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How Covid-19 Is (Not) Changing the World

July 27, 2020 by Twan van de Kerkhof

Some people think that the corona crisis will change the world into a better place. They say for example that this crisis is a once in a lifetime opportunity to tackle the climate crisis, or to start meditating, or to become less greedy, or to reform healthcare, or to end globalization. Whatever is good, in the aftermath of corona we will have become convinced of its necessity, they argue.

I am suspicious of such world-changing predictions. Not only because humans are creatures of habit, but mostly because they sound like wishful thinking. Those people preach what they already were preaching before the crisis, only with the addition of a corona layer. As Bas Heijne, a Dutch writer, wrote in NRC Handelsblad recently: I haven’t seen anybody yet who admitted that the pandemic has completely altered their worldviews and punched all their thoughts and ideals.

That doesn’t mean that the current crisis is not important; it will change the lives of billions of people because of its immediate health impact and its long-lasting economic impact. But I don’t think that the crisis will change the flow of the river of history.

On this topic I disagree with the American historian Francis Fukuyama. He said in an interview for the John Adams Institute in May 2020 that we will look back at the current crisis as something that has changed our lives profoundly, like the fall of the Berlin Wall or 9/11. The obvious question of the interviewer was how corona would change our lives. Fukuyama answered that he didn’t know yet, that it was still too early to tell; historians cannot write history when it is still in the making. The present usually only becomes clear in hindsight, when we have developed the narrative to understand what happened.

So I don’t think that the current crisis will be a game changer, but I do think that corona can provide a tipping point in the speed and direction of some big changes that already were starting to happen. The global pause button that has been hit might reinforce developments that were already in the making. It might for example reinforce the fight against climate change, which is finally being taken serious in our collective consciousness during the last five or ten years. It might also reinforce the role of the state, that already has been increasing since the financial crisis of 2007-09. And it might contribute to more economic fairness, because the inequality that already was being perceived as an undesirable characteristic of society has only become more visible as a result of the Covid-19 crisis. Such topics have been rising from the fringes to the center of our attention over the past two decades. Corona has underlined some of these shifts.