The Covid-19 crisis was not solely a public health crisis. It was not only about astounding political incompetence and short-term thinking, lack of leadership, strategic planning and international cooperation. Nor will the post-pandemic fallout be solely about economic recession. What we are going through is primarily a crisis of meanings and definitions.
For far too long, we in the West have consulted the same leather-bound dictionary compiled in the aftermath of the Cold War. Now our dictionary is in flames. We reach to save what we can, but many pages of entries are scorched. Suddenly we realise we must redefine our most fundamental concepts. What is democracy? We thought we knew the answer, we took it for granted, but now we are no longer sure. What is normal? What is happiness? What are the values we should prioritise: ambitious trade agreements, financial deregulation, profit-driven business models that destroy the environment and pay no heed to coexistence? Or health and social care, diversity and inclusion, positive interaction with our ecosystems and purpose-driven business models?
This is a threshold. The old world is simply no more. From partisan gerrymandering to systematic attacks on journalism, the decline and decay in US institutions is alarming. Meanwhile, the EU exposed its own ruptures between “the centre” and “the periphery”. Keep an eye on Italy. In a nation that was traumatised by the pandemic and felt ignored by the Brussels elite we will see a further rise in populist nationalism. China is also undergoing an unexpected social transformation. If there is systematic deglobalisation in response to the pandemic failures, the domestic dynamics in China cannot remain intact.
The old world is gone, and yet we do not know what kind of a new world we want to build. It is a state of in-between-dom, full of anxiety and uncertainty, and fertile ground for demagogues and their false promises of redemption.
We are confronted with two paths, of which we can choose one. On one side stretches out protectionism, nationalism, a “my-kind first” approach: already, authoritarian leaders in Turkey, Hungary, Brazil and the Philippines have been using the disruption as an excuse to consolidate their power, control civil society and retreat further into isolationism. On the other side extends the path towards international communication and cooperation to deal with major global challenges, from future pandemics to the climate emergency, from cyber-terrorism to the dark side of digital technologies. If we choose the wrong path not only will we suffer the consequences, but so too will many generations to come.
Elif Shafak’s “How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division” will be published by Profile on 27 August
This article appears in the 26 Aug 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Covid