Long-Term Consequences of Coronavirus

Peter Turchin

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We are now in the mid-game of the Covid-19 pandemic and it is a good time to take stock of where we are and where we might be going. It is already clear, for example, that the effect of the pandemic on demography is going to be slight—because much less than 1 percent of population will die and the mortality from Coronavirus is heavily biased towards those who are already in retirement. The epidemic has already killed 40,000 people in the United States alone, but from the overall population point of view this is not going to change much, or anything.

The epidemiological outlook in the mid-term (the next few years) is still uncertain. Will we be able to drive the virus to extinction? Or will it become endemic and return every Fall-Winter? Will the virus evolve to less lethal forms, as is usually the case? In my view, getting rid of coronavirus in the next 2-3 years is quite possible. The question is how much we collectively are willing to adjust our behavior to achieve such an end. It will require massive testing of all travelers and other possible disease carriers, aggressive quarantining of any virus hot spots, and cordons sanitaires around countries that are unwilling or unable to control the epidemic themselves.

Given the focus of this blog on social dynamics, however, let’s talk about the implication of this pandemic for the health of our societies. As I discussed in my previous post, the likelihood of novel lethal pandemics is quite high, given the current degree of globalization and popular immiseration. Thus, Covid-19 and any future, yet unknown, diseases are part of internal dynamics at the level of the world-system. But at the level of an individual country, which is the focus of my state-centered research framework, Covid-19 is an external shock. Its long-term impact depends primarily on the social resilience of systems that it hits.

On one hand, Coronavirus is an external enemy, and external threats tend to increase internal cohesion of societies. This effect is strongest with such external threats as interstate wars. There is a substantial body of research showing that war increases social cooperation (of course, within, not between, societies). An epidemic is readily conceptualized as a war (and has already been done so), and thus can serve as unifying force.

On the other hand, too strong an external shock shatters, not unifies. As we know, the social resilience of the US has been declining over the past four decades. By 2019 a number of fault lines polarizing our society have developed. Two of these fault lines, the one between the poor and the rich, and the one between the liberal coasts and the conservative heartland, have been deepened by the Corona shock.

Epidemics tend to hit poor people more strongly, and Covid-19 is no exception. The majority of Americans have very little savings, and many survive (barely) from one payday to the next one. The massive increase in unemployment, resulting from the need to control the spread of the virus, has become a personal catastrophe for millions of American families. Many are literally on the brink of starvation (as long lines for free food handouts show). Furthermore, the poor who still have jobs are at a higher risk of becoming infected because many of them cannot afford to avoid travel using public transportation. And the poor are more likely to die from Coronavirus, because general increase of immiseration has the consequence of undermining the ability of many to resist the virus.

In principle, these negative effects could be mitigated by a strong collective, government-led response. The Fed needs to print massive amounts of money to keep those who lost jobs and small business owners afloat. We need massive production of protective gear to keep safe those who must move around. Massive testing for virus will enable us to quarantine the hot spots, so that only the affected areas need to be shut down, allowing the rest of the country to operate normally. What needs to be done is quite clear; whether it will be done is in question.

An initial moment of relative unity, which enabled the two parties to quickly pass the coronavirus bill, is largely over. Our political class is back to internal bickering, and worse. The most visible sign is the rift between the president in Washington, who was largely elected by the heartland, and the governors of the coastal states.

The shock of Coronavirus has the potential both to create social solidarity within a country, and to break the country apart. In my estimation, two Nordic countries, Norway and Denmark, have the best chance to follow the first route. Twenty years ago, I would have no doubts predicting such a response. But in the last decade there have been signs that the Nordic model may be fraying at the edges.

For the United States my forecast is rather gloomy. Our governing elites are selfish, fragmented, and mired in the internecine conflicts. So my expectation is that large swaths of American population would be allowed to lose ground. Government debt will still explode, with most of the money going to keep large companies and banks afloat. Inequality will rise, trust in government decline even more, social unrest and intra-elite conflict will increase. Basically, all negative structural-demographic trends will be accelerated.

I very much hope that this pessimistic forecast is wrong.

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Dick Illyes

Maybe the virus will serve to prepare society for the explosion of applied technology that will come online in the next few years, wiping out untold millions of middle and upper middle class jobs. As someone who has spent his life in the technology sector it appears that Andrew Yang is right in his War on Normal People book.

I believe that apart from the changes forced in the lives of most people the decade will be very positive.

The one thing that both parties will agree on is pumping money to anywhere that might possibly stimulate. That will probably cause inflation, No chance of tightening. Most will love inflation.

Debtors will find payments much less burdensome. Student loan holders and home mortgage holders will do very well. Those living on a fixed income will suffer, but since the boomer cohort is so large they will have a lot of political clout. They will get money.

Inflation is the traditional cure for debt, and it will occur throughout the world with varying degrees of intensity. The Euro may disappear, or be relegated to just another currency as alternatives develop.

Technology will cause the costs of basic human needs to plummet.

The new generation of small nuclear reactors that use spent fuel and can’t melt down will be deployed at every substation, stabilizing the grid and dropping the cost of electricity to almost nothing. The shock to the petroleum industry caused by the Saudi’s and Russia will persist and the industry will go into perpetual decline. The Internet of Things IOT will be everywhere, but wind and solar will also decline as nuclear takes over.

Decoupling from China will happen on a huge scale. A new Anglosphere from India around through Australia and up to Korea will surround China and be a strong force for limiting their expansion and aggressiveness. The new Anglosphere will include the US and UK and Ireland may join. Relocation of low wage jobs to Central America will improve those economies.

Musk will certainly have a moon factory and may actually make it to Mars. Riley may marry him a third time. There will be flying cars.

By the mid 20’s things will start to stabilize. 2030 will be an entirely new world.

VLADIMIR DINETS

I sure hope there will be no flying cars. Just imagine what it would do to CO2 emissions.
My own prediction is that within 20 years the effects of planetary-wide ecosystem collapse will become so catastrophic that the coronavirus outbreak will be remembered as a joke, a shooting star before a Chicxulub-size meteor impact.

Guest

Imagine rush hour with flying cars!

Wilson

Great assessment

Henry

I kind of get leaving Sweden out but how about Finland and Iceland?

Jim from Boston

We need methodology to properly assess the total long-term costs associated with the quest for short-term benefits in the Coronavirus response:

http://www.talkstats.com/threads/wanted-rational-coronavirus-analysis.74951/#post-219498

Ross Hartshorn

So, it seems to me that another factor making this a disruptive, rather than unifying, shock, is the widespread disagreement about how serious the Covid-19 virus is. There is a (mostly quiet, mostly conservative, mostly working-class) large group which believes the threat has been massively overblown, and a (very communicative, mostly left-wing, mostly professional-class) group which believes it is much more serious. Not surprisingly, the amount of, for example, restriction of freedoms which seems justifiable, seems very different depending on which side of this you are on.

In a similar way, if you have a work-from-home job in a large house with a good internet connection, then erring on the side of caution seems prudent. If your job was eliminated by the lockdown, you cannot get compensated because you were being paid under the table, your house is small, and you cannot videoconference with friends because you don’t have a computer with a fast internet connection, then the tradeoff looks rather different.

This is one huge difference between war and Covid-19 in terms of a unifying effect; in the case of war, there is no disagreement as to whether the cure is worse than the disease.

Leeroy

Frustrating that now the Overton window is at its most fluid, but the novel mental and social connections that are firing tend to get corralled within their immediate social group. As the pandemic drags on the people dealing with worsening hardships on a daily basis will become less and less able to relate to even the most well-meaning of the comfortable classes. More people feeling the stress of poverty, more tribalism. On the other hand, there are counterbalancing forces to this stratification effect, as nearly everyone can feel in the same bucket compared to groups like super-rich status quo elites.

UserFriendly

Yeah, we are well and truly toast. The Democrats just spent an entire primary trying to explain why we can’t pay half as much on healthcare that covers everyone and gets better results, like literally every other industrialized country. Way too expensive they said, before passing a $6 trillion hand out to the people who need it least. The democrats ran and won on ‘hurry up and die young, in massive debt, with no healthcare. Which is awkward because that’s always been the GOP’s message… I can hardly wait to find out which lying corrupt senile rapist gets to drive this worthless dumpster fire of a country over the cliff in the next 4 years. Someone should have just told the baby boomers to not bother having kids if this was what they were going to leave us with. Too bad the virus wasn’t 4 months earlier.

A C Harper

“Inequality will rise, trust in government decline even more, social unrest and intra-elite conflict will increase. Basically, all negative structural-demographic trends will be accelerated.”

That’s probably true, and many individuals will suffer or die directly from the virus (or indirectly from the aftermath). But… take a 500 year or 1,000 year stare. Will the social course ‘correction’ caused by COVID 19 end up reducing a greater more delayed social collapse?

I’ve no idea, and even discussing the possibility seems cold hearted.

asparagus

There seems to be no grounds for thinking that a medical solution will not be found within a few months, so the effect will be mostly on the economy. The negative oil prices have already made life difficult for market fundamentalists who still wish to believe in the Wisdom of the Market. The faith in a brighter future has totally lost its hold on society so dealing with various ” futures” will shrink and I expect a generalized definancialization to occur. It is difficult to see how the elites will stop the drop in value of their wealth, consisting mostly in shares.

Peter van den Engel

To lay out the theory; which is based on spacetime geometry; pandemics never had a large effect on the function of human culture, because they were too random for that.
The plague, although it had a large death toll never changed the functioning of human societies (source Nial Ferguson). Less mouths to fead means less to produce.

However this time it is different. Because although the death toll is very low and only hurts elderly already inflicted by other diseases/ the reaction of society to it is huge and does have a large impact on the economy. Imparallel to its actual source.

The reasons for that being mass media, political states already suffering under the uncertainty of six crises which were largely unresolved and the coincidence of a group culture (China) which has always been used to react massively on some crisis, causing a larger crisis as a result, which happens to be exactly what virologists would advise, who also have no knowledge about virusses, apart from them being contagious (oh really?) and thus result in a strongly contracted behavioral pattern in society concerning the economy in the west.

That’s where it hits. Leading to a contraction of about 10%… but apart from that nothing happens. It (debt related economy) appears to have been a shadow personality not representing reality: as portrayed by the financial system.
So, although it is hard to predict exact outcomes (it has a hard and soft influence at the same time, because the disease is not lasting/ but impressions and memories of people are).
Mass events will likely be effected for ever and so will the accountancy system of the economy. It will no longer be trusted as true.
Just as that someone growing potatoes which you eat cannot determine your value as a person; which the accountancy system does; just as whether you float on water or not could not prove in the past if you were a good or a bad person. False explanation of reality. Illiterate superstition meticulously exacuted by elites as if it was true.

It; material mathematics; has nothing whatsoever to do with the psychological or scientific reality humans are and live in – and so should not pretend to represent that.
It will lead to a devaluation of material economy (disruption, sort of) and a revaluation of human values (unifyng).

It do’nt know where this came from (the coincidence of making two mistakes at the same time, leading to a good outcome) but it’s a gift from heaven.

A C Harper

There are many people who make arguments that the Black Death changed Western Europe societies. One summarising article is: https://www.gizmodo.co.uk/2020/05/how-medieval-people-tried-to-dance-away-the-plague/

You could argue that first there was a ‘recovery phase’ when people struggled to restore normal daily living after the Black Death and then there was an ‘adjustment phase’ as these new interactions between classes and occupations that unfolded as the Renaissance.

The Black Death was a series of huge events, and the recovery lasted for years (or centuries depending on where you draw the line). We don’t know yet the ‘final’ extent of the Covid 19 pandemic and the world is at a different time and set of societies to that of the Black Death. Perhaps we should look to more recent pandemics for insight?

Dick Illyes

The flying cars will look like large drones. Boeing and the other biggies already have prototypes flying. They will use the same system that will prevent delivery drones from colliding with each other. I am on the list to fly a small one when it comes to Houston https://www.liftaircraft.com/

Loren Petrich

‘Sadness’ and Disbelief From a World Missing American Leadership – The New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/23/world/europe/coronavirus-american-exceptionalism.html

That article suggests that the US may lose a lot of prestige as a world leader. To many Europeans, at least, its current political and economic arrangements certainly leave a lot to be desired, and its leadership is not making good use of the great scientific talents of some of its citizens. Its high COVID-19 mortality does not seem like something worthy of a world leader.

johne

Our host rightfully minimizes the demographic effects of the Covid virus, but plagues may have other consequences as well: the Peace of Westphalia and the consequent rise of the modern system of nation states, is often ascribed to the depredations of Wallenstein and his like, but bubonic plague and the horror and chaos it caused, was often more important than brilliant military ploys in awarding his mercenary armies their victories.

Hernan Cortes had similarly benefited from Aztec illness in Mexico City earlier, demonstrating an advantage that European settlers and their descendants were able to benefit from right down to the present, in Brazilian Amazonas. Later, Napoleon suffered one his most important defeats in Russia due at least as much to typhus and dysentery as to the weather, just as an earlier army of his had been defeated in Caribbean Saint Domingue, with one of consequences of the latter being the sale of the Louisiana Purchase and the loss of Haiti, a colony considered more important than Canada, at the time.

Disorganization and chaos can be fully as important as population loss. We can see that playing out before our eyes, with the anxiety of both rich and poor at the economic dislocation caused by preventive measures, and the mishandling of governmental response in societies as different as those of Iran and the United States.

johne

Napoleon’s Saint Domingue defeat being due to yellow fever — sorry!

Mark Pontin

Chernobyl’s actual material effect was small. But the final loss of faith of the USSR’s masses in the Soviet Union’s competence and bright future — and I’ve talked to Russian scientists who recall still being very much believers in that ethos as late as the mid-1970s — did much to trigger the collapse that ensued in 1988-91.

In the US in 2020, similarly, the corporate media can chant on about American exceptionalism and the shining city on a hill. At this date, large segments of the American population — though the most propagandized people on Earth after the Chinese — increasingly recognize that the US is a kleptocracy

Indeed, Biden and Trump make the Soviet leaders of the Breshnev-Andropov-Chernenko era look sprightly and effective by comparison.

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