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What will the world look like after the pandemic?

The world has been overwhelmed by an almost invisible enemy, a virus. A microscopic villain is changing history and our lives killing millions, heightening fears and increasing the risk of poverty. What will the post-covid world look like? Euronews asks three experts, Peter Frankopan, a Professor of global history, Karina Knorr-Cetina, a social scientist at the University of Chicago, and Jean-Paul Fitoussi, a Professor of Economics.

As an expert in global history, do you think that COVID-19’s ability to spread so fast and easily has been an absolute novelty in the history of pandemics?

Professor Peter Frankopan:

“No, I mean, we live in a world where technology and our travel connections allow things to move much faster, but pandemics are a very important part of global history, going back many thousands of years. The problem is when we live as human beings close to animals that jump from the animal kingdom into things that become damaging and dangerous for human beings it is part of the price we pay for the food supplies that we have. What was unusual about this pandemic was the fact that after it was identified in Wuhan, how quickly it spread across to Europe. But, in fact, even those speed elements one needs to look at differently. So we”re here now more than one and a half years since the first identification, and it’s only now started to sweep through India in a devastating pattern. So these things, they do take time, but they tell us a lot about how we communicate, how we travel. But the speed is, I think, not as dramatic as we might think”.

Looking back in history and making a comparison with previous contagions, how might this pandemic change the global political order?

Professor Peter Frankopan:

“Well, I think that all depends on what happens next. I mean, before the pandemic happened, everybody realized that this was a time where China was rising very quickly in ways that were predictable and also unpredictable. Russia and its relationships with its neighbors, particularly Ukraine, were already extremely problematic. Climate change and its impact on South Asia and the Middle East and West Africa are topics that a lot of people are thinking or worrying about. So we are living in a time of great change anyway. So in some ways, this has acted as a catalyst to slow some things down so our air is cleaner. The birds are singing because we are not travelling as much. But the real long-term impact will be on the global poor. That is where the most pressure comes in these kinds of environments because rich countries are able to generate maximum debt that they need to and able to convince investors that they’ll pay them. But emerging markets and countries that are undeveloped, are already suffering terribly, and that gap will become much, much worse in the years coming forwards”.

Have over pandemics had such economic and financial effects?

Professor Peter Frankopan:

“The difference with this pandemic is that although it’s affected millions of people, actually its mortality rates are not so bad. It seems very dramatic, as we see on the TV. But the Spanish flu, for example, 100 years ago, if it had killed now on the same level as 100 years ago, we’d be looking at more than 250 million people who died rather than three million. So each of those deaths is a personal tragedy for the family and avoidable, of course, if better measures have been put in place. But this one won’t change labour relationships in the same way because there’s no major demographic change as an impact. It’s about how governments manage their debts and how we decide to redo that relationship, I think, between political centres and citizens or taxpayers. That, I think, is a really important discussion that’s already going on. But we’ll accelerate in the next few years”.

Do you think that the post-covid world will be less interdependent?

Professor Peter Frankopan:

“I’m very anxious that decoupling also has a dark side as well. So I think it’s much harder than people seem to suggest that it is. There are clearly the geopolitical jigsaw pieces at the high level that need to be looked at. But no, I think that, you know, I hope that we go back to normal because if we don’t go back to normal. The bottom line means inflation and higher prices. That will be devastating in the short term”.

Is the Russian vaccine, Sputnik, a power politics tool or a weapon against COVID-19?

Professor Peter Frankopan:

“So when we see the Russians offering their vaccine, we think this is a tool. The first question will be what is our parallel? Where are our vaccines and our medical support for other parts of the world? Why don’t we use our vaccines equally in the same so-called diplomatic way? So for sure, Russia and Moscow will be trying to use their leverage. As it happens, Russia has got a much weaker position globally than I think most people think. It has to use its abilities in diplomacy quite carefully. I think we in Europe, we are shut down to the idea of what we want. In fact, we’ve even talked about restricting the shipment of vaccines from Europe to other parts of the world. Typically in our pharmaceutical industry, we prevent intellectual property being used to lower the price of medicines that would save lives in the developing world. We, I think, in Europe, we expect everybody to do things our way. But actually, when we look at ourselves in the mirror, there’s a lot I think that we should do better”.

As citizens of the world, must we now give more importance to health system rules and medical research in regional groupings, as well as in free trade agreements, because of pandemics?

Professor Peter Frankopan:

“The funny thing is that crisis often brings positive outcomes, and one of the things I think that the pandemic has taught us is that we need to have a much more integrated global response to disease and pandemics. The amount of research in the way in which collaboration works between university research centres has been a real miracle during this process of seeing how quickly and how many vaccines have been developed. The reality is that only three percent of medical funding goes into antivirus research. I think as a result of that, the way in which we think about how do we cooperate better to cure diseases in a more structured way is really important with things like cancer or with AIDS, etcetera. I think that there’s some real hope that these collaborations can be replicated into other areas, too, so that there will be some upsides about how do we work together. The problem is, of course, politicians in all countries always mess things up because they cause often problems that there don’t need to be or they are playing power games with each other. But as far as the medical side of cooperation goes, I think hopefully we’ll be in a better position once the pandemic comes to an end”.

The figures from this pandemic are tragic. They’re awful, but compared to the Spanish flu and the plague of the 14th century, the effects of COVID seem to be less harmful to humanity. Are we more psychologically vulnerable than our ancestors?

Professor Peter Frankopan:

“That, I can’t tell you. What I can tell you as a global historian who looks at thousands of years is that human beings are very resilient and we’re quite good at picking ourselves up at the end of devastating wars, following genocides, following a huge tragedy. We’re quite good at getting back on our feet and try to learn some lessons. I think that that’s not what worries me. The problem is, is when governments take on very serious amounts of debts, they can be incentivised to make erratic decisions when they’re unable to meet their obligations. We all know that if you don’t have enough food on your table or you run out of money, that’s when problems come. I think that in the developed economies of the world, we are more resilient at the moment. But the worry will be there will be an escalation of confrontations between states who don’t have the capacity to support. It doesn’t take much with bad weather events, with failed harvests. We see a huge amount of dislocation in agricultural markets at the moment, from winegrowing in France this year, the grape season through to the price of cereals. It doesn’t take much for those to spin out of control. So resilience is not the key question. The question is, do human beings put their differences behind them and fight or do they find a way to work pacifically and support each other? That one, I think the jury is out, and we’ll have to see. But as an optimist and a pragmatist, I think that we’re quite good at getting past problems”.

Our societies have endured months of isolation, loneliness and social barriers. Human beings have had to change their lives radically. **What kind of fundamental lessons do you think the world has learnt from the pandemics?**

Dr. Knorr Cetina:

“One fundamental lesson certainly is that it is not just that it hasn’t just been a biological problem or an epidemiological problem, but it has caused huge disruptions in our social life in what the social means for us in what society means. It means that many of these light ties we have normally, you have normally in social life these small gift exchanges, like if I go to a bakery and I ask for a bun or something or a coffee, I get a smile, I get a service, I say thank you. Those are completely non-committal exchanges. They don’t involve solidarity going back there, any of that. Yet they produce a sort of social interaction that’s like a medium in which we swim. That medium was gone”.

Were you surprised by the behavior of society vis-à-vis older people? There was a lot of preoccupation about the life of older people. They were not abandoned.

Dr. Knorr Cetina:

“Yeah, I think that was a very positive, mostly really positive part of the whole thing, because it need not be the case, you could adopt an attitude, as some countries have in fact adopted that says the fittest survive and the non-fit don’t survive. And if all the people are more prone to the illness and can’t survive, then you have to take we’ll just have to swallow that. But most states and most societies did not do that and took care. You know, even if you have capitalism, it has a social component”.

We have rediscovered the importance of investing in the health sector. Will people now rediscover the importance of solidarity and put aside greed and extreme individualism?

Dr. Knorr Cetina:

“No, I don’t think the last thing is going to work. But the solidarity issue, that’s a deep, deep question because one thing we discovered, I think in the pandemic, and I’m speaking mostly about the US because I’ve been stuck here for a year. It would tend to refuse to wear masks, which is a very limited thing to ask people to do, it is not really a deep problem to wear a mask. But they started a war of masks. And you found suddenly that there is no we, we are not us. We are not one nation. We are completely divided along unexpected lines. Now, I am not saying that this division wasn’t there before, but we didn’t have to pay attention to it”.

Do you think that the practice of social distancing is here to stay even once the pandemic is over?

Dr. Knorr Cetina:

“Not completely, no. On that level, I think we will completely recover. But on the more political, the completely collective level, you know, the imagined community of us, of we, as a united people, that is going to be a problem for a longer period of time. I see no evidence, for example in the United States that’s getting better”.

With smart working and virtual leaders’ summits, the digital world came into our lives faster than expected. Are we facing long-lasting and significant changes to how we live our lives? Or will we just go back to normal once this is over?

Dr. Knorr Cetina:

“Many corporations in the US are planning to and have already started to go back a little bit, half time, but also get rid of their real estate and saying, well, people can work from home and they should work from home. Now at universities where I work, we will go back. We will try to go back to normal because we know that students come to an American campus university, not just for reasons of learning, but also for reasons of the social networks they form there. They want that social contact and they don’t want at that age, you know, to be on screen in the flatlands all the time. So we will probably have to go back and go back completely”.

“The online life has to be scripted, it has to be initiated, you know, it’s a procedure to perform. It’s not informally, just happening lightly and easily. So it will be good if people do take advantage of what can happen in in-person situations”.

The pandemic has highlighted the global economic order’s shortcomings, states have had to run to its rescue.

Professeur Fitoussi, one of your theories is the lamppost theory, the lamppost metaphor. We know that parts of society are lit up by the lamppost, but there are also unlit areas, dark zones. Has COVID or the pandemic, shone light on the dark zones?

Professeur Fitoussi:

“It has shone light on the fact that European health systems are not in as good health as everyone thought. In regards to France, it came as a big surprise that the French medical system was far from being the best in the world, as was once thought. That’s because we didn’t invest enough into the hospital system. We regulated the system and stretched it as much as possible to reduce spending. But in reality, we’ve made the system dysfunctional and replaced doctors with administrators”.

What about the role of the state in all this?

Professeur Fitoussi:

“The main mission of a state is to protect its own people. The COVID-19 crisis has reminded us of this in a dramatic way. Every state has started protecting its people. There’s not one single state that hasn’t done that, even though before, protecting either the unemployed or the soon to be unemployed, or companies that were about to become bankrupt, was considered as an infringement of the mainstream mindset. We’ve rediscovered that in a global system if we leave our borders wide open, and that’s what globalisation means, we have to protect our people more. Otherwise, we will be forced to do so due to a major crisis or a revolution”.

Do you think that the recovery plan that was approved by the EU as a response to the economic crisis generated by the pandemic will be enough to reshape the project of a social Europe?

Professeur Fitoussi:

“Well, there are two points in the recovery plan: first of all it exists, and it gives some substance to the idea of a Euro Bond. That means a solidarity financing of Europe.

Is it a big step forward then?

Professeur Fitoussi:

“It’s something extremely positive. Nevertheless, the recovery plan is not implemented because of endless debates. If we look at the USA, we see that they are going to spend 7 trillion euros, while the EU will spend just 750 billion, and the EU has more inhabitants than the US. As far as we can see, we’re not playing in the big leagues. Of course, with such an effort, the US will recover quite fast and it will have a competitive advantage over Europe and that advantage is bound to get bigger”.

Has COVID unveiled a severe lack of leadership in the EU?

“The people are being scoffed at. They are being told: “you are not real citizens, as you are not able to use your country’s politics, but anyway, we’ll pretend that you are citizens”. They have lost their sovereignty, and the sovereignty that they are being deprived of, is not actually being used on the European level. That’s the problem of Europe, there is a void of sovereignty. There’s no European sovereignty and there’s no national sovereignty anymore. So what do people do in these circumstances? Well, they look for a quick answer and that quick answer is populism. Populism promises that everything is possible, even if it’s unbelievable. People think, what have we got to lose? Politics aren’t changing, we’re still unemployed, we’re getting poorer and poorer, the middle class is vanishing. What do we have to lose? Let’s give the populists a go”.



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