A worker sanitizes the inside of a movie theater ahead its reopening in Mumbai, October 13, 2020.
Indranil Mukherjee—AFP/Getty Images

“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.

Global Inequality

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.

U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Disruptive Technology

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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