The post-pandemic world

Andrei Marga
Minister of education 1997 - 2000
Minister for foreign affairs of Romania 2012
Rector of the Babes- Bolyai University of Cluj-Napoca 1993 – 2004, 2008 - 2012
President of the Romanian Cultural Institute 2012 - 2013


The pandemic has caused the deaths of over three million individuals, has gravely affected the lives of hundreds of millions more, while causing tremendous damage. Naturally, it has also fostered inward reflections well beyond the societal groups directly affected by it – patients, clinicians and decision-makers – across the full spectrum of reflexivity.

American geostrategists were quick to seize on the pandemic’s consequences for the established world order. Stephen Walt, currently a Professor at Harvard University, wrote that “the pandemic will create a less open, less prosperous and less free world” (How the World Will Look After the Coronavirus Pandemic, in “Foreign Policy”, March 20, 2020). Robert D. Kaplan anticipated “an interaction between ideologies and Nature itself” (The Neomalthusian World of Coronavirus, in “The National Interest”, February 8, 2020), that would divide the world. In Europe, Italian and French philosophers capitalised upon the work of Michel Foucault (Surveiller et punir, 1975) and in particular his theory of “biostrength”, which claimed that “domination” across our societies is being increasingly exerted not by way of well-thought-out legislative regulations, but rather by way of controlling the human body itself. The Vigano Appeal (2020) accused the decrees of “states of emergency” and “states of high alert” of greatly restricting the fundamental rights and liberties of the population. The highest-profile philosopher on the world’s stage, Jürgen Habermas (in “Kölner-Stadt Anzeiger”, April 3, 2020) declared that “our complex societies are continually faced with great insecurities, which only appear at a local level and at different times, which are tackled more or less accidentally by any available specialists found in one subsector or another of society. On the contrary, now an existential insecurity is fast spreading both globally and simultaneously, directly reaching all individuals interlinked through social media. […] Today’s insecurity is correlated not only with the need to keep epidemiological dangers under control, but also with the social and economic consequences of the pandemic, which are entirely unpredictable. […] Nevertheless, one thing is certain: never has there been such a great awareness of both our own lack of knowledge and of the constraints of having to act and live under the spectrum of uncertainty.”.

Years ago, I collected the various diagnoses awarded our Late Modern society: “a society of submission” (Max Weber), “a society of assymetries” (Colleman), “a society of risks” (Beck), “a society of lies” (Șerban-Reinhardt), a “narcissistic society” (Maaz), and others, under the broader-reaching diagnosis of “a society of uncertainty” (A. Marga, Societatea nesigură, Niculescu, Bucharest, 2016). Therein, I also anticipated the multiplication of our uncertainties. I took the existing warnings seriously, with particular weight given to those of Horkheimer-Adorno (Dialektik der Aufklärung, 1947) and Heidegger (Die Frage nach der Technik, 1953), united in one simple message: continued aggression can well lead to a revenge of nature. IN March of 2020 I sought to envision the changes looming on the horizon (A. Marga, Lecțiile pandemiei, Tribuna, Cluj-Napoca, 2020). As a result, I was able to promptly formulate, in turn, a systematic point of view on the pandemic and its consequences.

With the pandemic’s aggravation in the autumn of 2020, organised teams began to explore the prospects of a post-pandemic world. For now, one notable result of this endeavour is the analysis of Fareed Zakaria, Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World (Alan Lane, 2020), which invites us to take note of the major changes about to take place.

With great sensitivity to existing micro-realities the author, originating from India, invites us to view the world not only through the lens of far-reaching, but also minuscule actors – such as a virus. In the end, writes the well-known CNN, Washington Post and Times editor, it was three discrete events – the September 11 attacks, the financial crash of 2008 and the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2 – that plunged the world into a series of large-scale crises.

There have, of course, been other pandemics throughout history, even ones that had a high rate of mortality; and yet COVID-19 is different, and should trigger our own introspection. The observation Fareed Zakaria begins from is that, from 1990 onwards, the world has continuously been beset by viruses. „They are not created by an intelligent design, yet are not entire accidental either. We need to understand this system – in other words, to understand the world we live in – in order to be able to understand the emerging post-pandemic world.” (p. 12). Of note, the author cautions that „even if the COVID-19 pandemic is eradicated, it is almost a certainty that outbreaks of other diseases are set to occur in the future. Armed with this knowledge and experience, we now inhabit a new age: a post-pandemic age” (p. 3), and therefore we should prepare ourselves. For now, the novel coronavirus has „caused mankind the greatest amount of economic, political and social damage seen since World War II.” Moreover, the timeline of events has been „unprecedented in human history” (p. 2) and has created a threshold that should give us food for thought.

Of course, it’s not as if the pandemic had not entirely been foreshadowed. In effect, the outbreaks of SARS, MERS, “bird flu”, “swine flu”, and Ebola gave us some warning. Most recently, in 2015 Bill Gates drew attention to the possible emergence of an “infectious virus” that could cut short the lives of ten million people; in 2017, during the Münich Security Conference, Gates declared it “a reasonable prediction” that a “pandemic” might hit somewhere within the next 10 to 15 years. Even Fareed Zakaria himself highlighted, by way of CNN broadcasts, the dangers of “a man-made or natural virus” that could surprise the United States and mankind in general, in 2017 (p. 8), transforming “biosecurity” into a concern shared by all humans alike. The truth is that, for different reasons and from different sources, viruses have been a topic of discussion over the past years – and not solely due to the weaponised viruses, or “bio-bombs”, being developed in laboratory conditions.

Fareed Zakaria identifies ten general lessons of the pandemic for the world to come. They take the form of general guidelines to follow. What might they be?

Humankind’s relationship with Nature needs to be fully reconsidered at present. COVID-19 affects people’s lives in that which is most specific to it – our individual interactions with each other and with the world at large. As a far-reaching effect, the entirety of the global “post-Cold War” status quo is being challenged. It is, therefore, time to internalise one simple truth: that “global crises, including pandemics, are unavoidable. We will need to prepare more thoroughly, and to remain prepared” (p. 14). In fact, we must admit that “the way in which we lead our lives practically constitutes an invitation for animal viruses to infect people.”. (p. 17). On one hand, large urban agglomerations, the destruction of nature through “development” and construction, the killing of animals for our consumption – 80 billion animals are sacrificed to this end every year, without counting fish populations – are not without the threat of viruses themselves. On the other hand, climate change also contributes to the evolution of new viral strains. In fact, “the pandemic can be viewed, for its part, as a revenge of nature”. And to all these, of course, are added the dangers of bioweapon construction.

In such a situation, the importance of competent government, of “good governance”, increases substantially. Countries’ experiences through the pandemic clearly attest to the fact that “we are in need of better governance, not of a bigger government”. The truth is that South Korea and Singapore take in millions of continental Chinese workers every year, yet they manage to keep everything under control; that Hong Kong had only eighteen deaths in July 2020; Taiwan, with a population of 23 million, had only seven deaths. Continental China managed to bring the epidemic under control with remarkable speed. We do not know all the details of the measures that brought about such an accomplishment, but “China isolated the infected, separated them from their families and – using technology and novel means of surveillance – identified those with whom the infected had come into contact” (p. 23). These, like other examples, prove that not a large and powerful government makes the difference, but rather a quality government – in other words, “intelligent governance”. In this regard, “for many decades the world needed to look to America for guidance. Yet now, it is the United States that needs to learn from the world.” (p. 50). And, I would add, in America needs to learn, we can only begin to consider what others might need to do as well!

The type of society we live in should also be brought into discussion. It is evident that, without a market, an economy cannot become competitive, with penury just over the horizon. Yet a market alone is not a sufficient mechanism for the proper functioning of a society. The concrete issue at hand is the needed emergence from market exclusivism. “Unfettered capitalism is uncontrollable; and assertive regulation is lagging behind”. An eloquent illustration of this point is how the voice of the famous conservative news channel, Fox News, none other than Tucker Carlson himself, was already arguing in 2019 that “Republican leaders will need to recognize the fact that market capitalism is not a religion. […] We do not live to serve the market. The opposite is true”. And, indeed, the pandemic has only made this assertion ring truer!

Fareed Zakaria is of the opinion that we are currently in the midst of a “historical pendulum”, as “the market alone cannot solve the widening inequality and rampant workplace insecurity that have come about as a consequence of unceasing technological advancement and external competition. These issues require governmental responses.” (p. 61-62). It is likely that “Northern European countries such as Denmark may have found the solution: they understood that markets can be amazingly powerful, yet not sufficient; that they, too, require support, buffers and supplements.” (p. 74). In any case, we find ourselves today on the far side of market exclusivism, and can perceive the imperative need to find new mechanisms to complement them.

The activity and respect owed specialists should also preoccupy society writ large. It is interesting to note how, even in the midst of a pandemic, the Asian countries mentioned above treated “all authority with a great deal of deference, especially scientific authorities.” (p. 76). And, wherever science is valued, it is also understood that science itself constitutes something other than the offering of a unique and comprehensive answer, as is widely perceived elsewhere. Science is “a research method, a process of asking questions and of rigorously testing out hypotheses.” (p. 70). We need to respect the science and to listen to the experts; yet the experts themselves need to, in turn, realise what it is they are or are not doing. The respect owed science, but also the particular activity of the scientists themselves, their capacity to provide competent solutions to life’s difficulties, need to go hand in hand.

During the pandemic, digitalization unquestionably passed its stress test in real conditions without issue. People have come to understand that “working from home”, and, more broadly, “remote activities” are indeed possible. The “digital economy” has become an integral part of the “real economy”. Almost all activities in a “team” format are undergoing structural changes (p. 104), as collaboration without physical proximity has now been made readily available and accepted. Medicine, in turn is changing as a result of emerging digital technology, such that prevention increasingly carries more and more weight (p. 106); and the need arises to manage developments so that “digital technology”, in particular “bioengineering” and “artificial intelligence”, may make swift advancements. As is well-known, digitization also carries certain risks to our privacy and our personal lives, though even these, ultimately, have recourse to technical and legal solutions.

The novel coronavirus could not have reached its wide global spread – and perhaps might not have emerged at all – without grand urban agglomerations, long since infected. This, in turn, has meant that urbanisation itself has become a new topic of scrutiny. We will not witness a so-called urbanism crisis, even though the spaces we inhabit themselves will tend to eschew urban centres. “Cities will gain a new life as bustling service sectors, from finance to health consultancy services.” (p. 129). However, cities also need to provide people with healthy lives (p. 131). And so Aristotle’s conviction that “cities do not fundamentally consist of monuments and parks; they consist of people, and their character” (p. 145) once more becomes relevant today. “The humanization of our cities” will constitute a reasonable motto in this regard.

While entrenched social inequalities were diminished somewhat in the post-war era, after neoliberalism, the pandemic has upended this trend. It itself is a vector for inequality’s increase. “The differences between poor and wealthy countries will likely accentuate as the world continues to divide into two: places with good public health systems, and places without.” (p. 154). It can be said that “while disease can sometimes eliminate inequality, most of the time they only exacerbate it. If we were to be confronted with a new pandemic, a highly likely prospect indeed, we must admit that we will need to keep everyone safe and healthy, regardless of whether they are rich or poor.” (p. 166). In any case, a solution will need to be found for “the accelerated and exacerbated inequality occasioned by the pandemic”.

The fate of globalisation has naturally become a practical concern, especially given that, during the pandemic, almost all countries fell back on precautionary or safety measures taken at the national level. This in turn, fostered a certain flavour of nationalism. However, globalisation has not met its end as yet; on one hand, epidemics such as the “Russian flu” (1889-90), the “Spanish flu” (1918-19), the “Asian flu” (1957-58), the “Hong Kong flu” (1968-69), the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (2012) and, now, the SARS-CoV-2 virus have all reached far beyond any national borders. While they were named after the places where the first cases were detected, in fact this tells us nothing about their origin (p. 168). Pandemics are not limited to individual nations. On the other hand, economics utilizes the principle of “comparative advantage”, which ultimately leads to the ever more efficient pursuit of capital. Not even the economies of powerful nations can today rebuild alone, without globalisation. In practical terms, even the most successful American firms need the Chinese market, for example. “The broader problem is that China has specialised in manufacturing technical products such as computers, while the United States have not.” (p. 179). Globalisation remains in effect, tied to the opportunity to capitalize upon investments. In short, “while globalisation has not died, we can yet kill it.” (p. 186) – not an adequate solution during a global pandemic for, in the end and above all, “you cannot combat a global disease through local responses.” (p. 28).

In the 21st century, international relations will be dominated by the relationship between the United States and China – a relationship without analogy. On one hand, “US policy towards China has never been one of pure engagement; it has always been one of a combination of engagement and discouragement” (p. 197). On the other hand, China already has “a proven record of non-aggression among the world’s great powers” (p. 198) consisting in the fact that on the one hand it has not carried out any incursions outside its own territory for decades, while on the other it presents a certain “geostrategic weakness” consisting of it having neighbours “who oppose China at its borders.” (p. 205). Given the state of affairs, “tensions in the relations between the United States and China are unavoidable”. Only, the great Eastern country is, today, more closely integrated with the international system that the Soviet Union of yesteryear had been. For example, where at its zenith trade between the US and the Soviet Union reached two billion dollars per year, trade between the US and China has already reached the value of two billion dollars per day. Such figures speak for themselves! Though, “however tense the US-China bipolarity will prove, it will nevertheless be constrained and contained in this durable, strong and multilateral world” (p. 20) we find ourselves in.

Indeed, our very system of international relations will need to be reconfigured. Since 1998, China has consistently been one of the most attractive destinations for “direct investment”. Despite the various impressions and slogans thrown onto the market, today China makes money not by breaking the rules of international commerce, but by the sheer size of its potential market (p. 222). Fareed Zakaria categorically affirms that, at this present time, “it is not Chinese expansionism that is the problem, but rather America’s abdication.” (p. 225). The author believes that, at the height of the pandemic, the United States are too focused on portraying Beijing in a negative light, instead of providing solutions to issue of increasing complexity. In any case, at the moment “a restoration of an American-dominated international order is not possible.” (p. 227). Too many new powers are on the ascent, and too many new forces have entered the world stage. It is now clear that “a functioning multilateral system” offers us the best chance to resolve the most pressing “global issues”. Therefore, “an idealism of liberality” is now necessary.

Fareed Zakaria employs his well-known erudition in matters of international affairs, as well as the excellent preparation of the team he coordinated. In his work, he outlined the “ten lessons” for a post-pandemic world I summarised above. In effect, some had already been indicated by other scholars, albeit not in such great detail.

In my opinion, however, there are still sizeable “lessons” to be learned from the pandemic, of comparable weight for the world to come. These I summarised in my article, “Impending changes” (Schimbări ce se prefigurează; in “Cotidianul”, March 23, 2020) and later incorporated into a volume (A. Marga, Lecțiile pandemiei, Tribuna, Cluj-Napoca, 2020). In what follows I shall evoke as closely as possible ten of the lessons I outlined at the time.

A series of aspects are worthy of consideration. However, the most important issue in any discussion on the pandemic is the need for a change in strategy. It is highly likely that the strategy of chasing the virus’ spread in order to contain it will need to be replaced with a strategy that reinforces hospital and ambulance treatment. It would appear that this latter strategy will become more and more efficient as the hospital and ambulance networks, as well as medication, continue to evolve. Many countries’ leadership are already taking concrete steps in this direction.

We are also in need of a novel economic concept for confronting the destruction of certain necessary resources. There are innumerable examples of both countries and the world at large rebuilding after disasters, yet this present context is altogether new. The novelty consists, above all, in the magnitude of the effort required to stop the coronavirus’ spread, to prevent it from unduly affecting the economy, and in the need to rethink many of our established activities from scratch. Remote work will gain some ground, but it will never be able to constitute the entirety of the labour force. The reorganization of production chains and the availability of workers, as well as their profiles, thus become topics for reflection in need of considered decisions.

Today, we cannot achieve anything without “democratic inclusivity” within nations, and without “international cooperation” at the international level. The resurgence of the primitive “friend”-“enemy” dichotomies of the 1930s, as still occurs in Romania today, represents the most damaging politics possible. Also damaging is the “strategy of conflict” in international relations. The only way we can achieve complete security today is in partnership with the Other.

“Local development” – of communities, regions or countries – returns to the centre-stage of people’s lives and livelihoods. The degree to which the basic needs of communities of varying sizes can be met from a country’s own resources becomes essential. The truth that even large communities are ultimately comprised of smaller, local communities is one we will have to internalise. Serving the community will be more directly perceived as a way to improve our own existence.

The “nation state” cannot solve global economic or ecological crises – it is not in its capacity to do so. Yet neither can there be democracy, social welfare or even development without a functional nation-state. And neither can there be any defence against looming natural threats without a competent national administration.

Large-scale gatherings and widespread mobility will need to be more cautious and operate under new guidelines. “De-densifying” our living spaces and our activity centres is becoming mandatory. A somewhat inverse movement to the cancellation of “working from home” that occurred at the end of the 19th century will gain momentum, and prove of great benefit. We cannot, however, reach “de-densification” without rethinking systematization and architectonics. A grand agenda therefore opens up to challenge our established notions of urbanism.

It is once again evident that, in terms of education, everything needs to be rethought from the ground up – from class and group sizes, to teaching methods and seminar guidelines, to the evaluation of the notions taught. Our entire theory of learning and education needs to be reconstructed, and a new pedagogy and didactic method must be devised as soon as possible.

Purely “technical” solutions – such as providing medical assistance or elaboration spatial arrangements – will not be enough. We will also require a change in our very way of life, if people – individuals, communities, nations and mankind at large – are to keep their liberties and be able to exert them in a rational manner. We will not be able to counteract future natural threats without internalizing a different way of life than that controlled by external stimuli.

Many today claim to be specialists, to have “competencies”, and yet powerlessness and disorientation are, at present, more widespread than ever. We must once again, and without reservations, begin to make clear distinctions between the varying values of individuals’ training. The distinction between “meritocracy”, “mediocracy”, “ochlocracy” and “idiocracy”, which does not even warrant factual and terminological clarifications, must be drawn any and everywhere. It, obviously, does not overlap with the distinction made between “democracy”, “plutocracy”, “aristocracy”, “dictatorship”, nor with Karl Popper’s distinction between a “closed” and “open” society, or with George Soros’ between “democracy” and “authoritarianism”. While all these distinctions interefere with one another to certain degrees, none of them overlap.

New fields for scientific inquiry will also open up. The pandemic has once again denounced superficiality and the “sciences” beholden to certain ideologies promoted by leaders or political parties. At the same time, our capacity to ascertain risks and to anticipate dangers remains abysmal. The sciences, above all philosophy and theology, must learn from this. Societies are called upon to draw a clearer distinction between verbiage and knowledge, between study and research, between authority drawn from one’s position and that drawn from one’s expertise, between pretentions and values, and between vague knowledge and knowledge that can, indeed, solve pressing issues.

Over the past few decades, we have witnessed the restriction of cognitive requirements în many specialist disciplines. Biology has been reduced to life sciences, economics to market studies, law to legal studies, politology to political science, sociology to opinion polls (în particular, for electoral purposes), philosophy to epistemology – the examples are innumerable. Such a restriction cannot be justified by invoking cognitive precautions, as it has effectively meant a diminution of the potential research horizons and, in the end, of our very knowledge. On the other hand, this restriction has followed efficient management and financial strategies, processes wherein cognitive considerations did not carry sufficient weight. The general result is the diminution of the very relevance of knowledge, as it is affected from the outset by a lack of authoritative explanations and a lack of vision. The pandemic is challenging specialists to rethink the profiles of the academic disciplines they nurture.

On the other hand, one anachronistic notion typical of the Industrial age has finally been shattered, being the conceit that nature is merely an object for human projects and design. The pandemic has clearly proven that a Nature reduced to mere materials to be exploited can, indeed, take its revenge in its own way, either directly or indirectly. Nature needs to be taken on as our partner, and care for the natural world has become an representative criterion of a society’s level of culture and civilization.

A profound change is called upon to intervene in the relationship between Man and God. The biblical image according to which God created the Earth, while leaving humans enough work to do to attain a world in keeping with their lofty aspirations, will need to be recalled. Simply put, God himself made mankind not only the beneficiaries of Creation, but also responsible for any situation they might find themselves in by their own hand.

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