Our daily experience of the Covid-19 crisis is that it slows down our lives. Jobs are on hold, holidays not booked and travel unthinkable. We have more leisure time whether we like it or not. For people not on the frontline of the NHS or essential supplies, the lockdown is a slowdown.
Yet what is really happening is that the forces that will shape all our futures – the global tensions, the economic policies, the political ideas, the new technologies – are being sped up. Huge decisions and great controversies that might only have come to a head over the next couple of decades are suddenly upon us. We are about to experience the next twenty years in twelve months, and we need to get ready for it.
For an obvious example of this, take a look at the eurozone. Some of us have argued for years that it cannot work in its current form. To put it crudely, Italians will not work as productively as Germans, and Germans will not agree to pay off the debts of Italians. Without this crisis, such a fundamental chasm in the foundations of the euro would have continued to be a troubling but not imminent problem. Now it has yawned wide open. When Italy has looked north in its hour of need, it has found belated sympathy and precious little help. Suddenly, the EU faces an existential crisis.
Or think about the drift to great power rivalry between America and China, already gathering pace in recent years. Covid-19 threatens to speed that up, with both countries trying to shift blame on to the other. In a US election year, candidates will vow to take a hard line on ensuring American technology is separated from that of China. Other Western capitals and company headquarters will conclude they cannot be dependent any longer on supplies from one country, in a world where borders close at the first hint of trouble. And so the process of “deglobalisation” – more of what we consume being made closer to home, even if it is more expensive – will accelerate. Instead of happening slowly as developments like 3D printing change manufacturing techniques, it will happen quickly driven on by political and security imperatives.
Even so, the Asia Pacific economies look likely to get through the coming months with considerably less damage than most in the West. They prepared for a pandemic that was like SARS, whereas we Westerners expected something more like Spanish flu, if we thought about it at all. So they have the ruthless quarantining and tracing systems to suppress the virus while we have the long agony of trying to live with it. As things stood, 2020 was already going to be the year in which Asia’s GDP overtook the rest of the world combined. It was already going to account for 90 per cent of new middle-class people in the next decade. Perhaps we can revise that up to 95 per cent now. The Pacific century is going to arrive faster than anyone thought.
It is not only in the West that we experience a sudden fast-forwarding of what is to come. Countries dependent on oil production already faced forecasts that petroleum demand would peak and fall before 2030. Today they are receiving the sharpest possible demonstration of what that will mean, as oil prices plunge far below the point at which any of them balance their budgets. The need for Saudi Arabia to diversify away from energy production just got starker, and the funds for doing it smaller. For others like Russia, living rather complacently on huge oil and gas revenues, the warning signals are getting louder.
These accelerating trends in world affairs might seem distant from us, but they will be accompanied by the rapid intensification of political arguments that will affect us all – over inequality, debt and state power. Tens of millions of people across the developed world alone are losing their jobs or livelihoods, and they are predominantly those who are already less well off. It has been the natural tendency of the new technologies of recent decades to widen inequality, increasing the returns to capital rather than labour and leaving poorly educated people out of the booming global economy. Here comes the sharpest recession of our lives on top of that. It will push to the forefront of politics fundamental issues about the taxation of wealth, the case for basic incomes provided by governments, and the responsibility of companies for their employees.
With young people the most severely affected socially and economically – the year they are losing can never be restored and the jobs they were hoping for will be in shorter supply – the issue of how to handle the vast debts now being accumulated will shoot to the top of election agendas. Political parties will campaign for debt forgiveness and write offs, and for the cancelling by central banks of money borrowed by governments, with inflationary consequences for the future.
Most suddenly of all, the immense questions about who owns data about each of us, and what use the state can make of it, are coming in weeks instead of over many years. Once we are all carrying around an app on our phones to show where we have been and who we have met, pressure will grow to use that information for other purposes. Do we use it to stop a terrorist attack? To solve a murder? To detect a spy? If the answers are yes, what is the new boundary between the state and the individual?
Most of these trends, speeding up as I write, are profoundly disturbing, but at least we can be better equipped for them if we can see them racing towards us. More optimistically, they have one positive companion – the massive incentive this crisis provides for innovation. New ideas about healthcare and communications have become dramatically more urgent, and some of them will change our lives more quickly and positively than would otherwise have happened. If any of the dire trends I have listed can be slowed down by this crisis being defused, that will happen because of new drugs now being trialled, new tests being invented and new healthcare devices being planned.
But be in no doubt as the long days at home seem to pass ever so slowly. In its effect on societies, politics and the distribution of power iuen the world, Covid-19 is on track to be the Great Accelerator.