Much ink has been spilled discussing the new social order emerging from the measures around the covid-19 coronavirus lockdowns. Universal Basic Income (UBI), until just last February a fringe policy seemingly only advocated for by Andrew Yang’s quixotic US presidential campaign, is now being experimented with as every American is given 1200 dollars to make up for quarantine costs. Tenants unions have once again emerged, panicking landlords all over social media. And the case for privatising anything, from transport to healthcare, seems dead in the water.
There is little doubt that the coronavirus pandemic is a disaster, not least for the friends and family of the over 182000 people globally (as of April 22nd) who have died from this horrific disease. Our sympathies must of course be with the grieving. Efforts to curtailing and stopping this spread must be of the highest priority, to minimise the amount of hurt and loss caused during this difficult time.
Yet, it is also true that catastrophe is often a catalyst for change, accelerating trends long in the making and virtually impossible to stop. After the Black Death in the Medieval period in western Europe, average fortunes for the poor increased as their labour became more in demand, one of the many small stepping stones on the long road that lead to democratic ideals. At the same time, not all of these are trends worth celebrating and many are to be resisted wherever they can be.
Take the surveillance state for example. Governments in Europe, Asia and North America have been hasty during this Covid-19 outbreak to crackdown on ‘misinformation’. On one front, that is a laudable thing to tackle during a pandemic. The world’s presidents are very correct when they point out that fake medicines, false lists of the symptoms and exaggerated reports of where the outbreaks have taken place at their most benign only sow confusion- at their worst, they literally cost lives. A person who doesn’t go to the hospital with severe Covid-19 symptoms due to believing some untrue article about how herbal oils or some branded tube of toothpaste can destroy the virus, can very possibly die needlessly during what is already a time of heartbreak and sorrow.
It’s all very serious… and it very much is something that can easily get some heartstrings pulled in a potential post-crisis future. You can easily imagine politicians bemoaning that the misinformation tackling legislation was a good precedent and that now all kinds of fake news needs to be dealt with for the health of the democracy- in such a way that it conveniently only seems to fall on those who criticise the established order.
So too is surveillance. In 20 years the amount of data that governments collect from their citizens has grown exponentially, and this crisis has only increased the calls for ever more stringent monitoring of your internet and real life movements. In their defence, the advocates for these measures will argue that authoritarian regimes such as China and Singapore handled the coronavirus better (for now anyway) than the western democracies precisely because they spent so much time tracking down each person that infected individuals came into contact with, forced them to get tested, and then through this wealth of information built highly detailed and accurate models as to the movements of the disease. This is despite the fact that the general public is, at the very best, ambivalent about the prevalence of mass spying.
However, even as the power of the government seems to take on new heights that never seemed possible, there is an upshot. A clear message has been sent as to who the most valuable workers in the economy were. Shopkeepers, nurses, drivers and other low paid largely manual labour jobs have rarely been this appreciated in human history, with every right now to demand better conditions and higher pay.
All of this leaves us with a unique but troubling scenario after the coronavirus pandemic. There is a great space for new ideas to flourish in the current time. A relatively rare opportunity where anything is possible, except perhaps keeping the world order as it was, with many formerly fringe ideas now thoroughly in the mainstream very quickly.
But all of this won’t come about without resistance. The people in power for whom the old order worked will try every trick they have to make as few concessions as possible, and will likely have greatly increased their capacity for acting in this brave new world. Right now the official advice is a sensible one; stay at home, wash your hands and try to not get infected with the terrible pathogen killing tens of thousands worldwide.
Afterwards, anything is possible. Make sure you do something stretching your legs after weeks of quarantine. Join a union. Attend a protest. Write emails to your elected officials. Attend meetings, even small scale local things like at town halls. There is a lot that an individual can do at the local level even if they aren’t ultra passionate about politics the concept. Just make sure you do, or the dreams of a better world that may rise like a phoenix from the ashes of catastrophe will never come.