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Looking back, looking forward



A commonly heard phrase, or rather media cliché, is that after the COVID-19 crisis ‘things will never be the same.’ It is an understandable sentiment, given the seemingly unprecedented nature of recent events. But how novel is what happened, and how much will actually change? 

Main image: People wearing masks (Laura Makaltses/UN)

The creation of what have effectively become police states (in Victoria the army was briefly called in) to counter the effects of a perceived health threat is historically not unique, although the fact that it was implemented across most of the world is novel. That the response was based on modelling projections was also new. Nevertheless, the willingness to sacrifice economic and social stability for a pandemic has happened before; it was common during periods when the Bubonic Plague ravaged populations, for instance. 

What about the future? Futurist Phil Ruthven has concluded, after looking at 200 years of crises, including the World Wars, that economies typically return to how they were before. Crises can, however, accelerate trends already occurring. 

Differing versions of capitalism are emerging. The contrast between America’s response to the virus and the measures taken in Australia, Europe and Britain has been stark. America gave its corporations an eye-watering $US5-10 trillion bailout but did next to nothing for its workforce and small businesses, resulting in extraordinary unemployment and impoverishment.

Other countries, including Australia, spent heavily to protect those adversely affected, especially workers, so as to limit damage to the economic and social fabric. It is a very different conception of how capitalist societies should function, and suggests a significant divergence is occurring.

Another potential trend is a politicisation of health that could undermine basic rights and protections. Health was already out of control in a financial sense. Just the profiteering element in American health is almost the equivalent to two per cent of the global economy and those parasitic practices, fuelled by hyper greed, have spread around the world. 


'It is a very different conception of how capitalist societies should function, and suggests a significant divergence is occurring.'


The danger is that the next step will be to replicate what banks have been doing for decades: turning the industry into a system of control. Just as financiers, justified by the circular arguments of neo-liberal economics, have gleefully converted citizens into little more than consumers and debtors, the COVID-19 crisis has revealed a propensity for a biosecurity governance structure that turns citizens into patients, or threats to patients. Any system that does not put the whole person at its centre will inevitably become vicious, no matter how well-meaning it appears to be.

A third likelihood is an unwinding of globalisation. It is looking increasingly likely that the world will split into two: in geo-politics, geo-economics, digital infrastructure and supply chains. America on one side and China on the other. Both countries are in deep financial trouble, although America has an escape hatch because the US dollar remains the world’s reserve currency, meaning it can raise new money whenever it wants, and China has a discrete system that can be manipulated from within by the Communist Party. 

Another likely development, in this era of contact tracing, is more surveillance. China has moved at lightning pace to implement its Social Credit System, a dystopian mix of artificial intelligence (AI) and mass surveillance. In Western democracies surveillance has mainly been developed and refined by tech giants such as Google and Facebook (Edward Snowden showed that the intelligence services were heavily involved). As these companies become more politicised, using deplatforming or demonetising for alleged violations of ‘community standards’, the separation between the state and business blurs.

Even more concerning is America's and China’s race to advance their respective data collection and AI. AI and surveillance technologies are a Pandora’s box. Once they exist, they almost inevitably will be used.



David JamesDavid James is the managing editor of businessadvantagepng.com. He has a PhD in English literature and is author of the musical comedy The Bard Bites Back, which is about Shakespeare's ghost.

Main image: People wearing masks (Laura Makaltses/UN)

Topic tags: David James, COVID-19, economics, US



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Existing comments

I think the most interesting economic thing in Australia was that the federal government made significant funds available to support Job keeper and Job seeker. Government debt is someone's credit. It is a pity the Government did a half-hearted job as they believe that government debt is bad. A second interesting thing is that _both_ demand and supply are affected when a person is left idle as in this case - a link in the chain is broken. By supplying funds to those who will spend them, the link is partly restored allowing demand, and supports the restoration of suppliers, who can then demand in their turn. Funds flow through the economy keeping it going. At various points, those funds are recovered through taxation, completing the cycle.

Peter Horan | 30 June 2020  

COVID-19 has highlighted how psychologically vulnerable people become when there is an immediate threat to bodily existence. Wars, famines, floods, earthquakes are localised and are no match for a virus which cannot be controlled. We can disassociate ourselves from tragedies which do not directly affect us. When airlines are grounded though the world stops. The most disturbing aspect is the inhumanity of commercialisation of medical care which is not new but now we notice. Our hope lies in our vulnerability and our deep reserves of, for want of a better word, grit.

Pam | 30 June 2020  

I was just thinking the other day. we are now In the year 2020 and 1984 has finally arrived.

Brian Leeming | 30 June 2020  

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