Apr 23, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our world. We need to approach the future consciously and deliberately, and not let a virus drift us into a world we might regret .

COVID-19 has seen extraordinary change across the world. Six months ago, few would have predicted the scale and speed of what has emerged. Pandemics have, of course, long been part of human history. But their relative infrequency means that each has occurred in a fundamentally different societal context. There is no play book to follow.

As we look beyond the pandemic, one thing is certain. Our new world will be different from the old. With the challenge this brings, comes an opportunity. Now is that time to think deeply about the world we have and the world we want to build for the future.

In starting this journey, we first need to understand what we are seeing today.

Perhaps the most obvious lesson of COVID-19 is the high value society places on life and health – especially for those who are vulnerable. The entire global response is predicated on protecting the ability of health systems to provide care for those who may need it while a vaccine is found. Images of overwhelmed health systems in some countries have caused others to redouble efforts to avoid the same fate.

In a highly interdependent and deeply connected world, nations are using physical isolation as the key protection against the disease. In doing so, they are following expert medical advice. Borders between nations have closed, as have those within nations. In many ways dotted political lines on a map have rarely been so important or so powerful. Nationalism, and sub-nationalism, is dominating our globalised world. But common national responses also emphasise a shared humanity that extends beyond any political boundary.

To our political borders we have been asked to add invisible borders between us as individuals. Our social species has been asked to isolate physically. Technology, not proximity, now provides our social glue and for many, our workplace. And increasingly, it is part of our medical response too, as the search for a vaccine continues and techniques like telemedicine come to the fore. For those who have wondered about the economic and social benefit of rapid improvements in communications technology, wonder no more.

Dealing with COVID-19 has caused almost all nations to swing to a more authoritarian stance. Nations with a history of authoritarian control have been able to move quickly in response to COVID-19 without creating new norms. For liberal democracies, such as our own, the shift has been slower and less comfortable. But move we have. Recent government actions, with what appears to be broad community acceptance, have suspended freedoms we hold dear, a reality unimaginable a few short months ago. When and how we loosen this authoritarian grip will be defining for our nation.

Our actions to combat COVID-19 have come with a crashing cost to the economy. The impact of this on our families and communities reminds us that an economy is not an abstract construct that can be discarded, but an essential element of society, generating the livelihoods and lives we have taken for granted. At the same time, we are being reminded powerfully that economic measures do not always value well the things most precious to us.

Addressing the crashing economic cost of COVID-19 has triggered an unprecedented policy response here and elsewhere. Approaches vary and are evolving, but the broad aim is common – protect the incomes and structures of pre-pandemic economy in the hope of restarting it again later, more or less as is. Cost, and the financial burden this will impose on future generations, appears to be no object in this pursuit. This is no normal recession.

Within the Australian policy response have been some important, if possibly temporary, changes of attitude. Adequacy of unemployment payments was recognised to be a problem early, as was the likely ineffectiveness of high job search requirements in a falling job market. The base assumption now is that people without jobs will try hard to return to work, rather than an expectation that high levels of government prodding are needed. Holes in the support system remain, but generosity has replaced parsimony for the time being.

Within business too, a changed approach is evident. Many businesses have responded to the crisis with an emphasis on social good, rather than short term profit. Market shortages have not resulted in widespread price gouging in contrast to what we hear from the US. Distillers are making hand sanitiser. Clothing companies are making masks. Financial institutions are providing repayment holidays. Profit (and survival) doubtless remain critical considerations, but a different social bargain has emerged.

Access to online technologies has allowed many to find new ways of working and living. Offices around the country and the world lie empty. School and university courses are moving online. Meetings occur in cyber-space rather than the boardroom. Activities previously reliant on face to face contact (dance classes for example) are now being done online at home. Parents are establishing new relationships with their children, and a new life-work balance is emerging. The implications of this experience will doubtless echo through our society long after the pandemic is over.

More fundamentally, our individualist society is being asked to act communally. Physical isolation requirements have applied reasonably evenly across the nation, even when the risks (and costs) for specific locations and groups is quite different. People have, for the most part, responded positively to this call, but empty shelves at supermarkets and people avoiding quarantine shows that this is not universally true.

The enforcement response to breaches of the communalist call has been swift and unyielding. Enforcement of well-intentioned but sometimes ill-formed rules has tested the community’s patience with governments’ call to accept good policy over perfect policy. Community goodwill remains, but its longevity is not assured.

Short of war time, it is hard to imagine any Australian government having the deep role they currently play in our lives and our economy. Australia’s polity and federation have changed track, working largely together rather than in fierce competition. Decisions, as a consequence, are being taken without the benefit of the usual democratic debate and political contest. Not even the views of those most at the centre of the response, older people and others vulnerable to the disease, have played a strong role in government decisions to date.

Changes to the operation of government have enabled a swift and decisive response to the disease. Part of this represents the triggering of long-planned pandemic response protocols. But it also reflects an unstated bargain between political actors and the rest of society. The strength of this bargain is predicated on it being temporary. It would be surprising (and concerning) if current levels of cooperation lasted long beyond the crises. But it would also be remiss of us not to question why more cooperation is not possible during normal times.

Expert advice tells us that the pandemic can and should be defeated. Confidence exists that that a safe vaccine will be found, the only question is when. Rarely have we looked more anxiously to the magic of science to provide a comprehensive and timely solution. Universities, scientific institutes and private companies are all working to this goal. The global strategy for combatting the pandemic, economically and socially, depends critically on the timing and success of this venture.

Rarely also has our anxious wait come with such a clear expectation that the solution, when found, will be shared quickly and fairly across the globe. We take it as read that this will happen. Such global cooperation would be an historic first for our species and sits against a backdrop of global organisations having very little obvious impact on responses to the pandemic. As we speak, it is not clear how the global cooperation we expect will be achieved. Our performance here, more than anything else, will likely define this period of history.

Looking forward to a time when infection and death rates recede from the front of our minds, some big questions confront us as a community, a nation and a world. The common aim is to bounce back quickly and strongly – to pick up where we have left off. This makes sense. There is clearly a lot in the society we so recently left behind that we value and want to see return.

The simple reality is that, like it or not, the pandemic will bring change. Now is the time for us to understand the aspects of our society that we want to retain and the changes we would like to see made. In doing so, we need to bring a deep understanding of what the pandemic has brought us and what that might mean for our future. And we need to approach the future consciously and deliberately, and not let a virus drift us into a world we might regret.

Sean Innis is inaugural Director of the Public Policy and Societal Impact Hub at the Australian National University. This article was first publish in The Mandarin.

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