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.