The virus is putting society to the test

The coronavirus crisis is fundamentally different from earlier crises. Not only is it posing challenges for the economy and politics, it is putting our society’s entire value system to the test. It has paraded in front of our eyes what we are no longer able to ignore.

April 27, 2021

Matthias Horx

Trend researcher and futurologist

The thing I find most astonishing about the coronavirus crisisis that the global economy hasn’t been brought completely to its knees. That we haven’t experienced a lasting downturn, mass unemployment, or a stock market crash. What’s happened instead shows us just how outdated our standard economic models are.  In the midst of this major crisis, the stock markets are booming. How is that even possible? Maybe our economic systems are much more complex, flexible, and resilient than we’ve given them credit for.

Holism as a hallmark of the coronavirus crisis

The coronavirus crisis is different from other crises by virtue of  its holism. It differs from major catastrophes such as world wars or natural disasters in that society, individuals, politics, and the economy have in principle retained their ability to take action. It is a crisis of decision-making (“krísis” is the ancient Greek word  for “decision”). We can decide whether we wear a mask or not. Politicians can decide whether to impose strict measures or dismiss the whole thing as nonsense. Managers can seize the opportunity posed by the crisis to engage in innovation and reorganization. We can decide whether to take to the streets and protest against the “criminals in the control rooms”. Or we can decide simply to wait it out and grumble until it’s finally “over”.

Broad array of threats

The coronavirus crisis, unlike subcrises such as the banking crisis or the refugee crisis, affects all aspects of our existence – our private lives, our day-to-day routines, our mobility, and our family life. Organizations are also affected – from healthcare to city administrations, media, politics, and the economy. These are the value systems that hold our society together. And all of this has been challenged, called into question, put to the test. Multilayer crises like these rip through the entire social fabric. The individual layers (or subareas) combine to amplify the effect.

Differing national repercussions

While the coronavirus crisis is a global phenomenon, its repercussions have been quite different from one country and one culture to the next. The virus is putting our society to the test; it is testing countries’ and cultures’ responsiveness and resilience and their ability to react to unforeseen challenges. This is much less about technological strength than it is about social coherence.

The countries that are emerging from the crisis in the best shape are those that have the most developed cooperative internal mindset. Alongside China, which has benefited from the strict policy controls it imposes on its citizens, this group primarily includes smaller countries with female or integrationist political leadership – New Zealand, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Estonia, and Iceland, for example. In these nations, the second wave has also been mitigated relatively successfully without the economy suffering any major damage. The “exceptional model” of Sweden is especially interesting in this regard because in certain respects it is the counter-model to China, fostering cooperation among individuals and in civil society, and consensus instead of control. In the US and Brazil, which are governed by autocratic populists, the coronavirus is, by contrast, exacerbating centrifugal forces in society – and leading directly to social catharsis. In Italy, meanwhile, the shocks have forged a new social cohesion. If you travel to Italy today and talk to Italians, their pride in how they have pulled together as a nation is palpable.

"The virus is testing countries’ and cultures’ responsiveness, resilience, and ability to react to unforeseen challenges. This is much less about technological strength than it is about social coherence."

Accelerated glocalization

In the economy, too, COVID-19 has triggered significant countertrends. It appears that the dichotomy between “local” and “global” has given way to the integration of local into global. The result is being called “glocalization.” Global just-in-time production, which sees millions of separate parts manufactured and shipped around the globe with perfect precision in order to put together a car in a highwage country, has had its day. There are not only political but also systemic reasons for this that have become evident during the coronavirus crisis. What happens if entire classes of drugs are no longer deliverable if they are produced in a lone Indian factory? What about cobalt, which we (still) need for electric engines?

Global production is currently being dismantled – and reconfigured – en route to a new type of sourcing in which the individual commodity and supply chains are becoming smarter. Outsourcing is increasingly being replaced by insourcing. Locally based production is booming, networks are being localized, and artisanship is experiencing a renaissance. In the process, individual countries, regions, and continents are becoming more self-sufficient and autonomous, and economic structures more complex. All of this also supports sustainability and upcoming decarbonization, which requires a realigned division of labor and a new appreciation of what is local. No, this emerging “slowbalization” will not put an end to globalization. But it will put it on a different footing. It will make the industrial production process and the global flow of goods and people a bit less hectic. This is perhaps the greatest impact of the coronavirus crisis: it has curbed the over-acceleration of our world.

Lasting memories

How will we remember the coronavirus crisis when we look back in a few years’ time? The hot core, the real nucleus of the COVID crisis is how it has shone a spotlight on the status of human civilization. It has paraded in front of our eyes what we are no longer able to ignore: we are in an escalation crisis that is affecting EVERYTHING: flows of goods, products, energy, the money economy, the way we consume, the way we live, and the way we interact with one another. The escalation principle also encompasses the realms of information and communications, of affects and emotions – the hurtling universe of attention and stimulation that threatens to push us to the edge of reality with its hate culture and conspiracy theories. COVID-19 has sent us a polite – yet firm – reminder that our lives are still dependent on nature, that we cannot really leave behind the realms of viruses and bacteria from which we originate (50% of human DNA consists of virus DNA). Despite all the technology we have, we are still part of the biological, living world. We are and will remain social beings that depend on one another, despite all the (apparent) triumphs of technology.

Everything stays different

The crisis has laid bare what we already knew, or at least suspected: we have reached an invisible frontier, a tipping point for civilization. The images of burning Californian forests, the floods, and the landslides – never has their impact been more intense and dramatic than during these coronavirus times. COVID-19 has acted like a burning lens that has concentrated our focus on the true challenge facing us next, the real decision we have to make for our future: the decarbonization of our economy. It is not premature to speak of a semantic shift toward the great environmental and existential issue of our time. Today there are barely any major companies or financial providers that do not fly the flag of environmentalism and sustainability.

The coronavirus crisis has consolidated sensory overloads, shone light into dim recesses, and made things tangible that were previously diffuse. It demands clarifications – between the individual and society, and between the economy and nature. It demands in no uncertain terms that we INTEGRATE these ruptures and contradictions.

The “annus horribilis” of 2020 will, in retrospect, maybe not be so “horrible” after all. It has also honed our experience of managing situations and enabled us to live life with greater intensity. It has provided clarity. As long as we are in a position to accept such experiences, the future remains possible. But as soon as we refuse to accept them and insist that everything should go back to what it was like “beforehand,” whatever the cost, then we’ve lost our future. Then we’ll slide back into a false past where everything was supposedly better, even though the way things were going had no longer been sustainable for a long time. What was the name of that Swiss film again? “Alles bleibt anders”– everything stays different. So let’s get going.

Matthias Horx


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