They teach you in journalism school never to use the phrase, “X has changed the world forever.”
Or at least they should. COVID-19 is certainly not going to change the world forever, but it is going to change quite a few things; in some cases, for a long time.
Here’s nine of them, in no particular order.
1. The clean air over China’s cities in the past month, thanks to an almost total shutdown of big sources of pollution, has saved 20 times as many Chinese lives as COVID-19 has taken.
(Air pollution kills about 1.1 million people a year in China.) People will remember this when the filthy air comes back, and want something done about it. India, too.
2. Online shopping already was slowly killing retail shops. Lockdowns will force tens of millions who rarely or never shop online to do it all the time.
Once customers get used to shopping online, most won’t go back, so retail jobs will disappear twice as fast.
3. Not so radical a change with restaurants, but basically the same story: more takeouts and home deliveries, fewer bums in seats.
Habits will change, and a lot of people won’t come back afterward. Food sold out the door generates much less cash flow than food served at the table, and half of servers’ jobs are gone.
4. Once it becomes clear that “remote working” actually works for most jobs, it will start to seem normal for people not to go in to work most days.
So a steep drop in commuting, lower greenhouse-gas emissions and eventually a lot of empty office space in city centres.
5. There will be a recession, of course, but it probably won’t be as bad or as long as the one after the financial crash of 2008.
It isn’t a market collapse costing people their jobs this time — a virus made them stop working, and governments are doing far more than ever before to sustain working people through what probably will be a long siege.
When the virus is tamed and they can return to work, the work (in most cases) still will be there.
6. Don’t worry about the debt. Banks always have created as much money as the government requires. Put too much money into the economy and you’ll cause inflation, which is bad, but just replacing what people ordinarily would be earning, so the economy doesn’t seize up, is good.
So President Emmanuel Macron can tell the French that no business, however small, will be allowed to go bankrupt. Prime Minister Boris Johnson can tell Britons the government will pay them 80 per cent of their normal income, up to the equivalent of $3,000 a month, if their work has vanished.
And President Donald Trump can talk about sprinkling “helicopter money” on the grateful masses.
7. What is being revealed here is a deeper truth: “Austerity” — cutting back on the welfare state to “balance the budget” — is a political and ideological choice, not an economic necessity. What governments are moving into, willy-nilly, is a basic income guaranteed by the state.
Just for the duration of the crisis, they say, and it’s not quite a universal basic income, but that idea is now firmly on the table.
8. Collective action and government protection for the old and the poor no longer will be viewed as dangerous radicalism, even in the U.S.
Welfare states were built all over the developed world after the Second World War. They will be expanded after the plague ends.
Indeed, if Joe Biden were to drop out of the presidential race tomorrow for health reasons, Bernie Sanders would stand a fair chance of beating Trump in November.
9. Decisive action on the climate crisis will become possible (though not guaranteed), because we will have learned “business as usual” is not sacred. If we have to change the way we do business, we can.
So it’s an ill wind that blows no good (a saying that was already old when John Heywood first catalogued it in 1546).
Some of the anticipated changes are definitely good, but we are going to pay an enormous price in lives and in loss for these benefits. It could have been dealt with a lot better.
And the West should learn a little humility. Taiwan, South Korea and China (after the early fumble) have handled this crisis far better than Europe and North America.
These are already more dead in Italy than in China, and America, Britain, France and Germany certainly will follow suit.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist based in London, England.