After 57 days of lockdown, it is hard to imagine returning to any form of life that vaguely resembles the norm, but it is essential that world leaders consider what the future may look like, in order to make informed decisions regarding the logistics of lifting containment measures.
Currently, we are taking comfort in environmental positives; carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels across China, Europe, and the US are heading for a record 5% annual drop, and the waters of the Venice canals offer a clear view of the shoals of fish, crabs and even dolphins now thriving there. However, Gina McCarthy, former head of the US Environmental Protection Agency has highlighted that the coronavirus is “just a disaster that pointed out the underlying challenges we face”, criticising our poor response to climate change thus far. The pandemic has provided us with an opportunity to kickstart projects in renewable energy and sustainability, but Michael Gerrard, Environmental Law expert at Columbia University, highlights that “the current US President clearly has no inclination to do this”; Trump has given $25 billion to airline companies and has also hinted at a bailout for the US oil and gas industry.
Simon Mair, a Research Fellow at Surrey University, identified four possible economic futures: robust state capitalism, as is currently seen in the UK, Spain and Denmark; radical state socialism, which may be expected if we extend our current measures; transformation into a society built on mutual aid, demonstrated by the community responses that tackled the West African Ebola outbreak; and, the least desirable option, a descent into barbarism. Despite uncertainty over these eventualities, pressure on the global economy will undoubtedly trigger a serious recession, hence the debate over the treasury valuation of life. If we were not facing a pandemic, the standard crisis protocol would be for the government to inject money into the economy until people start consuming and working again, clearly not an option as this is exactly what we’re trying to avoid. Governments are instead taking actions that, pre-pandemic, seemed to be impossible. Spain has nationalised private hospitals, the prospect of nationalising transport has been discussed in the UK, and France has stated its intentions to nationalise large businesses. The UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and much of Europe have introduced furlough schemes to protect the workforce from mass layoffs, with America opting for a one-off payment instead. Moving forward, proposals include reducing the length of the working week or allowing people to work more slowly and with less pressure.
Edward Glaeser, Professor of Economics at Harvard University, emphasises the social implications by suggesting that “human interactions will create more fear than joy”, resulting in an aversion to density, especially on public transport; this may pull people towards the suburbs and rural areas. However, Kiran Bedi, lieutenant governor of Puducherry, India, suggests the opposite, advising that “rapid migration from rural to urban areas, like what we have seen in India, cannot continue at the same speed”. In Singapore, the health system was successfully reorganised in the wake of the 2003 SARS epidemic, but they will have to revisit other aspects of daily life, such as the mega-sized dormitories that house their one million semi-skilled and unskilled workers. As this is an unprecedented event, governments are, to an extent, improvising strategies, which is why the future of each country will vary greatly. For example, China’s Ministry of Education successfully deployed a national cloud-based classroom platform to support remote learning for 50 million students simultaneously, meaning that their quality of education has not declined as steeply as in some Western countries.
So, what does the future look like for the globe after this pandemic? Unfortunately, we’re not entirely sure at the moment, but we can predict that there will be more contactless interfaces and interactions, forcing us to strengthen our digital infrastructure, and we may see an increased reliance on robots, including AI-enabled drug development. Ideally, the future will be shaped around an ethic that values care, life and democracy, as, in agreement with Kelvin Thomson, former Australian Labour Party Shadow Minister, “lasting gains can only be made through changes in attitudes and behaviour”.