What are the weak signals of Covid-driven transformation, and will we hear them?

May 28, 2020

     By Duncan Green     

The Covid pandemic is bound to be a game-changing critical juncture for some issues in some places – maybe in all places, who knows. But what kind of transformations and how soon will we know?

The problem with detecting these kinds of ‘weak signals’ is that our heads and organizations are already full of noise – especially the noise of what we want to be true. Everyone is in an echo chamber of their own desires, and that’s what they hear – Care workers will get the respect they deserve! People will realize they don’t need cars! Universal Health Care! Everyone will start listening to evidence again!

But what noises are the bad guys of the Shock Doctrine hearing? You see, it’s the foreigners – close down borders! China is our enemy! America/Brazil/Hungary first! Scrap the WHO!

Can we find a way of getting beyond the confirmation of our own filter bubbles to spot the genuine long-term shifts that are doubtless under way? There’s a data element to that of course, but there’s also the realm of ideas and narratives, and there, I think we should look for surprises. What opinions or narratives have surprised you, whether in a good or bad way? To kick off, here are 3 quotes. See if you can guess where they came from:

“Beyond defeating the disease, the great test all countries will soon face is whether current feelings of common purpose will shape society after the crisis. As western leaders learnt in the Great Depression, and after the second world war, to demand collective sacrifice you must offer a social contract that benefits everyone.

Radical reforms — reversing the prevailing policy direction of the last four decades — will need to be put on the table. Governments will have to accept a more active role in the economy. They must see public services as investments rather than liabilities, and look for ways to make labour markets less insecure. Redistribution will again be on the agenda; the privileges of the elderly and wealthy in question. Policies until recently considered eccentric, such as basic income and wealth taxes, will have to be in the mix.”

Or this one:

I know that you have been excluded from the benefits of globalization. You do not enjoy the superficial pleasures that anesthetize so many consciences, yet you always suffer from the harm they produce. The ills that afflict everyone hit you twice as hard. Many of you live from day to day, without any type of legal guarantee to protect you. Street vendors, recyclers, carnies, small farmers, construction workers, dressmakers, the different kinds of caregivers: you who are informal, working on your own or in the grassroots economy, you have no steady income to get you through this hard time … and the lockdowns are becoming unbearable. This may be the time to consider a universal basic wage which would acknowledge and dignify the noble, essential tasks you carry out. 

And finally, this:

‘The pandemic both reveals the size of the challenge ahead and also creates a unique chance to enact government policies that steer the economy away from carbon at a lower financial, social and political cost than might otherwise have been the case. Rock-bottom energy prices make it easier to cut subsidies for fossil fuels and to introduce a tax on carbon. The revenues from that tax over the next decade can help repair battered government finances. The businesses at the heart of the fossil-fuel economy—oil and gas firms, steel producers, carmakers—are already going through the agony of shrinking their long-term capacity and employment. Getting economies in medically induced comas back on their feet is a circumstance tailor-made for investment in climate-friendly infrastructure that boosts growth and creates new jobs.’

The first was the Financial Times editorial of 3rd April, the second was Pope Francis’ Easter letter to ‘our brothers and sisters of popular movements and organizations’  and the last was this week’s leader in The Economist.

All 3 come from outside the standard progressive filter bubble, but only the FT really surprised me – The Economist has long advocated carbon taxes, and this Pope is reliably progressive on economic policy. So help me out here – what have you read from figures in authority that has genuinely surprised you, preferably in a good way?

The three I’ve quoted are all from the global elite, of course. But another source of early signals is what is emerging far from the corridors of power – in the world’s cities and shanty towns, new forms of ‘emergent agency’ either in response to the pandemic or (perhaps more likely) in response to badly designed or repressive measures imposed by the state. We’ve picked up a few of these, but there’s a huge research agenda there. Please keep sending ideas and links as they continue to emerge.

Thanks to Irene Guijt for suggesting this topic for a post