What does Coronavirus tell us about changing?

Sorry for the “you had been told” flavour to this post. It comes at this time mainly because I happen to be locked at home and have a few hours to spend on writing, which had not happened for the past year. Of course the covid-19 pandemic provides a lot of food for thought, both in the pessimistic and optimistic direction. I’m trying to make sense of it on my side, I’m posting these thoughts here in case they are interesting for others. As a reminder, these thoughts are obviously based on my subjective viewpoint, so you might want to read the wiki part of this blog to see where I’m comming from.

Before I start, let us have a thought for those who are at the frontline of this turmoil. Health workers fighting to keep their physical and mental sanity. Vulnerable and elderly people who are fearing for their lives or already in intensive care units. Their relatives and friends who can only helplessly watch the distress of their loved ones. Last but not least, workers and other individuals who are likely to lose their job, might loose their housing, and are worrying about their future.
I am sorry the rest of this post seems to forget about these personal situations. I am sheltered from most of these negative impacts of the pandemic, and aware of what a privilege that is. I am trying to share that privilege by taking the time to point out changes in our society which will affect us all, even those who today have more immediate problems to face. We need to be ready for the aftermath, because the transition which was brutally accelerated by this pandemic might take us to a more sustainable world, just as it might give the opportunity to a few to lock us into an unprecedented world of inequalities and exploitation.

The dominant narrative

If you listen to our governments, our media and even your employer, colleagues or friends, here’s the story…

The coronavirus has triggered a crisis which requires radical action, namely confinement, for a few weeks, after which we’ll be able to resume our previous activities. In the meantime, all those who can are encouraged to proceed with their business as usual, working remotely or going to work if they are healthy. This seems necessary to keep our economic structures up and running. To reassure everyone, states are promising to pour billions in tax waivers and subsidies to keep companies and the work market afloat.
The most optimistic are pointing out the fact that we’re going through unprecedented state action, showing how we could face climate change and other global challenges if we decided to. Global greenhouse gas emissions have fallen as a result of the lockdowns and it might even be that the reduction in air pollution is saving more lives than those ended by the virus (but is that an ethical calculation to do?). In the meantime, governments and associations are issuing multiple calls for a long-term change in our way of life.

A less optimistic viewpoint

However, even the optimistic have put on hold any effort towards putting political pressure for structural changes to happen. The priority, it is said, is to care for one another and brace until the storm is well past. Parliaments have suspended their sessions. Activists have postponed their actions. Associations have cancelled their activities. Citizens are home learning how to take care of their kids and neighbours or how to use videoconferencing and other online tools. Citizen participation is reduced to online petitions and celebrating at the windows and on balconies.
And that’s where I’m leaning towards pessimism… While the population is confined at home, enjoying a record amount of Netflix movies and sustaining the business of online sales, the economic crisis is already a reality. It seems unlikely that the impacts on unemployment can be mitigated. Subsidies and tax waivers mean the states are deepening a deficit that was already at an all times deep. Facilitated loans for enterprises are locking us into an obligation to produce and generate economic growth in the near future to pay that back. And corporations are asking for public money to cover their losses, a story we’ve read before with the subsidies given to banks after the 2008 crisis.

Where things become really difficult to disentangle is when we look at the diplomatic situation. With international organisations suspending their meetings and some of their operations, borders closing and governments all around the world calling for patriotism while army and police are deploying on the streets to enforce the confinement measures, who knows what is to expect in the medium term. China has been looked at a lot for its radical quarantine measures and later for the material it is providing to foreign health systems. They’ve also started spreading the word that the virus might have been brought to Wuhan by the US. Citizen index, automated face recognition and body temperature checks, travel restrictions and other tools developed to keep the population and the public opinion under constant scrutiny suddenly look useful, not to say life-saving, and are being deployed at unprecedented rate and scale, in what is more seen as an exemplary reaction to the pandemic rather than a worrying step towards restricting human rights. Don’t think this would reach western countries? France, the home of Human Rights, is testing drones to verify that inhabitants of Paris stay confined at home. And Italy, among other countries, is monitoring the smartphones of the population to keep track of movements and gatherings. Not to speak about the temptation of discriminating between « imune » and « non imune » individuals, those with the means of getting infected in controlled conditions (or vaccinated) getting back fundamental rights to moving and gathering way before others…

What’s next?

So much for the present. So what can we expect ? I’ve described on the wiki 3 « benchmark sustainable long-term scenarios« , which I still see as relevant, so where is this pandemic leading us?

Scenario 1, the extinction of humanity, still seems unlikely. Even at a 5% mortality rate, we’re far from extinct. It could still happen, if the virus mutates into more deadly versions and if a few war arise to help, but let’s rule this one out. However, we should keep in mind the emergence of this virus is not unrelated to globalisation and our model of development, and other outbreaks are poised to occur soon if we don’t change.

Scenario 2, the artificialization of society and social relations, is in my pessimistic view the one we’re getting most close to. At individual level, we’re getting used to remote and video interactions while becoming wary of physical contact. I have heard just enough about fake news and conspiracy theories to think they’re blooming around, but haven’t come across any directly, letting me think we’re more than ever locked into “social bubbles”, where we’re only aware of what fits our own vision of the world, the rest being filtered out by social network algorithms. Work as a human component of a broader computer network is more than ever becoming the norm.
On the corporations side, I bet the fall in human workforce triggered by the isolation is already fostering research on work automation and we’ll probably soon hear calls for more implementation of “smart” products on the basis of avoiding unnecessary social interactions (automated cars, connected fridges, delivery drones, production line robots…). On the political side, governments are learning to act on data and technocratic advice with no democratic control. In some places, they’re further using all available technological means to monitor and control their population. As said, the billions promised and lent to enterprises are locking us into a growth-driven economy, the first priority of which will be to offset the losses incurred in the past weeks by ramping up production and annihilating any progress made on the side of ecological footprint. How far are we from a “Black mirror” type of society?
What is worse, once that “economic recovery” process is launched, who will want to turn back and resume thinking about “radical necessary climate action” or alike? The current period is being experienced as frightening, complicated, stressful, in one word “negative” by a majority of the population, I would bet. If you’re reading this, chances are you are not in that majority, and as me you’ll have the impression that, on the contrary, everyone around is calling for and eager to start a greater change. I somehow am not that confident. Those who still speak out are indeed showing a lot of determination to get a system change. But I haven’t heard anything from many who used to speak out (insider tipp: we were only 8 people at this week’s online Extinction Rebellion local branch plenum, against about 20 usually), and I’m afraid that this silent majority, driven by the wish to come back to “normal” and oriented by the implacable logic of a productivity system we’ve been grown in, will defeat any serious attempt from the few remaining idealists to steer the system to something “better” than what it used to be.

Nice! So is there any hope for scenario 3, the realisation that the earth’s ressources are finite and need to be shared more fairly between ourselves, citizens of the world ? A few elements point to it indeed. As mentioned at the beginning, many organisations are pointing out how the strong reaction of our governments have shown how hollow their claims are that they need to rely on market mechanisms and “proactive consumer” behaviours to change the course of our history. In a couple of weeks, we have witnessed mobilisation akin to war times. Every single inhabitant of the world knows of the danger we are facing. Those oblivious of this reality are being reminded through intensive communication campaigns. This has allowed to justify enforcing strict measures at individual level. Several sectors are nearly completely shut down (about 90% of the flight in who worlds were cancelled), some others are reorienting their production to necessary supplies (Ferrari producing ventilators, Dior producing hand sanitiser). At local level, many people have come out in solidarity with their neighbours and displayed support for the heroes of the time, the health personal. Yes we can, indeed.
On the other hand, from home, many people might have time to think. Links and petitions and videos are circulating on what this crisis is and how to address it and why it is urgent (have a look at Green Quarantine, if I may mention one). The weaknesses of our old system are exposed and the link with climate change and other global issues is made. We can hope this awareness will not vanish with the virus. But for that, we need to act now.

What to do?

There is a last thing the pandemic has taught us, something not much spoken about (Dominique Bourg speaks about it, in 20 minutes’ « Culture » pages): an effective reaction to a global crisis can not be technological, nor market based, and has to happen before the problem takes an uncontrollable dimension. We did not wait for the number of deaths to be significant (confinement was decided in Switzerland when about 3 deaths had been registered in the country), nor did we did wait for a vaccine to take extensive preventive measures. People accept being at home not because they are payed to, nor do companies shut because they received public incentives. Only a minority of the population is threatened by the virus, yet ultimately all are abiding by the new rules, in the name of solidarity. What was key was the intense communication around the emergency of the situation, how it would worsen with time (the famous bell curve with the exponential growth at the beginning) and how it was probably already worse than could be monitored. Even then, reaction was slow and we now have to cope with thousands of deaths and cramped hospitals. But that was no reason for anyone to lower their arms and resume their business as usual.
Likewise, effective climate action should not wait for large coastal cities to be under water (although that is almost already the case). Effective policies should not rely on whatever renewable energy or energy storage technologies might become available in the future. Market design and energy efficiency incentives have already proven ineffective in actually changing mentalities and achieving any reductions in carbon emissions. We will need state-driven policies to avoid ecological overshoot. And those will only be acceptable if proper communication is done beforehand. It has started already, but the link is still missing for people between what is happening and why they should care. Here as well, solidarity is important: with the populations displaced by climate change, but also with our relatives most vulnerable to heatwaves, and those at risk in case of extreme weather events. And we know those will become more frequent and more intense the more we keep overloading the natural cycles. Just as we know we will not be able to prevent millions of deaths linked to climate change. Yet is that a reason to evacuate it from our minds and proceed with our everyday lives?

There is one big differences between covid-19 and climate change though. The measures to be taken against covid-19 are pretty straightforward, easy to enforce and can be presented as temporary. Measures against climate change and the destruction of natural environments are more complex, touch most aspects of our lives and will have to become the norm. Having one government deciding in the name of all of us is unacceptable, which means they would not be followed by the population. We need to claim back our democracy. Possibly improve it. That’s were citizen assemblies and other participative democracy schemes possibly have a role to play. Science produced a whole panel of possible measures. It should now be up to citizens to decide which ones to implement, when, how and with what compensations.

Shouldn’t it?
We’re back to the ultimate action we can always take: think about it, discuss about it, so we’re ready to act on it when the time comes. After the economic crisis in 2008 it took about 3 years for the “Indignados” and Occupy movements to step forward and denounce the hypocrisy of the financial sector and the policies put in place to protect it and enhance its profits. It was too late then, people were back to their everyday lifes, corporations had recovered, the states had lost the aura of authority that a swift reaction to a crisis gives them. We’re heading to a few weeks of confinement during which these ideas of change can spread and bloom like never before. Let them be ripe for as soon as policies can be enacted on something else than public health. And in the meantime, we need to continue to make clear to our governments what the limits are on how much they can restrict our rights.

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