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Challenging world views by our team of spectators

Will modernity survive the corona infection?

18 Mar 2020 - 15:00

The globe has entered into a giant stress test. On all levels, in all sectors. Corona doesn`t come slowly like the effects of climate change. It is hardly picky. Even ISIS is concerned and advises its supporters to be careful and warns them ‘do not spread the virus.’ It is not man-made like political violence or war and it is hardly local. It is everywhere and it is sudden. No escape.

The stress test concerns all systems. Our international economic system. Our healthcare system. Our governance system, our academic Research and Development systems, our communication and our social systems, including our value systems. All these systems are being tested at present and will be tested more intensely in the coming months.

It is fair to say that our economic system has shown the strongest signs of weakness

So, it is early to take stock. But so far it is fair to say that our economic system has shown the strongest signs of weakness. It doesn`t come out very resilient in the test. It is loser number one. It is striking that this is not the first time in recent history that our economic system fails to resist and properly deal with a crisis.

As for governance, there are differing results. The international governance architecture represented by WHO is definitely meeting the challenge. That is a plus. The EU has, again, shown that it is not fit to function as a crisis response mechanism. Individual states take measures, the EU is absent. That is a minus.

Then there are the individual states. I think I can see a pattern. There are those that count on imposed discipline of citizens, accompanied by the necessary disciplinary measures and those that count on the cooperative attitudes of citizens and voluntary measures. Roughly the liberals against the autocrats. Some change sides.

My take is that autocracy is winning as a productive crisis response mechanism

The French President is an interesting example. He suddenly, apparently overnight, turned from liberal to autocrat. He now tries to discipline the French people. Mind you, he is the President of the cradle of liberty. My take is that autocracy is winning as a productive crisis response mechanism.

The healthcare system is obviously our biggest headache. After all, we all depend on it for our medication and survival. There is too wide a variety to judge all the systems in one go, but I think it is fair to admit that what we have seen so far is not reassuring.

The Italian system is failing to treat all admitted patients, the US and UK systems are potentially falling apart, and I hear rumours that the Dutch system is invaded by the bugs. There is a big question mark here.

But, as our Dutch Prime Minister adequately pointed out in a speech on national TV, the real litmus test are our social systems. Are we resilient as a community? Are we selfish and complain about a lack of toilet paper? Do we not stop to criticise our government for overreacting or underreacting?

 Are we celebrating in a pub while we are asked to socially distance ourselves? Are we spreading fake news and conspiracy theories? Are we questioning experts? Are we suddenly all doctors and medical experts and give the wrong advice to children or parents? Are we complaining because my kids stay at home, when the school closes to protect us? Am I sending my children to their grandparents to put them at risk?

Do I empty the shelves in the supermarket and leave nothing for that nurse that comes home late? Do I travel and go on a vacation to Spain anyhow and put others at risk? The bottom line is what values keep us together. Does our individualism turn against us? Are we too spoiled to survive a crisis as a community?

Our economic system fails the test, our value system is a risk, our liberty a vulnerability. This is not just a stress test on all systems. It is a stress test of the very essence of our societal fabric and dynamics. Modernity may fail the test. Maybe we should start to rethink our paradigm.


Peter Knoope
Senior Associate Fellow at the Clingendael Institute