After Covid

Paleontologists disagree about whether dinosaurs were thriving or had already entered a long decline when an extinction event finished them off sixty-six million years ago. Depending on who is right, the asteroid that struck Earth either radically changed the direction of evolution or merely accelerated an established trend. Disasters that target the currently dominant species invite similarly divergent interpretations. Their capacity to jolt us out of our complacency is not in doubt. But in so doing, do they truly redirect the course of human history, or do they merely act as catalysts of ongoing change? Covid19 is just the latest in a long series of crises that have raised this perennial question. And how it has been raised! Since the pandemic began, journalists, pundits, scholars, and pundit-scholars speak as if the pandemic will itself periodize history, into the “Before Time” and the new world that we have entered. They have fallen over each other predicting all manner of dramatic change. But what kind of change, exactly? A big divide separates the realists and the continuationists from the aspirationists and the disruptionists. The former prefer to view the coronavirus crisis as an amplifier of present shifts and enhancer of familiar structures. The latter consider it a transformative force, a crisis that is an opportunity, a source of novel remedies for assorted societal ills thought to be in urgent need of correction.  The continuationist position has much to commend it. After all, a great many of the crises highlighted by the pandemic were already underway. Nationalism and anti-glo-balist sentiment were on the rise. International indices of freedom were declining. Digital tracking and surveillance had become ever more invasive. Economic inequality was already unprecedented. Corporate debt had already reached record highs, and central banks had already begun to drive more of the economy.

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