“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” Often attributed to Vladimir Lenin, this quote says a lot about the impact of the novel corona virus in an already fastchanging world. There is no historychanging revolution on the horizon, but the past few months of the pandemic have turbocharged four of the most significant geopolitical trends of recent decades: growing inequality, eroding legitimacy of democratic institutions, antiquated global architecture and ever faster levels of technological disruption.
Inequality within countries was a problem long before any of us had ever heard the term COVID. In the pandemic’s early days, the U.S. Congress responded with strong fiscal stimulus, but the contentious election season has brought bipartisan cooperation to a halt. Economic conditions will worsen as unemployment insurance funding runs low, the number of foreclosures grows, furloughs become permanent, and winter makes life even more difficult for restaurants and the travel industry. This isn’t just a U.S. trend; political leaders around the world are now debating whether they can afford more fiscal stimulus at a time when many people desperately need it. And as the global economy sputters forward, widening wealth divides will spur anger and protests.
The Crumbling Legitimacy of Political Institutions
In the U.S., deep divisions within the electorate and growing public anger at the nation’s political establishment have been building for years. The President, Congress, the civil service and the news media have increasingly become targets of public vitriol. In 2020, COVID-19 has proved that even an object as innocuous as a surgical mask can become part of a culture war. Democrats and Republicans have also divided sharply on how best to balance the needs of public health and economic vitality. The problem of political polarization and reduced confidence in institutions is accelerating globally. Many countries have seen protests against COVID created lockdowns—and also against leaders who did not take public health seriously.
Shifting Geopolitical Architecture
Even before the arrival of the corona virus, the world had entered a period of geopolitical recession, one in which international leadership and crossbor der cooperation were evaporating, with fewer recognized referees to rebuild confidence in the existing global system. The pandemic and its economic and political effects have revealed just how broken the international system really is and how inadequate our Cold War–era multinational institutions are for the tasks at hand. A prime example: a “my country first” approach to vaccine development and distribution will damage every one by encouraging vaccine hoarding, breeding international animosi ties and ensuring that those who need help most will receive it last.
We’re witnessing an acceleration in the rivalry between the still dominant U.S. and the still ascending China. No arena of competition will become more important than the creation of disruptive new technologies. COVID19 has accelerated investment in automation of the workplace, machine learning and AI. In essence, the pandemic has decimated the engines of the 20th-century economy—factories and brickandmortar retail—while turbocharging the engines of the 21st, like information technology and online retail.
As with every great technological leap forward in human history, the digital revolution will create both winners and losers. Over time, these and other technologies will unlock more human potential by creating unprecedented opportunities for distance learning, the practice of telemedicine, advances in agriculture and the breakthroughs that will create the “smart cities” of the future. The most innovative parts of our economies have suffered the least damage.
There are segments of society that can’t make this great leap forward. The question of how governments can rewrite the social con tract to provide for as many as possible remains urgent and vital.
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