COVID-19: Why We Must Reset Our Thinking

By Ian Goldin
Oxford University, May 12 2020 – Covid-19 is the most significant event since the Second World War. It changes everything.

It brings great sadness to many of us as we lose loved ones, as we see people losing their jobs, and as we see people around the world suffering immensely.

But it also provides an opportunity for a reset and new start for humanity. It teaches us how closely we are all interwoven together, how a problem in one part of the world is a problem for all of us.

It gives us time to pause and reflect about our individual lives, allowing us to reset and reprioritise. And it provides an opportunity for businesses and politicians to reset too. Even isolationist politicians must now understand that we can only thrive as humanity if everyone thrives.

We can only prosper if the world is prospering. And we can only be healthy if people everywhere are healthy.

Covid-19 provides a call for action. Not only to address the medical and associated economic emergency, but to ensure that we will never see a pandemic which could be even more dreadful than this one.

If we can learn to stop pandemics, we would have learnt to cooperate to stop the other great threats that we face, like climate change, antibiotic resistance, cascading financial crises, and cyber and other systemic risks.

We need to learn from history.

The First World War was followed by austerity and nationalist attacks on those who were blamed for the conflict. What followed was the Great Depression, rise of fascism and an even worse world war.

However, at the height of the Second World War visionary leaders created the framework for a harmonious world. The Bretton Woods Institutions for reconstruction and economic development, the Marshall Plan, the rise of the United Nations with its manifesto to unite ‘we the people’. The 1942 Beveridge Commission in the UK which called for the creation of the social welfare state.

The aim was to honour the youth that had died in the trenches and to overcome the suffering to provide a vision of a better future.

No wall high enough

The pandemic has risen from what I’ve called in my book of this title, The Butterfly Defect of globalization.

The interconnectedness of complex systems means that what happens elsewhere, increasingly shapes our lives. In the 2014 book I predicted that a pandemic would lead to the next financial crisis, even worse than the one of 2008.

The fact that we are now interconnected makes it imperative that we manage systemic risks, and that we care more about what happens elsewhere.

There is no wall high enough to keep out the great threats that face us in our future, and not least pandemics and climate change.

But what high walls do keep out is the ideas of how to change things, is the sharing of experiences of common humanity, the technologies, the people, the investment, the potential for tourism and exports, and the ability to cooperate.

This is essential because these threats require that we work together. If we bunker down we will see escalating threats.

Pandemics are unusual in that they are the only threat that faces us that can come from any country. This one happened to come from China. But it could equally have come from any country in the Americas, Africa, Europe or elsewhere in Asia.

As technology is evolving, with new capabilities to sequence pandemics and spray viruses from drones, the risk is rising rapidly in richer countries, so both rich and poor countries are a potential source.

As pandemics can come from anywhere stopping pandemics requires global cooperation. For most of the other global threats that we face like climate change, cascading financial crises or antibiotic resistance, a very smaller set of actors account for a very big share of the problem.

Radical ideas become reality

Covid-19 has highlighted the urgency of managing global risks. It also has shown us that these spill over to every aspect of our lives, and are devastating for economies.

Radical economic remedies are being implemented that were previously unacceptable. Being guaranteed an income was regarded as a radical idea six weeks ago and is now adopted many European governments.

The idea that governments would bail out any company and give them a lifeline was unacceptable six weeks ago, and now has been enacted. The levels of debt and deficits that governments are taking on, were regarded as heresy six weeks ago.

We know from the mortality statistics, that young people are far less likely to die from COVID-19 than elderly people. And yet young people are sacrificing their social lives, their jobs, their education, their prospects to protect the lives of older people.

We owe the youth a brighter future. We owe them the promise that this will be the last pandemic of this nature. We owe them the promise that we will address climate change, that we will create jobs, employment and better prospects for them. For this, we are likely to see not only a bigger role for government, but higher levels of taxes.

The pandemic has revealed the extent of health inequality.

The data shows stark differences based on income levels. These are being exacerbated as poorer people are less able to work from home and more likely to be made unemployed. They also have less savings.

The pandemic is increasing inequality within countries, and it is widening the gulf between them. Richer countries have more resources, they have more ventilators, they have more doctors, they have more capacity to create a safety net that is strong, to guarantee everyone a basic income and to ensure the survival of firms. This is not an option for African, Latin American and South Asian countries.

Physical distancing is an impossibility when you’re sharing a small home with six other family members, or when you have to go in crowded transport to work to put food on your table.

The medical emergency in being compounded by an economic emergency, putting hundreds of millions of lives at risk of starvation and creating the biggest shock to development in the post war period.

Covid-19 demonstrates the butterfly defect of globalisation is a dire threat to us all. It poses a test for leaders everywhere. It challenges governments, businesses and individuals to behave differently. How we respond to this test will determine not only our individual prospects, but that of humanity.