- Odysseas Digbassanis
The Lamps Are Going Out, But There is Time; Thoughts on A Post Coronavirus World
A future after Covid-19 is a daunting thought. How might we be able to return to normality is an even more daunting question, as the Ithaca that we seek to harbour in again is no longer there. Writing at the beginning of April, what will come to be known as the early days of this history, leaves a lot liable to change. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has recently been moved out of intensive care suffers under the heavy burden of leading the country and fighting through the debilitating effects of this new Coronavirus, which has claimed the lives of thousands of people around the world. Whatever the outcome, Johnson’s is a historic premiership which will be catalogued in great detail in the future.
The most immediate shock to our livelihoods, lucky we will be to have them back, is the spectre of the economy. What the 2008 Financial crisis did not do was force widespread reform. It did not make governments question Adam Smith and have opposition parties recognise that Karl Marx was no realistic answer to the problems of today. This financialised world, still operating with the same instruments that plunged the global economy into freefall twelve years ago, will have to change to minimise the effect of Covid-19 on everyday people.
In Europe, there is stark disagreement between the Northern and Southern nations of the Union. The key ‘Coronabond’ versus European Stability Mechanism (ESM) debate on financial relief only too cruelly shows the painful divisions in Europe. The economically powerful nations of the EU, which de facto control the fiscal direction of the European Central Bank (ECB), have adopted the same sneering attitude they had in the critical times of the debt crisis. This was exemplified by former President of the Eurogroup Jeroen Dijsselbloem’s famous: “You can not spend all the money on drinks and women and then ask for help” 2017 line, Covid-19’s economic implications in Europe clearly show the need for a change to a more humane euro-system, and a move away from Neoliberal-mania.
The Eurogroup meeting on the 7th of April which dragged European finance ministers into the waking hours of the morning was a revealing moment for Europe; a deal was not made and a new meeting schedules. A great affront to democracy however is that these Eurogroup meetings are still held without minutes being taken. The Netherland’s almost complete rejection of the Coronabond in the Eurogroup shows that there is a clear disintegration in the main principles of European solidarity. The Coronabond is essentially a debt restructuring instrument so that the nations of Europe assist each other where they can. Former Greek Finance Minister Yianis Varoufakis outlined the need for the Coronabond in a persuasive video in late March. Northern nations always had an issue with debt mutualisation, and now seek to pursue the ECB plan which leaves member states, already crippled by Coronavirus, worrying about the repayment plans. If this barrier is not surpassed now with such high stakes, Europe could be plunged into very deep waters. The recent Eurogroup showed The Hague being the strongest opponent to the creation of the vital Coronabonds that would, though a short-term measure, rescue the weaker economies of Europe without automatically trapping them in a vicious debt cycle.
Italy is in the crosshairs of faltering European solidarity, but the whole of Europe is at stake as Donald Tusk, the former European Council president, highlighted. Italy’s 78-year-old president Sergio Mattarella also echoed serious concerns in his broadcast to the Nation about the “threat to Europe”. Bruno Le Maire, the French Finance Minister, cautioned that: “Either the eurozone responds in a united manner to the economic crisis and emerges stronger, or it is all over the place and is in danger of disappearing”
With Angela Merkel set to step down in the Autumn of 2021, and with no clear resolution to this very volatile economic question, Europe will be in a state of sede vacante in one of Her most crucial moments. The signs are clear, by the words of the nations suffering the most in this crisis, that if there was ever a time to save the European project and all the good that it stands for, that time is now.
The United States also have a large hurdle to overcome in a post Covid-19 world. After Jared Kushner’s press conference gaffe claiming that the Federal stockpile of medical supplies was not for distribution to the States and with historic unemployment claims – upwards of 6.6 million people applying for benefits in a week by the end of March – confidence in the federal government is faltering. When the world’s largest economy is being so hard hit by Coronavirus the global effects will be historic. As in 1929 and 2008, the US economy is the helmsman directing the global financial world.
Covid-19 also then forces a sincere analysis of the role of government in our society. The looming economic depression also is a clear indicator that a re-think of the role of government is both necessary and long overdue. The Conservatives in the UK are enacting spending initiatives that would even make Jeremy Corbyn blush. The Chancellor’s mortgage ‘holiday’ and 80 per cent wage promise are ground-breaking measures. We have seen how effective these policies can be if they are managed well. Almost a century ago, in the wake of Black Thursday’s Wall Street Crash of 1929, the US government enacted decisive change with the New Deal to save both the livelihoods of the American people and Her economy. Modern governments need to direct themselves towards the New Deal enacted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933. The point of government is not to control its people; however, it must support them. If, in the wake of Covid-19, governments return to their previous modus operandi then they will be negligent at best.
The first step towards change is to accept that well-funded and organised free healthcare is a basic necessity in a modern and developed state. A realisation and respect of the sacred and ancient practice of medicine echoed in the Hippocratic Oath should also come with a higher regard for medical practitioners as public servants before everything else. Profiteering pharmaceutical companies must also be put in check by the government. The case of the Novartis Scandal is a classic example of rotten politicians and greedy businessmen coming together to defraud the taxpayer and their health. Governments should now realise, perhaps more clearly than ever, the costs at stake when public healthcare systems are underfunded and pharmaceutical companies are left unchecked; balance between private and public is now of the essence more than ever before.
Rather controversially, this crisis and its aftermath, will force us to think of our social priorities as well as our political ones. Teens and college students flocking to the Florida shores in March and early April for the famed US ‘Spring Break’ so popularised by blockbuster hits like Dirty Grandpa (2016) constitute an important and necessary change in society. Videos and interviews of the partygoers show what the bliss and certainty of a peaceful and undisturbed life, flooded by a mix of alcohol and narcotics, can lead to. The mentality of ‘come what may, I will have my way’ shows that the culture of “me” needs to change. We must learn from the dangers of ‘pop-politics’, that detract attention from the core issues of politics. Serious problems, like the environment, were subject to easy, dull, and emotionally charged strategies that took front place in the public political imagination. At one-point, Greta Thunberg sailing across the Atlantic last August seemed to be the centre of all political attention for young people. Now, this has been replaced by millions posting on social media about how if we were all vegan, Covid-19 would have never happened and other such views that should be fringe rather than mainstream. Our generation needs to wake and take responsibility for what is truly important and at risk. Peace, honest democracy, free and equal education, human rights, justice, and other pillars of civilisation should not be taken for granted under the slurry of drunken and confused youth; this is a wakeup call for all.
A post Covid-19 future is very uncertain, and while my goal is not to fearmonger, we should be careful. It would be naïve and churlish to believe that life will go back to how it used to be. The Covid-19 crisis is revealing the great peril that the good principles of the European project face. To paraphrase Sir Edward Grey on the eve of the First World War, with the lamps going out all over Europe, there is still crucial time to see them lit again in our lifetime. This lack of solidarity towards a solution in the EU will make recovery slow and painful, with scapegoating that will take us back to the heady days of 2008. Governments will have to adjust and play a more supportive role in our society, in cooperation of course with private enterprise, in order to keep the fabric of civilisation together. There is a possibility, dependent on how dire the economic situation becomes and how extensive our stupidity is, for change in the wrong direction. This story will indelibly shape my generation and generations to come. In the West, our long peace has been disturbed, and this crisis should alert us to where our priorities should be.