Covid: Back to what normal?

It’s fairly standard rule in history that the effects of crises are both less and more serious than expected. In general, the things you expected to happen are not as bad as you though they would bet, whereas the things that you didn’t expect to happen are worse.

So with the virus, it’s clear that there will be fewer deaths than once feared. This isn’t because the virus is kind and gentle, it’s because the draconian steps taken so far have managed to limit its spread, at least for the time being. Assuming a reliable vaccine is produced some time next year, then we may, a year or two after that, be able to get the number of deaths down to a figure which is regarded as “acceptable”, whatever that is.

It’s the things we didn’t expect that worry me. The first is mental illness. At the beginning, people were worried that the sight of dying relatives shut away behind barriers would seriously disturb people. No doubt it has. But I’m more worried about the people who don’t get – physically – ill. Neoliberalism has already produced record levels of stress and mental illness, and, just as the right time, along comes a virus which causes even more stress, virtually requires social isolation, breaks up families and stops people socialising. If you actually wanted to destroy our fragile, unstable, tottering society, if you wanted to push it over the edge, you couldn’t really find anything better. Already suicides are right up, and of course many of the resources that could be used to fight mental illness are being redeployed to fight the virus. And that’s just one obvious, simple and much reported example. It’s the consequences we haven’t even thought of yet that frighten me.

Covid: A massacre of snowflakes

Humorists have log had fun with real (or maybe not real) quotations from history about how this or that generation of young people knows nothing, is impolite, is arrogant or won’t listen to advice. Sometimes, it’s even true.

But for someone born in the post-war era, what is striking about today’s young people, especially those between 20 and 30, is how frighteningly immature they are. It’s not entirely, or perhaps even mostly, their fault. For the last thirty-odd years, parents and administrations have treated adolescents as children, and people in their 20s as adolescents. Young people have been encouraged to grow up with this idea that Mummy and Daddy are always there, and that as a result nothing bad should ever happen to them. If it does, Mummy and Daddy, or the University authorities, will punish those responsible. And of course the more you are protected, the more you need to be protected because the more fragile you become.

When shocks and traumas suffered by young people are restricted to naughty words, overly challenging books, or insufficiently respectful behaviour, then this protection can be made to work, just about. But Covid is changing this, as it’s changing everything else. At its simplest, some young people will die, many more will need medical care for life, and even more will see friends and family die. Nothing can be done to stop or cancel this, no matter how many sensible precautions are taken. Young people will have their freedom drastically curtailed, will not be able to socialise and even conceivably grow up, as they now do. For students especially, there will be months, even years, of living at home and starting into screen trying to learn something. Mummy and Daddy can’t help, and, with the best will in the world, may find them something of a burden.

It’s unsurprising then that depression and mental illness are exploding among a generation who aren’t even prepared for the kind of routine stress that earlier generations had to put up with. In different countries we read that anything from one in ten to one in four young people have actively considered suicide. Once more, Covid the heat-seeking missile is unerringly targeting all the weakest parts of our society. Once more it’s not clear what, if anything, can be done about it.

Covid: No way out

So it’s Lockdown 2.0 then, in half of Europe, and probably all of it before too long. It was expected, and it was probably inevitable. Why?

Well, the Covid problem can be very simply expressed. It’s a disease which can only be conquered by methods which are actually impossible to enforce for any length of time, and which, one lifted, simply invite the disease back again. Put even more briefly, There Is No Answer. The disease can be suppressed for a period, but will come back as soon as life starts to return to anything like normal.

A vaccine of some kind will probably arrive before too long: at best, maybe next year. It may or may not be effective, it may or may not be widely available. It certainly won’t be available to everyone in the world, and for the foreseeable future, everyone who arrives from a country where vaccination isn’t universal (the United States, say) is likely to be treated with suspicion, if they are even let in at all.

Maybe we’ll just have to get used to dying with it.

Covid: You can’t always get what you want

Many years ago, I was at a seminar with a lady from a Famous Financial Publication, whose one topic of conversation was the need to leave everything to the private sector and the Market. These were the days when it was still just about possible to preserve a childlike faith of this kind. We were discussing security and resilience and she intervened to say, eyes shining with true belief, that “real security comes from being able to buy what you need in the market.”

Well, possibly, but in that case we don’t enjoy much security now. In those days, it’s true the process of rampant de-industrialisation hadn’t gone as far as it has now, jigsaw puzzles, hand soap and plastic spoons, for example, were still made in Europe, in some cases at least. And it must have seemed to national leaders that if you ever needed a few million surgical masks in a hurry, there would be a number to ring in China. I suppose it never occurred to them that one day we might need millions of surgical masks. Every day. In every country in the world. At the same time.

But whilst the shock and horror of elites on discovering that we had to ho begging to China for testing kits is all very grimly amusing, it’s only part of the story. Like a lot of other things, outsourcing production requires a nearly frictionless international system for it to work. And that, to put it mildly, cannot be guaranteed with Covid. Already deliveries of some products are starting to dry up. Electronics is the highest-profile example, but of course there are others: indeed, it’s the “others” that in the long run will be the most significant, as daily life’s interrupted for want of some gizmo produced in Bangladesh, shipped to Taiwan to be combined with another gizmo made in Vietnam to be wind up in a cheap supermarket somewhere in Portugal or Poland.

Perhaps real security comes from being able to produce what you need when you need it. There’s a thought.

Covid: What do you mean, together?

If you were born just after the end of World War 2, you grew up with one simple message from your parents and everyone of that generation. We were all in it together. And largely, this was true. Yes, there were defeatists; yes there were some inequalities, yes some were in more danger than others. But the last time Britain had confront a major, major crisis, we were all in it together.

Probably, no set of rhetorical tropes has ever been so misused and so soiled with mindless repetition as those from the year 1940. The sophisticated now mock, the unsophisticated are cynical, the ignorant are just ignorant. But guess what, for the first time in almost a century, it’s true again. We really all are in it together: not just in the UK, but, at least, in the whole of Europe.

There’s a small problem, though. We are a long way into the Age of Me. (I hope we’re coming out the other side, but that’s another issue). For decades now, the unofficial motto of the western world has been, It’s all about me. Hardly anyone now alive now remembers national leaders appealing for sacrifices. Hardly any national leaders would know how to do so without inwardly smirking, and asking if it will play well with focus groups. In the end, if this crisis deals a fatal blow to our current economic and social system (which not everyone would regret) it will be less because of technical, political or managerial failures, grave as they may be, but because of a failure of rhetoric. We no longer know how to talk about what need to be done. We struggle and make noises, but no coherent words come out. Think about that.

Covid: A new earth?

It’s hard to exaggerate how fundamental travel is to modern international politics. Today, for example, comes news of an agreement between the two main sides in the Libyan conflict, which may or may not hold, and this agreement resulted not from talks in Libya, but talks in Geneva. Behind the agreements, I’m sure, was a great deal of shuttling around, not just, or even mostly, by Libyans, but by internationals of various sorts from many countries.

In the current situation, the necessary travel must have seemed like an acceptable risk. Masked negotiators, often travelling in official transport and meeting in carefully controlled environments, are probably as safe as any of us at the moment. But the larger the meeting, the wider the geographical spread, the greater the risk. So far, there have been no outbreaks I’m aware of as a result of such meetings, but it can only be a question of time.

But as always, behind the things you hear about are the things you don’t hear about. To keep the world as it is requires a herculean effort of control and communication, supported by movements around the world on a scale most people can’t imagine. A new crisis in Lebanon, the DRC, Afghanistan or Nepal, and representatives of dozens of states and international organisations can be there the next day. Ambassadors shuttle back and forth, NGOs send people on mission financed by donors. Journalists jet off to cover the latest developments.

Not all of this will stop. But much of it will have to. A First Secretary attending a meeting in The Hague, passing through Amsterdam, being infected by some arriving From Brazil, infecting someone returning to Athens who has to travel via Rome and infecting someone travelling to Addis Ababa … well you get the picture. We will increasingly be moving back to the old model of delegation to players on the ground, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Local representatives will stay in post longer, more will be done in writing, missions abroad will be fewer and longer. Large-scale summits will be rare: the last UN General Assembly was virtual, and the next few are likely to be as well.

The results are hard to predict, but will include a reshuffling of the cards. Th reach of even major international actors is going to reduce, as will the degree of control and influence they can exercise. Regonalism will increase, and nations are likely have more freedom to act. The current plethora of consultants and NGO activists will reduce sharply, and states will have a greater freedom to manage their own affairs.

It’s not all good news, of course, but a lot of it is, and I think we’re going to see a new and disruptive fashion of managing the affairs of Planet Earth.

France: Macron grows up

Young Emanuel Macron, the teenage French President since 2017, has been presented this year with two career-defining problems – first the virus, then Friday’s terrible murder – which will make (or probably break) his presidency. A bland technocrat with an Excel spreadsheet under his pillow, Macron is the last person you would want to trust with the destiny of France in the present difficult situation.

And yet. Tonight’s speech at the Sorbonne , no matter how carefully written by his image consultants, did come over reasonably well. Something like emotion traversed his juvenile features from time to time; something like genuine feeling seemed to creep into some of the words he used. Something like a sick appreciation of the mess the country is in could be inferred from his body language. He may at last have begun to realise the nature of the job he conned his way into in 2017.

In the end, Macron may turn out to be a mildly tragic figure. Someone who realises now what need to be done but cannot do it. Someone who thought he was after the CEO position in a startup, but would up the President of a state in crisis. Cometh the hour, cometh not always the man. He still has some growing up to do.

France: An Atrocity and an Opportunity

During the Presidency of Valery Giscard d’Estaing (1974-81) a seemingly innocuous decision was taken, which was, unknowingly, to launch the largest social experiment in Western history.

There were a fair number of immigrant workers from the Maghreb in France at the time, generally working for a few years and returning home. The government decided, under a scheme known as regroupment familial to permit them to bring their families with them, once they had been granted temporary residence rights. Those who were nationalised could stay, with their families and bring more family members over. Forty yeas later the Muslim population is estimated at 5-6 million people, or about 10% of the population.

From the beginning, one political party sounded the alarm about this policy. I know what you’re thinking, but no, it wasn’t the National Front. It was the Communist Party, which saw very clearly that a cheap, disposable labour force was exactly what employers wanted, and would drive down wages and working conditions. And so it came to pass. In those days, religion was starting to be regarded as a relic of the past, and if someone had told the Communist Party that in forty years time there would be murders by jihadists, they would certainly have laughed.

The Communist Party is (pretty much) no more, but the problem is still with us. For decades, the extreme Right has been making all the running, but now, at last, there’s an opening for a serious, secular, republican Left to get a grip on the situation. Of course the Left’s ability to fumble the ball and stab itself in the back is proverbial: but here, surely, is an opportunity … isn’t there?

France: Atrocity and Incapacity

The ghastly murder of schoolteacher Samuel Paty on Friday has already had a fair number of consequences for French politics, now that the immediate shock and horror is being replaced by anger and demands that something serious should be done. No-one is worse placed to do what needs to be done than Emmanuel Macron.

Macron is now confronting the third crisis of his reign for which he is unprepared and inadequate. The first was the Gilets jaunes, which is partly in abeyance because of the second, Covid, and now we have a third, which goes beyond the immediate crime to a sordid and depressing story of two decades of ignoring and minimising a threat to the nation that has already claimed the best part of 300 lives. In each case, Macrons’s response has been fumbling and hesitant, speaking the words put in front of him but going no sense that he understands the issues, still less that he knows what to do about them.

In a way, it’s hard to blame him. Macron is a technocratic neoliberal manager, with little experience of anything outside banking and finance. He sees himself as the CEO of a “start-up nation”: his role model is less De Gaulle than Bezos. Frequently appearing ashamed of being French, his objective seems to be to construct a country without history or culture (“there is no French culture” he famously said), an indistinguishable, greyish part of some flavourless European bankers’ paradise. The best you can say is that it’s not working out very well.

And now he’s required to deal with an actual and serious threat to the country, supported from abroad and deeply dug into French society. And apart from making martial noises, he seems, as usual, to have no idea what to do. How, after all, does he reinvigorate and propagate traditional French Republican ideas to challenge the Islamists when he himself has publicly mocked these very ideas that people now demand should be defended?

More on that tomorrow.

Covid: Goodbye globalism

Apparently there are people out there, running airlines and being paid millions, who genuinely believe that international travel will be “back to normal”, or something approaching it, next year. Obviously, their job is much easier than anyone had realised. You just have to be an idiot.

It’s not just airlines though. To an extent that it’s hard to conceive of, if you can remember back to the 1960s, our world is built on the idea of international mobility, especially if you can afford it. It’s not just, Let’s Get Pissed in Prague This Weekend, pleased as the Czechs will be to see that come to an end. Globalism (more than just globalisation) is the basic mechanism by which the international Professional-Managerial Class (PMC) rules. Consider: you recruit your staff from where you want; you send them where you want; you outsource to where you want; you buy from where you want and you sell to where you want. Literally none of that will now be easy: some of it will be impossible.

If you can’t rely on a cheap disposable immigrant workforce, you have to pay higher wages. But how long will it be before such a workforce can be delivered in batches again, for exploitation and ultimate replacement? (How long would slavery have lasted in the Ottoman Empire if the captives from Africa and Europe might have been bearing a deadly disease?) What happens if there’s a sudden suspected infection in your call centre in some pauperised African or Asian country? You can’t find out without sending someone there, and they might bring the virus back with them. But you can’t provide the services any more because all the expertise has gone.

Not that I’m sorry for the PMC: they built a complex fragile system out of greed, and it’s falling apart. But it’s the rest of us I’m worried about. All these things that are (we now realise) made in China … Well, there are ships on the high seas with infected crews that can’t put into port, and ports with infections where ships can’t call. And your electrical goods, your clothes, your toys and even your pots and pans … well, they’re stuck on the high seas somewhere. And nobody knows when, or if, we’ll see them again.

Things are changing. More tomorrow.