Although the idea that “crisis” and “opportunity” are represented by the same Chinese character is “fake news”, it is nonetheless true that the two often go together.
As we stew in our respective lockdowns, let’s think about Corona-chan may make the world better:
- For the first time, many older people will be sufficiently incentivized to finally figure out how the Internet works, to submit utilities payments, order food online, etc. This will make all of our lives much easier.
- Decline in in-store retail thanks to expanded e-commerce will open up more green spaces in our suburbs. Will anybody truly miss GameStop?
- We may realize that many bureaucratic procedures are useless, or may at least be performed just as effectively online, so accelerating the move to lighter, more efficient e-government.
- Accelerate digitization of elections, referendums, political processes will expand citizen influence on city planning and other issues.
- Fewer pointless meetings (but I repeat myself).
- Less cash, more electronic payments lead to reduction of gray economies (particularly relevant to the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe) and greater tax intake.
- Less stigmatization of work from home, allowing people more flexibility. Perhaps even a mass transition – right now, we are seeing a mass experiment on how this affects productivity.
- Fewer crowds in city centers thanks to more work from home.
- Recessions are not all bad – one can compare them to bouts of fasting, which clears the body/economy of useless or unsustainable clutter. Purging them regularly is in fact good, as it’s the weaker ones that’ll die first (e.g. bad restaurants without loyal clienteles). Easily replaceable.
- Journalists will have to learn to code. It’s no longer even just a meme.
- Unemployment spike will, in the short-term, produce large pools of native labor that can be hired to upgrade infrastructure and public works. Forward-thinking states should take advantage of this.
- Across Europe and the US, it is almost certain that this will accelerate “reshoring” of vital industries from China. This will increase resilience to future shocks.
- Normalization of the idea of Universal Basic Income – now openly discussed across the political spectrum, from Bernie Sanders to Mitt Romney – will make us better prepared for extensive automation down the line.
- Germaphobes can celebrate as handshakes may go out of vogue.
- Normalization of wearing masks in Western societies may reduce the incidence of the flu and other diseases, as it has in East Asia.
- The world will be much better prepared for a more serious pandemic.
- Gives us space to set up stronger buffers against existential risks, especially biological ones. COVID-19 pandemic isn’t any kind of X-Risk, even in the worst case scenarios. But what if it had the virulence of MERS? Better prepared than sorry.
Finally, there are three more expected changes: One of them is “good”, but won’t happen; while the other one is the opposite – ostensibly “bad”, but inevitable.
(1) Perhaps the most common hope professed by people who overstretch historical analogies such as the Black Death is that COVID-19 will increase incomes if lots of people die off. First, the Black Death killed a third to half the population of Europe, not the <3% that the novel coronavirus will kill even in the most pessimistic scenarios. Second, it happened in Malthusian societies, where most people lived at the edge of subsistence and where land was a constraining resource – obviously not valid since Industrial Revolution! The lesser claim, that COVID-19 will reduce strain on pensions system, is true but only to a very limited extent. Pensions entitlements account for ~10% of GDP across most of the developed world. So assume 10% of retirees die off. That’s a 1% point reduction in that load – that’s hardly a major reversal, and may in fact be partially counterbalanced by future costs of treating morbidities (e.g. destroyed lungs) that arise as a consequence of the coronavirus sweep.
(2) Fears have been raised, especially on the libertarian right, that the crisis will lead to expanded surveillance and erosion of privacy protections. In principle, this is a respectable view. But it presupposes that there is a choice. In the long-term, there will be more crises, and crises tend to select for things that make polities more effective. “Digital Gulag”, as one might call it if negatively disposed, is too useful to not to be introduced and universalized at some point during the first half of this century. I would make the comparison to the introduction of passports. Optional before WW1; compulsory in most states, even non-warring ones, afterwards. Or cryptography. There was opposition in the US to setting up a cipher breaking unit before WW2 on the basis that “gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail.” Now America’s polities towards the world’s privacy is rather different, as Snowden might tell you. The tools already exist, and it is only a matter of time before they are rolled out on a large scale in the Western world, where they will be used to serve the reigning ideology just as surely as “social credit” in China promotes the “harmonious society” vision of the CPC. In the meantime, it is surely preferable that they at least do some unambiguous good – namely, improve track and trace capabilities, identify quarantine violators, and so forth.