On the day the twin towers fell, after watching the carnage unfold on TV for most of the morning, I drove into work and, seized with the significance of the moment, composed an epic thumbsucker on How Our World Had Changed. Among other hauntingly prescient insights – written, you understand, as the ashes of the disintegrated World Trade Center were still floating to the ground – I discerned “the death of irony.”
Like that ever happened.
After the global financial crisis of 2008, or rather in the midst of it, there was a torrent of pieces in the same sort of instant revolutionary-futurist style, none of them thankfully written by me. It was going to mean, a thousand seers predicted, the transformation of the world economy, an utterly different approach to financial regulation, the end of decades of accumulated policy wisdom, Capitalism 2.0. It had to, because after this Nothing Could Ever Be the Same.
But of course, as it turned out, much could.
And so, here we are, scant weeks into a global pandemic whose duration and severity we can only guess at. And yet, even as the economy is collapsing around us, a vast industry of pop-up soothsayers is already hard at work projecting what it will all mean years, decades, centuries from now.
Sorry, did I say mere centuries? Try eternity. At Maclean’s, they’re taking you “inside the lockdown that will change Canada forever.” Great minds from Henry Kissinger (“The Coronavirus Pandemic Will Forever Alter the World Order”) to Mikhail Gorbachev (“Time to Revise the Entire Global Agenda”) to Governor-General Julie Payette (“the coronavirus will change our society”) are alike in seeing it as, to quote the philosopher John Gray, “a turning point in history.”
The ways in which a pandemic that has already begun to ebb will change everything for all time range from the profoundly possible (a shift in the international balance of power is always a safe bet) to the cautiously catastrophic (“This pandemic could trigger a spiral of disasters – if we let it”) to the oddly specific (“Weather forecasts may become less accurate,” while the virus will “change, shrink and shrivel television as we know it.”)
Certainly – or at least confidently – it spells the end of a great many things: globalization, Europe, civil liberties, urban density. It “could start inflaming wars around the world.” On the other hand, it could lead to a “new renaissance,” perhaps even change our very personalities, making us less hurried (“this terrible disaster," writes Alan Lightman, author of In Praise of Wasting Time, “has freed us from the prison of our time-driven lives”), more contemplative, more caring about one another, more … like whoever is speaking would like us to be. The tendency to see in catastrophe a sign, a portent of a great awakening, or at least an invitation to one, is as old as the Bible. And why not? Didn’t the Great Flood put an end to human sinning?
Two themes emerge from all this millenarianism. One is a tendency to extrapolate short-term, crisis-driven changes in behaviour indefinitely into the future, long after the crisis is past. We are using teleconferencing now, instead of meeting or commuting to work, shopping online instead of at the mall – perhaps these habits will stick. On the other hand, maybe people will also stop using public transit, or restaurants, or travelling anywhere. Who can say?
Only … we’ve had these technologies for some time, and they haven’t displaced the natural human urge to congregate, to see things for themselves, to meet face to face with one another, to take the measure of one another. Why, once there is no longer any threat to public health in so doing, should that necessarily change?
The other tendency, often observed in similar situations, is to use the crisis as an opportunity to advance long-held ideological preferences, previously constrained by the tiresome necessity of persuading others of their merits. By a remarkable coincidence, people who had always believed in policy A or philosophy B before the crisis are even more convinced, not only of their virtues but their inevitability, after.
Thus, if you happen to have always believed that governments should nurture particular firms and industries, in preference to others, you will be especially ardent in your advocacy of such solutions now. How exactly does a worldwide outbreak of a respiratory virus make the case for picking winners in, say, aerospace? The advocate has a simple answer. Because This Changes Everything.
You will perhaps have detected a certain skepticism of this thesis. But given how signally we have failed to predict the virus’s impact as far as a few weeks ahead, first dismissing the threat even as it was bearing down on us, only to hit the collective panic button as it started to subside, a little humility would seem to be in order when it comes to the eternal.
I suspect, or at least hope, it will lead to some changes in our preparedness for pandemics, though there is room for doubt even there, given our tendency to go to sleep after past brushes with disaster, such as the SARS epidemic. Only the size of the present calamity, and the costs of fighting it, persuades me that it may lead to some longer-term changes in approach: improved testing and screening techniques, stockpiling of medical and other essentials, and so on, together with the resolve to respond more quickly at the first sign of an outbreak.
Whether it will bring on some of the more Orwellian intrusions on civil liberties some foretell – personal cellphone data harvested in perpetuity – remains to be seen. But it seems likely you will not be able to get on a plane without having your temperature taken for some time.
We will no doubt be bailing ourselves out of the economic consequences for years to come – that’s not prophecy but arithmetic. The debt situation of the provinces, already dire before the crisis, will now be chronic, increasing their dependency on the federal government and hastening a rebalancing of fiscal federalism. Perhaps some of the innovations in income support, improvised over the past few weeks, will prove of durable worth.
But a fundamental transformation of the economy, of society, even of ourselves? I’ll believe it when I see it.
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