A pre-pandemic reset will not address the planetary challenges that await us. We must forge ahead with bold ideas bound by a collaborative spirit, or hurtle towards the abyss.

For the vast majority of human history, a sense of foreboding and fear was completely justified. On the other side of every hill or wall could lie threats to your person or your entire way of life. 2020 has reminded us all of what living with such systemic risks truly entails. We have been forced to reckon with the idea that the march of progress we ascribe to our civilisation is not indelible, regardless of the memories of almost everyone alive today.

As we look ahead with hope for rebirth, a new weariness is setting in for a world beyond this pandemic. Will our collective exhaustion enable a passive restoration of the status quo that left us unprepared to meet this crisis and the momentous challenges that lie ahead? 

At the time of writing, we think it certain that the year behind us will be remembered as a turning point of whose character and breadth we are only beginning to understand. 

But what if nothing changes?

A merging of crises

We may soon be able to forget the ubiquitous public health terminology that occupied nervous dinner table conversations. However, the palpable sense of social anxiety cannot be attributed to the happenings of 2020 alone. 

Covid-19 has merely been a catalyst that has highlighted the dysfunction of global governance, the fallibility of economic dogma and the vapidity of our individualistic postmodern world. In doing so, it upended the theoretical constructs that dominated our discourse and propelled us forward at an uncomfortable pace into an unpredictable future. 

Ahead of us is the beginning of the end of the most significant global disruption since World War II – and the risk that 2021 may in fact be disturbingly familiar.

It is frustrating to recall how quickly the policy response to the 2008 financial crisis was thought of as a missed opportunity at structural reform. We returned to business as usual and enabled the further concentration of power and wealth amongst well-connected corporates and individuals. 

From the European Union to the African Union, the public domain was to remain in thrall to the forces of private capital. The institutions of governance – local, national and supranational – continued to be toothless by design. 

As opposed to boardrooms and trading floors, the present crisis was born from the complex interactions between the ever-expanding human world and the shrinking natural one. This will certainly not be the last emergency to stem from the mistreatment of our environment. If we don’t heed the lesson of past failures, we will only have the insipid systems that failed to hold a mere microbe at bay to call upon.

As we approach the banal annual ritual of fireworks from Shanghai to Dubai, what do we really expect to be different from this next run around the Sun? 

Yes, the resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is not inept or deliberately divisive. But can we really expect Joe Biden to do anything but row us back four years to failed neoliberal economic policies and imperial overreach abroad? 

Won't the self-destructive feedback loop of climate change march unceasingly onwards? Will democracies come together to rebuild fractured alliances or will tribalism continue to shrink the circles of empathy that enable cultural cohesion? 

Who will challenge Xi Jinping's global ambitions as he leverages China’s technological leadership to spread an authoritarian consumerist model? What role do the oil-producing or newly-industrialising states have in an increasingly digital marketplace? Does an underfunded 75-year old institution like the UN have a role beyond a mere soapbox? 

Too many of these questions have pessimistic responses.

Picking ourselves up

The bubonic plague of the 14th century created such a labour shortage in Europe that it redefined the existing class relations amongst those that remained – arguably ending feudalism. A virus with a mercifully low mortality rate could never shake the foundations of a meticulously constructed and seemingly immovable international institutional order. But a concert of forces has exposed the weakness of a system worn away by decades of neglect and, at times, outright obstruction. 

Both public and private leaders must acknowledge our good fortune and reimagine a response to solidify multilateralism, economic equity and environmental justice before such values face extinction. Placated by consumerism and busied by the altar of success we were blindsided by a preventable calamity. Like the forest fires in Australia only months ago, all the machinery of 21st-century capitalism can do is wait for it to burn itself out. 

Counterintuitively, this emergency has provided us the means to make a peaceful revolution possible. At this final stage in the pandemic response, as vaccines start to replace fear with confidence, we can direct the forces at our disposal in a manner that leaders of the past could only have dreamed. 

There is no inevitability to the choices ahead. Anti-intellectualism, nationalism and ultimately growthism itself are all forces that need to be overcome. Personality cults cannot consider the wider consequences of Siberian heat waves or the mountains of personal data for sale to the highest bidder. Only competent leadership with long-term vision can enable innovative and collaborative responses to take root.

Is it wishful thinking to seek a renewal of our political and economic systems to address the growing existential stakes ahead, from Gilded Age inequities to dystopian ecological collapse? If democracies miss this opportunity, we may deserve to live in a world where autocrats dictate right and wrong. The absence of order among nations is not tolerable in a world where the forces that lie over the next hill are unknown. 

A critical point to understand is that we got here on purpose. Weak governments, placid regulation and an obsession with individualism pushed the Dow Jones over 30,000. Misplaced priorities also made international cooperation unfeasible and instilling a culture of personal sacrifice seem parochial. 

Soon, however, our hopes will not lie in merely convincing the general public to stay away from each other. It will rest on the fact that in emerging from one of the truly synchronous human experiences, they cannot be dulled back into tacit obedience to a system that betrays their future.

If we got here on purpose, we can decide to go elsewhere.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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