The Consequences of the Pandemic – Part II

21CQ Topic President's Blog


Irvin Studin


3 years ago

In my first blog on the first five of 10 consequences of the pandemic, I wrote of the sudden destitching of global structures and processes (very much still in the works), the paradoxical start of the Asian century, the consolidation of the “big three” – the US, China and Russia – as strategic veto holders in the post-pandemic order, the inadequacy of global institutions and the obvious need to renovate and reinvent, and, finally, the end of the efficacy of 20th century ideologies and the need for new ones to explain this new century.

In the interim, 21CQ and GB organized two major virtual conferences: the first, two days on the state and future of Canada post-pandemic; and the second, two days on the state and future of the world, post-pandemic and post-US election. Together, the conferences brought together some 120 leading thinkers and practitioners from around the world, from all continents, to address a huge array of topics.

These conferences, driven by our hard-working teams at 21CQ and GB, anticipate an ambitious agenda for 21CQ in 2021. Watch for a 21CQ-GB vaccine and state-of-science-post-pandemic summit in the early new year, as well as the launch of a new 21CQ book publication programme. We will also be launching a worldwide initiative in late January to address one of the major human catastrophes of the pandemic period, just as we continue to advance our other projects and lines of work – many of which are more relevant than ever in the development of practical algorithms to solve the problems created by the global shock of the Covid-19 pandemic. More details soon.

Now, to the second five of the 10 post-pandemic consequences…

Consequence 6 – Avoiding Permanent Destabilization

The idea that a vaccine or a set of vaccines will be a definitive terminus to the multiple crises triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic is what I would call a modern-day “Facebook position.” Alas, such “Facebook positions” have become extremely common in early 21st century politics, public policy and general decision-making.

The Facebook position imagines, as with a Facebook (or Twitter) thread, that a given declaration or event can, by the sheer power of logic or popular applause (in the event, “likes” or “retweets” from online followers), put an end to the pain suggested by the original crisis-event. The vaccine is therefore the counterthesis to the thesis of the pandemic, and once this counterthesis is deployed, all will be well. We will “build back better,” as it were… The population will emerge, en masse, from hiding, newly happy, the economy will surge, children will again flood the schools, international travel and amity will return, all health conditions outside of Covid-19 will at last receive their due attention, and so on.

On the ground, of course, this is a patent absurdity. For things have already happened… People have died (and not just from Covid-19, to be sure), businesses have disappeared, countries have been destabilized, lives have been upended… Millions of children have been exiled from schools… Some political heroism notwithstanding, policy mistakes have been committed, and some crimes of policy too – let us not pretend…

The vaccine, whenever it becomes more or less generalized, may well inoculate most of the population against Covid-19 as we understand it at the time of this writing. It may create a herd immunity at a generalization of well under the totality of national populations. (I leave constant the various complications that will clearly arise from a vaccine programme that has, on the one hand, been mobilized with prodigious scientific industry and administrative speed but, on the other, scarcely been tested on a very broad sample population, and for which the medium- and long-term side effects are entirely unknown.)

And yet the velocity of vaccine mobilization and the prevalence of “Facebook positions” together set the stage for what I believe may be the biggest foreseeable danger of the modern age for any description of civilization (and certainly more for some countries than others) – to wit, not one-off pandemics or destabilization, but instead permanent destabilization.

This apprehension of permanent destabilization has at least three interrelated “moments” – as it were.

First, the prospect of a new “variant” of Covid-19, or even a second new variant – now very much in the news (and why only one or two new variants? Why not five new mutations over the coming year?) – immediately raises the question of whether the extant vaccines (perhaps one vaccine but not another?) will be fully efficacious over time (or for how long?); or whether, more critically, they will be perceived as such by the public (or permitted to be thus perceived by certain political leaders). The vaccine, in other words, is a symmetrical, discrete counterthesis strictly to Covid-19, as understood, “discretely”, in late 2020/early 2021. But what of Covid-20? And Covid-21? Do we begin anew? I return to this below, including in terms of darker scenarios of actual future (outside) choreography of such a “hamster wheel.”

Second, the present array of vaccines is reputed to address strictly the coronavirus that has triggered our multiple crises. But it in no way automatically addresses any of these other crises, unless there is additional official thought put into understanding these additional crises – most of which by now are driven by logics that are largely independent of the coronavirus per se. And yet the “Facebook position,” having reduced, ab initio, all of society’s complexities to the conquest of a single virus, and having consolidated in the public imagination the notion that all will or should be solved, as if by deus ex machina, with the arrival of the vaccine, has to date allowed very little intellectual space for the consideration of the multiple other crises that, on the present record of management, can only perpetuate the present destabilization.

The day after the generalization of vaccination across a population, there will still be massive unemployment, huge numbers of businesses will have been extinguished, millions of children will have been ousted from formal schooling (i.e. neither in physical nor virtual schooling for up to two or even three years, with no obvious prospects for reintegration), huge numbers of undiagnosed, un- or undertreated ailments, or newly developed illnesses (physical and mental alike) will suddenly take the foreground, social crises about post-pandemic societal “norms” will still be pervasive, and constitutional-strategic weaknesses across the geographies of many states will continue to be exposed and exploited.

The vaccine does nothing to address these crises – except to address a slice of a larger public health crisis (only partially described above). Can today’s governments and societies “think” through these broader crises and deploy strategies for success with speed? Some yes, but many no. And this inability to reconcile – in the official psychology and in the public geist – the proliferation of these multiple independent crises with the arrival of a vaccine that was to have “settled” the core matter of the coronavirus foretells a period of prolonged, possibly ever-amplifying destabilization.

Third, while the pandemic is almost certainly not a pandemic originating in any organized state or human conspiracy, the destabilization it has caused, even with very limited fatalities – nationally and internationally – and especially in otherwise advanced states, has by now doubtless planted seeds in the minds of future conspiring actors (esp. sophisticated states and organizations) for future destabilizating moves and acts. If certain states were able to restabilize far more efficiently and elegantly than others, then the inferior capacity of the latter to restabilize suggests obvious future lines of destabilization – this time concerted and strategic.

To be direct, if advanced states can be thrown into economic depression, lose human capital in the form of millions of ousted students, and reduce all public policy thinking to pandemic management in the face of a pandemic that kills less than 0.1% of a national population in a year (not zero, to be sure, but nowhere approaching wartime or past-pandemic casualties), then a future sinister conspiracy portending a pandemic of far greater virulence promises cataclysmic devastation for societies evidently not used to dealing with large-scale domestic chaos.

Indeed, such sinister moves could, in their lower-cost manifestations, involve simply intimating, through careful implants of information or disinformation into the national information space of target countries (“head fakes,” as it were), the threat or existence of new pandemics, new strains or mutations (perhaps endless new strains), or any other form of novel infectious disease. Such implanted insinuation, amplified by the “reposts” of publics and media machines already disposed to hysteria, can only push leaders and decision-making classes in target countries to repeat, by way of official reaction, the Covid-19 policy-administrative algorithm. The chaos of the last year repeats, with ever-worsening outcomes, with the now-organized outside conspirators “upping” the dosage of chaos at a time of their choosing.

Meanwhile, the target society and public, doubling down on “Facebook positions,” each time imagines that a single vaccine or discrete remedy will “solve” the new crisis – “at last.” The return to “normalcy” is put off indefinitely, and a state of permanent destabilization or chaos is ensconced. Loose, inchoate ideologies to explain and legitimate such permanent destabilization follow shortly thereafter…

Quaere: How to avoid falling into such a state of permanent destabilization? Answer: Thinking. Thinking. Thinking. More precisely, thinking of a specific sort. (See my past blog on Canada’s Six Crises of System, and especially my call for systems thinking to understand and map our way through our multiple crises.)

To which we now turn.


Consequence 7 – The Rise of the Scientists, but the Demise of Systems Thinking

The pandemic has brought to the fore, in terms of power and legitimacy, the scientific class in general, and public health officials in particular. From Anthony Fauci in the US to Theresa Tam in Ottawa and their analogues in Paris, Berlin, Rome and Canberra, the statements, judgements and views of the public health class have largely displaced politics. This has been to the general credit of medical technocracy but, signally, to the detriment of most other major dimensions of public and economic life, intra-pandemic, in many leading countries.

While the medical brief has certainly been refined over the course of the pandemic, two perverse correlatives have been witnessed in multiple countries: first, a general and happy outsourcing of policy thinking and calculation to the medical-scientific brief or lead; and second, the degeneration of feedback loops to power from populations suffering from limited medical-scientific-mathematical literacy.

The result is that the management of Covid-19 has, in exceedingly large numbers of cases, cannibalized management of a large number of policy spheres that have not had “a seat at the decision-making table” – as it were. Minimization of Covid-19 cases and deaths – the relevant “objective function” – has been the core mission of most decision-makers deferring, with little resistance, reflection or technical ken, to the medical-scientific brief. Considerations of general population well-being, quality or excellence in the economy, children’s education, social well-being or health care outcomes in the diagnosis, treatment and death prevention in nearly all other maladies and physical-mental afflictions, have not only been subordinated but, indeed, suppressed or displaced altogether.

And yet the medical-scientific brief, expanding naturally into the policy and intellectual vacuum, while playing its role heroically in this new-century global emergency, has precious little to say in respect of these other areas. A chief medical officer seeking to optimize Covid-19 outcomes has, by professional formation, nothing instructive to say on how best to educate children (other than to keep schools open or closed, or to impose various physical-restrictive measures besides), or on how to supply a population and economy with necessary or otherwise valued goods. He or she has nothing to say about the national security or geopolitical positioning of a country whose citizens and government have demobilized (or been thrown into chaos), or the economy of which is increasingly unable to fund the assets and capabilities necessary to defend the state or advance basic national interests (including existential ones). He or she has no insight into the social and sociological crises of “norms” generated across political-geographic spaces by populations suddenly having to renegotiate acceptable and unacceptable behaviour not across large spaces, but even store-to-store, classroom-to-classroom, household-to-household, neighbour-to-neighbour…

What’s to be done?

The scientists must, with the greatest respect and admiration, be more modest, if they can help it. And the non-scientists, more importantly, must think more (including, over time, through improved scientific literacy). The combined effect, desirably, is what I shall call “systems thinking” supported by effective feedback loops – that is, the ability to tackle a policy or societal problem through the 360-degree inputs of all disciplines and experts (that is, all relevant experts around the table); all informed, continuously, by intelligence from the ground up. Manifestly, some experts and disciplines will assume primacy or precedence at various times in the decision-making process, and some will be more relevant than others, tout court. But only such “systems thinking” can address properly all of the dimensions of a policy problem and strategy that attempts to move an entire society at scale and scope. By contrast, any reduction of that scale and scope to a single policy brief and single imperative (in the bastardized form, a “Facebook position”) risks grossly oversimplifying the realities on the ground – to catastrophic consequence…

Let me add, building on my past interventions, that in democratic and non-democratic systems alike, such expert briefs, even at 360 degrees, in the systems idiom, require feedback mechanisms from the ground up (i.e. from the population) in order that the brief from top down be coherent or “real.” Herein lies, in part, the imperative for enhanced scientific literacy within the population – one of our interests at 21CQ – if only that the content and form (or vocabulary) of the feedback be more targeted for scientific or medical decision-making.

And yet, in the Covid-19 period, such feedback mechanisms (political opposition, media, academic research, civil society groups) have commonly degenerated into naught against a wave of emergency behaviour from executive branches coupled with a posture of apprehension, fear or, at best, confusion among national publics. The combination of exclusive scientific briefs, bereft of systems thinking and without effective feedback loops from the ground up, can only have resulted in perverse outcomes on the ground, in reality… Despite the very best of intentions, of course… Something to correct in future iterations of response to emergencies, medical and other. If we can understand our circumstances…


Consequence 8 – Twitter and the Failure of Thinking 

If the pandemic has exposed many modern societies as unable to think in a systems way, then modern social media – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc. – has only consolidated this state of systems “unthinking.” Twitter has both crippled or stunted the ability of entire political and policy classes to formulate a thought beyond a given declaration, thesis or premise, or otherwise boxed putatively intelligent people into intellectual silos, or even disciplined them into limited spheres of acceptable thought – with acceptable defined as that which can be amplified through retweets, or not attacked en masse by armies of critics, organized, chaotic or capricious. Bref, instead of systems thinking, as required by the circumstances, large numbers of societies, formally educated or not, have devolved into “staccato” thinking – sets of discrete, logically unconnected thoughts, each of which assumes disproportionate importance and urgency, but none of which informs a larger strategic piece of music intended to advance larger, sustained outcomes.

To be sure, the roots of this “staccato” thinking run deeper in democratic (so-called “argumentative”) societies than in what I call “algorithmic” societies. If the democratic (argumentative) system of state is, in states of non-emergency, less likely to commit grave mistakes of policy and administration because of intense, constitutionally and culturally protected feedback mechanisms to power, then states of emergency suddenly expose these argumentative states to the potential of major such mistakes when the feedback mechanisms break down.

The “argumentativeness” of these states begets, in the main, not systems thinking but instead episodic thinking, yielding the modern policy challenge of “how to plan long term” for 21st century democracies (France, Italy, Spain, Greece), and 21st century democratic federations in particular (Canada, the US, Australia, Germany). Under the pressure of circumstances and emergency, these states, catalyzed by social media like Twitter, devolve toward “staccato” thinking, but with the sudden legal and behavioural armament more appropriate to algorithmic states (China, Singapore). The result, perversely, is a staccato-thinking democratic class behaving like algorithmic autocrats, but without the corresponding algorithmic skills of planning and administration – a paradoxical turn of events indeed, and one conducive, no less, to the said state of permanent destabilization.

What’s to be done?

Over time, create 21st century policy classes that can “think.” I have written a fair bit on this in past blogs and writings, and take up this subject in earnest in a couple of books I have out over the coming year.

But first, as a necessary condition for such “thinking,” a number of major countries – democratic and non-democratic alike – have been looking to reassert control over their national “information space.” This is not, as might first be perceived, necessarily for purposes of state agitprop, but rather, in the primary instance, to ensure that there is still a possibility of a national imaginary and properly national discourses – popular or policy. If the social media algorithm of powerful platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are developed and controlled by American companies, rooted principally in American regulations and norms, and populated in overwhelming majorities by American users, with massive American followerships, driving American debates and predilections, then nearly all attempts to drive national policies or ideas for specific other countries will most often be subverted, displaced, cannibalized or vitiated – unwittingly or not, conspiratorially or not – by outside Twitter users.

A Canadian in Inuvik, NWT, then, when asked about the state of affairs in the Canadian North during the pandemic, quickly begins to express worries about the state of American politics. (Too many Canadians, distracted during the pandemic period by Twitter feeds reporting on American shootings and social-media-generated movements, remain unaware of the fact that the largest mass shooting in Canadian history took place in April 2020. Such preponderant popular ignorance of what is obviously a national-level event betrays a problem that was far less stark than during the period of the mass shooting at the École Polytechnique in Montréal in 1989 – an event that drove national policy agendas and debates for the subsequent 25 years.) The Briton in Birmingham, similarly, when asked about the impact of Brexit on his or her city, will quickly jump to declamations about random American events or social movements. Local realities are ousted from national discourses by minds colonized by content ramified by algorithms originating in California. And good on the Californians – but pity the locals. For they, over time, can scarcely even muster the proper vocabulary to explain their own circumstances.

The struggle to create and secure such national “vocabulary” online, therefore, becomes one of the cardinal fights of the early 21st century – not just to preserve national “information spaces” for form or against information wars, cyber-espionage or cyber-attacks, but indeed to assure national sanity.


Consequence 9 – The Rise of New Businesses, the Collapse of the Others, and the Emergence of New Forms of Inequality

A perhaps more banal but no less apposite consequence is the emergence of certain businesses and industries as the “winners” of the post-pandemic world, as against the mirror-opposite decline or disappearance of other businesses and industries as conspicuous “losers” of this same world.

I will not pretend to supply a comprehensive list of winning businesses and industries across countries – e.g. most obviously, a large variety of online platforms, algorithms and services, particularly at scale; various pharmaceutical concerns; and various (although not all) banks and lenders suddenly insured by governments seeking to provide liquidity to large economies – as against those businesses extinguished or made vulnerable in the same breath (e.g. small-scale service providers, entertainment and cultural businesses, restaurants, tourism and transport operators with large fixed-cost structures or debt positions). Suffice it to say that, in the main, those domestically-oriented businesses connected to or able to contort quickly to the manifest, emergency-driven expansion of state (in size and expenditure) – certain banks, infrastructure, engineering and logistics companies, dominant tech companies, large-scale food suppliers, medical services and drug companies – have done well and should continue to thrive well into the post-pandemic period. (Banks, of course, may be vulnerable to medium-term inflation spikes and large-scale defaults on loans in the coming years – including inflation spikes brought about by a decoupling dynamic with China.)

To be clear, we do not know whether the post-pandemic will be “green” or “purple” or “black” or “blue” – ideological predilections and fetishes aside. Much of this will turn on innovation across the globe (holding constant new shocks like wars, new pandemics or other at-scale disasters) and government investment and regulations in reaction and anticipation alike. But we do know that the intra-pandemic “look” of the economy will have a considerably long “tail,” and so there will be a not inconsiderable path-dependence to the post-pandemic “look” of the international economy. (For one, as I note in my past blog, a destitching of global structures and processes will not, post-pandemic, mean any rapid restitching – far from it; and the form, intensity and content of the restitching will doubtless by of a novel idiom, still to be determined.)

This path dependence also suggests a future look to the question of “inequality” that has so long exercised political theorists, politicians and policy practitioners alike (and far more in the West than in the post-Soviet countries, China and much of Asia). Even more compelling, now, than the “99%” argument about plutocrats-versus-the-rest exported or extracted by Anglo-Saxon writers from the American experience – including to many countries the Gini coefficients of which have been far smaller than those of the U.S. – is the new, post-pandemic inequality of income and, in my judgement, of dignity between those connected to machineries of government imposing pandemic- or emergency-related lockdowns, closures and restrictions, and those who, unconnected to government, must obey and abide by these same lockdowns, closures and restrictions with little chance of redress.

The logic of this “new” inequality is as follows: Political decision-makers and their large civil services, all paid on the strength of a constitutionally protected taxation power, manifested through direct salary deposits into their bank accounts, impose lockdowns on businesses and citizens whose revenues are not directly tied to any taxation power – i.e. they must earn their revenues and incomes through survival, competition, combat and work outside of government protection, insurance or demand. More poignantly…, the lockdown or closure is imposed by a public official who lays his or her head on the pillow at night in the full confidence that he or she will be paid his regular wages at month’s end; and yet the object of lockdown or closure goes to bed uncertain of whether he or she will be able to put bread on the table at month’s end in the face of creeping strictures on his or her ability to work and compete.

The government official, confident that he or she is working in the public interest, advises the struggling businessman or woman to apply for subsidies or supports, if these exist (if they do not, this is because of “force majeure,” and not for lack of good will or trying). The business may or may not qualify (due diligence must be applied, after all), and these supports may not necessarily provide full compensation or any assurance of future commercial survival. If it qualifies, an audit may follow shortly thereafter – always in the interest of the taxpayer.

And yet serial lockdowns, closures and strictures, should they become the working algorithm for future emergency management – pandemic or other – suggest an amplification of this new inequality between the governing and commercial classes (and particularly lower commercial classes). Emergency regimes, based on serious policy considerations or, in darker scenarios, more base considerations of political theatre, will tend to constrict the commercial operating space with ever-growing intensity, and the exercise of political and taxation power then become increasingly parasitic on attempts by the business class and their employees to make a living, or even survive – in the event, an ever-diminishing living, as against a stable living earned by the heroic, doubtless professional civil servant still benefiting from taxation power.

The seeds of revolution are sown…


Consequence 10 – Anticipating the Next Pandemic or Emergency 

The final major consequence of the pandemic period must answer the question – now what? What’s to be done, more generally? Answer: Posturally, not a simple obsession with “fixing” or “solving” the current pandemic, but rather, in the more intelligent states and societies, a mobilization to address the next pandemics and future emergencies. For they will soon come, inevitably. Indeed, it is this familiarity with future emergencies (or the disinclination to be “shocked” by emergencies) that has informed the superior performance of select states over others in managing the Covid-19 emergency.

There will be another pandemic again soon – if not a third or fourth variant of Covid-19, then a pandemic of another sort, originating in other parts of the world. Why not? Pandemics have struck with secular regularity throughout history, and some have been more devastating than others. And if not a pandemic, then there will be other shocks and emergencies that will test the resilience and “thinking” of the world’s countries and societies – and, of course, international structures, whatever their present state of erosion and entropy.

Those countries and societies able to assimilate the anticipation of regular shocks into their way of doing business will do better than those that interpret such shocks as “once-in-a-century” and seek facile exits simply to return (desperately, perhaps at all costs, psychic and political alike) to life ex ante. This certainly requires a girding of the psychology of decision-making classes in many advanced countries, just as it requires kinetic preparations, in earnest, across borders for a wide variety of emergency scenarios.

Consider, for instance, a massive set of cyber-attacks on the infrastructure of advanced countries in Europe and North America now already severely destabilized by a pandemic that has already increased national and international dependence on cyber-systems to an unprecedented degree – for financial outlays, for supply chains, for energy supply and, to be sure, for basic communications. Many countries in this space are but one such attack from mass starvation – a biblical turn of fate, indeed, for countries that but a year ago were at the forefront of civilization.

The task at hand must be to become serious about serious consequences – planning and preparing, with serious leadership, for such devastations that have, throughout history, been more common than exceptional; rather than fancying such devastations exceptional by their very character.

Bref, those countries and societies that can take the punch of bad luck with the greatest serenity and pivot out of emergency – national mobilization potential oblige – with the greatest speed and elegance will, down the road, be the term-setters of our time. The others will be term-takers at best, and historical marginalia, over time, at worst.

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