By John Samuel
A microorganism can shake the mighty. Powerful countries with weapons of mass destruction, nuclear arsenal and large armies feel threatened by a virus. It is also a reminder that bacteria and virus are parts of planet earth. Bacteria and viruses don’t necessarily need human beings, but human beings need them to survive. Covid-19, or the new coronavirus disease, has become omnipresent and omnipotent, creating a pervading sense of fear.
Countries such as the US, China and Western Europe which fought so many wars and killed millions look helpless in the face of the terror unleashed by a virus. Covid-19 has infected most parts of the world, leading to unprecedented consequences. Lockdown in various countries and the response by the government, market and the civil society will influence our choices in the future.
The coronavirus travelled to all corners of the earth due to globalisation. Disasters and pandemics are great levellers. Viruses don’t distinguish between class, creed, colour, gender, or nationality. The disease will be known for its singular contribution towards humanising the world and world views.
Here are seven possible political, economic and social consequences of the global pandemic.
1. Reclaiming the role of state and government
In the last 30 years of neoliberal policies, reform agenda often came to mean the retreat of state as an enabling agent of the free market. Liberalisation, globalisation and privatisation became part of neoliberal dogma. Several governments promoted privatisation of healthcare, water distribution and divestment of state-run institutions.
All this changed in the last one month. The state has become the key agent of the fight against the pandemic. The last few weeks saw the state reclaiming its role across the world. This pandemic, in a way, exposed the limitations of the neoliberal market-driven framework.
The pandemic led to a sudden tide of de-globalisation across the world. The global travel network transformed a local epidemic into a pandemic. International travel, once seen as glamorous, is dreaded now. Quarantine has become the new normal and internationalism is being
replaced by protectionism. Travel bans have created an unprecedented situation in the history of the world.
2. Crisis of legitimacy
Two aspects of legitimacy operate during big disasters, wars and pandemics. Legitimacy of crisis management and crisis of legitimacy due to a perceived failure in crisis management. The new heroes are those who respond in a proactive manner and communicate on a regular basis. This is seen in many countries. Despite strong ideological or political differences, people seem to be applauding the leaders and officers who are taking systemic action, providing a semblance of security, assurance and support.
Many ordinary leaders become larger than life heroes and heroines overnight. This is partly due to their own crisis management leadership capability and partly due to an unprecedented communicative space and media attention. At the same time, there is a crisis of legitimacy of leadership in many countries due to delayed action or a gap between public expectations and delivery.
3. Re-emergence of healthcare as a public good
The pandemic established that there is no substitute for an effective public healthcare system. Over the last 30 years, public health was undermined by an unprecedented wave of privatisation of healthcare — budgets were cut even for medical education. In many countries, medical professionals opted for specialisations that have higher earning potential. As public health and community health were professions offering lower incomes, many medical professionals opted out of the public health system. All of a sudden public health has become the vanguard of fighting the pandemic. This led to a realisation that investment in universal healthcare is crucial for a sustainable economy.
4. Normalising surveillance
The governments in many countries have used the pandemic crisis to scale up their surveillance mechanism. Biometric and biomedical tracking systems are being developed on a large scale. When the pandemic subsides, these surveillance systems can be used to control people, identify the critics of the government and for big data driven subversion of democracy.
5. Ascent of online life
As countries lock down, social media platforms and online entertainment options receive unprecedented attention. People who did not have time earlier, suddenly become active on social media platforms. This has resulted in higher activity levels in social media.
Online delivery of goods and services has become the most crucial public service. Food delivery boys of online food platforms like Zomato and Swiggy have become an important part of urban life. Online entertainment platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hotstar have become more important than the traditional sources of entertainment. Online versions of newspapers and magazines attract more attention.
Working from home will be the new normal. This will change the way offices function. Many enterprises will be closed down due to the huge economic challenges created by the outbreak. There will be new technology to construct and manage online offices with seamless virtual reality. This could become a global trend as people will travel less till an effective cure is discovered for Covid-19.
6. Economic consequences
There will be multiple crises in the economy. The most affected sectors will be travel, tourism, hospitality and allied businesses. The falling use of oil will affect the oil economy and countries that directly or indirectly depend on oil.
The lockdown will directly affect micro, small and medium businesses in a big way. If the pandemic persists beyond May, millions of small business will face closure. All these will increase underemployment and unemployment. Most of the vulnerable poor will turn to self-employment for survival. The income of daily wage earners will be affected. All these will increase the incidence of poverty.
Public finance will be overstretched. As the economy slows down, the revenue of the government will dry up. Budget calculations and assumptions may change and the governments may have to create a contingency plan for the economy.
One of the major consequences will be a crisis of non-government organisations and charitable institutions. This is due to three factors. The OECD countries that provide the bulk of international funds are badly affected by the pandemic. Their budgets and public finance will be overstretched. All these mean lower budget allocation by international development agencies. This will affect multilateral and bilateral funding. Many of the UN agencies and international non-government organizations will suffer.
Secondly, as the economic crisis will lead to massive unemployment, there will be less spare money for charity. Thirdly, as the profit margins of companies will be affected, there will be less resources for CSR activities. If the pandemic doesn’t subside in the next two months, many of the non-governmental organisations will be closed down. Unless development organisations have contingency plans, there is a looming danger of imminent closure.
7. Family and care economy
The unprecedented lockdown has brought the institution of family into focus. This will have a number of consequences. The biggest advantage is people get quality time to spend with their parents, partners and children. At the time of crisis, family bonds get reinforced.
During the times of war or stress, many people find sex as a stress buster. This could lead to a baby boom. However, the economic consequence and the possibility of less income may affect the care economy. Many a time, women often end up spending more time cleaning, cooking and feeding. This care economy, where the work of women at home is often outside the conventional economic calculations, will get overstretched during the lockdown. Increasing worries about lower income and its impact on care economy may lead to domestic discords, separation or divorce. This could increase the instance of depression, and mental health issues in many families.
Elderly people are vulnerable. If the pandemic persists, the physical and mental health of elderly people may get affected. The new stress of loneliness, fear and isolation can create mental health problems in elderly people.
Huge crises always resulted in a spurt in imagination, creativity, innovation and new initiatives. They often give rise to the development of new science, technology and institutions. Crises can also make human beings humble. The more we tend to conquer the universe, microorganisms make us more aware of our eternal vulnerability. When human beings face fear, they seek freedom through imagination and creativity.
Human beings are driven by faith, hope and love. Love, the ideal that sets us free to imagine and create. Hence, it is our eternal hope that makes us sing. “We shall overcome someday, and we are not alone ”
(John Samuel is a policy and governance expert, social entrepreneur and development economist)