Post Corona: a view from the other side
Given the current COVID-19 lock down, isolation and restrictions, "see you on the other side" is an increasingly used sign-off, in both personal and professional communication. But what might the "other side" look like?
Having ploughed through the blizzard of emails and blog posts on "the 72 essential top tips on working from home", I am now spending an increasing amount of time thinking through what the longer-term impact of the coronavirus maybe on our global economy, geopolitics and society more broadly.
At the outset, I was reminded of a small gathering of futurists and "big-picture thinkers" I attended in Washington DC back in 1998, collectively contemplating scenarios for what the world might look like post the widely predicted Y2K apocalypse. A "Utopian" narrative emerged, where the banking system failed, markets crashed, the capitalist system as we knew it collapsed and all assets equally redistributed in a "reset" of the global economy. Of course, we now know there was no such disruption or reset due to the millennium bug. However, many commentators are now positing we may see significant structural and long lasting dislocations caused by the quite extraordinary events surrounding the current outbreak of coronavirus.
Some are suggesting (hoping for?) a similar post apocalyptic reset of the global system. Others argue that recent trends in the rise of nationalism, populism and protectionism will only be accelerated, marking the end of the globalisation era. Gideon Rachman makes such a case in his recent Financial Times article: "Nationalism is a side effect of coronavirus". He notes that at a national level, everyone despises the hoarders, grabbing scarce products for themselves and questions what might happen if whole countries act that way. This logic is not too dissimilar to the "Me First" scenario I envisaged a few weeks back.
There would seem to be some truth to the old adage that in times of crisis the true self will out. The European Union would appear to be facing an existential crisis. The reversion to the nation state has been particular prevalent in Europe as the EU has seemingly failed to provide a coherent or meaningful response to the current crisis. President Trump labelling COVID-19 the "China Virus" has not been helpful to US-Sino relations. Indeed, as Rachman points out, a worst case scenario by the end of this crisis could be the collapse of the EU and a complete breakdown in the relationship between China and the US, including potential military conflict.
China meanwhile, has been making huge efforts to rewrite the narrative about their role in the crisis. Tagged initially as suppressors of the truth (rather than the virus), China is now attempting to use soft power to help other countries, including Italy, deal with their own outbreaks. As an extension of their Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), they are offering medical equipment, advice and even staff, to several countries in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. At a time when the US has very publicly stepped back from any form of global leadership, China seems willing to fill the void. This is likely to have long-term ramifications on the global balance of power.
Yuval Noah Harari, another of those "big-thinkers", comments (also in the FT) that "we will inhabit a very different world", once the storm has passed. He goes on to argue that many short-term emergency measures will become a fixture of life post-crisis. As decision cycles shorten, immature and untested technologies are deployed, potentially numerous unintended consequences are unleashed. For instance, the monitoring and surveillance of private individuals is now possible as never before, from bio-metric information to geolocation data, once deployed will it ever be decommissioned? Harari sums up by framing the fundamental choice we have, in responding to this crisis, as being between national isolation and global cooperation. He argues strongly for the latter as the only way to a lasting, effective solution and that our choice now will shape how the world faces all future epidemics and crises.
As the role of the nation state has come under greater scrutiny, quite naturally so has the role and nature of government and in particular their ability to exhibit decisive leadership. Each country is experiencing its own particular challenges.
In the UK, we have seen the re-emergence of the big state. This has been largely driven by a series of emergency actions required to respond to the coronavirus crisis, from "unprecedented" economic and monetary interventions, to the re-nationalisation of the railways. This flies in the face of the trend of a shrinking state over the last 40 years. With Brexit to still negotiate, the "leveling up" of the regions across the UK and the unknown residual issues of the outbreak to deal with, it is hard to see the role and reach of the state contracting. The historical drive to downsize the role of government and the size of the state was born from the belief that private markets were better at allocating scarce resource and making more efficient decisions. How governments behave in the coming months will determine their longer term size, shape and mandate.
In the US by contrast, the federal government is perceived by many to be in disarray. An absence of leadership, coherence and clarity has put state and city politicians into the driver's seat. Some are performing better than others. Irrespective of your political leanings, such failings are impacting the level of trust in government. Add on the compounding factors of the Iraq war, the financial crisis and China's revamped narrative in dealing with the coronavirus, any further incompetence in responding to COVID-19 could lead to serious damage to US democracy.
To help explore some of these issues and more, my San Francisco-based colleague and scenario strategist Matt Ranen, has developed a set of post coronavirus scenarios. In his framework he sets out two key challenges:
How the world will define economic "success" on the other side. Will we continue to use traditional metrics (GDP etc.) or will there be a radical rethink with greater emphasis on equity, wellness and happiness?
Will people still maintain their faith and participation in traditional social contracts with national governments or look to strike new arrangements with newly empowered alternative communities?
Each of the four resulting scenario narratives (shown above) describe a post-coronavirus world as quite a radical departure from the world of today. Each future grapples with:
What will be the future relationship between individual and state?
How will "the system" be designed?
What are the trade-offs between desired outcomes and any downsides?
How to optimise the global economy, against which criteria and for whose benefit?
As the ensuing battle against COVID-19 unfolds over the coming weeks and months, it is worth remembering that while viruses seek only to replicate and humans seek to halt that replication, we have one big advantage; we can make choices. We should therefore be mindful that the decisions and choices we make now, will shape our world for years to come.