Ten theses on the coronavirus for the state and society

The coronavirus pandemic plunged the whole world into a state of health-related, economic and social stress. This stress makes clear what is working — and what is not.
Pandemics are proof that the whole global community is affected. Photo credit: Unsplash

By Dr. Markus Engels, Secretary-General of the Global Solutions Initiative

1. The state and its international communities play the leading role in absorbing external shocks such as pandemics.

In his book “Political Theology,” the legal scholar Carl Schmitt concluded some 100 years ago that “sovereign is he who decides on the exception.” Based on this definition, states and governments have proven that they are entitled to make decisions during the coronavirus crisis and that they are very well capable of doing so, by taking drastic measures to protect the populace and putting together aid packages worth billions. Every day, state-run institutions have provided information on the latest developments and issued recommendations on what should be done to control the virus.

The pandemic has rocked the plausibility of predictions foretelling the end of the state. That is something most people are bound to be thankful for. After all, the state — at least in its democratic form — is a legitimate and neutral arbiter that makes decisions based on verifiable criteria, without pursuing its own business interests.

2. Pandemics are proof positive that we, as a global community, are all affected. But for the situation to lead to a renaissance of multilateralism, it is going to require a common view that global challenges can only be solved globally. We need a new global narrative of kinship and solidarity.

Joining together in a new spirit of unity may seem easy if we follow the Hollywood logic that we have seen a thousand times before: A global peril befalls humanity, bringing it together in its hour of need. This plot has been cinematized countless times, usually in connection with an extraterrestrial menace that leads to a new feeling of brotherhood on the planet.

Although the coronavirus pandemic is undoubtedly a global threat, it has not led to the resuscitation of multilateralism. Even in the EU, which has been trying for decades to develop a common post-national identity (albeit tentatively), the first reflex was a national one. Once the COVID-19 crisis has passed, we must realize that pandemics, climate change, extinction and artificial intelligence are challenges that can only be solved once and for all through multilateral efforts.

3. Democratic and federal states are well-positioned to fight pandemics.

Even though the processes may look complicated and arduous, the democratic and federal state has done a good job of mastering the crisis so far. In Germany, the Bundestag is actively involved in crisis management, and the national government regularly consults with individual, regional leadership.

Although individuals may try to make a name for themselves in the fight for the best approach, and although it may not always be easy to understand why a restriction applies in one place but not in another, Germany’s leaders and parliamentarians have acted appropriately and prudently. They have kept the populace informed and involved, and have avoided looking for scapegoats. Moreover, local and county officials have also been providing information through the local press on a regular basis, often turning to social media. If ever there were a need to prove how important a functioning government with a legitimate claim to power from the very top of the chain to the very bottom is, then the coronavirus has done so, albeit unwittingly.

4. Technocracy undermines the ground rules of how a democracy works.

Some have argued that virologists and doctors are the better decision-makers. Media appearances by experts may also have helped to calm the debate. At the same time, it would be a fatal mistake to draw the wrong conclusions. As a matter of fact, only elected representatives — and not experts — may make decisions.

Weighing different interests, treading carefully when it comes to decisions that could infringe upon basic rights and setting priorities based on a plethora of relevant information is of the essence. All of that needs to be comprehensible, well communicated and subject to checks and balances. Taken together, this sum total of needs and wants is what you would call “politics.”

5. Populist heads of state and government are part of the problem, not the solution.

It goes without saying that populist elected officials can be good crisis managers, just as level-headed democrats can fail in a crisis. During the coronavirus crisis, populists have displayed a pattern of behavior that prevents successful management: focusing on alternative facts, passing the buck and making off-the-cuff decisions.

All these behavioral patterns prevent the world’s brightest minds from working together and keep the international community from concerting its efforts. That makes populists part of the problem. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the U.S., where the president, who is completely out of his league, is floundering his way through the crisis and is responsible for tremendous suffering. Whether or not this leads a majority of voters to turn away from such narcissists and responsibility dodgers, however, remains to be seen. So far, some heads of government have been quite successful in capturing the hearts and minds of at least half of their constituents with lies and finger-pointing. As long as the other half of the populace is divided into camps or uninterested in politics, people will continue to die due to populist public policy — all because those opposed are unable to attain a majority.

6. The dramatic restrictions of basic rights in connection with efforts to fight the pandemic make new criteria-based approaches to limiting basic rights a necessity.

In times of crisis and disaster, basic rights must sometimes be restricted, and there are procedures in place for doing so. The current measures are a massive infringement of the right of assembly, religious freedom and occupational freedom, to name just a few. That is permissible, provided that these restrictions are imposed for a limited time and have been legitimated through a democratic process — and provided that opposing viewpoints and protest are given a forum.

May “Minority Report” serve as a warning

However, measures that are difficult to justify, if at all, have come up for debate as a result of the coronavirus. It may well be that an app on every cell phone that transmits a personal movement profile has the potential to be used to great benefit in pandemics. That very same app may very well also have the potential to reduce crime in general. A thermometer worn on the wrist might help us find our way out of the COVID-19 crisis. It also might help save the lives of people who have a heart attack or stroke. Nevertheless, such measures are largely incompatible with our understanding of basic rights.

It is not even necessary to have watched Steven Spielberg’s dystopian film “Minority Report” to grasp the risk of misuse or the fundamental harm to all freedoms posed by such measures. Apart from the temporary restrictions in the event of a crisis, which are legitimized by democratic processes, basic rights continue to apply in tough times. They also protect individuals from the will of the majority. Opposition has to be possible, even if the opinions expressed may be wrong.

But because the COVID-19 pandemic shows that governments have to act swiftly and flexibly, and because our societies are now experiencing for themselves how quickly supposedly inviolable rights can be restricted, we need a debate about what kind of protections of basic rights we want to retain following this crisis. The Federal Constitutional Court’s decision on restricting people’s rights to practice their religion freely during the coronavirus is a good starting point and provides initial orientation.

7. Public services should not be subjected to a doctrine of efficiency.

People have noticed the lack of funding for basic public services in the past and their excessive privatization. Decrepit schools and a shortage of police officers are just one indication thereof. Germany has largely been spared a hard neoliberal hand, which is why the healthcare system is still well funded and organized, and why we have so far seen fewer deaths than other countries during the coronavirus crisis.

Globally, however, economic progress is not always the same as social progress. That is why the coronavirus also illustrates how important a social security net and investments in public services are. The reluctance or inability of workers to call in sick to work despite showing symptoms of illness because they will not be paid in the event of absence, or because they do not have health insurance, accelerates the spread of disease exponentially. Furthermore, the digital revolution is only going to lead to more prosperity and better lives if we invest enough money in education and training.

The banking crisis has not triggered a shift

It is essential to quickly turn the one-time bonus payments for medical workers into structural reforms for adequate pay and working conditions in the healthcare sector, and to help generally adapt the healthcare system to deal with an aging population. Still, measures to strengthen the healthcare and education systems are not going to be enough. Once the coronavirus is behind us, we are going to need a new understanding of what is truly important to us — and of what aspects of our lives are so important to us as common, public goods that we are unwilling to surrender control over them through privatization.

The banking and financial crisis of 2008 and 2009 did not lead to a fundamental shift toward more sustainability and a different way of doing business. The coronavirus crisis has once again exposed systemic shortcomings and false priorities. We ought to learn from crises and develop a new understanding of public services and public goods.

8. The empowerment of local communities and value chains strengthens the resilience of societies.

Any calls to toss globalization on the ash heap of history are mistaken, as are any appeals to the populace to spend their future vacations at the local swimming hole. Indeed, there have long been many things awry in global trade and mass tourism fueled by budget airline tickets. But a supposed return to the “good old days” is not going to happen. They never existed in the first place.

Important trade and value chains work globally, and globally is the only way to produce a wide range of essential goods. Excluding entire regions from technological advancement by way of deglobalization would be a tremendous injustice — one that would go well beyond the injustice done daily by an imbalanced international trade system.

Local businesses help the world master the crisis

At the same time, it is important to strengthen local and regional communities, because they play a crucial role in times of crisis. Those who have been shopping at local supermarkets for years, those who are familiar faces at local bookstores and repair shops around the corner, and those who maintain a good relationship with their neighbors are better armed to survive the crisis.

Personalized and local initiatives — people buying groceries for elderly or at-risk neighbors, at-home offerings from regional sports clubs and cultural institutions, and delivery and take-away services from local restaurants, to name just a few — have played a vital role in helping us master the crisis to such a large extent so far. That is why every one of us should think about whether shopping at stores in our neighborhoods or supporting local culture ought to be given more weight in future spending decisions.

9. The efforts to promote digitalization raise new social questions.

Most families will agree that school closures, digital instruction and parents subbing in as teachers are trying for all involved. While digital learning offers countless benefits for students and professionals to expand their horizons, digitalization is creating a new social divide. That is because households with little education or money are technically ill equipped to take advantage of these global educational opportunities. As a result, children whose parents are digitally well equipped will not only emerge from the crisis with their educational futures intact, but may also have been able to use their time at home to gain an even greater edge.

Social inequality is on the rise

This structural inequality may have nothing to do with COVID-19, but the pandemic has widened the economic gap that has been drifting apart for many years now. If strengthening digital learning is one of the lessons of the coronavirus crisis, then efforts should be undertaken to even out the social impact by providing children from poorer families with basic digital tools as a public service.

10. Overcoming global poverty and strengthening climate protection and environmental conservation efforts will be essential to avoid a new era of pandemics.

The coronavirus makes clear that poorer states are significantly more affected by the spread of a virus. Often, they lack a healthcare system and an effective social safety net. With distancing and hygiene guidelines virtually impossible to implement correctly, a humanitarian disaster is unavoidable. Help is of the essence. The G20’s debt relief efforts for lower-income nations is not going to be enough, even though it is undoubtedly the right thing to do.

The ecological aspect takes on a whole new dimension in this context. Protecting biodiversity, fighting pandemics and climate change are not issues that can be flexibly prioritized from one day to the next. On the contrary, they are causally intertwined. Those who demand a respite from environmental protections and climate action in light of the coronavirus are irresponsibly working in cahoots with lobbyists and have failed to understand what is actually going on.

Helping the poorest of the poor is an act of self-preservation. A pandemic outbreak will have an impact on the entire world, no matter where it begins. A second wave of COVID-19, with a high number of deaths and infected individuals, and with a renewed round of restrictions on public life, would have the potential to bring even wealthy states to their knees.

 

Dr. Markus Engels is Secretary-General of the Global Solutions Initiative. The Global Solutions Initiative is a global collaborative enterprise that proposes policy responses to major global problems, addressed by the G20, the G7 and other global governance fora. The policy recommendations and strategic visions are generated through a disciplined research program by leading research organizations, elaborated in policy dialogues between researchers, policymakers, business leaders and civil society representatives.

The article was originally published in Tagesspiegel Online on April 16, 2020.

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