Introducing Aftershock: Society and politics after the pandemic

7 May 2020

In this new series by Policy Network, we'll explore how the pandemic may fundamentally reorder essential aspects of our economies and societies, and how progressives should respond

Patrick Diamond

The world is living through the greatest public health emergency for over a century, and the greatest political crisis since the Second World War. The aftershocks of this pandemic threaten to reorder every aspect of our economies and societies in fundamental ways. This is a defining moment.

There is much about the nature of Covid-19 as a form of infectious disease that we still don’t understand. The search is underway for a vaccine, various life-saving treatments, reliable antibody testing, alongside viable strategies to ‘exit’ from lockdown. Even so, the purpose of this Policy Network series is to think beyond the immediate crisis to consider what the world will be like in the aftermath of the pandemic. How can states and the global political community best deal with the aftershocks unleashed by the virus?

We’ll consider six major themes that will redefine progressive politics across the globe, enabling centre-left parties to fashion a viable programme for government and a vision for society that will revive their fortunes after a decade in the doldrums.

The role of the state

The first theme relates to the role of the state. What will the purpose of the state be in the wake of the crisis? What new responsibilities will governments be required to assume? After three decades of relentless assault on the legitimacy and efficacy of the state, we may be witnessing a period in which government as a force for good in the economy and society is restored. Nonetheless, acute dilemmas and political trade-offs remain. A major issue is who gains and who loses from the distribution of emergency state support? Is government now the de facto employer and lender of last resort in the advanced economy countries? And how can fiscal sustainability be re-established given soaring public sector deficits and debt?

Security and freedom

The second theme concerns the relationship between security and freedom. In managing the impending public health catastrophe of Covid-19, governments everywhere are having to rethink how to strike the correct balance between freedom and security. Intrusive lockdowns to cope with the pandemic often require unpalatable limits on freedom in the name of human security. Even so-called ‘exit’ or ‘containment’ strategies require the state to use unprecedented forms of surveillance through new technologies. States that are perceived to have acted decisively, notably South Korea and Singapore, have a very different conception of the trade-off between freedom and security than many Western European nations.

Future governance

The third theme is about governance. How should we redesign governance to deal more effectively with future risks, from pandemics to climate change? How can public authorities help to anticipate and prevent problems from occurring at the outset? The quality of political leadership has emerged as a critical issue. It is striking that those countries that are apparently most effective in battling the virus are led by women. In the economy, how can governments recreate the capacity for sector by sector strategic planning to reopen businesses and places without threatening public safety? Is there an optimal balance between decentralising responsibility locally and regionally, and resorting to central state power? It seems clear that effective ‘multi-level’ governance creates capacities for policy action and policy learning at different tiers of the state, tailoring responses to the needs of local communities. A further question is how citizens and communities can be more effectively mobilised in pursuit of shared goals.

The European Union

The fourth theme is about the functioning of the European Union (EU) since the crisis erupted. Why has the response of the EU to the pandemic been so ineffectual thus far? Of course, the EU currently has limited competencies in relation to public health. Yet there was a perception that Italy was abandoned at the height of the crisis in Southern Europe – with more medical equipment being supplied by China than France or Germany. Can the Eurozone now survive the financial shock inflicted by the health emergency? To prevent European solidarity crumbling further amid mounting economic distress, it will be essential to activate a version of ‘coronabonds’, a common European debt instrument that keeps borrowing costs down for EU member-states. To save Europe, radical policy thinking will be necessary.

Global coordination

The fifth theme concerns the role of global co-ordination in the absence of American leadership. At a moment of existential crisis, it is quite understandable for citizens to look inward to their own societies and communities. Most responses to the pandemic have been nationally focused. As a consequence, there is a huge vacuum of leadership at the global level, and a serious risk that national governments will refuse to co-operate – with potentially catastrophic consequences for the future management of the disease. Abandoning developing countries in Africa and Latin America to the pandemic is not only morally contemptable, it is contrary to the self-interest of the West since it will lead inevitably to further waves of the virus.

The post-crisis economy and inequality

The final theme focuses on the future shape of the economy. It is not only that the pandemic and lockdowns across the world will lead to an unprecedented contraction of economic output and GDP with long-term scarring effects. The risk of future outbreaks and new pandemics, and the need for prolonged periods of partial lockdown and reopening, will make it necessary to reorganise the economy in fundamental ways. In the meantime, COVID-19 threatens to aggravate pre-existing inequalities between rich and poor, between men and women, and between younger and older generations. The conventional metrics of economic growth, productivity, GDP, and living standards become almost meaningless. Will a new concern with human health and well-being lead to a structural shift in the foundations of market economies? The basic assumptions of how our economies operate will be overturned as the conventional wisdom of the last era is challenged on everything from pay differentials to the global mobility of capital. Enabling free markets to function untrammelled while the surplus generated from growth is used to fund the welfare state and public realm will be seriously questioned as a governing philosophy.

Underlying each of these themes is a critical question: how exactly will our economies and societies change in the aftermath of the crisis, and how should they change?

Crises are rare moments where windows of opportunity for radical change open up. Yet they also provide impetus for far-reaching innovation and experimentation across the entire landscape of public policy. We must not let the current crisis go to waste.