By Simon Kaye
We may not feel lucky to be alive at this moment, but we are. Covid-19 feels so acute and terrifying because crises like these have become so rare. That so many of us usually live every day free from the immediate experience of large-scale tragedy and without immediate concern for the wellbeing of our loved ones is a privilege distinct to our moment in history, and not one shared in every part of the world.
Indeed, there have been far worse moments to live through a global pandemic. Our response to the virus is exposing something fundamentally positive about what our society values and how it functions. It is also exposing – with great clarity – how we might better cope with the challenges that are coming.
It is difficult to imagine a whole society engaging in radical social distancing in a time before the arrival of the internet, with its video conferencing and streamable box sets. But at least the pre-web world of, say, the late 80s would have had a recognisable procedural and ethical response to a disease like covid-19. For most of history, we would have lacked the ability to detect the virus. Even after the development of microscopy and a decent grasp of the function of the human immune system, we would have been much further into a world of unnecessary deaths before this would have seemed like anything other than a particularly long and terrible winter.
It is possible to think of human societies that, confronted by this pandemic, would not have shared our near-universal commitment to do everything possible – to pay practically any price – to protect our most vulnerable people. We have a habit of focusing on the outlier, but it is notable how the idea that it would be acceptable to allow some 'excess deaths' has failed to gain any real traction. Even those who argue that the government is overreacting are doing so on the basis that they think the subsequent economic shock will kill or immiserate even more people.
For all the mistakes and arguments over interpreting the science or getting the timings wrong, there is much to be proud of in our society’s response to the pandemic. It reflects a sincere attempt to grapple with an out-of-context problem as humanely as possible.
But there is also much to learn from this experience. Covid-19 provides an opportunity to start taking an epidemiologist’s view on the long-term trends that affect our societies. This is important, because the issues that are set to transform the world in this century – technological revolution, climate change, the legitimacy crisis in our democratic institutions – share some of the features of the pandemic. For one thing, they each have a pandemic's potential for exponential progression, so the relatively piecemeal shifts of our current everyday can suddenly leap forward, blind-siding the unprepared.
Exponential progressions are so much harder for us to process than linear ones. It takes practice. One lesson from this pandemic is that we should be imagining a new way for communities to function now, because by the time the need for these changes becomes self-evident, we will already be far behind the curve.
It is difficult to calibrate a public health response to a virus currently killing dozens of people unless we understand that, in a matter of days, it will be killing thousands. In the same way, we should be thinking of comparable tipping points and rapid accelerations as we plan ahead for big leaps in artificial intelligence, or the gear-shift from general discontent to large-scale public demonstration against untrusted institutions. The effects of climate change could dramatically speed up if, for example, the great carbon sinks of oceanic life start to falter. This could lead to the release of exponentially greater levels of greenhouse gases rather than the slow grind toward a warmer Earth that we are currently experiencing.
Just like Covid-19, these crises require a coordinated response at both the largest and smallest scales – from international cooperation down to the level of neighbourhoods or even households. Neither scale of approach will be enough on its own. While a global drama plays out, it is our local governments that are keeping our public services in motion, our local communities that are supporting vulnerable people amid self-isolation.
Finally, each of these crises will increasingly demand that we get used to the cold calculations of crisis mitigation: a kind of politics where there are often no good outcomes, only less-worse ones, and where the incredible complexity of each decision highlights the looming possibility of unintended consequences. In such a world, as we are already finding from the pandemic, there is no place for the simplistic populism of so many contemporary politicians.
The last few weeks have exposed both the fundamental strength of our society and the ways in which it can be preserved. We already have the tools we need to make our communities more resilient. But if we fail to learn the lessons of Covid-19, total crises may once again become a normal part of our lives.
Simon Kaye is senior policy researcher at the New Local Government Network.
The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.