Life in the time of COVID: First reactions, future directions

This article is part of the series Governance, in crisis. 

By Adam Przeworski
Carroll and Milton Petrie Professor Emeritus
Department of Politics
New York University

Synopsis: This piece reflects on the various events brought on by coronavirus and speculates on their long-term consequences. It contemplates the state of our beliefs, liberalism, institutions, geopolitics, risk, and science in times of COVID-19.

Keywords: COVID-19, institutions, democracy, geopolitics, liberalism, science, inequality, risk

Crisis, in context

A personal note to begin. During my 80 years I have lived through every kind of hell. When I was four, the entire population of Warsaw, where I was born, was expelled by the Nazis, who were systematically burning the city. Under falling bombs, my grandmother, mother, and I were marched 15 km to a transitional concentration camp, where we spent a week expecting we would all be killed. When the war ended, hunger followed. One of my greatest life achievements, at the age of eight, was when my mother discovered that she did not have enough money to take a tramway to pick up her monthly salary at the other side of Warsaw, and I found a coin which was the missing fare. I lived under communism, through the Vietnam war in the US, barely escaped Chile during the 1973 coup, and was in New York on 9/11. I thought I had lived through every conceivable misery. I never imagined that I would spend my 80th birthday cooped up with no one other than my wife, not even my daughter and granddaughter, as the world fell apart, with millions sick and thousands dying. I do not think anyone else did.

Changings our habits (and beliefs)

One reason many people nevertheless ignore the continuing warnings about social contacts is incredulity. If you believe that something is impossible – perhaps more accurately, if you never imagined something to be possible – updating beliefs and adopting actions based on updated beliefs is slow. It cannot be analyzed by standard models we use to study changing beliefs. Even if we do change our minds, as Donald Trump belatedly did, we update gradually, so unfounded optimism lingers.

“we need to be forced, compelled by the State, to abandon our habits, whether or not we have changed our beliefs”

Yet even if we fully realize the danger, most of our actions are based on habits, not rational decisions taken each time we are about to do something. Hence, we need to be forced, compelled by the State, to abandon our habits, whether or not we have changed our beliefs.

This experience could have long-term political consequences: if it is successful, the China model may become our future; if it fails, we may live in a state of permanent revolt.

Inequality and institutions

One reason the mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, hesitated about closing schools is that about one-tenth of school kids, 114,000, are homeless and depend on the school provided lunch to eat. This is in a city in which I have overheard a conversation between two very rich people, in which one asked the other, “How many houses do you own?” with the answer “Fourteen, of which one is a family compound.”

“one cannot bemoan the persistent inequality and defend the institutions that perpetuate it”

This makes one wonder about “representative institutions”: whom do they represent? We see “populism” as a threat to representative institutions but there is something illogical and perhaps duplicitous in this lament: one cannot bemoan the persistent inequality and defend the institutions that perpetuate it. Had these institutions been more representative, perhaps there would be no homeless kids in New York City.

Risk management

The US was seemingly unprepared for what ultimately came with COVID-19, and European countries were not much better. According to some estimates the demand for hospital beds was up to three times higher than their supply, not to speak of intensive care units. This should not be surprising and perhaps it is not irrational.

The issue is known as the “ambulance problem:” how many ambulances should a city operate? If their number is sufficient to cover the peak demand, including unprecedented events, most of them will be idle most of the time. Hence, it is rational – the argument goes – to be prepared not to have enough ambulances when a catastrophe strikes.

“We are keeping tanks for the worst eventuality, but not hospital beds. Is this rational?”

But think of military equipment. It may be rational to invest in nuclear weapons that would never be used; indeed, we invest in them so that they would never be used, “MAD” for mutual assured destruction. But tanks? It is very likely that few tanks we produce and maintain ever see battlefields. We are keeping tanks for the worst eventuality, but not hospital beds. Is this rational? (My gratitude to Steve H. for this observation).

Whither (neo)liberalism?

The pandemic also raises questions about political ideologies. Take French President Macron, always too articulate and often relying on pathos, and one of his recent speeches:

“My dear compatriots, tomorrow we will have to learn the lessons of the moment we are going through, question the development model in which our world has been engaged for decades and which reveals its flaws in the light of day, question the weaknesses of our democracies. What this pandemic is already revealing is that free health care without conditions of income, career or profession, our welfare state, are not costs or burdens but precious goods, essential assets when fate strikes. What this pandemic reveals is that there are goods and services that must be placed outside the laws of the market. To delegate our food, our protection, our ability to take care of our living environment to others is madness.”

This is almost verbatim what a Swedish Social Democratic minister, Bertil Ohlin, said in 1938:

“The costs of the health service represent an investment is the most valuable productive instrument of all, the people itself. In recent years it has become obvious that the same holds true of many other forms of ‘consumption’ – food, clothing, recreation…. The tendency is in the direction of ‘nationalization of consumption’.”

Where do Macron’s lesson comes from? Seemingly a neoliberal at heart, this excerpt is  social democracy in its purest, original form, sadly abandoned by social democrats in the 1980s. The questions remains whether it is a political maneuver to placate the Left or if he really believes it.

“What this pandemic reveals is that there are goods and services that must be placed outside the laws of the market”

Another aspect of Macron’s speech is equally profound: his rejection of the questionable Maastricht Treaty (1992) rule limiting deficits to 3 percent. Announcing protection of incomes and increasing health expenditures, he repeated three times “quoi qu’il en coute” (whatever it costs). Even Angela Merkel said something similar. Because it disabled governments from pursuing counter-cyclical policies, this rule was always the main target of protests against the European project. Is this the end of Maastricht? Are we finally done with neoliberalism? Are we on our way back to the “Keynesian welfare state”? Or is it just a panicky reaction to the crisis?

Geopolitical realignment

“Europe” will not be what it has been during the past 30 years. But the geopolitical consequences of the crisis extend to the entire world. Trump’s unilateral ban on travel from Europe is the end of the “West.” This very term is a product of the Cold War, which divided the West from the communist bloc and the “Third World.”

The “Trans-Atlantic Alliance” and its military embodiment, NATO, were supposed to be based on common values and interests. The West was the “free world,” embracing liberalism and democracy. This geographical denomination did not quite correspond to the political one, with several brutal military dictatorships in Latin America, as well as Greece, Portugal, and Spain. But to fight against communism, even President Reagan had to turn against the Chilean military regime. And 1989 was the triumph of the “West.”

The lesson the Europeans are forced to draw from the Trump presidency is that the US is a fickle ally. After his attempt at flirtation with Trump, Macron was perhaps the first European leader to understand that Europe cannot rely on the US, economically and militarily. His turn was toward Putin but the alternative for Europe is also China. Europe will have to play a complex strategic game, balancing among the US, Russian and China. But with cumbersome decision making at the European level, compounded by Brexit, the capacity of Europe to sustain any consistent strategy moving forward remains in doubt.

The role of science

This crisis can also have long-term consequences for the role of science in governance and on science itself. Several governments turned to scientists for day-to-day advice. France has a council of eleven scientists meeting every day and advising the government. In the US, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) issues advisories about managing the epidemic, even if it was prevented from publicizing its advice when it conflicted an announcement by the White House.

It is clear to everyone that some policy issues call for expertise. For better or worse, we have long ago granted this role to economists. But now suddenly we had to turn to epidemiologists, virologists, clinicians. What perhaps merits attention is that, as distinct from economists, these experts speak with a pretty unified voice. They admit that they are uncertain, that all forecasts are conditioned on guesses about various parameters and have huge confidence intervals.

“Where politicians build walls, scientists understand that the virus has no nationality.”

Politicians, in turn, have to weigh scientists’ advice against economic considerations: if we shut down all activities, we will run out of food and essential services. But, perhaps with the exception of Trump who cares mainly about stock indices, the tone of these discussions is professional, serious, and responsible. The choice is not easy and in retrospect some strategies will have turned out more effective than others. But it is reassuring that decisions are made, or at least enlightened, by people who know best.

As for science itself, one wonders whether this experience will lead to public support for it, increased public spending, and perhaps institutional changes. One striking aspect is the cooperation and collaboration of scientists from all over the world, the sharing of data, the availability of the results in public domain (even by oligopolists, such as Elsevier).

Where politicians build walls, scientists understand that the virus has no nationality. The very idea that scientists would have to pay for access to results of research financed by taxpayers’ money is now patently ludicrous. Will this cooperation last? Will open domain become the norm?

Many of these questions boil down to whether the actions forced upon us by the urgency of the crisis will persist when things return to normal. Will there be a “before” and an “after” the crisis? Are we capable of learning from pain?

This article is part of the series “Governance, in crisis.”  To read the other articles, click here.

Photo by Florian Schmaezz on Unsplash

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