Apr 16, 2020 – 09:16 AM CEST
Joschka Fischer, Foreign Minister and Deputy Chancellor of Germany between 1998 and 2005, was leader of the German Green Party for almost 20 years.
The asteroid fell on the planet and suddenly everything changed. But it is invisible: it takes a microscope, rather than a telescope, to see it.
With the covid-19, the world faces several crises in one: the global health crisis has triggered an economic crisis, another in civil society and a last one in daily life. It remains to be seen whether it will cause political instability as a consequence, either within countries or internationally. But it is clear that the pandemic has dramatically changed life as we know it. Although it is impossible to predict its end and its consequences, certain important changes can be foreseen.
The crisis is not only complex, far-reaching and threatening to the foundations of individualistic societies and to the global economy. It is also many times more dangerous and extensive than the 2008 financial crisis. Unlike then, the coronavirus threatens millions of lives worldwide and its effects are not focused on a single sector of the economy.
Most of the economic activity in the world is freezing, leaving the stage ready for a global recession. Apart from the deceased and the stability of the health systems, the big question now is how serious the economic slowdown will be and the permanent consequences it will have.
Similarly, we can only speculate on the effects it will have on already fragile regions, particularly refugee camps. Iran appears headed for a major humanitarian crisis, in which the poorest and most vulnerable will be the most affected. Beyond that, it is still too early for any remotely realistic assessment of the humanitarian consequences of covid-19.
However, past experience indicates that major blows like this do tend to disrupt political systems and international relations. In particular, Western democracies may see their form of government questioned. Human rights principles may run counter to economic imperatives. The pandemic also invites a generational conflict between young and old, and between authoritarianism and liberal democracy.
And, even so, an alternative scenario is possible in which the crisis of covid-19 allows the rise of a new solidarity. Let us not forget that an earthquake and the subsequent tsunami in the Indian Ocean in December 2004 created the conditions to end the civil war in Aceh, North Sumatra.
In the short term, the countries most affected by the pandemic will become crisis economies: governments will undertake huge levels of spending and other unconventional measures to avoid a total collapse. The effectiveness of such measures remains to be seen, but it is clear that the relationship between the economy and the State will undergo a fundamental change.
In a clear departure from the prevailing policies in recent decades, we are already witnessing a return to a State with broad prerogatives (the so-called “great government”). Everyone is looking to the state to inject huge sums of money into the economy and rescue (or nationalize) endangered companies and sectors that are considered essential. The massive scale of state intervention will have to be reduced once the crisis has passed, but how to do it will be a matter of debate. Ideally, governments will transfer the revenue generated by the re-privatization to a sovereign wealth fund, giving the public a share of the post-crisis liquidation.
Until then, the “big government” (be it in the form of the European Commission or national authorities) will be expected to prepare for the next disaster. Instead of catching us completely off guard, it will be necessary to ensure the provision of essential medical supplies, personal protective equipment, disinfectants, adequate laboratory capacity, and intensive care units, among others.
But that is not all. The stability, efficiency, capacity, and costs of today’s healthcare systems will remain a prominent issue. This crisis has shown that it is not truly possible to privatize health. In fact, public health is a basic common good and a crucial factor for strategic security.
There will also be greater and more constant attention to the pharmaceutical sector, especially for the national provision of crucial drugs and the development of new ones. Many countries will no longer be willing to rely on international supply chains that can be easily disrupted in an emergency.
By this I do not mean to suggest that the market economy will come to an end. But it is essential that the State raises itself as an equal before the business community, at least when it comes to strategic issues. For example, the crisis will drive a major reform of digital sovereignty in Europe. Its model will not be that of authoritarian China, but that of democratic South Korea, which has managed to lead the way digitally.
So far, however, the EU has not played a prominent role in the global response to Covid-19, which should not be surprising: in crises that threaten their very existence, people tend to turn to what they know best, and what they know best is the nation state. But while the nation states of Europe can play a role in immediately managing the crisis, they cannot solve it.
After all, the single market, the joint currency and the European Central Bank are the only mechanisms that can prevent an economic collapse and make possible an eventual recovery in Europe. The coronavirus crisis is likely to compel Europeans to come closer and closer in an even deeper attitude of solidarity.
What is the alternative? A return to the world where everyone defends himself? For the governments of the EU Member States that would amount to political and economic suicide.
The Covid-19 pandemic is the first crisis of the twenty-first century to truly affect all of humanity. But other crises will follow, and not in the form of a virus. In fact, if we look forward, the crisis we are experiencing is an announcement that we will suffer if we do not face climate change.
The only way to confront widespread threats to humanity is through increased cooperation and coordination between governments and multilateral institutions. To name just one, the World Health Organization — and the United Nations in broader terms — must be strengthened to the fullest. The coronavirus is a reminder that we are eight billion human beings traveling on the same ship.
Translated from English by David Meléndez Tormen
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020. www.project-syndicate.org