All the king's horses and all the king's men
Not being a medical expert or an epidemiologist, I will not write about the illness and the struggle to mitigate or overcome it; my reflections are those of one of the many lay people, who are shocked amid the devastation of so many lives, and the staggering changes in most aspects of life which, in many countries, everyone has had to get used to. The pandemic inflicts suffering and deprivations. It also undermines confidence in the future, frustrating hopes and plans, leaving us confused and disoriented. There are, however, also encouraging changes, often accelerating processes that were in train before the pandemic. One I particularly welcome is the introduction by the National Health Service in England of video visits with one’s doctor. Like all innovations it can be used badly, but it can also improve the ability of doctors to help their patients. Perhaps more important than specific innovations is the way people have come together to help their communities to cope with the pandemic. Along with the spirited social mobilization and increased mutual concern, is the realization, even among some former skeptics, of the importance of leadership and government to give direction to the public response to the illness, and its debilitating effects. Unfortunately, the pandemic also created more opportunities for arbitrary political power; a painful example is the denial of women’s ability to obtain abortions or to use fertility clinics. No less depressing has been the increase in domestic abuse, and the growing manifestations of racial and ethnic prejudices, of chauvinism and intolerance.
Would a post-pandemic time see a return to life as we knew it or will the profound trauma we are undergoing now change life in far-reaching ways? I tend to think that the changes will be considerable, and the longer the pandemic lasts the greater they will be. New ways of doing things, some adopted because people think that they improve on the old ways, and many adopted as worse, but necessary to cope with the pandemic, will take root. The cost of abandoning them will be great, and for many people who have got used to them, they are, as we say, the new normal. To give one possible example: corporations employing thousands of office workers may discover enormous savings made when their employees work from home. New ways of using offices to keep workers interacting personally and functioning as teams will be devised, perhaps bringing everyone to the office once week, and a struggle will begin to improve the conditions of working from home. A considerable impact on public transport and road traffic, on the cost of both commercial premises and residential accommodation will ensue, possibly shifting more urban services and facilities away from the centre, etc. My point is that the changes need not be planned, they are more likely to emerge as people make the best they can of the conditions forced on them.
Will the changes bring improvements or aggravate the ills of societies? Impossible to know, but there is reason to think that to find our orientation in the changed conditions our very criteria for judging social practices will have to change. A few comments on three issues can illustrate the point.
1) Globalization, meaning here close manufacturing and trading ties, extensive cultural exchanges and interlinked news media, made the pandemic possible, and is crucial to its suppression. Recent months saw efforts to extend and cement international co-operation. They also saw an explosion of chauvinism and festering hostility, often based on invented conspiracy theories, spread by leaders eager to escape responsibility by casting blame on other countries, and striving to increase their influence worldwide by undermining international co-operation. It is likely that the current popularity of isolationism will be both short-lived and yet deeply influential. Given the many ways in which events in one part of the globe affect people in faraway countries, the incentives to influence events beyond ones borders, inconsistent with isolationism, would be powerful. The most effective way of doing so is through negotiated agreements, involving give and take by all, that is by co-operation. Pre-pandemic international practices and institutions were unstable and led to many undesirable consequences, because they tended to enhance the power of some countries, or sections within them, in ways which compromised the ability of others to meld co-operation with respect for the local cultures, and the local traditions of fostering civic loyalty and co-existence. That is why the pandemic-fostered isolationism may yield new forms of co-operation which are more respectful of the plurality of cultural traditions across the world and, may integrate them in the international arrangements rather than suppress them. Paradoxically, the growth of isolationism in the US, and its retreat from its alleged role of world leadership may, if we are lucky, facilitate experiments in finding a new balance between autonomy and co-operation in the international field (and introduce higher standards of human and environmental welfare and climate control). The US may not wish to see that happening, and China may be drawn to a cold war against the US. To secure a more stable and just global co-operation much depends on the resolve of the rest of the world.
2) When we think of personal liberties and the struggle against discrimination we may be impressed by the enormous advances in parts of the globe, in the condition of women, and of various disadvantaged groups. These struggles continue and have a long way to go. But various personal liberties such as privacy, freedom of expression and related liberties, have long been in retreat; and for many causes, not least of them being the struggle against terrorism, money laundering and cybercrime. The pandemic is contributing to the erosion of these liberties, perhaps especially, though not only, due to the importance of test-and-track for limiting infections. Reactions to the retreats vary, but many people welcome them, not always realizing their true scope or nature. After all they are due to the pursuit of worthy causes. The elementary truth that liberties are not free, that we have to pay a price to have them, is no longer that obvious to most people. The result is conflict between the rhetoric of freedom at all costs and the reality of a decreasing willingness to run risks of harm or injury, from terrorists, criminals or viruses, as the price for enjoying those liberties. Perhaps, in the aftermath of the pandemic, public culture will face up more honestly to this conflict, and will adopt a more sustainable course regarding the price of liberties, taking on board their importance for the opportunities of having a rewarding life as well as the way a blind worship of liberty at any price compromises the possibility of having such a life. We may also realize that while there are many unsustainable answers to the quest for the right price to pay for these liberties, there is no single right answer, and different traditions may have conflicting but acceptable ways to answer the question.
3) There is another conflict hidden in many popular views, a conflict between belief in democracy as the only legitimate form of government and belief in the importance of basing policy on sound science. Repeating the mantra that science provides knowledge about the consequences of various policies, but democratically anointed politicians must choose between them, and bear the responsibility for their choices, while not entirely false is not at all helpful. It ignores the fact, highlighted in recent controversies about responses to the pandemic, that science is served to us in the hands of scientists who are not only affected by general politics, but also by the internal politics of scientific life. It also fails to provide any guidance about the way science should guide policy choices, and the institutional structures which should enable it to do so. Perhaps there should be certain domains regarding which some scientific institutions should take the decisions, guided by a loose framework of policies determined by democratic institutions – in a way analogous to the way in some countries the central bank is autonomous in its decisions, subject to a definition of its general goals, determined by democratic institutions. Given the large array of issues on which science has something to say, and the enormously varied political cultures of different countries, there are many ways the question should be answered, and various institutional arrangements should be tried in the hope of reconciling knowledge based politics with democratic oversight. We can only hope that the way the pandemic has forced us to face these issues will encourage a more