Imagining the world after COVID-19

By Rupert Read.

First published in ABC Religion and Ethics.

Our collective response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been characterised by two vast failures of imagination:

1) Many people and most governments —particularly those of the United States and the UK — have failed to imagine exponential growth and how bad it can get.

What are the underlying reasons for this first failure?

Normalcy bias

It is very hard for human beings to imagine things radically outside their experience —especially things that spiral out of control. A “normalcy bias” makes us very poor at being ready for what are called “black swan” events. Uncertainty, “fat tails” and precaution are little understood. Crude, over-simplified versions of “evidence-based” analysis predominate.

There has been no truly global pandemic with high mortality within the lifetimes of virtually anyone now alive — not since the Spanish flu. And since then we have, as humans, become more and more pleased with ourselves, more and more confident that our technology, science, and understanding are such that we are seemingly near-invulnerable to threats from the mere natural world. This is not true — in fact, the contrary is true. We have made our systems — and thus, ourselves — fragile.

Systemic risk vs. individual risk

The risk of serious morbidity/mortality to most individuals from COVID-19 appears to be low. (Though this is still not certain, and gives another reason for precaution: there may be hidden risks to individual health, and the virus does appear to be a very nasty one indeed with effects going way beyond the lungs. Evidence is growing that there are silent risks to catching coronavirus — yet another reason for a strong suppressional/eliminational response to it.) But even if it is the case that COVID-19 turns out to be low-risk for most people, the risk to our system is high.

A key reason is the real risk of our healthcare system being overwhelmed, as happened in northern Italy. (There is a greater risk of this in some African, Middle Eastern, and Asian countries; the fact that most of these countries have so far fared relatively well may be primarily because they were not so inter-connected geographically. The virus appears now to be spreading widely in India, for instance, and in Brazil.)

Linear vs. exponential risks

Humans are poor at thinking exponentially. The reason the COVID-19 pandemic is something we should all be very concerned about — in a way that we do not need to be concerned about, say, seasonal flu — is that the potential downside to which we are all exposed is particularly dire. The coronavirus is still probably spreading exponentially in some parts of the world, and in the many places where testing is being carried out patchily we don’t even know how exponentially. The risk it poses, therefore, is of a different order of magnitude to that of most other more familiar illnesses. This crisis is probably only a quarter of the way through — in fact, it may become a permanent crisis.

This is why the Precautionary Principle needs to be applied to the pandemic in a number of different ways. 

2) Almost everyone has failed to imagine that and how we could stop movement.

It wasn’t until the virus had gotten under our national defences that flights were stopped or borders closed. (Key exceptions to this rule include New Zealand, which has come out of the crisis smelling of roses.) Virtually no one — except us Precautionauts and Localists — considered stopping the normal practice of untrammelled global travel (which, remember, barely existed a century ago during the last comparable event). Even now, much of the United States still have not instituted state-line control measures. In the UK, there are no internal travel control measures at all, apart from the partial, diminishing lockdown. There is nothing at the England/Scotland border, nor even at the north-south Ireland border. This is starting to become an issue, now that England is diverging from the other three nations of the UK.

Planes are “super-spreaders.” But the problem goes even deeper than that. We need to begin imagining, not just countries, but communities protecting themselves and each other. This means areas that are serious about suppressing the virus need to have the right to regulate entry, and areas which are pools of infection need to be strongly encouraged to regulate exit. We are not going to suppress or eliminate the virus everywhere at the same time. If we are serious about “crushing the curve,” then we must be willing to imagine communities — nations/states, regions, localities — engaging in such forms of self-protection.

This has been very difficult for us because we have grown accustomed, in this era of economic globalisation, to not being able to imagine limits to the movement of commodities and people. We have grown accustomed to thinking of such movement as itself a good thing. This has made it difficult for us to sustain and nurture strong communities (on which, see Simone Weil’s brilliant work of applied political philosophy, The Need for Roots). Liberal political philosophy in general and neoliberal globalisation in particular has, in fact, been a tool for destroying communities. Furthermore, globalisation has helped cultivate our self-perception as individual consumers, such that we have come to see unregulated travel as an absolute right, and to see borders as nothing but a potential infringement on the exercise of that right.

On the political Right, the unwillingness to place restrictions on the movement of people can take the form of libertarianism or of an extreme economic ideology of open borders. Consider the remarks of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who said on 3 February 2020:

we are starting to hear some bizarre autarkic rhetoric, when barriers are going up, and when there is a risk that new diseases such as coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage, then at that moment humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange … [for the] right of the populations of the earth to buy and sell freely among each other.

This is a clear sign of his intention to minimise the virus, and allow people and goods to keep moving in and out of the UK — even at the cost of tens (or hundreds) of thousands of lives. Thus the UK was for a while the only country in the world to have no coronavirus-related border controls, even as its per capita death rate became one of the highest in the entire world.

On the political Left, the unwillingness to imagine restraints on the movement of people tends to be reactive to nationalism and can take the form of calls to abolish borders altogether. This is catastrophic dogmatism at a time of pandemic.

But, as I say, the point is deeper: we need to be willing to imagine restraints on movement, not just at international borders, but within states as well. Otherwise, we are not serious about the public good, and not serious about suppression or elimination of COVID-19. The lockdowns show the way. As they are lifted, they need to be replaced with restrictions on movement that are less blunt instruments, more smart policy. We are going to need to be imaginative.

Consider, for instance, the current situation in the UK. The British government is lifting the lockdown prematurely, from a precautionary perspective. The R number (the reproduction rate of the virus) is not clearly below 1 in many places, which means that the virus may still be slowly growing in some places. Those places need to be able to go back into lockdown. But as I’ve argued elsewhere, so centralised is the UK as a nation that it cannot imagine doing so.

Difficult, but not impossible

These difficulties of imagination that I’ve been describing are not impossibilities. We know this because some places did not fail to imagine coronavirus. Countries like New Zealand, Taiwan, and South Korea got serious about the exponential threat that the virus presented, and imposed massive changes virtually overnight — including seriously restricting human movement. And I do mean seriously. Not the half-arsed lockdown we experienced in the UK, where airports remained open for business throughout. New Zealand didn’t just go into lockdown early; they insisted on a complete national quarantine system to prevent re-infection.

There has been no such seriousness in the UK or the United States about suppressing, much less eliminating, the virus. There has been no effort to crush the curve. Herd immunity by way of deadly infection, tragically, remains the policy of the British government.

In order to see how unserious our lockdown was, consider the following thought-experiment. The numbers of those infected with COVID-19 double every few days — so, if the goal is to eliminate the virus, when is the best time, in principle, to impose a lockdown? The answer is: at the beginning, of course. By going into lockdown when very few are infected, you minimise pools of infection and thence the casualties. Then, when the disease is extirpated, restrictions can be lifted, as New Zealand has done, while retaining a protective ring around the country.

Two acts of imagination

Thus far, I have outlined the two greatest failures of imagination that occurred in relation to COVID-19. Let me now propose the two great feats of imagination that are needed in order to build a better future out of this pandemic disaster:

1) We need to imagine a real post-COVID-19 reset.

We need to dare to imagine a better future — a future with much less commuting, much less air travel, much less noise and pollution, much less unnecessary economic activity, much more care and love; much more localisation of our economy; much more preparedness for future “swans” of various hues; much more attention to root causes of our troubles; much more restoration of nature.

If it seems hard to imagine all this, or hard to stay hopeful about it, because of the downsides of the post-pandemic world — such as the further rise of the digital behemoths (and of surveillance-culture), threatening to centralise economic activity — then we need to dare to imagine ways in which those things could change, too. So, if the increase of power which is accruing right now to Amazon, Facebook and Google is worrying you, then we need to dare to imagine how they could be brought low. Google, in particular, seems more impregnable than ever; its invasion of our privacy and its deep-nesting in patterns of consumerism is deeply discomfiting. It may seem hard to imagine how its dominion could be challenged. But here are some ways things could change:

  • The self-aggrandisement of the digital giants themselves could form the basis for a public campaign against them and their unrivalled power — focussing, perhaps, on their invasions of privacy, and insisting on not using health-monitoring as an excuse for such invasions.
  • This kind of campaign could be strengthened by abuses of power that may come to light — if, say, Google had been found to be conspiring with some state agency to grant access to personal data.
  • The increasing power of these digital behemoths might lead to serious calls for their nationalisation, or for their being turned into a genuine commons.
  • Existing rivals might gain more power and bandwidth — Ecosia and DuckDuckGo, for example. Imagine these two search engines joining forces: you would have a search engine that respects your privacy and plants trees for you!
  • A new rival might arise — perhaps a commons-based system. Imagine a Wikipedia-sed version of Google; or a better commercial rival, perhaps with more ethical sensibilities built in to it.
  • Imagine a virus hitting the internet which rivals the COVID-19 pandemic. Imagine a sudden plummeting in trust in the internet, if, say, a virus wipes out millions of bank accounts or undermines entire institutions (perhaps even Google itself). It is not impossible that cash could become king again, just as it has near-disappeared from use in recent months.
  • Imagine widespread power-outages that make the internet unreliable or inoperative for weeks or months. This could happen, sadly, as we move into an era when eco-driven, partial societal-collapse is increasingly likely in parts of the world — including the United States or UK or Australia. Imagine how everything would change if the internet were unavailable for the same duration of time that we have been in lockdown. (John Michael Greer has published serious work well worth reading about how the internet itself could largely die.)
  • Imagine Google, say, was the target of an effective non-violent direct-action campaign, or of hacktivists. Imagine a denial of service that lasted for weeks.

We should not assume that the current dominance of the digital titans won’t turn around, maybe on a dime. We need to be able to imagine a world without them — not least because a number of the scenarios I’ve sketched out would require our agency in order to be realised.

2) We need to imagine what was once dismissed as politically “impossible.”

Every time we are tempted to retreat into smallness, we need to remember that before COVID-19 so much of what has happened was thought impossible: impossible that the global reputation of the United States and UK could plummet so far so fast; impossible that so many could come to value care and love over economic growth; impossible that the “magic money tree” could be discovered; impossible that some countries would respond as imaginatively as they did once the virus hit.

We need to be ready to imagine future disasters and catastrophes — and so to plan against them. These plans need to take a precautionary form.

We need to protect ourselves against future pandemics, first and foremost, by building down their causes. We need to stop mistreating animals, stop habitat-destruction, and seek on an emergency basis to arrest dangerous climate change. We need to roll back economic globalisation and human hyper-mobility — as I’ve already said, planes are super-spreaders. We need to have serious plans for coping with pandemics; those plans need not to be too tied to specific diseases (one serious problem with the British response to COVID-19 was that its extant pandemic-preparation plans were all geared to the flu).

Similarly, it makes no sense now that we have been bitten by a pandemic to shift our attention away from other existential threats to civilisation. On the contrary, the pandemic we are now living through ought to teach us how important it is to reduce our exposure generally and to prepare for threats that harbour “fat tails” or catastrophic potential. Most obviously, that means catastrophic climate change and ecological degradation — but other things should be including in our planning, such as nuclear war, high-impact non-state terrorism, and runaway artificial intelligence.

Relocalising our world after COVID-19

The COVID-19 crisis has exposed the fact that our entire societal “paradigm” is wrong. The shared experience of vulnerability and renewed capacity for empathy that the virus has inadvertently gifted the world with will succeed in transforming our lives only if we let them, and are serious about the depth of the transformation required. To put it bluntly: we need a whole new imaginary — a new way of seeing ourselves and being in the world. This is an ambitious task. But I want to make a start by focusing on one key aspect of such a re-imagining of the way we inhabit our world.

The coronavirus crisis marks the first great step back from the project of economic globalisation. We need to continue that movement. The future will be more local, either because we intelligently make it so or because we suffer the forced-localisation of collapse.

If we go down the route of a tech-heavy, platform-centric consumer-capitalism, succumbing to a culture of separation into our digital boxes, and if the current trend towards being a single-use throwaway culture continues — not least with regard to personal protective equipment (PPE) — then we are finished.

Our vulnerability to pandemic stems directly from our physical hyper-connectivity — and yet a connectivity that benefits only a tiny percentage of the world’s population (about 80 per cent of the world’s population have never flown). As my colleagues Nassim Taleb, Joe Norman and Yaneer Bar-Yam warned back in January, this hyper-connectivity is a key part of what made this coronavirus outbreak unprecedented, and necessitated a rapid precautionary response. But in the longer term, to build down the problem we need to shift to a world that systemically relocalises.

We need to reinstate localism rather than globalism as the norm of subsidiarity. Of course, such localism needs to be “fractal,” and globalism is needed where appropriate — for example, the forms of global cooperation facilitated by a truly responsive WHO (and one that is more serious about epidemiological precaution). But communities, as well as countries, should be encouraged to keep themselves safe by going into lockdown. Furthermore, nations will certainly want to retain more strategic industries in years to come.

There are some things, admittedly, that should and will remain non-local. We should have globally joined-up strategies with respect to pandemics and similarly common threats, such as climate change. We should have global emergency-responses where necessary; information, wisdom, and experience should be shared globally. But that’s about it. Economic globalisation has fragilised us. It has diffused responsibility, and massively increased climate-deadly emissions. It has uprooted habitats and destroyed ecosystems everywhere. The direction of travel, as it were, of people, commodities, finance and “production” should be back toward the local.

This has nothing to do with ideology. We can be “broad based” about this. As the coronavirus is teaching us, the challenge of relocalising our world transcends our ordinary political coordinates. Libertarians, frankly, need to get over their squeamishness. Conservatives need to embrace economic measures to help “unnecessary” workers not go to work. Socialists need to understand the exigencies of this emergency vis-à-vis borders and the importance of localisation, rather than insisting on pre-existing dogma. They all need to find ways of thinking globally where appropriate, and of acting locally as a default.

The beginning is near

As the COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us, we have to live in a world we will never fully understand, predict, or control. The huge cost — in terms both of lives and money — of the world’s collective failure to apply precautionary reasoning to the coronavirus will hopefully continue to wake people up. If we are to survive, let alone flourish, we need to change things up; we need to imagine big, along the lines that I’ve been suggesting. This pandemic is our chance, probably our last such chance, for a new beginning. From its horror, if we retrieve the drive to localise, we’ll be building the best possible memorial to those hundreds of thousands who have unnecessarily died.

The coronavirus crisis is like the climate crisis, only dramatically telescoped in terms of time. We have seen what happens when there is a short-term protective contraction of the economy. The lifestyle-change that was required by the pandemic is more extreme than what will be required of us in order adequately to address the climate crisis. Why not make the less extreme changes required to live safely within a stable climate?

The coronavirus pandemic is like an acute condition: both individuals and entire societies need to respond quickly to it, but probably not for an extended period of time — certainly not if prevention or elimination is successfully achieved. The climate crisis is a chronic condition: it will take decades upon decades of determination, commitment, and “sacrifice” not to be overwhelmed by it. But the changes we need to make in order to achieve that goal are more attractive than those made in order to fight the coronavirus. The life we live in a climate-safe world can be a better life: saner; more rooted and local; more secure, with stronger communities and less uncertainty about our common future; less hyper-materialistic; more caring; more nurturing, and with greater exposure to the natural world.

What is required is the building of care, ethical sensibilities, and precautiousness into the very warp and weft of our lives.