With much of the world engulfed by the first, second or third waves of Covid-19 transmission, predicting when or how the post-pandemic future will emerge remains a hazardous occupation. One assumption, though, seems safe enough. When the spread of the virus eventually subsides, we will face a grim social, economic, environmental, and political landscape.
One year on, we know that Covid-19 has taken a heavy toll on human life. By the end of December, well over 78 million global cases had been confirmed and close to 1.8 million deaths reported.
A year on, the fury of the pandemic continues unabated. The number of new cases reported daily is currently in excess of half a million, and the number of daily deaths is close to 7,500.
The scale and speed of the pandemic coupled with slow, often tentative, and at times confused, if not contradictory responses, have had a devastating impact on both health and the global economy. The OECD has forecast the impact on the world’s major economies to be four times worse than that of the 2008 global financial crisis. UN estimates indicate that by the end of 2020 as many as 265 million people may be facing starvation.
There is more, however, to the pandemic than the immense pain it has inflicted on communities everywhere. Even more sobering are the institutional vulnerabilities the pandemic has exposed, perhaps exacerbated but certainly not created. Singly and collectively they highlight the governance deficit that lies at the heart of many of our national and international institutions, and the parochial, self-serving mindsets and short-termism which underpin them.
First and most obviously, Covid-19 has brought home the inadequacy of the public health and aged care systems of many countries, Australia included. The story is a familiar one: critically important human services glaringly under resourced, poorly structured, often outsourced, and ill-attuned to the needs and rights of the public they are meant to serve.
Secondly, increasing reliance by civilian authorities on military personnel and infrastructure has constrained their range of options. The armed forces may have provided useful services, whether in distributing food, building hospitals, or transporting medical supplies and protective equipment. But their intervention is no substitute for a properly funded, well trained civilian framework that can deliver the preparedness, response, recovery and rehabilitation functions needed to deal with not just pandemics but the many other emergencies that have become commonplace.
Four other disturbing trends are worth noting. The first is the lack of transparent and accountable decision-making .How life and death decisions taken by governments relate to the expert advice they receive is often at best opaque. We know, for example, that the frantic push to find an effective vaccine has led many governments to short-circuit normal regulatory procedures and created opportunities for pharmaceutical companies to exact a heavy price for their products, often with little or no explanation to the public which has to foot the bill.
Covid-19 has also brought into sharp relief and accentuated pre-existing social and economic inequalities. With few exceptions low income and other marginalised groups have been disproportionately disadvantaged in their access to health care, support services and employment. And with millions of workers and students compelled to work or study remotely, the gap in access to technology and the internet has become more acute.
The same pattern is evident internationally. According to current estimates only 10 per cent of the population in some 67 developing countries are likely to be vaccinated in 2021. By contrast, rich countries are “hoarding” vaccine production quotas, leaving them with enough doses to vaccinate their respective populations three times over.
Equally dismal are the geopolitical dimensions of the pandemic. The rivalry between the United States and China has considerably intensified and given rise to a host of political and legal controversies that will endure well after the curve of the pandemic has been flattened. Even if the Biden Administration reverses Trump’s decision to withdraw from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and stop any funding, the precedent set by the United States casts a shadow over the WHO’s future effectiveness.
One other vulnerability merits close attention, namely the inextricable link between the pandemic and humanity’s destruction of nature. Since the Covid-19 outbreak, the United Nations, WHO and leading biodiversity experts have repeatedly warned that the devastation of forests and other wild places is driving the increasing number of diseases that leap from wildlife to humans.
In a seminal article Executive Director of the UN Environment Program Inger Andersen and distinguished economist Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta described Covid-19 as “an SOS signal for the human enterprise, bringing into sharp focus the need to live within the planet’s means.” Significantly, they went on to say: “But too few of our economic and finance decision-makers know how to interpret what we are hearing, or, even worse, they choose not to tune in at all. A key problem is the mismatch between the artificial ‘economic grammar’ which drives public and private policy and ‘nature’s syntax’ which determines how the real world operates.”
What are these two distinguished experts telling us? They are drawing our attention to policy failure on a grand scale, but their message goes much deeper. They are calling into question the capacity of decision-makers to heed or even hear the repeated warnings issued by the world’s leading experts.
Put simply, policy failure is the direct and inevitable outcome of institutional failure. This holds true for the functioning of health and aged care systems as it does for the way educational priorities are set and funding allocations are made, for national responses to climate change, or for the continuing marginalisation of Indigenous peoples and racial minorities.
We see the same institutional deficit when it comes to issues of security, the continuing reliance on weapons of mass destruction, the expansion and projection of military capabilities, the pervasive presence of security agencies, and the progressive militarisation of society.
In each case, we encounter the same institutional roadblocks to social change: opaque and unaccountable bureaucracies, political parties beholden to sectional interests, malfunctioning parliaments, and in many cases constitutional arrangements that are outdated, or simply not fit for purpose.
As for financial and economic arrangements, much the same picture emerges, except that in this case the failings of public institutions are compounded by the malpractices of large private corporations and financial institutions. The offshoring of wealth, exorbitant remuneration schemes for corporate and banking executives, and the buying of influence through donations to political parties are but the tip of the iceberg of private malpractice.
Is widespread institutional obstruction cause for despair? On so many fronts, we need concerted action to reshape current policy settings. But, as we have seen, it is difficult to do this within existing intuitional parameters. If our current institutions are more hindrance than help, where can we turn to?
The short answer is civil society. And here the signs are encouraging. Many – young and old, of diverse backgrounds in different countries – feel disillusioned by media hype, empty political noise, and unaccountable institutions. They are searching for answers. Though still only a minority, their numbers are growing.
A re-energised younger generation is keen to address the ravages of climate change. People in all sorts of spaces are working away on environmental problems, Indigenous rights, civil liberties, animal rights, war, nuclear weapons, poverty, global inequality, cross-cultural dialogue and ethical approaches to professional engagement.
In much of this engagement, the single-issue mindset is still all too prevalent. Nevertheless, more holistic ways of thinking about society, economy, environment and politics are emerging. We are seeing a more conscious effort to join the dots. Authoritative voices, from Pope Francis to UN Secretary-General António Guterres and Harja Talonen (former President of Finland), are calling for a holistic approach to the contemporary human predicament.
Seeing the big picture can enhance the effectiveness of what we do on the ground, whether it is addressing the global health crisis, lack of social housing in parts of Melbourne, or animal welfare in Cambodia,
Facilitating this new enterprise are the new media. There is no denying that they can often be used to propagate lies, misinformation, and appeal to the basest instincts. However, they can also be used, as the current pandemic has amply demonstrated, to share reliable information, insights, and proposals, and plan and act collaboratively and at speed. And we can do so across the boundaries of age, gender, nationality, culture, status, occupational background, and even political ideology.
There is as of now potential for a vibrant national and international conversation that connects people, issues and strategies. And those who read and write for Pearls and Irritations can do much to harness this potential.