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16 April 2020

The four contests that will shape the post-Covid-19 world

As the global order fragments, the alternative is not utopia. It is common sense as well as common humanity.

By David Miliband

The political contest in the 2010s, after the great financial crisis, was successfully defined by populists as them versus the technocratic elites. Nativism versus globalism. “Our” citizens versus those of nowhere. Nationalism versus open borders.

The global pandemic has shown the limits of the politics of anger. Issues of contact tracing, health capacity, trust in government, cannot be solved by demonisation. So what comes next?

No one can yet know the social, economic and political consequences of this disease. Remote working could help lower carbon emissions. Mass volunteering for health and social services could help rebuild social solidarity. Or the new walls against foreigners could become the norm.

Although large parts of the world, among them the most vulnerable populations, have not yet felt the full force of Covid-19, surely it is implausible to talk of “return”. Not after the death, the unemployment, the debts, never mind the ongoing challenges of anything resembling “opening up”. Mindsets will be different – for example, more conscious of risk. And material conditions will be changed, from work to tourism.

What we can see through the fog is that four contests will define the world as it lives with Covid-19 and seeks to move post-Covid-19. These contests concern four questions: about globalisation; about democracy; about privacy; and about inequality. These are separate but linked. They each have their own narrative and content. The answers will frame the structure of new social and economic contracts that emerge around the world.

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The first contest is simple. Is the virus the product of too much globalisation or too little? Those who say too much will argue for more homegrown food and home-produced medical equipment. They will say the Chinese cannot be trusted, and therefore that we need to decouple. They will argue against overseas aid, on the grounds that charity begins at home, and needs to end there too.

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But this does not add up. The biggest problems have been domestic, not international. The Chinese government suppressing early signals of the disease. Western governments sticking their heads in the sand throughout February and even into March about the danger of the disease. Health systems prepared for good times not bad. These are all domestic decisions, not global ones.

On the international front, it is lack of power and co-operation that has been the problem, not excessive intervention by global authorities. The crisis shows that historian and author Yuval Harari is right to denounce the nationalist vision of a “network of fortresses”.

International institutions need more executive power – for example over the deployment of emergency supplies – not less. The EU is going to have to take more responsibility for the coronavirus-enhanced debts of Eurozone member states. The G20 is going to have to be woken from its Saudi-led slumber, because the economic effects of the disease and the efforts to combat it are going to mark the rest of the decade. And the G7 is going to have to decide whether to defend the liberal democratic order or be gridlocked by mindless point-scoring.

Of course, this means cooperation with China as well as competition. It is absurd to call this “appeasement”. As Kurt Campbell and Rush Doshi wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine, cooperation with China is not a “concession to Chinese power”, but instead what leading countries do in their own interest. We in the West will lose more from the absence of cooperation than them – not least because they are disciplined, organised and strategic in their thinking.


This leads to the second contest: whether the notion of an ordered society that is resilient and flexible in the face of global threats is helped or hindered by democratic government. It is obvious that the Chinese state is going to attempt to present its response to Covid-19 as both successful and the product of its one-party system. The message is being delivered in benevolent fashion – through aid supplies and diplomatic outreach around the world – and in more harsh fashion, with crackdowns at home and favour-buying abroad.

All of this plays into an unhappy trend. For the first time in more than a century, the world’s autocracies account for a higher share of global GDP than the world’s democracies. Twenty years after American journalist Fareed Zakaria coined the idea of illiberal democracy to describe democratic backsliding, democratic government is in retreat as a fact and as a model. And of course there are democratically elected politicians – Hungary is the obvious example – who are happy to use the crisis to roll back the checks and balances of democratic systems. The Supreme Court judgement in the US about the primary in Wisconsin should sound a flashing red light about the risks to the integrity of the US election in November.

Here the free world needs to make its stand – in the name of morality, but also efficiency. The point is not just that democratic government is not worth trading off for state capacity to handle crisis. It is that democratic government can help state capacity rather than reduce it. There are democracies that are handling the crisis well – South Korea and Germany come to mind – and democracies handling it badly, led by the US. And there are authoritarian states handling it poorly – Iran, for example – and less than fully democratic states coping well (Singapore).

This contest will come down to the push and pull between the US and China, but it cannot be left to the US and China, not least because the greatest strength of the democratic world should be its alliances.

This raises the third contest – about who controls information and whether it is compatible with notions of personal privacy. Here the danger is that the need to centralise information and control the disease either becomes the thin end of the wedge in the restriction of personal liberty, and/or produces a revolt that undermines the fight against the disease. The recalcitrance of the tech sector to be open about information flow and the tendency of government to mismanage citizens’ information reinforce each other in dangerous ways.

It seems evident that until there is a universal vaccine, access to public places is going to require restrictions on movement. This in turn requires extensive tracking of where people go and who they meet, alongside prompt and pervasive testing. Only governments can coordinate this, but only citizens can make it work. That means that social trust, as well as governing competence, is going to be essential to avoid further peaks that threaten to overwhelm health systems (however expanded).

It is interesting that even in the US, where national trust indicators (for example in federal government) are low and conspiracy theories are rife, Governors and Mayors (and State Health Coordinators) have become trusted sources of information. They have shown how science can inform decision-making, and established how expertise can inform political judgement.

But the hardest questions – about who holds data, how and whether it is anonymised – still have to be answered, and in low-trust societies the answers are going to have to be clear and strong. This is the only way for the alleged trade off between physical and economic health to be avoided.

The final contest underpins the three others. It is a contest about equality, within countries and globally. It comes down to a simple point: will we act on the rhetoric which says a connected world is only as strong as its weakest link?

The crisis has exposed two fundamental weaknesses in the economic model. First, labour markets around the world have not been rewarding the value of work considered “low skill” – from caring and health care to food production and distribution. Yet these occupations have been revealed to be absolutely central to a functioning economy and society. Second, global inequalities, though reduced in the past 15 years, are a massive drag on the restart of social and economic activity. For example, Africa has one doctor for 70,000 people, compared to one for 300 in Europe.

The holes in national and global safety nets are integral to the devastation of the disease. It is no accident that the US, with a weak welfare state and a massive undocumented working population, is finding it harder to cope than countries with a stronger social safety net. JP Morgan predicts the economic hit in the US to be twice that of Europe. Meanwhile, the globally vulnerable are going to be hardest hit. What should be different in the light of the crisis is the realisation that the social and economic lives of the rest of us depend on addressing these inequalities.

This means that the remarkable throwing out of orthodoxy in domestic policy – for example governments paying the wages of private-sector workers in Europe, and in the US government loans that are effectively grants for companies that avoid lay-offs – needs to last beyond the crisis, both nationally and internationally. Universal health coverage should be a global right, not a dream. Universal basic income for the developing world needs a timetable. The stalled global drive for education needs to be turbocharged. Peacemaking and peacekeeping need to come back centre stage in global diplomacy.

There is a very dark version of the after-effects of this crisis. Zero-sum, nationalist, anti-democratic and unequal. It truly is dystopian. The alternative is not utopia. It is common sense as well as common humanity. As we discuss how to stay apart to fight the disease, we need to come together to recover from it.