaken by the Great Recession of 2008, but the coronavirus pandemic has truly decimated it. Every business from Boeing to the local barber is at the mercy of the government. Both Congress and the Federal Reserve in the United States (and the corresponding institutions in Europe) have been handing out money like candy. We are currently still in an emergency situation and it will take time to sink in, but eventually both business and government will realize that they need a new long-term relationship – one where government mitigates the hazards of global calamities efficiently and, if possible, preemptively.

This is unlikely to happen in any systematic way as long as Donald Trump is president simply because an administration of such towering incompetence cannot put together any credible institutional framework. But if – as seems possible – a new, more rational administration takes power in Washington in January 2021, we are likely to see that new framework. In particular, businesses of all sizes must face the fact that risks are much larger than thought in today’s hyper-connected, complex world. Insurance and backstopping against these calamitous risks can only be done by governments, and is much better done in a planned, organized way than haphazardly after a calamity has hit (as we see now, and saw in 2008.) Developed economies with sane leadership will be able to create the institutions necessary for this, but poorer countries – already dependent on international aid – will not, and are likely to become even more tightly controlled by their donors. This will create a large number of extremely precarious economies and greatly exacerbate the already yawning divide between the haves and the have-nots in the world, providing easy pickings for all sides in geopolitical power politics.

A Surveillance-Industrial Complex

An important undercurrent in the nascent public-private partnership will be the rise of a new surveillance-industrial complex. One thing that experience with COVID-19 will establish is the need for all sorts of real-time data from individuals, including the ability to trace movements, identify contacts, monitor vital signs, etc. Unlike the “privacy, my foot!” approach taken in authoritarian states, the development and deployment of such a surveillance system in democracies will require a very sophisticated information infrastructure that can accomplish its goals without allowing too much government intrusion into private lives. Apple and Google, among others, are already developing plans for this. Once these technologies are developed and achieve a high level of trust, they will expand rapidly into other areas such as marketing, sports, entertainment, etc., making this a major boom area for entrepreneurship – of course, always with the government lurking in the background. In any case, the old definitions of privacy have been eroding rapidly in the face of social media and generational change. The post-pandemic world will see an acceleration of this trend – at least in developed societies. What will happen in more conservative societies will be as interesting to observe as it is hard to predict.

The Rise of Authoritarian States

The pandemic crisis is exposing the true character of governments everywhere, brutally separating the competent from the incompetent, the caring from the heartless, the rational from the irrational. Repression, censorship, propaganda, and political posturing can hide this from the people for some time and in some places, but dams will eventually start breaking. What will the resulting crises bring? Better governments, or authoritarianism with even more repression?

The enormous economic crisis created by the pandemic has already begun to destabilize some governments. Even in the United States, right-wing groups are beginning to hold protest marches against lockdowns. That discontent will soon spread – faster in poorer countries than in the rich. And though it may draw people from all sides of the political spectrum, it will empower politicians only on one side: The Right. The fundamental aim of the liberal democratic project has been to wean societies away from emotional, instinctive behaviors towards policies grounded in reason, science, and the public good. But history has shown repeatedly that stressed societies revert quickly to tribalism and seek decisive strongmen who can provide a semblance of order – often at horrendous cost. The current crisis is likely to be no different. If unemployment reaches 30% or higher in some countries and among some groups, mass uprisings, riots, and general mayhem are quite likely to occur, providing exactly the pretext that would-be dictators need to push aside representative government and set up repressive regimes.

The move away from democratic norms will be helped immensely by the obvious need for surveillance and tracking of individuals in order to contain the pandemic. In this instance, therefore, the recommendations of science and reason will align nicely with the desires of demagogues, who will be quick to scale back civil and political rights in the name of security. After all, this is a war, and who has time for rights in a war? Viktor Orban’s declaration of a virtual dictatorship in Hungary is just the first domino in this process. Donald Trump and his minions in the right-wing media have already begun to hint at similar possibilities in the United States.

In some places, the transition to autocracy will go smoothly – especially in countries where democracy has only recently begun to take hold. In others, though, the power grab by dictators and warlords may well elicit a strong reaction from the civil society which will inevitably play to the advantage of the authoritarian side. Ultimately, in all but the most developed countries, democracy may end up alongside millions of individuals as a victim of the coronavirus infection. And, as with the virus’ human victims, if it survives, it will be left weakened and afflicted with unexpected morbidities.

A Creative Boom

“Interesting times” are always a boon for the imagination. Many things that were unthinkable a few months ago are now the shared reality of billions of people. Entire libraries of catastrophe fiction and miles of dystopian films are suddenly looking tame. Just as 9-11 and the wars following it spawned an industry of terrorist fiction and films, the lockdowns and depression of the coronavirus times will generate literature and film ranging from the sensational to the profound. But the explosion in creativity will go well beyond the arts. The experiences of social distancing, lockdown, and work-from-home; the need for mass-scale online education and eCommerce; the demand for home-based entertainment; the difficulty of travel; the danger of crowded venues, etc., will inspire unimaginable new technologies to re-enrich the lives impoverished by the pandemic response. Existing trends such as moving from touchscreens to voice or using drones for home delivery may become supercharged. Everything from flying to renting a car to taking a lab class will need to change in ways that retain or add value. And, as with the surveillance technologies, these new technologies too will cross over to many different domains, leading to wholly unforeseen possibilities.

Cultural mores too will change in creative ways. Dr. Anthony Fauci has already expressed hope that handshakes will go the way of leeches and corsets, but what will replace them? How will other social conventions change? Will face-to-face meetings and business travel decrease dramatically? How will the shared experiences of crowds at sporting events and concerts adapt? Again, if the current disruption proves to be short, social changes will probably be minimal. But if the problem stretches into two or three years, a lot of things will change for good in creative ways. The potential opportunities for young thinkers, inventors, and entrepreneurs in this new world could be limitless – at least in societies where innovation remains welcome and rewarded.

Closing Questions

There are, of course, many, many other dimensions along which the world could change dramatically after the pandemic. It is, after all, the single most profound, disturbing, and unifying experience in the lives of almost all people alive today. But rather than go on with speculation about these, I will close with listing four (of many) interesting questions that I cannot make up my mind on even to the point of speculation.

Q1: The Future of Work

Much is being said and written about how work will be affected by the experience of the pandemic. Almost all those speaking and writing about this come from white-collar sectors of the economy where working from home (WFH) is a viable option. As a university professor, I have been able to teach, have meetings, advise students, conduct research, and write papers from home with only a bit of adjustment. Indeed, I am probably more productive now that I no longer need to commute every day, walk to classes, attend many pointless meetings all over campus, and spend time chit-chatting in the hallway. My workday is now an uninterrupted period from when I wake up to when I go to sleep. Those with small children at home are having a different experience, but many are also discovering some rewards. However, a much larger fraction of workers in the economy do jobs that cannot be done from home: Retail, construction, maintenance, restaurants, home care, landscaping, shipping, postal services, transportation, healthcare, and many others. The nature of work will surely change for all, but in radically different ways. What are they? How will the changes in different areas accommodate each other? It seems to me that this will require a reimagining of the entire economy and of society at large. Will the rewards shift along with these changes? Or will those who do the most difficult, dangerous work still be left with lower rewards? A lot of this disparity was already due to differences in educational attainment – college or no college. Will that divide grow even wider? And how will such a widening influence our politics? We see already that voters without college degrees are the sole voting bloc that anchors the Trump presidency and may yet extend it. Will that orientation hold, or will it crumble under the pressure of a new reality? And what new crises will emerge from the crumbling?

Q2: The Future of Cities

The last two centuries or more have seen an inexorable urbanization of societies everywhere – some rapidly, others in fits and starts. This trend has accelerated in the last few decades as cities in traditionally rural societies such as India and China have become centers of manufacturing and technology. Scholars such as Richard Florida have systematically described the critical role of cities in innovation, and other research has demonstrated that cities are the most energetically efficient means of supercharging creativity and innovation. Cities also offer many other advantages that make them suitable as hubs for economic activity. However, the pandemic has demonstrated that the high connectivity of the modern city can be lethal. It has also shown that, given the rapidly developing options for virtual connections, some of the benefits of physical connectivity are no longer essential – at least in many white-collar parts of the economy which are central to innovation. Will these facts change the trend to urbanize? Will populations become more distributed – suburban and even rural – relying on working from home and eCommerce to meet the needs currently satisfied by living in a city? If so, the very nature of modern human society will change, which suggests to me that such a drastic change will not come to pass.

The things that attract people to cities – and even to sparser urban settings like the Silicon Valley – are not just economic concerns, but also the allure of human interaction, social activities, restaurants and bars, the nightlife, the cultural scene, though to variable degrees in different countries. Hyper-urbanization may be a recent trend, but the City has been at the core of human civilization for four thousand years or more. That is why the history of the world runs through Athens and Xi’an, Nineveh and Babylon, Jerusalem and Rome, Delhi and Alexandria, Baghdad and Venice – and through cities whose names or locations we no longer know, such as the cities of the Indus Valley and Hittite civilizations. The City is so central, so integral to civilization that it is impossible to imagine its demise outside of dystopian sci-fi. But the City has also changed throughout history. The Constantinople of the 4th century is not today’s Istanbul. What will the Istanbul of 2050 look like? What about Beijing and New York? Will many of us learn to live in virtual cities and forget what it felt like to walk down a bustling street to a restaurant for dinner and live music?

Previous plagues ravaged cities but they always came back. On the other hand, the people of those times did not have our technology. How much of the City in the human spirit can technology replace is something it will take at least a decade or two to find out, but will 2020 then look like a hinge moment in the process?

Q 3: The Future of Travel?

Travel has been an essential component of human civilization for thousands of years. Long before written records existed, archeological artifacts tell us that people traded, migrated, and invaded over very long distances. That, after all, is how a species from eastern Africa went global. Throughout history, trade routes have been the arteries of human civilization, carrying the fresh blood of new ideas to revive dying cultures. But along with goods and ideas, long-distance travel, whether through trade, migration, or invasion, has also been at the core of spreading plagues throughout history, and this effect has extraordinary significance in today’s globalized world. If there is one thing that has made COVID-19 a global pandemic, it is extremely high-volume, high speed global travel across the world. How will travel change after the pandemic? Will people still travel as much or as far for business or pleasure? How will the airlines and hospitality industry adapt to this? Will the world’s airlines survive, or end up consolidated into a few giant carriers – mostly with state support? What will become of AirBnB and the ride-sharing companies? Indeed, how will mass transit – which is also travel, albeit local – change after the pandemic? I find myself unable to settle on any firm answers to these questions, but my gut feeling is that the wanderlust runs deep in the human spirit, and no disease or other danger will keep people from traveling all over the world any more than the fear of pirates and robbers, or the dangers of crossing deserts and mountains dissuaded our ancestors.

Q4: The Future of Faith and/in Science

As the pandemic rages, scientists and physicians have emerged as the leaders and opinion-makers influencing life-and-death decisions everywhere. Some, like Dr. Tony Fauci, have become superstars. Rational political leaders have made science and scientists their principal guide in setting policies. But, as nerves fray and economies crash, will this continue to be the case? Will faith in science grow? Or will people turn away from science towards faith? Or will the two finally find a mutually agreeable accmmodation?

Of course, this will depend greatly on what role science is seen to have played ultimately in mitigating or exacerbating the situation – and will surely vary from place to place. Experience suggests that societies facing immense pressure gravitate not towards reason but towards faith, superstition, and conspiracy theories. The same urge that makes people look to authoritarian leaders in these situations also leads them to seek certainty in unfalsifiable notions – which science can never provide. Indeed, the two trends – authoritarianism and irrationality – often feed on each other.  The central goal of the liberal project has been to wean people away from this default condition towards a more secular, rational, and analytical mindset. Has it succeeded sufficiently? In some places – such as Western Europe – perhaps, but surely not everywhere. Indeed, even in the United States – that bastion of science and high technology – the government is busy delegitimizing science and scientists in a misguided quest for political benefit.

At the same time, calamities also have the capacity to weaken orthodoxies. It has been hypothesized credibly that the catastrophic `Black Death’ of the 1340s played a major role in discrediting the Church in Europe, and clearing the way for the Renaissance with its emphasis on science and reason. If prayers go unanswered for too long, men have been known to turn away from their gods. But if this does come to pass in some places where faith still matters to people, will that lead them to adopt a more rationalistic mindset, or simply lead to the emergence of new gods? And will a world dominated by faithless science turn into the heartless dystopia imagined by many sci-fi writers? After all, science will always leave gaps that, if not filled by faith, could become home to darker things.

There are many other open questions: The future of education; the future of world bodies such as the UN; the future of technologies such as AI; the future of art and literature. The questions keep coming. It is the answers that will keep us in suspense awhile yet…