Over the last 20 years most of the western world moved into what has become known as a neoliberal political system. Basically, get the government as much as possible out of the market and let the economy be run by the market. This has resulted in large scale privatisations, ongoing budget cuts basically across all social and environmental sectors. Furthermore, this system has led to a watering down of the wellbeing of the lower and middle classes as well as the most vulnerable and marginal groups of society in favour of the 1% and corporate profits. This has resulted in an increase in inequality that has led in many countries to a distrust of politicians leading to populism and polarising identity politics.
The pandemic took the world by surprise, this despite that over the last 20 years there have been warning signs by many scientists across the world indicating that something like this would happen.
With COVID-19 we have seen in few weeks that the neoliberal system has been largely replaced by a social democratic system that even the most leftist politicians in the western world had never dreamt off that this would ever happen.
Within weeks, trillions of dollars have been poured in systems such universal basic income (IBU), massive support for small businesses and huge injections in healthcare and R&D budgets.
The question should now be asked what are the gains of those neoliberal policies in comparison to the economic cost of the corona pandemic? In other words, if we would have addressed some of the above mentioned issues more gradually over the last few decades and we would have listened to the scientists and other experts regarding the economic effect of pandemics (and climate change for that matter). Would those costs have been lower? I would argue that this most likely would have been the case. We might need a Royal Commission after this crisis to get a good picture of all of this.
Apart from populism, totalitarianism has been another major issue. The question could be asked if the Chinese Government had not suppressed the initial information, could we perhaps have avoided a pandemic? The Chinese certainly have something to answer for.
But let’s put that aside. Many of the extremist neoliberal, nationalist and populist politicians are also climate deniers and at least at the start also pandemic deniers. Several of them – Trump in front – are all already talking about going back to normal ASAP. Putting aside if that is even possible because of the heath crisis, is it even possible to go back to normal? Normal as in pre-coronavirus pandemic?
Obviously, this time around politicians can’t avoid addressing the long-term issues.
Can we afford to take the risk that in the not to distance future we have to manage another global bail out? If another crisis would evolve – and assuming we have in the meantime ‘gone back to normal’ and undone all the security and support measures put in place during the current crisis – do we than still have enough money in the treasury chest to conduct a similar economic rescue action?
I am sure that from a risk-management perspective we need to avoid that we again will have to face an economic crisis as a consequence of disasters linked to a changing world growing to 11 billion people with all the possibilities of climate change, pandemics, refugees, migration and so on.
In order to make societies more resilient we need to address issues such as universal basic income (in whatever form), climate change mitigation, refugee and migration issues. Equally we need to make the health system far more resilient and most likely the education will also need a transformation. Sure, prevention would be cheaper than another economic crisis.
We need to look at both a top down and a bottom up approach. Yes, we are in desperate need of good political leaders now. However, with my involvement in smart cities over the decade, I know that cities local communities do understand that resilience and sustainability are key issues. Cities can build on these core issues in their strategic plans and use the lessons learned to take this to the next step. Because of their holistic nature smart city teams are very adaptable to situations such as this crisis. Furthermore, there will be less bureaucratic push back, faster decision-making processes and hopefully more financial support from state and federal governments.
There is an interesting discussion going on in the USA that because of the lack of Federal coordination in relation to the corona pandemic. Their question is why would 80% of taxes have to go the Feds. Innovative and decisive action by governors, corporates, universities and mayors has driven America’s early response. They did a far better job in national collaboration and coordination than the Feds, even on an international level. California mentioned that it is – in the case of this crisis – now acting as a ‘nation state’ independent of the Feds.
With all of that in place I would argue that we will be in a much better position to face the next crisis if we learn from this one; adopt the relevant changes needed to make societies more resilient and our society more sustainable. Many of the current support measures should therefore be part of a more robust approach going forwards.
It is shocking to see that populism has stopped effective international collaboration. Yet it should be very clear that a pandemic doesn’t stop at the border. We need to address these issues together and without effective international leadership this has become a very difficult task. If we don’t address the social, economic, political and environmental issues in Africa, Asia and Latin America we just have more timebombs waiting to explode.
Now is the time for leaders to stand up and show us a vision of a future where we will be able to manage the rapidly changing global environment driven by enormous population growth in particular this time in Africa (and extra 2 billion people are here on their way). While I am writing this, I don’t want to think about the scenario where the virus hits in full earnest places like India, Indonesia, Africa and Latin America. Obviously, these regions need urgent assistance. Not sure if enough healthcare can be mustered but also massive financial assistance is required and the focus here is on the G20, IMF, World Bank and the Regional Banks to act and act quickly. Is the global financial world up to this task? We will know soon enough.
It is time for the politicians to stop denying many of these issues and take the scientists and experts in these field serious. Most politicians in this crisis now base their policies on advice of scientists and experts in the field. Hopefully they will continue to do so after this crisis. We need scientific, data-based solution, not populist slogans. Let’s also hope that those people who are voting for those populists see that there are no easy solutions and that voting for those people will only make life worse, not better for them.