At the outset of this year, many politicians and commentators heralded the return of the “Roaring Twenties”. After the economic stagnation of the 2010s, it was said, the United Kingdom and the world would enjoy a decade of unprecedented prosperity and opportunity.
It took only a few months for this Panglossian optimism to unravel. Though progress is possible, it is never inevitable: what is gained can be lost. This is too easily forgotten by liberal optimists and free-market zealots. As John Gray writes in his essay this issue: “The notion persists that pandemics are blips rather than an integral part of history. Lying behind this is the belief that humans are no longer part of the natural world and can create an autonomous ecosystem… Covid-19 is telling them they cannot.”
Pandemics are one of humanity’s oldest foes; the iconography and language of plague saturate our culture (“bless you”, we intermittently remark). But the time that should have been used to prepare for Covid-19 was squandered. In Britain, as our special correspondent Harry Lambert reports, the Conservative government disbanded the country’s pandemic preparedness team, while also imposing the longest-ever period of austerity on the NHS. In the US, Donald Trump abolished the US National Security Council’s entire global health security unit, and stripped funding from anti-disease programmes. Though scientists and epidemiologists warned for years of the threat of a mass pandemic, politicians were instinctively drawn to more visible foes and quick wins.
“A pestilence does not have human dimensions, so people tell themselves that it is unreal, that it is a bad dream which will end,” Albert Camus observed in The Plague, a bestselling novel once more. Before the US recorded the world’s highest number of Covid-19 cases, and more than 3,000 deaths, Mr Trump remarked of coronavirus on 28 February that “like a miracle, it’ll disappear”.
Yet just as coronavirus has exposed the fragility of Western societies and the extent of the world’s interconnectedness, so too has it revealed hidden reserves of strength. In the UK, often cast as one of Europe’s most atomised states, more than 700,000 people have offered to volunteer for the NHS. At 8pm on 26 March, the public assembled on their doorsteps and balconies and joined a round of applause for health workers. After years of visceral and sometimes toxic political debate, here was a sign of our common decency.
For decades, the UK welfare system has been derided as a “burden” on the economy, but the pandemic is a reminder of its true purpose – a form of collective insurance against life’s hazards: ill-health, disability, death and unemployment. The coronavirus crisis exemplifies the moral theory developed by the US philosopher John Rawls: that behind a “veil of ignorance”, knowing nothing of their talents, their wealth or their class, individuals would support a robust system of social protection. Those who argue that some citizens should be sacrificed should consider whether they would be prepared to volunteer themselves. As a record number of people seek to claim Universal Credit (with 500,000 applications in nine days), the inadequate nature of the UK’s safety net is becoming clear.
The coronavirus pandemic is the greatest crisis Europe has faced since the Second World War. As countries struggle to preserve as many lives as possible and to support their health systems, they must, when time allows, also use this crisis and its aftermath to strengthen their defences against the existential threats that haunt this century: climate breakdown, nuclear war and antimicrobial resistance.
Such challenges require a more resilient and protective state of a kind we have long argued for – the illusion that essential services could ever be outsourced to the market has been wholly dispelled. In these times of grief and anxiety, as well as enduring hope, the resonant words of Philip Larkin’s “The Mower” recur: “The first day after a death, the new absence is always the same. We should be careful of each other, we should be kind. While there is still time.”
This article appears in the 24 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special