Optimistic or pessimistic about Covid-19? No need to choose

June 29, 2020

     By Duncan Green     

Jordi Vaquer is the Director for Global Foresight and Analysis at the Open Society Foundations

The radical uncertainty resulting from the crises triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic makes prediction harder than ever and, yet, there has rarely been a time where everyone – thinkers and parents, artists and bankers, activists and teachers – had to confront urgent questions about the future more than they do right now. Are you a Covid-19 optimist or a pessimist? Do you think the pandemic is the event that changes everything – family, society, economy, politics, planet – or it is only the moment that sheds light on well-known injustice? Do you believe we have turned a corner, or are you convinced there is no such as thing as a post-Covid19 world? Whichever position you choose, you are lucky: plenty of evidence and published opinion out there back your view.

At the start of 2020, before the world woke up to the impending pandemic, the values and practice of open society were already in a difficult position. The 2020 Democracy Report of the V-Dem Institute in Gothenburg (Sweden) warned that, for the first time since 2001, more countries (92 nations, home to 54% of the world’s population) are autocracies than democracies, and that 35% of the world’s population live in countries (including India, the US, Brazil or Turkey) that are becoming less democratic. The third authoritarian wave was in full swing. As the pandemic hit, it became obvious that the transformations it unleashed may condition open societies for years to come.

The flurry of commentary in every conceivable format and outlet runs through several streams. One of them flows along the ‘I told you so’ theme. Whether you are a neoliberal commenting on the fiscal position of Sub-Saharan African or Southern European nations, a feminist describing the gendered impacts of the lockdowns, or a an activist working on the impact of industrial production of animal-based food, the crises proves your previous analysis right. As a giant magnifying lens, COVID-19 sheds light on systemic malfunction and makes reckoning inevitable. Another stream of commentary is about the future: surely, goes the argument, the world will not, cannot remain the same after this most extraordinary time. Articles about how virtually everything will change beyond recognition abound. Whether that change will be for the better or the worst almost seems like a function of the author’s mood or character.

This is a time when defenders of open society can neither afford to sit comfortably upon vindication of their analysis by events, nor to simply spring into action following their mood, their gut and their time-tested handbook. It is the moment to be bold, imaginative and thorough in our thinking about the future. At Open Society Foundations we are engaging in foresight conversations that deliberately force us to stretch our imagination in four divergent directions. They are the following:

  1. The world remains, largely, the one we knew before the pandemic. Obviously, the shock of the public health crisis, the lockdowns and the economic downturn will be important. In this scenario, however, they would not alter the essentials. Once economies stabilized, the overall economic model would be essentially unaltered, geopolitics would continue their course (the rise of Asia and the slow decline of the West as the main story), and global challenges to open society (rising authoritarianism, deep economic injustice, climate change, information wars) would remain. Even if crucial aspects seem in question, we cannot ignore that the beneficiaries of the status quo before the pandemic (leaders in power, rich nations, large corporations) have a strong interest in keeping things as they were – and they still are the most powerful players in the system.
  2. An inflection point towards an authoritarian winter. The list of abuses and overextension of power is long and scary: surveillance, police brutality, scapegoating, extraordinary executive powers, all happened on virtually every continent. Many of these abuses may end up being the new normal, in particular if publics conclude that authoritarian management has been more effective, and if autocrats and elected authoritarians manage to deflect the blame for their abuses and failures. After a slow, two-decade slide towards authoritarianism, the current turbulence may accelerate the trend and bring pluralistic governance to its knees. Additionally, what Naomi Klein calls ‘disaster capitalism’ is in full operation and may result in rapid and permanent gains from global corporate giants to the detriment of the common good.
  3. Democratic renewal. The current crises have exposed fundamental injustices and opened a number of opportunities to advance open society. An unjust economic system has proven unable to care for millions and precisely care, welfare, solidarity and health have taken center stage in ways that may pave the way for radical economic transformation. Neoliberal dogmas and policies are in question, and there is an opening for very different models of intervention of the state in the economy, redistribution, or feminist economic recovery plans. This scenario encourages us to think about the opportunities for transformative change, from climate transition to universal basic income. It is also a scenario of democratic technopolitics and biopolitics based on inclusion and pluralism emerging from the current debates around the management of the pandemic.
  4. A downward spiral. Few of us enjoy thinking about chaotic, disorderly, unpredictable scenarios with open, destructive conflict and pervasive violence. Yet, it is important to at least consider repeated cycles of economic downturn, falling trust in government and broken social contracts, leading to generalized political instability. Structures of global governance (starting with the World Health Organization itself) may be seriously compromised, and open confrontation could become the standard mode in geopolitics. Violence from many directions (from embattled and questioned state structures, from politically motivated militias encouraged by ruthless politicians, or from criminal groups), even open civil wars, are possibilities that we must at least contemplate.

The typical answer we get as we lay out these four scenarios is ‘the most likely scenario is a combination of all four’. This misses the point: this is not an exercise in probability, we are not trying to predict the future. Rather, we encourage exploration of each of the four extremes and its potential implications. This helps to identify milestones, signals and potential crucial events that we need to pay attention to, in order to adjust and adapt. It also uncovers opportunities and threats that may not be apparent in the current context. Most importantly, it helps us be proactive, ready to shape events and rapidly deploy new tactics.

In the last decade, defenders of open society have been, time and again, taken by surprise. It is not only the big election shocks (Trump 2016, Bolsonaro 2018), but also the way in which authoritarian leaders and abusive corporations have stunned us with bold movements and moved the needle in previously unthinkable ways.  It is too soon to tell how transformative the pandemic will be, and too early to draw conclusions. However, it is not too early to stretch our imagination and force ourselves to be optimistic and pessimistic, realistic and utopian, bold and timid, and to imagine a future of order and one of disorder, confirmation and surprise, opportunity and threat.

Are you a Covid19 optimist or a pessimist? It does not really matter. The only responsible thing to do is to stretch your imagination and make sure that, this time, you will not be blindsided by the future.

Cartoons from last month’sCorona Cartoon Competition

June 29, 2020
Duncan Green