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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 01-05-2021 00:43

Life after the great pandemic

Hopes that the pandemic would abolish history by putting things in perspective and unite the world are still floating around, but they owe more to wishful thinking than to anything else.

Thanks to some highly effective vaccines which were developed at “warp speed,” the world is already beginning to emerge, blinking its collective eyes, from the coronavirus pandemic that enveloped much of the planet for over a year. At least one country, Israel, appears to have left it behind. Others, notably the United Kingdom and the United States, could soon be in a similar position. So far, these are exceptions, but it is reasonable to assume that before too long there will be enough shots available to make Covid-19 no more dangerous anywhere than the common flu which, though on occasion deadly, is not seen as a major threat. And while there is always the possibility that the virus – which also evolves at warp speed – could send into battle new variants capable of leaping over the defensive barricades set up to keep it at bay, for now at any rate this seems to be only a theoretical danger.

Science-fiction writers and film-producers have long liked to imagine that an invasion by an extraterrestrial species determined to treat human beings like livestock would bring people together. Hopes that the pandemic would abolish history by putting things in perspective and unite the world are still floating around, but they owe more to wishful thinking than to anything else. Both on the international stage and within national communities, the virus is driving people apart. To nobody’s surprise, governments everywhere have been putting their own countries’ interests well and truly first, hence the “vaccine nationalism” World Health Organization spokespeople regularly deplore. And, for obvious reasons, in every country some groups have suffered far more from obligatory “social distancing” than others. 

So, what will the post-pandemic world look like? Many take it for granted that China will loom even larger than she did before. If the official figures are to be believed, the virus which first appeared in Wuhan and then spread throughout the world to reach Antarctica within a year did little to slow down her alarmingly rapid economic expansion and put a damper on the regime’s sabre rattling. What it did do was convince the US political establishment that, for the first time since the demise of the Soviet Union, it faced a really serious threat to the global hegemony it had come to take for granted. On this issue, Donald Trump and Joe Biden are in full agreement. So, it would seem, is Xi Jinping, who has become far more self-assertive of late.

Elsewhere, the pandemic widened the rift between the UK and the European Union. Though the virus hit the offshore islanders harder than most of their neighbours, the contrast between the much-praised British vaccination programme and the far less impressive one micromanaged from Brussels, has done nothing to persuade the continentals that the best solution to their many problems always has to be “more Europe.” Instead, European politicians seem to be coming to the conclusion that a looser federation, with member countries doing whatever their governments think best when confronted by an emergency – as, indeed, some are already doing by striking deals with outsiders like Russia and Israel – would be a distinct improvement on the top-down arrangement favoured by devotees of the European “project.” Had this been the case a few years earlier, Brexit might never have happened.

The often acrimonious disputes between countries, whose leaders like to attribute their problems to the selfish behaviour of others (especially Boris Johnson and Biden), whom they accuse of hogging vaccines instead of sharing them with the rest of the world in an equitable manner, are mirrored by internal ones which are bound to have dire political effects. In most countries, parts of the private sector such as the ones specialising in “hospitality” have been immobilised for months on end and will find it desperately hard to recover, if they ever do. Men and women who can take advantage of computer networks and stay at home for the duration have managed far better than those whose work requires their physical presence. 

This trend, which was already making itself felt when few could locate Wuhan on a map, is likely to intensify in the coming years as the “knowledge economy” increases its dominance. This will be great from the point of view of some but is very bad news for many others who, even before the pandemic took hold, were getting shunted aside. For them, the notion that they can be turned into computer programmers or earn good money doing “green jobs” is for the birds.

In addition to discriminating between “knowledge workers” and public employees on the one hand and those in the private sector who depend on traditional activities on the other, the virus is driving a wedge between generations. In Argentina, the clash between the national and Buenos Aires Province governments, who are determined to keep schools shut, and the equally strong desire of the Buenos Aires City authorities to keep them open has made people ask themselves what kind of future awaits the huge number of youngsters who are being deprived of a proper education. It is feared that most will face a lifetime of poverty, as will many among those who are a bit older but have yet to establish themselves in anything resembling an upwardly mobile career. Though here the overall situation is worse than in other Western countries, people elsewhere are asking themselves similar questions.

In the eyes of many politicians, including those under fire for allegedly mishandling the challenges posed by the pandemic, the unhappy events of the last year have made their own services even more essential than they already were. In the US, Biden and the people surrounding him think the crisis has given them a splendid opportunity to increase the power and influence of the public sector they have in their pocket and build something like a European-style welfare state.

Whether or not this can work in a country which until now has been averse to such enterprises is anybody’s guess, but given the Democrat Party’s current enthusiasm for “woke” social engineering favouring “minorities” at the expense of the alleged beneficiaries of “white privilege,” it is certain to give rise to a huge number of rancorous disputes. What is more, trying to make sure that all ethnic groups do equally well in exams can only lower still further the educational level of the average North American. Watching all this with a mixture of bemusement and glee are members of the Chinese Politburo; they are already taking advantage of their country’s ruthlessly meritocratic traditions which stretch back to well before the Tang Dynasty of over a thousand years ago consolidated the replacement of a feudal nobility by one based almost entirely on academic achievements.

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James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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