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Life after the pandemic

Book review of 'Ten lessons for a post-pandemic world'

Topics
Coronavirus | Global economy

Josef Joffe | NYT 

Book cover
Book cover of TEN LESSONS FOR A POST-PANDEMIC WORLD

Oh, no, not a book about the pandemic. Not another series of snapshots overtaken by tomorrow’s events. Fareed Zakaria, a CNN host with a Ph.D. from Harvard, does not fall into this trap.

Instead Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World employs a wide lens, drawing on governance, economics and culture. Call it “applied history.” What insights does it offer during a catastrophe that evokes the Spanish flu after World War I, which claimed 50 million — some reckon 100 million — lives?

That story comes with a word of caution about historical analogies. Mr Zakaria ascribes “seismic effects” to such cataclysms. Ancient Athens, a proud democracy, never recovered from the plague. The late-medieval Black Death all but wiped out Europe with a toll between 75 million and 200 million. Yet note that it was estimated to have run for 100 years. The Spanish flu trickled away after two. As mortality soared in the United States, the economy dropped by only 3.5 per cent. It took until the 1930s before we could actually see a virus under the electron microscope. Today, SARS-CoV-2 was sequenced almost instantaneously.

The past, then, is like the Sphinx with her ambiguous advice. Not only has science learned a few things. So have governments, which went for penny-pinching and deflation after the Crash of 1929, but now pour out trillions.

Having laid out a “gloomy compendium of threats,” Mr Zakaria rightly celebrates “our resilient world.” States actually “gain strength through chaos and crises.” He also dispatches the facile notion that despots like China’s Xi Jinping do better than democratic leaders. We owe the coronavirus’s leap around the globe to China’s suppression of lifesaving data; thereafter, the police state took over. Khamenei’s Iran and Erdogan’s Turkey performed badly, and so did Brazil, ruled by a would-be caudillo.

The democracies did not succumb to authoritarianism, but neither is there any clear pattern. At least until recently Germany, Denmark and Austria performed best, Belgium, Sweden and the United Kingdom worst. Taiwan and South Korea quickly contained the virus without totalitarian tactics. The United States is so-so, near the bottom of the Top 10 in deaths per million. So, what are the lessons?

What matters is not the ideological coloration of government or its size, but its quality, Mr Zakaria says. He argues for “a competent, well-functioning, trusted state.”

Life after the pandemic

Mr Zakaria lays out the road from the pandemic to the transcendence of America the Dysfunctional. The to-do list is long. Upward mobility is down, inequality is up. The universities of the United States lead the global pack, but a B.A. at one of those top schools comes with a price tag upward of a quarter-million dollars. The country boasts the best medical establishment, but health care for the masses might just as well dwell on the moon.

We should adopt the best practices of northern Europe, Mr Zakaria counsels. Denmark is the new Promised Land, even when compared with the rest of Europe. Striking a wondrous balance between efficiency, market economics and equality, those great Danes embody an inspiring model; alas, it is hard to transfer. A small and homogeneous country on the edge of world politics, Denmark is the very opposite of the United States.

The world’s troubles are not just Made in USA, Mr Zakaria rightly notes. They are rooted in ultramodernity: globalisation, automation, alienation, mass migration, the lure and decay of the world’s sprawling metropolises. These are the stuff of misery — and the fare of cultural critics since the dawn of the industrial age.

Mr Zakaria tells the story well, while resisting boilerplate as served up by the left and the right. The book’s central message comes in the last paragraph: “This ugly pandemic has … opened up a path to a new world.” Which one? The gist of Mr Zakaria’s programme is revealed by a recent editorial in The Financial Times, which he quotes approvingly. It argues that “many rich societies” do not honour “a social contract that benefits everyone.” So, the neoliberalism of decades past must yield to “radical reforms.” Governments “will have to accept a more active role in the economy. They must see public services as investments. … Redistribution will again be on the agenda; the privileges of the … wealthy in question.” Now is the time for “basic income and wealth taxes.”

Not bad for a supposedly capitalist mouthpiece. Yet this should not come as a surprise. Free-market economics à la Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher have had a nice run since the 1980s. These days, Covid-19 is merely accelerating the mental turn engendered by the 2008 financial crisis. We are all social democrats now.

Still, “writing checks,” Mr Zakaria warns, sometimes “goes badly.” Especially if it feeds consumption, not investment. Or favours giga-corporations. After half a lifetime of retraction from the economy, big government is back — and looks as if it will stay. But beware of what you wish for.

Meanwhile, read Ten Lessons. It is an intelligent, learned and judicious guide for a world already in the making. May we all be as smart as the Danes. They have marvellously combined welfarism and individual responsibility. But they have not invented the PC, MRT, iPhone or Tesla, not to speak of Post-its and the microwave popcorn bag.


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First Published: Sun, October 11 2020. 22:46 IST
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