Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Apr 27, 2020
The world needs change.
No more shelter The publication of this commentary marks the beginning of online collaboration between Valdai Club, Russia as part of its Think Tank project and the Observer Research Foundation, India. This is the first in a series of planned exchanges between the two organizations on bilateral and global matters. Stay tuned for more commentaries, videos and webinars in the days ahead.

The world’s expert community is practically unanimous in arguing that the world after the coronavirus pandemic will be different. In some way, of course, they are right. Even the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said that one cannot enter the same river twice. But in general, people are conservative and prefer familiar things. Even if the world has changed radically. And there’s a very high probability that the world, following the current suffering and horrors, will basically return to normal. But, I emphasize, only basically. A pandemic will not be able to evaporate without a trace, even when we become immunised, both as individuals and humanity as a whole.

Today, as this article is being written, we do not know when and how the coronavirus epidemic will end. Moreover, we generally know little about the coronavirus itself. The range of opinions, even among seemingly respected experts, is quite large. They argue about the origin and lethality of the virus, the volume of economic losses, the social and political consequences, and even the biological nature of man. At the same time, it would be rather rash to assert that the coronavirus, besides itself, brought something new to the daily lives of people that did not exist before. In any case, even if this is so, identifying it is quite difficult to make out.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once wrote that people rarely can see anything new right away. Few are able to observe the direct creation of history. People, even the cleverest ones, as a rule see a perfect story. Comparatively (and very comparatively) accurate knowledge is available to us only about the past, and I’ll grant that this can be true of the recent past. Life in this respect resembles the work of a painter. First, the artist creates the undercoat, which then hides under the already completed work. So it is now. We are in the process of creating an undercoat, the finished picture will appear and become available to us later. But, I repeat, the future can reveal itself before our eyes.

Several things that have come to light during this coronavirus crisis are quite noticeable. Some are completely on the surface, while others are hidden a little deeper.

On the surface is the obvious, well-recognised, oft-debated crisis of globalisation. The previous model of globalisation, to a large extent conducted by the USA and the West in general (but not only by them) has exhausted itself. The reason for this, which the coronavirus underscored in many respects, is the contradiction between the high degree of interdependence of the world and the level and nature of its regulation. The lack of governance during the epidemic manifested itself with the greatest force: international organisations were practically powerless, their functioning was reduced in many ways to the distribution of advice. Neither the UN nor WHO have enough authority. Of course, this is not news. It is enough to look at modern armed conflicts, which are no less, but more deadly than the coronavirus, to understand that international institutions don’t have any tools to actually stop the armed struggle, and that they can deliver some amount of humanitarian aid in the form of rice, at best. Therefore, a profound revision of the entire system of international relations, the creation of more effective methods of cooperation between countries, and the development of regulatory institutions arises. How fast this will happen and in which direction it will move is a big question. We can see both the renaissance of international cooperation and the deepening fragmentation of the world.

The previous model of globalisation, to a large extent conducted by the USA and the West in general (but not only by them) has exhausted itself. The reason for this, which the coronavirus underscored in many respects, is the contradiction between the high degree of interdependence of the world and the level and nature of its regulation 

The second thing we can observe on the surface is that the world was drowned in a stream of information. Landmarks are largely lost and it is extremely difficult to distinguish truth from lies, especially given the general instability of information. When the Venetians introduced the term “quarantine” in 1448, they had false notions about the nature of the epidemic they faced. But these ideas were stable. They changed little, not just over the course of years, but decades. However, they were relatively constant. Today we live in a world of information streams, many of which become out-dated or refuted a few hours or even minutes after their distribution. I’m not talking about the fact that the number of contradictions in the disseminated information goes beyond all boundaries.

As John Keene, one of the leading communications experts, noted in his time, one result of disseminated information being extreme unstable, complicated and inconsistent is cognitive dissonance, not only among ordinary citizens, but also among the most refined elites. And this leads to confusion, to the desire to protect oneself from frightening news, to the desire to shift responsibility to the authorities, to the leader, to the rejection of one’s own critical view of what is happening. Moreover, the destruction of the information hierarchy is a direct path to totalitarianism, to informational isolation, which is much more harmful than physical quarantine. Although it is worth noting that the information disaster, uncontrollability and even – in some cases – the harmfulness of the modern information and communication world, is not a discovery of the last few turbulent weeks. It’s a known fact that we have lost navigation skills in the information ocean and we are facing a real tsunami.

It is worth noting that the new information and communication technologies not only scare us, but also greatly help us to bear the severity and deprivation of the coronavirus. The extent to which it was possible to transfer to the online a variety of activities – from education to concerts and entertainment, from trade to the Internet of things (to some extent) – is impressive. But at the same time, it reveals the numerous limitations and disadvantages of online communication, as well as its rather high degree of vulnerability. So in this area there is still a long way to go, both in the field of proper technology and in the international regulation of communications.

The extremely low level of solidarity between countries, elites, and citizens is also striking. It’s clear that the recipe for fighting the virus is isolation. But it is no less clear that the main task today – with all the horrors of the coronavirus as such – is to restore the global economy. The extent of the economic damage is still difficult to assess, but its materiality is obvious. So far, no reference has been made to any conditional “Marshall Plan” for the whole world. Moreover, the efforts of international organisations often conflict with the aspirations of individual countries. This is very clear in the case of the United States.

It’s clear that the recipe for fighting the virus is isolation. But it is no less clear that the main task today – with all the horrors of the coronavirus as such – is to restore the global economy

But, I repeat, the coronavirus did not so much create something new, as it emphasised the existing problems. Three years ago, the Valdai Club session at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum was named “Globalisation Revisited: Is Every Country on Its Own Now?” Alas, we did not want to be visionaries at all.

However, there are also such aspects of the life of our civilisation, regarding which it is very difficult to speak quite definitely.

First of all, this concerns the nature of human beings, their behaviour in society, and the system of power and regulation in human society. Coronavirus, of course, dealt a terrible blow to the people’s feeling of confidence in their omnipotence. Of course, various typhoons and other tsunamis greatly undermined the sense of stability among people living in regions affected by them. There were also fears among those who found themselves in the zone of an armed conflict. But these are familiar troubles, in a sense. In relation to them, a certain skill has developed; they give way to counteraction, which is followed by salvation and, ultimately, everyday behaviour. The coronavirus came to us like a kind of disaster film, or an accelerated version of global warming. As I mentioned beforehand, the global rear area has disappeared, as well as the feeling that there could be a shelter. The impact of this sudden awareness of helplessness is likely to be quite impressive. The coronavirus will pass away, but the fear of “abandonment”, loneliness and despair will leave its mark.

At one time, the 14th century plague in Europe led to major changes in both lifestyle and human relations. For example, the perceived value of a person has increased significantly, if only because there were fewer people left. Coronavirus, as it now seems, is not as deadly as the plague was 700 years ago. In any case, we hope so. But still, the current shock turned out to be quite serious.

Therefore, people may change their attitude towards themselves and the world. On the one hand, they will need some simplification of the world, a clear understanding of that lifestyle minimum, without which existence itself is impossible. This will happen gradually, but we will see how a certain division is made into what must be and what’s desirable, but not necessary. This will affect the economy, will lead to a change in its structure, both in individual countries and in the world as a whole. The aforesaid does not mean that panic buying and hoarding of staples will continue indefinitely: for example, the Internet, will surely be on the list of priorities, like many remotely working sectors of the economy.

On the other hand, relations between citizens and states may change. Obviously, this stage of the epidemic is working to strengthen the role of states. Without them, the fight against the virus is impossible. Citizens rely on states, meekly give them their rights, delegate authority. States, however, promise to show their effectiveness, both in saving lives and in saving the economy. And this, in a sense, is one and the same.

Citizens, during a pandemic, conduct a kind of revision of their societies, look at how they, in reality, got into this trouble and what they come out with. De facto, this can lead to a renegotiation of contracts between society and their authorities. After the end of the acute phase of the pandemic in many states, the structure of power may change, new political forces may arise and the present ones die out.

The fact is that the coronavirus arose more or less by accident. Of course, everyone knew that viruses were dangerous; dozens of films had been made about the threat of pandemics and hundreds of books were written. But still, a relatively stable picture of the world which had existed encountered erosion. The sense of security and power of modern mankind has been undermined. In such situations, two opposing trends may develop, one aimed at strengthening collective power, that is, at strengthening the state, increasing the desire to rely on authorities. The other is the exact opposite, to individualisation, to a kind of anarchy. Ernst Jünger in his 1977 sci-fi novel “Eumeswil” describes a certain, inwardly free new type of person and calls him Anarch. Jünger sees Anarch as a kind of alternative to the state, since there are situations in which Hobbes’ Leviathan is unable to cope with his problems.

One way or another, the coronavirus has posed a rather serious challenge to modern political structures. Another challenge – and this can be clearly seen in the debate about the coronavirus – is the problem of understanding death and mortality in the modern world. In recent years, partly under the influence of postmodern ideas, death has come to be seen as a kind of tragic accident. It is clear that rationally everyone understands the inevitability of death. But every death is interpreted in a modern civilised society as “premature”, as some failure. This, incidentally, is clearly visible in the debate about euthanasia. At the same time, a civilisation cannot develop without a distinct narrative regarding death. An answer to challenges and threats, an understanding of heroism and cohesion, development goals and the social structure as a system are impossible without understanding the fate of the individual in all its tragedy.

Coming back to the general assessment of the consequences of the pandemic, I think that there will not be any particular bright and immediate consequences precisely because of the pandemic. The Spanish flu, far more deadly scourge which hit the world a hundred years ago, did not lead to any particular political or social consequences. Perhaps because it proceeded against the backdrop of World War I, which was cruel and in many other ways meaningless. The feeling of tragedy of those times was to a much greater extent perceive as the result of the First World War, rather than the pandemic.

Nevertheless, and I do not contradict myself, the world needs change.

Moreover, the coronavirus clearly showed the need for these changes. In a sense, the coronavirus is a relatively mild (with all its monstrosity) “substitute” for war and can serve as a trigger for change. A sharp reaction to the pandemic shows us that many have accumulated a kind of existential discontent with the current world, which, of course, will lead to changes.

And in conclusion, it may be worthwhile to approach the assessment of the effects of the coronavirus more systematically, analyse the main areas of human life, and form a forecast for their development after overcoming the epidemic.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Andrey Bystritskiy

Andrey Bystritskiy

Andrey Bystritskiy is the Chairman of the Board of the Foundation for Development and Support of the Valdai Discussion Club.

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