LONDON – COVID-19 is not going to change the world forever, but it is going to change quite a few things, in some cases for a long time. Here’s eight of them, in no particular order.
1. The clean air in China’s cities in the past month, thanks to an almost total shutdown of the big sources of pollution, has saved 20 times as many Chinese lives as the new coronavirus has taken. (Air pollution kills about 1.1 million people in China every year.) People will remember this when the filthy air comes back, and want something done about it.
2. Online shopping was already slowly killing the retail shops. The lockdown will force tens of millions who rarely or never shop online to do it all the time. Once customers get used to shopping online, most of them won’t go back, so retail jobs will be disappearing twice as fast.
3. Once it becomes clear that telecommuting works for most jobs, it will start to seem normal for people not to go to the office most days. This will lead to a steep drop in commuting, lower greenhouse gas emissions and eventually a lot of empty office space in city centers.
4. There will be a recession, but it probably won’t be as bad or as long as the one after the financial crash of 2008. It isn’t a collapse of the market that has cost people their jobs this time. It was a virus, and governments are doing far more than ever before to sustain working people through what will probably be a long siege.
When the virus is tamed and they can go back to work, the jobs will still be there.
5. There will be a few trillion dollars of extra debt. Don’t worry about it. Banks have always created as much money as the government requires. Put too much money into the economy and you’ll cause inflation, which is bad, but just replacing what people would ordinarily be earning so that the economy doesn’t seize up is good.
6. What is being revealed here is a deeper truth. Austerity — cutting back on the welfare state to balance the budget — is a political and ideological choice, not an economic necessity. What governments are moving into, willy-nilly, is a basic income guaranteed by the state. Just for the duration of the crisis, they say, but that idea will not go away again.
7. Collective action and government protection for the old and the poor will no longer be viewed as dangerous radicalism, even in the United States. Welfare states were built all over the developed world after World War II. They will expand after the pandemic ends.
8. Decisive climate action will become possible because we will have learned that “business as usual” is not sacred. If we have to change the way we do business, we can.
So it’s an ill wind that blows no good. Some of the anticipated changes are good, but we are going to pay an enormous price in lives and in loss for these benefits. It could have been dealt with a lot better.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist.