Could the “Corona Crisis” be a chance for a better future?
05 August 2020 /
WHAT BETTER CHANCE TO REBUILD A MORE SUSTAINABLE WORLD COULD THERE BE?
For those who believe that the Corona Crisis is a revenge of God or Mother Earth it must be quite striking to see what kind of environmentally “evil” sectors are affected most severely: Airlines. Meat processing plants. Oil companies. Despite the disastrous effects of the health, social and economic crises, there is now a window of opportunity for a more resilient and sustainable world.
Many governments around the world have experienced a significant increase of public trust in state institutions. If citizens willingly accept to let the state interfere in their individual liberties for the sake of the general interest, why should this not be possible for structural change? Italy, Spain, and Portugal have proposed the establishment of a European minimum income system. Other proposals about wealth redistribution or risk sharing at the European level are back on the table. The Corona Crisis has set a precedent of unprecedented state intervention in many countries, which enables dangerous civil rights repercussions but also opportunities for smart actions. Even the most frugal governments around the world passed gigantic stimulus plans. Some of them also unblocked huge sums to invest in digitalization and other areas that are crucial for the future. Climate activists continue to exert pressure, advocating for a “green” relaunch of the economy by linking subsidies to environmental standards. There is also a chance their priorities will now be taken more seriously. The decision to use public health as the compass for political action, despite the considerable side-effects of lockdowns, enjoyed overwhelming support across societies – not only because of moral considerations but also because it made sense from a purely capitalist logic. The lesson to finally draw from this: Climate change is also both an economic and a public health issue! Secondly, protecting nature and refraining from untouched ecosystems is key to contain the risk of new deadly viruses. And thirdly, relocating some parts of the supply chains has become a theme in mainstream politics because it is necessary to reduce not only carbon emissions but also dependence on other countries in critical sectors such as medical and food supplies.
“The lesson to finally draw from this: Climate change is also both an economic and a public health issue!”
While many lobbyists advocate to get back to business as usual as soon as possible, the crisis might lead to a re-thinking about how to bring economic interests together with environmental and social standards. Can reasonable people still advocate for a resource-intensive economy, based on endless growth and extraction? Or will the post-Covid-19 world grow the economy of services and social work? Finally, badly paid health workers are getting the appreciation their jobs deserve. Societies are getting a better understanding of how crucial the so-called “frontline jobs” are – for example, social workers, who take care of the most vulnerable. Moreover, social distancing has shed light on the issue of mental health and the long-ongoing pandemic of loneliness in many societies. The awareness of how fragile prosperity is even in the richest countries and the experience of how crises can be managed through decisive political action and empathetic and solidary citizens – this can transform not only into a new mentality but also in concrete changes at the local level. Cities across the globe have increased their efforts to become smart cities. Singapore has ramped up local food production to be less dependent on global supply chains. Brussels has built new bike lanes, incentivizing green mobility. And traffic in many crowded cities can be reduced by commuting less and working more from home. Let us hope that some of the positive outcomes of the crisis will last beyond 2020.
THE CONSEQUENCES ARE DISASTROUS IN THE LONG TERM
The outbreak of the COVID-19 has had such a massive impact on our societies that not only the most pessimistic of us imagine the worse. The most obvious dramatic aspect is undoubtedly the unprecedented economic crisis that threatens Europe and the world. According to Eurostat estimates for the first quarter of 2020, the GDP has already decreased by 3.8% in the euro area and by 3.5% in the EU. These are the sharpest declines observed since 1995. While the ghost of the 2008 financial crisis is still present in the minds of many Europeans, the upcoming crisis might be an even bigger trauma than the last recession. The European Commission forecasts an unequal hit on member states, both in terms of GDP fall and unemployment surge.
Another worrying effect of the covid-19 crisis resides in the suspension of urgent environmental reforms and of climate investment due to austerity measures. The entire EU budget as part of the recovery effort will need to be available to support the transition to climate neutrality. “The covid lockdown is killing the Green Deal” claims French newspaper Les Echos. Originally perceived as the iconic policy of the von der Leyen Commission, the European Green Deal has quickly been overshadowed by the health emergency. How could we expect governments to tackle two global crises at once, when they already struggle with CO2 emission reduction targets?
Another proof of the priority change in governments’ agendas is the sudden attention given to new technology-based security measures. Data can play a key role in monitoring the spread of the virus and governments across Europe have shown an eager inclination to resort to mobile data and apps to support the de-containment measures. Various European countries have taken different approaches, based on the citizens’ geo-location, credit card data, surveillance camera records, and Bluetooth. But what happens when we trade off our freedom and privacy against supposed security? Authoritarian regimes such as China or Russia have been quick to implement surveillance methods, but in more libertarian states, automated contact tracing raises privacy concerns. Could we enter an Orwellian age where government surveillance becomes the norm? Once the invasive technologies are in place and effective, states will have little incentive to give them up, with the pretext that there will always be a public threat that data-driven surveillance can protect us from.
“…Once the invasive technologies are in place and effective, states will have little incentive to give them up…”
Let’s go one step further: what if the restrictions on personal freedom were only the first stage in a process towards a new world order? Coronavirus has already exacerbated the North-South divide in Europe, between economically fragile countries such as Italy and Spain who have been severely hit by the health crisis and more resilient states in the North. This might reopen the wounds created by the Eurozone crisis, triggering the resentment of those who had to pay the high price of austerity for financial aid. The corona schism could therefore fuel the antagonistic sentiments across Europe and put an end to solidarity-building between member states. As Jean de la Fontaine illustrated in his tale “the Grasshopper and the Ant”, the wealthiest tend not to be too generous in times of harshness. What works for the EU equally holds true on the global stage. Resource scarcity and poverty in development countries could fuel conflicts and instability, and even the hegemonic United States could be seriously destabilised. A hard blow that could benefit the Chinese rise in the world order. What a cruel irony of fate it would be to see the country where it all started get out of the crisis as the most powerful player. China as the new hegemonic power? A worrying thought to ponder over while we are craving for recovery.
This article was orginally published in our print magasine (#32). Read the full magasine here.