The obligatory new year post.

OK, when I started this blog years ago I vaguely remember signing up to Terms of Service which demanded, among other things, a post at the start of the year with good wishes, optimism, hope etc. incorporated.

I frankly couldn’t motivate myself to write something over the last few weeks (what’s the point?) but here is the obligatory New Year’s post anyway.

First, the obvious. The world is changing. There is no going back. There is no back to go back to. It was changing anyway, but the virus had massively accelerated the process. The dying days of the neoliberal order, already few, have become even fewer. It is effectively dead but it doesn’t realise it yet.

Then the less obvious.The virus is not a traditional challenge to be overcome. We are going forward, not back, but we don’ t know where to. The world of (say) 2025 will be unlike the world of today in ways that we cannot yet imagine. Some parts of the economy (mass tourism, international airline travel) will never come back. But what about concerts, bars, clubs, libraries, museums? How may of them will still be solvent? How many will still be open in a year’s time. If you shut restaurants on and off for several years, where will the staff come from if you re-open them? Would you want to train as a chef in the current climate? What kind of life will we lead as a result?

Then the speculative. This marks the return of government. the countries that do best over the next few years will have the strongest and most capable governments. Those countries that have spent decades destroying government will have to endure the consequences. Some countries (the US?) won’t survive at all. It’s not the disease as such, for all that it is destructive, it’s the capacity to change and modify, to innovate and plan for the longer term. Some countries can do that and others can’t. We are at a turning point in history, although it’s hard to know where we are turning to.

I hope you have the New Year you merit.

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.

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.

Covid: the end of the (air)line

Some of the consequences of the Covid virus are more obvious than others. Let’s start with them.

If you have travelled a bit internationally (and I don’t mean just to the country next door) you’ll be familiar with what airlines call the “hub and spoke” model of travel. Essentially, you fly from where you are to the airline’s central hub (or that of one of their partners) and then on to your destination. This may not be ideal for you, unless you like hanging around duty-free shops and drinking expensive coffee, but it’s good for airlines, who can use smaller planes making shorter flights, and simplify their logistics.

But more than the (in)convenience, what’s interesting here is the model of interaction. Say I am an NGO worker in South Sudan, going home to Copenhagen. I catch a plane from Juba to Addis Ababa, a major hub for the region, then catch a plane to Munich, another major hub, then on home. At Addis, I bump into someone who is coming from Khartoum, and going to Dubai, to take a plane to Islamabad. In Munich, it’s someone from El Salvador, who’s arrived via Mexico City and Washington, and is going on to Warsaw. You get the picture.

But a lot of airlines don’t. And this is the problem with the”back to normal” idea. So long as the virus exists anywhere in the world, there is a measurable chance that air travel will spread it everywhere, without a level of control and testing that isn’t possible now, and may never be.

So long, international air travel. You were (occasionally) fun.

Covid: The One Big One

I’ve always thought it a good principle that, when you have nothing of value to say, it’s better to say nothing. That is, of course, not the spirit of our times, in which much social media consists of stream-of-consciousness real-time hectoring about What I Think and How I Feel. Still less is it a good principle for blogging, where the expectation is that you will say something every day, and thus that you will have interesting and useful ideas to communicate al the time. But few of us have, and many of us have nothing interesting to say at all.

So I haven’t written anything during the Great Virus Emergency, because I’m not a doctor, and epidemiologist, a virologist or even somebody who studied biology after the age of 16. (OK, that didn’t stop millions of other pundits from weighing in, but it did stop me). But I think a couple of things are now clear which were not clear before, as the virus accelerates again, and nether of them require socialist medical knowledge. One is that we know very little about the virus even now, and that even the most basic facts about transmission and how to stop it are in dispute. No government really knows what it’s doing. The other is that the only real counter-measures that might be effective are probably impossible. It may be less a case of “living with” this virus than dying with it.

On which cheerful note, more tomorrow.