The World After COVID-19
Covid 19 has taken the world by storm. As late as March, people could not envisage shutting down the economy or closing borders. What has happened in a very few months has shaken the foundation of our society. It has probably turned into the marking event for the present generation, just as the two world wars were in the 20th century.
The question many ask is whether things will return to the pre-pandemic normal or whether our society is altered forever. When we look at other shattering events such as the world wars and the great depression, we see that things never fully return to their previous status. It is sufficient to look at photographs of Paris and London of 1920 and compare that with those of 1913 to see an immense difference in the fashion, the prevalence of automobiles and an undeniable atmosphere of modernity. Literature, music, art and cinema were all radically transformed. However, most of the changes (prevalence of automobiles, daring dress styles) were parts of trends which had started before the war. A cataclysmic event accelerates existing trends. Only in countries which experience revolution does it effect a total break.
Most western countries are not candidates for revolution, however discontented citizens may be with their leaders and worried about the glaring inequality. There will be new leaders and new political movements. However, we can to a large extent extrapolate from pre-covid tendencies to see in what ways our world may become different and to what extent it may remain very much the same for revolution,
The crisis has arrested the frenetic consumption, the conservative fiscal policies and the cult of growth which marked the last 40 years. Will these characteristics of modern capitalism bounce back when the emergency ends?
Prior to Covid-19, many voices led by Thomas Piketty were calling for major change for several reasons — galloping inequality, environmental concerns and the frequent crises to which the system is prone. What is different now is that citizens have realized that they can live without constant shopping and partying.
They have also come to rely on government aid to a point that an attempt to balance the budget quickly would produce hardship, cuts to social programs and an exacerbation of inequality. Even conservative leaders like Boris Johnson now expound the virtue of a more “social state”.
On the other hand, the financial pages of our newspapers are already preparing their coming battle for austerity and for the stimulation of spending. Some conservative governments, notably Alberta have started to lower corporate taxes and many Americans, including the President are boasting of their economy’s renewed growth in the midst of catastrophic Covid statistics. Clearly, capitalism will refuse to go away without a fight.
These economic battles will be central to determining the kind of society which will emerge from the Covid crisis. If the conservatives win, the improvements in the environment caused by the lockdown will prove ephemeral, long-term inequality will continue to rise, and the competitive pressures and speculation will expose us to cyclic break-down will remain in place.
If the progressives win, it will be necessary for citizens to accept lower purchasing power and less luxury because one cannot maintain generous social spending without raising taxes or discovering other ways of augmenting government revenues.
Past experience shows that a cataclysmic experience often produces a fairly long-lasting move to the left. This was evident after World War II, when thirty prosperous social-democratic years followed the horrors of war and genocide. It is therefore reasonable to hope that after Covid we shall live in a more caring, gentle society. We should consider the inevitable transformations to see whether they will help or hinder the creation of such a world.
Work from the office
The Covid crisis has shown that modern technology can enable many to work from home. This was already happening and will surely continue after Covid. That could have a negative effect on the ability of employees to unionize and to bargain effectively. It may well become necessary to legislate some form of representation for workers working largely from home. Otherwise we risk creating a gig economy of precarity and depressed wages.
On the other hand, working from home would have a potentially positive effect on families and would save both transportation costs for employees and rentals costs for employers.
One casualty could be commercial real-estate and in order to be fair, a form of compensation would probably become necessary. Some have vigorously denied this danger suggesting that distancing at work will require more, not less space. But unless Covid proves hardier than expected, distancing is a relatively short-term phenomenon. Working from home at least part of the time is probably permanent. Therefore, the future of commercial real estate is not likely to be rosy and we have to plan for the difficulties ahead.
Since the first catalogues appeared early in the 20th century, pundits have been predicting the demise of small stores and even shopping centres and department stores. The process turned out to be very slow and, in fact, the great flowering of shopping centres and outlet centres coexisted with buying from catalogues. In recent years, however, it has become clear that the theory or the decline of stores has considerable merit. Especially since the advent of Amazon, the precipitous fall in the number of bookstores and the virtual end of record and CD retailers demonstrated dramatically that a shopping revolution was taking place
Covid undoubtedly accelerated this trend, extending it massively to groceries, clothes, medication, computer hardware and countless other fields. Perhaps
some retailers will bounce back, perhaps a few new specialized boutiques will still find a niche, but, on the whole future shopping will be online. Although less pleasant to many who enjoyed traditional shopping, this will turn out to be cheaper and time-saving.
One can expect professional services — law, much but not all of medicine, engineering and architecture — will surely follow this route. Trials, consultations and preparation will be done on screen, just as research is already done largely on screen, not in libraries. This makes these professional services more affordable, if less customized, and may come to be seen as a positive development.
Will the closing of traditional bookstores and CD stores sound the knell of classical literature and music which have already lost many of their fans and are not popular with the young? Pessimistic predictions have often proved exaggerated, but it is likely that large sums will have to be allocated to save these essential elements of our culture.
As with office space, the change in shopping habits may produce a crisis in real estate which will make compensation and retraining of many employees crucial for social justice. It may further eviscerate the downtown areas and lead to isolation of individuals in residential areas and suburbs. When Covid recedes, this isolation will have to be countered by public social, cultural, athletic and political activities. Cutting government activism in order to balance budgets will lead to solitude and depression for many individuals.
One of the major changes in shopping may help maintain government financing. The Covid era has seen the culmination of the process of disappearance of cash as a primary vehicle of exchange and its replacement by credit and debit cards. Unless bitcoins and other private currencies somehow maintain themselves, despite the fact that it is difficult to use them for purchases, the possibility of hiding or sheltering funds from the taxman will evaporate, and this will provide a solid boost to the public treasury.
Universities and schools
Universities and schools have learned to function online. This started years ago just as in the case of retail shopping. There are now many courses and examinations online and this has facilitated participation of many who could not pay the exorbitant tuition especially in the U.S. or who could not consecrate several years to study without working. The virtual option also has the potential of saving vast sums for the already beleaguered institutions both by cutting personnel and by using less space. While some activities, such as laboratories and medical rounds cannot fully be performed this way, most humanity and social science departments are at risk of a massive contraction.
Online participation could bring thousands of new students to the great universities such as Harvard and Oxford. It might well pose a threat to the less prestigious ones since the vast majority would elect the best-known institutions. However, there is very little that can be done about this.
The advantages of expanding higher education to thousands are clear. However, a heavy price will be paid. The Harvard and Oxford experience and indeed a local college experience cannot be replicated on screen. The social and cultural aspects of attendance, the making of friendships and indeed marriages, the possibility of expanding one’s interests outside one’s discipline will disappear almost completely.
The pure education and learning for its own sake, as well as the university’s cultural environment, have been in difficulty for many years. For many students, academic studies have been more about job-training than about knowledge and many employers have come to prefer job-specific training and tests to university degrees. It is not surprising that the cost and duration of university degrees have made them less attractive and that doubts have been expressed about their economic utility. Virtual learning may help keep many students. How can humanistic and scientific education standards be maintained at the same time?
Institutions of learning have to prepare for a future of two streams. They must enthusiastically accept the expansion of the student body online while maintaining a smaller, more expensive, program with social contact and humanistic goals. As with all the other irreversible changes remaining after Covid, a choice will present itself. Shall we maintain social justice and admit people to the smaller program on merit, or instead create a world in which only the privileged will have access to the more complete education given on campus? The first step towards justice would be a drastic reduction in tuition costs. Otherwise, who except the very rich will pay exorbitant fees for something he can get to a large extent online for much less? This, of course implies the permanent continuation of the high-spending state and indeed an increase in the education budget which will have to pay for both programs.
Universities should enhance the campus experience by eliminating the political correctness, the thought control and the conformism that has become an integral part of higher studies in the last two decades. Going to university would be that much more attractive if it offered the one time in most people’s lives when one can have almost total freedom to say and to think without fear of being “cancelled” or disciplined.
Sweeping changes in teaching will affect primary and secondary schools as well. Here, most of the academic program can be effectively taught online. However, serious problems of socialization will undoubtedly arise if children spend too much of their time in front of a screen. The task of educators will be bringing children together and providing outings and entertainment. If online teaching has a considerable downside, it also presents an unparalleled opportunity to bring education to those who would not otherwise get it in underprivileged countries and in poorer classes of society.
All over the west, cultural activities have been in crisis. While rock or popular concerts and professional sports have drawn crowds, classical music, theatre, opera would not have survived without large state subsidies from the state. Moreover, the prevalence of the elderly at such events at times accompanied by possibly unwilling grandchildren augured ill for the future.
Many of these activities have ground to a halt because of Covid. Their revival will require both funding and education.
In recent years opera and theatre companies have taken to broadcasting their productions. This enabled them to be seen at a fraction of the price by tens of thousands of viewers and possibly constituted the key to their survival. The broadcasts can be brought to homes and also to schools and cultural groups and could convince the younger generations of the continuing relevance of the great cultural traditions.
Possibly this will favour the great companies over the local ones since the best productions will be available to all, but we could also hope for a rebirth of amateur productions, especially in schools, and for local productions with audience participation.
It is unlikely that downtown theatres, concert-halls and cinemas will continue to play the central role that they have held in entertainment. Yet it is possible that some of them will be able to continue and attract customers for an occasional live or big screen production, even if it comes with a higher cost. A live program can be electrifying in a way the screen cannot match.
For any society, it is essential for its culture to remain accessible and vibrant for many, not for a privileged few. If the classical tradition became a reserve for the very rich who paid astronomical prices for it would be likely to fade away and, even if it remained on the fringes, it could not perform its role in making the world understandable and more beautiful.
If our society wishes to stop the decline of classical culture after Covid, it is obvious that it will have to spend vast sums in encouraging it, teaching it and staging or filming it.
This can only be done through an activist state.
Travel and Tourism
The pandemic has brought non-essential travel and tourism to a halt and with good reason. It is established that airplane travel with its uncertain ventilation, close contact with many people and perilous airports contributed in a major way to the spread of Covid. Indeed, the closing of borders is what brought about relief in many countries and made partial relaxation of the lockdown rule possible. Immediate resurgence of tourism would be both medically unsound and psychologically impossible since people would be unlikely to entrust themselves to the travel industry for a considerable period of time except when they had absolutely no choice.
The result is economically devastating to many and personally desolating for most. Tourism is one of the world’s most important industries worth trillions every year. Not only travel companies, but hotels, restaurants, museums and resorts are totally dependent on it. Entire countries like France, Spain, and Italy are trying to open for tourism despite the continuing pandemic because the loss of revenue for them is incalculable.
Travel and tourism are among the most alluring pleasures for modern humans. People live from trip to trip, daydream about them and feel deprived when travel becomes impossible or too expensive for them. It is true that before the 18th century travel for pleasure was rare. However, for citizens of our times, few activities would be as painful to lose.
Attempts have been made the palliate the situation. Airlines have tried to reduce the number of seats sold on each flight so as to facilitate distancing. However, this practise is clearly economically impossible to maintain forever and, with many airlines losing money and some going bankrupt, this practice is no longer considered a long-term solution. Moreover, it is one thing to offer more space and another to gain consumers’ confidence. It is unlikely many will soon entrust themselves to airlines. Other forms of travel, especially cruise ships, face an even steeper test of confidence.
Another measure promoted by governments as a substitute for exotic tourism is local travel. This may indeed be a partially acceptable substitute, although it does not eliminate all danger of infection and, in the end, does not satisfy the wanderlust of most of us. Moreover, it involves an increased use of private automobiles as opposed to public transport, something generally decried as undesirable until the start of the pandemic.
Disastrous and disagreeable as the collapse of tourism has been, it does have a positive side — the effect on the environment. Jet fuel has been one of the most dangerous contaminants as have other forms of fossil fuels which are needed for travel. The claims of man-made climate catastrophe have been vindicated in three months of lockdown. The air quality has improved, and the most popular tourist sites, notably Venice, have become cleaner, more pleasant. Undoubtedly local inhabitants would prefer to have fewer tourists if only the income from tourism remained the same.
Tourism’s decline is not the only reason for environmental improvement. Less industrial production and local driving are also significant factors. But the drive to reopen tourism presents some difficult dilemmas.
We read projections that by 2023 the demand for travel will be back to 2019 levels. That depends on whether the decree of protection from disease will make consumers forget the pandemic.
Whether tourism rebounds completely or not, a possibility will present itself to create a more expensive industry for the wealthy with less crowding and more sanitary precautions and never reverting to a more popular model. The luxury model can be just as profitable or even more so to the provider. Unfortunately, the ordinary person would be deprived from travel or at least severely curtailed in the quantity or type he could afford.
Once again, it would fall to a progressive state to redistribute and provide opportunities to all without sacrificing the environment gains. One step would be an international guarantee of medical coverage for tourists, even older ones. Another would be the development of “small group” travel without crowding but also without great luxury.
Like in most areas of human endeavour, travel will never revert to the pre-2020 model, but it will depend on government policies whether the new model will reflect the need to share and conserve or if it will serve to deepen the growing divide between rich and poor.
The environment and its economic implications
The environment is the great beneficiary of Covid-19 because of the slowing of production and the disappearance of tourism. However, the voices on the right calling for the resurgence of the frenetic push for growth will grow stronger as Covid wanes. If these forces persuade us, the environmental gains will prove ephemeral and we shall continue febrile consumption until the inevitable next crisis of capitalism and perhaps until the environmental catastrophe that is surely not many years away.
If we decide as a society to end the growth obsession, to eliminate unnecessary luxuries, we shall have to redistribute, not only income but also jobs. Technology was already moving in the direction of fewer jobs, and Covid presents us with an opportunity of distributing them fairly. A new stress on leisure, culture and education, a fair valuation of the contribution of teachers, nurses, home-care workers, as opposed to speculators will be necessary. Instead of cutting taxes and social services to pay back the debt incurred during Covid, we should invest more public funds in social institutions to create personal security and (often part-time) employment. There is always a price in terms of luxuries and consumer goods, but it is worth paying.
It goes without saying that in such a society dogmatic free trade which gets us cheap consumer goods would cease to be a mantra. Relatively free trade could still exist with countries of the same ideological bent, but we could not allow our economy to be hijacked by those who want to pay workers less than we do. Further, creating a dependence on potentially unfriendly countries like China for medical equipment, security technology, and other necessities of life is pure folly. This type of free-trade must be phased out with neo-liberalism.
Humans are often very cruel and indifferent to the suffering of others. Every crisis of capitalism or of world politics leaves large numbers of people who have been shattered, lost their homes, their future, their career, and their savings for retirement. Even when the crisis ends, those who suffered are not the ones who usually come back. This happened with McCarthyism, the real estate crisis and the Wall Street collapse. It will happen in spades now, when the number of businesses collapsing is particularly large and is coupled with an irreversible structural change. How many homes will be re-possessed? How many pension plans will go under? How many people will need complete retraining to continue their work? To avoid repeating past cruelties, the state will have to guarantee a decent living and retirement to all, but especially to the defeated. This obligation is further proof that returning to our pre-Covid capitalism is impossible even if some of the winners might desire it.
There is no going back to 2019. The major changes which were becoming perceptible then are now firmly established and we can stop neither the technology nor the new economics and culture. Yet all is not cast in stone. Every area of human activity offers a choice, usually the same choice. Will our materialism and consumerism lead us back to unbridled growth, inequality and environmental disaster or shall we at last succeed in creating a society in which social justice and compassion prevail over greed? The next two years will tell.
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