How will covid-19 change the world?
Apollo’s Arrow. By Nicholas Christakis.Little, Brown Spark; 368 pages; $29 and £20.
Is It Tomorrow Yet? By Ivan Krastev.Penguin; 80 pages; £10.99.
Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World. By Fareed Zakaria.W.W. Norton; 320 pages; $26.95. Allen Lane; £20.
Post Corona. By Scott Galloway.Portfolio; 256 pages; $25. Bantam Press; £18.99.
IN “THE SEVENTH SEAL”, a film by Ingmar Bergman, a knight returns from the crusades to find his homeland ravaged by the plague. Suffering and devastation have shaken his faith in God. When Death comes for him, the crusader proposes a game of chess in order to eke out enough time to commit one act—any act—that might bring meaning amid the pestilence.
In the teeth of a scourge on the scale of covid-19, the impulse to draw significance from suffering is again strong. However, as is clear from the first of what will surely be shelf-loads of books about the coronavirus, in a secular age a pandemic is principally seen not as a question of inscrutable divine will, but as a test of earthly powers.
All these books have to grapple with the problem that they were written amid great uncertainty. Even now much about covid-19 is still unknown—not just when the pandemic will end and what it will leave behind, but also about the nature of the virus itself. These authors are thus attempting to write the review before the final reel has been loaded into the projector.
The most successful is “Apollo’s Arrow” by Nicholas Christakis, a doctor and sociologist at Yale. He deals with uncertainty by looking back, using history, epidemiology and sociology to put covid-19 in context. This is the book if you want to understand about flattening the curve and herd immunity, or how America’s response fell short in those critical early months of the pandemic because of Trumpian politics, bureaucratic turf wars and the failure to create enough reliable testing.
Dr Christakis’s title refers to the pestilence that Apollo visited upon the Greeks for enslaving the daughter of a Trojan priest. And, sure enough, he lays out a litany of human failings—chief among them the struggle to learn from the past. Pandemics are an old enemy that has scarred humanity, but once they abate, he writes, people tend to put the search for meaning aside, pick up their lives and party.
Other authors seek to draw more ambitious conclusions. Yet, because they are erecting their arguments on half-built foundations, they risk being highly speculative. Ivan Krastev, for instance, is a Bulgarian political scientist and a master of the brilliant epigram. In his extended essay on covid-19 he observes how “the strangeness of the pandemic experience is that everything changes but nothing happens”, and how in normal times the elites can afford to travel whereas, “in the time of covid-19, they can afford to stay at home”.
In between pithy observations, Mr Krastev deals with the theme of whether this disease could be the destruction of the European Union—or perhaps its making. When Italians and Spaniards were dying by the thousand, the EU seemed as relevant as the Holy Roman Empire had been when its subjects were unaware that they were even part of it. He worries that populists, despite having a bad pandemic, will come storming back when it is over. But, he goes on to argue, the virus has also taught Europeans that to be safe in a dangerous world, they must stick together—while the EU’s failure has spurred governments to opt for greater integration. Mr Krastev calls this “the great paradox of covid-19”. Readers may think he is having it both ways.
And yet, if analysts seek to avoid too much speculation, they risk being conventional. That is because when the future is extremely uncertain the safest approach is often to extrapolate from the present.
At least, that is the path taken by Fareed Zakaria, a television host and pundit in America. His “Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World” begins with a rousing warning that this pandemic “is new, upturning many of our daily patterns and presumptions”. But his lessons mostly confirm the things that many commentators—including The Economist—were worrying about before the pandemic: the rivalry between America and China, the potency of the digital revolution and the effects of inequality.
Struggling to be born
Mr Zakaria is a skilful and sober guide on this whistle-stop tour. Along the way, he makes some wise observations: that cities will not fade, because urban life is too rewarding; that globalisation is not dead, because it is too valuable; that experts have their place, so long as they listen to non-experts. But these reasonable points, too, undermine the breathless promise with which the book begins.
Scott Galloway, an entrepreneur and professor at New York University, narrows his field to the coronavirus and business. He conceives of it as a source of disruption and a bringer of rapid change. This allows him to rehearse his theories about the state of business—how products are replacing brands, and how companies are having to choose between selling products at a profit (as Apple does) or selling their users to other businesses (as Google does). Mr Galloway is entertaining and informative on how companies deal with crises, and on the ripeness of health care and university education for disruption. Somehow, though, you get the impression that these were all things he believed before people began to fall ill in a wet market in Wuhan.
One point of agreement among these authors is that government must change—which is also the focus of “The Wake-Up Call”, written by our former editor, John Micklethwait, and our Bagehot columnist, Adrian Wooldridge. And, indeed, few would be against governments that help create a fairer society while also being more effective and smaller. But that is a manifesto rather than a prediction.
The lesson from Bergman is that, when mankind is faced with great suffering, meaning often lies in small things. At the end of the film, when the knight is on the verge of defeat, he distracts Death for a moment by knocking over the chessboard. This gives a minstrel couple, who in an act of kindness had fed him milk and wild strawberries, the chance to escape with their baby—and live. The post-pandemic world will take time to emerge. Chances are that it will first be found in the details. ■
This article appeared in the Books & arts section of the print edition under the headline "The big picture"
Author: | Post link: https://www.economist.com/books-and-arts/2020/12/30/how-will-covid-19-change-the-world
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