Could COVID-19 make the world a better place? The question might seem absurd, even callous, at a time when the virus is still snatching lives all around us. Yet it is already clear that, in fact, many good things could flow from this great and punishing battle. As a new year begins, let’s consider a few of them.
Start with medicine and science. The fight against the coronavirus has yielded a burst of innovation. Researchers managed to produce safe, effective vaccines in record time. It is the greatest scientific achievement of the current century and it leaves the world better prepared for future onslaughts.
Thanks to lessons learned in frantic intensive-care units, doctors know much more now about how to treat acute respiratory illness. Epidemiologists are adding to their store of knowledge about viruses, how they take root and how they spread. Public-health authorities have been handed a bitter reminder to take swift, decisive action when a new disease raises its head.
Now look at cities. From the early days of the pandemic, cities started adapting. With motor-vehicle traffic way down, they opened up their streets to bicycles and pedestrians. Many of those no-car zones have become permanent. The traffic will return, but the shift to more walkable, livable cities feels permanent.
The virus is exacting a disproportionate toll on the most vulnerable city dwellers. That has bred a fresh determination to protect them. City governments are taking a new look at some of their toughest problems, from homelessness to urban poverty traps.
Business is undergoing a shakeup of its own. E-commerce has taken off. That means more than a fat paycheque for Jeff Bezos. It means better service for customers and more savings for companies. Firms are investing in machine learning and artificial intelligence. They are giving workers much more flexibility, not just in where they work but how they work.
That can only lead to more creativity and invention.
Though we are all yearning for some face-to-face-contact after months of staring at our screens, the Zoom boom has made exchanging ideas at a distance far easier. The result will be overdue change in everything from the classroom to the courthouse to the doctor’s office.
Big government has returned with a vengeance during the pandemic. Governments everywhere are spending more and intervening more. Reasonable citizens accept that, in a crisis at least, this is no bad thing. The virus has reminded all of us that a well-resourced, competent government is vital to our health and safety. Though the lavish spending can’t last forever and the enormous budget deficits must eventually come down, it has given countries a useful push to invest in what is important. Governments everywhere are pledging to devote more of their revenues to vital things such as strengthening public health, improving elder care and protecting the environment.
Perhaps the best thing to come from the COVID-19 tragedy is a renewed appreciation for what unites us. The world seemed in a divided, quarrelsome state when the virus came along; it still seems that way at times like this week, when the world’s leading democracy appeared to be coming apart before our eyes. In the pandemic, we are facing a common foe that doesn’t care what nationality its victims are or what disputes they might have with each other. The best response is to come together.
If we have any sense, we will build on this insight by reversing the recent trend and strengthening international agreements and institutions – something that seems at least possible now that You Know Who is finally on his way out of the White House, kicking and screaming all the way. Imagine how much better our response to the virus might have been if the World Health Organization had more power and more money to spot and counter looming threats. To fight infection, we need connection.
Good can indeed come from this struggle, but only if we work in unison to build a better world.
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