The post-COVID world

Which elements of living with the pandemic will remain with us? Observations by Bernd Kortmann and Günther G. Schulze

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Which elements of living with the pandemic will remain with us and leave their mark on society, education, business and politics? Bernd Kortmann and Günther G. Schulze of the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies (FRIAS) have published an anthology of expert opinions. They sum up the experts’ views here.

Although the world is still in the midst of a corona pandemic that has nearly all countries firmly in its grip, we now have effective vaccines that could put an end to this horror – and we can already see the light at the end of the tunnel. But what will the post-COVID world be like? Will the pandemic mark a turning point or will it only make a small dent in long-term lines of development? What will the crisis leave behind?

First of all, it will leave a feeling of individual and systemic vulnerability. For Western Europe the corona pandemic has been the greatest crisis since the Second World War in medical, economic and social terms. This feeling will endure beyond the pandemic. The relative security in which many people have lived since the end of the Cold War is now irretrievably gone. This will not only perman­ently change attitudes to life, but also increase provision for the future by individuals and society. ­Investments in the health system will rise, while debates about cutting costs there will fall silent. Government agencies will take more preventive ­action to ensure that shortages of protective ­equipment and in health authorities do not occur again during the next pandemic.

A new sense of community – and seeing others as potential threats

The corona crisis will – at least, that is the hope – lead to a new sense of community. During the crisis a strange tension has developed in how people relate to one another. Everyone has been affected by the virus and its social and economic impacts, although to a varying extent. Initially that generated solidarity and a new feeling of community and shared responsibility. Groups of people who had previously not been the focus of attention were finally appreciated because of their live-saving and systematically important functions – for example, nursing staff or employees in the food retail trade and parcel delivery services.

On the other hand, fellow human beings are also potential carriers of the virus – their behaviour determines our own risk exposure and makes them a potential threat. This has led to individualisation and distancing – greeting and leave-taking rituals such as shaking hands, hugs or a kiss on the cheek are no longer seemly – as well as growing isolation and loneliness, especially among mentally unstable individuals. In fact, the danger of a “third wave” in the sense of a strong increase in mental illness, especially of anxiety disorders and severe depression, across all classes and age groups is extremely real and has already arrived in clinics and doctors’ practices. Obviously, in these times of increasing “corona blues” it is still not yet clear how much of this new sense of community and these “corona feelings” will remain with us permanently and which elements will eventually be rolled back again. However, many experts from different fields see the pooling of all our resources to overcome the corona crisis as an opportunity to overcome even greater crises – above all, the ecological crisis triggered by climate change. There is also broad agreement that there will be no return to the supposedly good old normality. Instead the corona crisis should be used as an opportunity for fundamental reflection and rethinking – by all means bound up with a moral reawakening – and, among other things, lead to a sustainable environmental, climate, economic and social policy – with the overall goal of a stronger focus on the common good.

Catalyst for digital communication

Although concrete prognoses about the post-COVID world remain difficult, many trends are now already clearly discernible. Digitalisation is one of them. The trend towards digital communication will increase, and the crisis is acting as a cata­lyst here. Corona has compelled many companies, universities and authorities that were previously reluctant to adopt new communication technologies to try out new digital formats. These changes will ­remain in place where people’s experiences are posi­tive. There will be an increase in working from home, video conferencing and online teaching, especially because they lead to cost savings and appropriate offerings increase employers’ attractiveness.

This will impact the property market – on one hand, because it will no longer be so important for employees to live near their places of work in urban areas and, on the other, because there will be less demand for office space. The trend towards working from home will also lead to a further increase in women’s employment, since new flexible work opportunities will make it possible to better reconcile having a family and a career. Although women have been among those most affected by the restrictions on public life – because a disproportionately large share of the responsibility for childcare has fallen upon their shoulders, because job losses have affected women more often than men and because domestic violence has increased – they have been able to benefit most from the ­rapid increase in digitalisation.

Economy and labour market in transition

Major adjustments to the labour market can be expected – not only because specific industries, such as the hotel and transport sectors, will need long-term restructuring, but also because the transitions from school to vocational training or from university to employment and moving from one job to another have become much more difficult. Fewer apprenticeships have been offered during the crisis, and firms are not hiring as many employees. This carries the risk of creating a “corona generation” that will continue to feel the impact of gaps in their educational and employment biographies long after the crisis. A similar situ­ation could also threaten school students, especially the weaker ones or those with migrant backgrounds, if schools are closed again for a longer period, not least because the pandemic has revealed significant weaknesses in the German school system with regard to digitalisation and teachers’ media (teaching) competence.

COVID has triggered an enormous productivity shock affecting both supply and demand. Production costs have increased – among other things, because of the need to implement hygiene strategies. At the same time, demand is falling because consumers exercise restraint during crises and real incomes have fallen. This has resulted in insolvencies, job losses and restructuring – normal side effects of an economic crisis. However, this crisis has been deeper than the last, and it is still unclear whether the recovery will be swift. However justifiable they might be in prin­ciple, the wide range of government aid measures could also delay overdue structural adjustments and enable uncompetitive enterprises to keep ­doing business. On the other hand, because it has not been possible to implement aid measures fast enough or target them ­accurately enough other businesses that would have been competitive in post-COVID times have not been able to make it through the crisis and structures will have to be laboriously built up again.

In any event, these huge additional public expenditures will become a significant financial burden in the future. If markets were to lose trust in large European countries, for example, this could lead to a sovereign debt crisis with very far-reaching consequences. The EU Multiannual Financial Framework for 2021 to 2027, which totals nearly 1.1 trillion euros, and the corona recovery fund, which totals 750 billion euros, including 390 billion euros in grants, may ease the situation in the short-term. At the same time, however, it carries the risk of a permanent communitisation of debts with the known severe negative incentive effects for sound prevention and finance policy.

Pandemic as a geopolitical factor

Corona is also having an impact on the world ­order. First, the actions of the US Administration during the pandemic probably contributed to the Trump government losing the election, which has given grounds for optimism that the United States will again play a constructive international leadership role. Second, United States action has led to increased self-confidence on the part of the Chin­ese leadership. It is exploiting the attention gap created by the corona crisis and taking an increasingly confrontational stance in many places. Such developments towards a stronger dualism between China and the United States were already emerging – here, as in many other areas, the corona pandemic has had an accelerating effect. Finally, the “vaccination nationalism” that has emerged in the race to develop and distribute vaccines and the way vaccines have been instrumentalised will have lasting effects.

Overall, corona has brought about a setback for populist governments in democratic countries, but not a setback for many governments in authoritarian countries. The longer the crisis has continued, the greater the boost this has given corona deniers and adherents of conspiracy theories. They may be relatively small in number, but they have a loud voice and a strong presence in the ­media. Although little of this is really specifically related to the coronavirus, the same mechanisms largely apply here as have applied to conspiracy theories in the past.

Victory of science over crisis

The pandemic has undeniably increased acceptance of the importance of science and research. At the same time, however, it has become apparent that there is still room for significant improvements in the communication of science to society, politics and the media. The pandemic has also encouraged the idea that governments that act on the basis of scientific evidence, provide transparent information and explain their actions well are better able to take their countries through the crisis than governments that are driven by ideology. Ultimately – and what better evidence could there be for this than the swift approval of corona vaccines – this crisis will be overcome by science. This is also a central insight that will remain with us after the time with corona. It is also an insight that can help us address the major problems that still lay ahead of us.


 

DIVERSE POINTS OF VIEW

The authors of the article, Professor Bernd Kortmann and Professor Günther G. Schulze, ­also edited “Jenseits von Corona. Unsere Welt nach der Pandemie – Perspektiven aus der Wissenschaft”, which was published by transcript in September 2020. In their book on the post-COVID world they brought together contributions by 32 highly renowned researchers in different disciplines, including Markus Gabriel (philosopher), Andreas Vosskuhle (former President of the Federal Constitutional Court), Lars Feld (economist and Chair of the
German Council of Economic Experts), Bärbel Friedrich (microbiologist and former Vice President of the German Academy of Sciences Leopoldina), Marina Münkler (literary scholar) and Herfried Münkler (political scientist). Bernd Kortmann is professor of English language and linguistics and Executive Director of the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies (FRIAS); Günther G. Schulze is professor of economics and Director Social Sciences at FRIAS.

www.frias.uni-freiburg.de

 


 

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