The coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak is quite a bad thing that’s happened. The virus will result in a tragic loss of life. The economic impacts related to coronavirus, however, are likely to pose an even larger threat to humanity in the coming years. By closing borders and shops, and quarantining billions of people worldwide, humanity is hurtling into the worst recession in over 100 years.
In the West alone, tens of millions of people will lose their jobs. Many businesses that have closed won’t reopen. In the developing world – which relies on Western consumption of their manufactured exports – the consequences will be even more dire. Telling over a billion Indians, for example, that they cannot leave home, and cannot earn a living, while also not offering them social security payments to cover their lost income, is a potentially deadly policy prescription. Deaths related to Covid-19 will largely be comprised of the elderly. Deaths from the global recession will be more evenly spread. Through economic insecurity, malnutrition, and mental health issues, it’s highly likely that the economic crisis will kill far more people than the virus itself.
Ok, bad stuff over. Now that you know I’m not being crass about the scale of the issues the world faces, and I fully appreciate how the coronavirus outbreak is terrible for the world, I’d like to talk about the five main positives that could emerge from the pandemic one day.
1) Flexible Working To Become The Norm
This only applies, sadly, to those who use a computer for their work. When the virus ends, flexible working will become commonplace. The misery of the commute, for so many people, will become less of an issue. Workers will gain hours of their lives back every week, not wasted squished into a tube underground or sat on a busy motorway. Businesses will learn – shock, horror – that many people can work effectively from home. You don’t need to trudge all the way into a large concrete box in the middle of a city, to then spend the rest of the day sat at a computer not talking to anyone, in-person anyway. Even if only a quarter of people work from home on any given day in the future, this would massively reduce overcrowding on public transport networks. It would also lower carbon emissions, improve work-life balances, and probably improve workers’ mental health. As someone who already works remotely, I’ve experienced firsthand the multitude of benefits of working from home. I hope others will in the future too.
2) Nationalism To Look Even Sillier Than Usual
While US president Donald Trump can continue calling Covid-19 “the Chinese virus” – and continues to be a source of immense humour in almost all his chaotic press conferences – it is a human one. Despite our imagined borders, the virus has (incredibly) found a way to spread around the world. Why? As a species of great ape, we’re genetically very similar. Viruses can spread easily between us. Just because you’ve unquestioningly worshipped one particular colourful cloth your entire life, this doesn’t protect you or you ‘nation’ from infection. The popularity of nationalism in recent years has avowedly ignored the fact that the world’s largest issues are global. You can’t Brexit a global virus. It’s harder to “make America great again” until the wider world cooperates to defeat this pandemic. Trump’s handling of the crisis – he called it a “hoax” initially – along with an impending economic crash, means he is unlikely to be reelected in 2020, something that looked like a certainty a few weeks ago.
3) The World Will Be Much Better Prepared For A Deadlier Pandemic
While many will tragically die from Covid-19, it could be much worse. So far, the death rate of the first two million cases has been 0.6%. In reality, the death rate is much lower than this. Millions of people worldwide are likely to have the disease without displaying severe symptoms and thus will go undiagnosed. Imagine how different things would be if the death rate was 5% or even 50%. The 160,000 confirmed deaths from coronavirus so far are unlikely to rise anywhere close to the 50 million deaths from the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918 (this would be equivalent to 200 million deaths with today’s global population). Bill Gates argued we were not ready for a pandemic back in 2015. He couldn’t have been more right. Coronavirus – as bad as it will be – will make the world better prepared for any future pandemics. You only need to look at Taiwan’s excellent handling of coronavirus to see this. Taiwan had already faced the Sars outbreak in 2003, and quickly implemented the necessary measures needed to contain Covid-19 as soon as it emerged. When the next pandemic hits, and it is a question of when, the world will be much better prepared.
4) We In The West Are Less Likely To Take Our Freedoms For Granted
Being unable to leave your home denies us one of our most basic freedoms. It’s something that almost 2.5 billion people (around 40% of the world’s population) have had to deal with amidst global ‘lockdowns’. Living in the rich world, it’s become increasingly apparent than many of the basic freedoms we also expect – eating out at restaurants, going to bars, and hopping on a flight to a different part of the world – are not ordinary. In parts of the UK, it’s common for people to take several flights a year. By means of comparison, estimates suggest that just 6% of the world’s population will take a flight in any given year. Most of the world’s population will never step foot out of the country they were born in, let alone board a plane. If you live in the West, these strange times give us some time to reflect on the things we take for granted. As someone who travels – or travelled – regularly, this period has made me appreciate how lucky we’ve all been for so long.
5) Disasters Breed Innovation
A lot of really bad things have happened in the world. Often, crises result in innovations or reforms that make the world a better place in the long run. The last Great Depression in the 1930s lead to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’, which helped redefine the role of the state in the US and improved the lives of millions. WWII, which was obviously horrendous, unquestionably contributed to the formation of the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) in 1948. US and Russian rivalry during the Cold War led to the space race and perhaps humanity’s greatest achievement, putting a man on the moon. I could go on. Reforms which would have taken years can pass in days during a crisis. Who knows what positives will emerge from Covid-19? Better global healthcare? Technological innovation? Greater global cooperation? Or, from a more sinister perspective, will governments use new powers to stifle freedom and increase surveillance? Only time will tell.