How the Covid Pandemic Could Save Us

Lambert here: ‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.

By Ian Goldin, Professor of Globalisation and Development, University of Oxford. Originally published at VoxEU.

Despite the tragic deaths, suffering and sadness that it has caused, the pandemic could go down in history as the event that rescued humanity. It has created a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reset our lives and societies onto a sustainable path (Schwab and Malleret 2020, Zakaria 2020). Global surveys and protests have demonstrated the appetite for fresh thinking and a desire not to return to the pre-pandemic world.

Rescue offers no guarantee of a better life, but it does make it possible. Like refugees whose rescue from a cataclysmic fate allows them to envisage a better future, we now have the potential to create a better world. First, though, we have to traverse a no-man’s-land; we are leaving the old pre-pandemic world but have not yet entered into a new one. This will naturally create anxiety and a desire to return to familiar territory. This is the greatest danger, and recalls the words of Jay Gatsby in Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby: “Can’t repeat the past? Why, of course you can!” Set in the Jazz Age of the Roaring Twenties, the depiction of the exuberance following from the devastating pandemic of 1918 and WWI could well be repeated, as the pent-up desire to socialise and spend creates a roaring 2020s. A century ago, that ended in tears, with the Great Depression, the rise of fascism and WWII.

Bouncing Back is Bad

In a recent book (Goldin 2021), I argue that that returning to ‘business as usual’, or ‘bouncing back’, means we would be heading in the same direction that brought us to the catastrophe we are in today. Other widely used expressions are similarly worrying. ‘Bouncing forward’ implies we are leaping ahead along the same tracks which lead over a precipice. A Great Reset, as called for by the World Economic Forum, or ‘reboot’, another popular phrase, can suggest that we should go back to what has already been programmed, when what is needed is a different operating system. ‘Building back better’ – the slogan used by the Biden–Harris presidential team – is more encouraging but still worrying; if there is one thing that Covid-19 has taught us, it is that our system is built on shaky foundations. Building back on unstable foundations guarantees future collapse. To prevent future pandemics, which could be much more deadly than Covid-19, and to stop catastrophic climate change and other crises, we need to change direction. Is this possible, and in what way?

Appetite for Change

Covid-19 has shattered the mental mirrors that have prevented us from breaking from the past and embracing new horizons. The coronavirus rupture has shown that citizens are prepared to change their behaviour when required to do so and that governments are able to break out of their economic strait jackets. Old excuses for inaction are no longer credible. The task now is to turn the reactive response to the health and economic emergencies into a proactive set of policies and actions to create an inclusive and sustainable world of shared prosperity. Before the pandemic this may have seemed unattainable, even idealistic.

Changes that would have taken a decade or more to emerge have taken place almost overnight. Among the positive changes have been a deeper recognition of the importance of nature, the role of essential workers, the contributions of science and experts, and having supportive family, friends and colleagues. But the pandemic has also exacerbated health and economic inequalities within countries and between them, devastating the lives and livelihoods of many and greatly increasing isolation and mental illness. A world that functions largely online is more atomised and may lead to a hardening of social and political silos. Unless the negative consequences of the pandemic are urgently addressed, they will cast a long, dark shadow.

Pendulum Swing

The idea that there is no such thing as society, only selfish individuals, can now be relegated to the dustbin of ideological history. We have witnessed an outpouring of solidarity, not least of the young for the old and of essential workers for others. The young sacrificed their social lives, education and jobs and took on enormous debts to help the elderly get through Covid-19. Essential workers placed themselves at daily risk to staff our care homes and hospitals and ensure that food was delivered, rubbish collected and that lights stayed on. Many sacrificed their own health for others.

The intolerable costs of austerity and a culture that celebrated individualism and undermined the state has been starkly revealed. In the UK, funding for government health and safety inspections declined by two-thirds in the pre-pandemic decade and over a third of front-line workers feared that not enough was done to protect them from catching Covid-19. Around the world, thousands of health workers died due to the absence of effective personal protection equipment.

Society owes everyone who has made sacrifices a better future. Solidarity needs to be translated into political agendas that focus on inclusive long-term objectives. Prime Minister Lloyd George’s 1918 rallying cry after the armistice that ended the First World War was that a ‘fit country for heroes to live in’ be created.1 We need to learn from the failure of this apt ambition to be realised.

Learning from History

The world wars forever changed global politics and economics; Maynard Keynes argued that it was necessary to ‘snatch from the exigencies of war positive social improvements’.2 In Britain and the US, this translated into offering the soldiers returning from the Second World War free education, healthcare, job security, a pension and an affordable home, none of which would have been available to most of them before the war. Globally, the Second World War gave birth to the United Nations, Bretton Woods Institutions and Marshall Plan.

The pandemic too will change everything, from our personal priorities to global power. Already it has brought profound changes in our work and home lives. It marks the end of the neoliberal era of individualism and its primacy of markets and prices, and heralds a swing of the political pendulum back to state intervention. As Nobel Laureate economist Angus Deaton has argued ‘we now face a set of challenges which we cannot duck’ which threaten the fabric of society, providing a ‘once-in-a-generation opportunity to tackle the disadvantages faced by many that this pandemic has so devastatingly exposed’ (Johnson et al. 2021).


Globalisation has caused this universal health and economic emergency. And yet, to address it we need more globalisation, not less. We cannot stop a global pandemic without more global politics. Nor can we stop climate change or any of the other great threats by political deglobalisation. Economic deglobalisation would condemn to continuing poverty the billions of people in the world who are yet to benefit from the jobs, ideas and opportunities that globalisation brings. It would mean that citizens of poor countries would not have access to the international vaccines, solar power panels, investment, exports, remittances and ideas that are urgently needed to rebuild countries and create a future of shared prosperity.

If isolating ourselves and stopping globalisation could insulate us from risk it may be a price worth paying. But far from reducing risk, it will only increase it. The greatest threat to our lives has historically come from internal or external conflicts. Now the threat comes from forces that are beyond the control of any one country and which require international cooperation, rather than assertions of supremacy. It is in every country’s self-interest to cooperate to contain global threats. Similarly, it is in each of our own self-interest to contribute to the creation of more cohesive and stable societies.

Stopping Global Crises

If we learn to work together to stop pandemics, we will have learnt to cooperate. We will have learnt that our lives are intertwined with the lives of people across the world, including those in the poorest countries. Covid-19 has tested us. By passing the test we will have proved we can also conquer climate and other threats. Nothing should be taken for granted. The virus is not only changing our possibilities and actions, but also the way we think, our dreams and our imaginations.

The pandemic has shown that it is much less costly to stop a crisis than to respond to one that is raging. In just one day in 2020 governments spent more responding to the pandemic than they had in ten years of pandemic prevention. The fact that a pandemic was inevitable and we failed to prevent or prepare for it is surely as loud a wake-up call as could be sounded. If this is finally heard, Covid-19 could rescue humanity and provide a portal to a better future. Whether we now commit to a new and improved world or remain set in our dangerous ways is the historic choice confronting us.

References available at the original.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Ignacio

    Meanwhile, in the EU, the fiscal hawks are back with their eternal austerian recipes as if nothing had happened.

    1. Eustache de Saint Pierre

      I would be very surprised if the same rancid dose of Austerity isn’t prescribed for the lower orders here in the UK. As to essential workers nurses got clapped in the streets for a time before the announcement of a 1% pay rise, which is I think still under review & if it comes to pass effectively amounts to a pay cut. Scottish nurses got 5% & I am not aware of much of actual real support from those who took part in the Ooh let’s all wander into the garden for a round applause & stuck Thank You NHS stickers all over the place.

      That old Starmer magic appears to be working well, as it appears those who are fed up with Tory Spivs including John Bercow, are switching to the LibDems.

      As for here in Northern Ireland I wouldn’t know where to start after old testament Poots resigned & the DUP look to be imploding.

        1. Ignacio

          Hahaha, that was funny Eustache. Never ever loose the sense of humour, sometimes the only thing left to most of us.

          1. Eustache de Saint Pierre

            Glad it touched your funny bone Ignacio & as far as I can tell humour in a very black form, but still a light in comparison to the very dark days of The Troubles, was alive & well.
            The most I believe well known example from those days that summed it all up :

            Are youse a Catholic or Protestant ?
            I’m an atheist.
            Are youse a Catholic or Protestant atheist ?

            It of course could go way way back for much of Europe.

          1. .Tom

            Launching in a couple of weeks.

            > “Keir Starmer is like if nothing and apathy had a baby and sent it to a boarding school for corporate logos.”

            Where he learned to think and write in powerpoint bullet points.

  2. William Hunter Duncan

    I was at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota getting my second Covid vaccine shot, on a beautiful Friday afternoon last week…walking into the mall it might have been Black Friday, such were the numbers and the frenzy.

    Appetities being what they are, I see a bit of a flaw in the idea that we need Globalisation to lift the billions still in poverty out of poverty, with solar panels and the like, while saving ecosystems and biodiversity at the same time. Not that I think isolating is the thing. But I have 200 species of plants in my city lot and I have not seen a monarch butterfly in a month, so I’m pretty sure the ecological situation is a bit more dire than even this writer assumes.

    Methinks a restructuring of the very idea of progress is in order, such that the ecological degradation so increasingly evident is categorically not progress and yet so very fundamental to everything about economics as we know it…intentional degrowth would be most appropriate about now, but then, that is howling in the wilderness…

      1. William Hunter Duncan

        Well, nature will surely do it for humanity sooner or later, so I imagine we could be intentional about. First thing I suppose would be to talk about it like it is possible and even desirable and start taking people like Herman Daly seriously. Second thing I would imagine would be a debt jubilee. Third thing maybe raise interest rates in inverse fashion, the more money you have the more you pay? Fourth incentivize local production of necessities and local control of land. Fifth, break up all the big corporations. Sixth, restructure currency to be responsible to ecology somehow. Seventh, get over going the the stars and get right with the earth. Eighth, write some very robust laws limiting consolidation, and finance the muscle to keep it real. Ninth, heal the land and waters. Tenth, Heal thyself (which part might be first)

        1. d w

          well since you really didnt define what you meant by degrowth its hard to tell how small the population would have to be, some wanted to go back to the 1600s (i think it was), which probably means up 75% of the worlds population has to die. cause going to back to that level of civilization, means we cant eve come close to supporting the number of people on the planet. even just going back to the 1700s wont allow a lot of folks to live. might be able to have almost 50% survive, if we just went back to 1900s. maybe.
          consider that reducing technology means that many that would live today, wont without it.

          1. William Hunter Duncan

            Surely there is plenty of food available it could be a gradual drawdown over time. But such ideas run headlong into fundamentalits religious notions, and eternal progress notions of the scientific materialists, so I would expect it to be messy generally, not intentional, and regional in impact over the next 200 years, with some areas maintaining more sophisticated tech than others, none any higher than their energy inputs allow.

      2. eg

        We can either slowly decrease human population or nature will do it rapidly and violently. Covid is just a shot across the bow — climate disasters on top of additional disease pressures await.

  3. MrBrokenRecord

    Save us? In my state, the current vaccination rate is about 40%. True, the numbers may be a little behind, but we are talking less than half. I was out and about all weekend, and I’m pretty good at math, so I’m trying to figure out why less than 1% of people had masks on indoors.

    How do you save a country when half the people are fools who have no concern for the well-being of others? I’m not feeling an ‘outpouring of solidarity’, sorry.

    1. Carla

      Seems to me the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement engendered great solidarity around the United States and even abroad. It also seems to me that potential was promptly and tragically squandered with the divisive slogan “Defund the police.”

      1. Michael Fiorillo

        BLM and Defund the Police?

        Let’s see, they got some choice real estate for their entrepreneur founders, further enriched diversity trainers, and are about to elect a cop mayor of NYC. They did get Uncle Ben fired, so I guess there’s that.

        Can we perhaps begin to openly discuss how, whatever the path toward solidarity and increased worker power might be, hashtags pretending to be movements ain’t it?

        1. Pelham

          You’re also forgetting that while BLM has managed to slightly reduce the number of blacks shot by police, the resultant and inevitable reduction of policing in many communities has led to an enormous surge in homicides.

          1. Michael Fiorillo

            Under a neoliberal regime, Defund The Police plays out in real-life as privatized law enforcement and private police forces… yet try getting a True Believer to even entertain the possibility.

            I learned my lesson fighting charter schools in NYC, where I taught in the public schools for two decades: liberals, and even most so-called Leftists, who completely ignored school closings, attacks on teachers and privatization while Obama was president, came out to protest against Orange Man and Betsy De Vos, but are now predictably missing-in-action again: NYC is about to elect a new Mayor, and almost all the candidates are pro-charter/privatization. The only candidate with a record of actually supporting public education, Stringer, has been crippled by sketchy #MeToo accusations (Surprised? Having witnessed and experienced weaponized IdPol as a tactic in intra-group conflict, I’m not) , while the ostensibly Left candidate (Wiley) has been endorsed by Hakeem Jeffreys, an in-vitro concoction of the charter industry, which strongly suggests that she will be compliant.

          2. a different chris

            >the resultant and inevitable reduction of policing in many communities has led to an enormous surge in homicides.

            Correlation is not causation. We sort of went thru a bit of a big bump in the way society worked, d’ya remember? Those things tend to cause snapbacks, hopefully temporarily.

    2. Objective Ace

      My doctor recently told me having covid offers better protection then being vaccinated. I would prefer to see the actual research, but it certainly seems plausible.

      Assuming this is the case (or even if its not), don’t conflate following the authorities with having concern for others. It could be that those vacinated are more of a threat to the well-being of others then someone who has already had Covid but is ignoring the CDC on vaccinations. Especially since people with vaccinations are no longer even being tested

        1. d w

          probably no different than having survived it. the effects and the method to cause them are the same, its just that with the vaccine, you might not have to survive the bad affects of the virus.
          course if we knew why many are ‘immune’ for a time, we might could adopt to solutions that could do that (which might actually be a vaccine, hard to say without some one studying it. course you might have trouble finding those who never had any symptoms but actually had the virus

  4. Chris

    I don’t think the need for more globalism is the answer. The world needs to shrink. Yes, we need global trade, but do we need chicken raised in the US, shipped whole to China for processing, and shipped back for consumption? That is not sustainable and massive waste of resources. We need smaller, and local supply chains to insure that a mass virus can be contained regionally to minimize the risk of worldwide spread. Yes, rich countries need to support poorer ones, but a coordinated world response is not likely. Considering the US couldn’t wrangle a unified response. Finally, the elites didn’t take a hit (Oh no more Davos) so nothing is going to change.

  5. mrsyk

    The only way COVID is going to save us is by knocking off a substantial portion of the global population.

    1. d w

      pretty much a rerun of the black plague out break from centuries ago. but this time we have some knowledge on how to prevent out breaks, and the disease isnt fatal fast (from getting the plague to death, was about 72 hours).

      that made it so that there were fewer folks to perform work (since a large portion of the population died)

      now we dont have the same situation, but
      we did have a small reduction of population
      but we had a major impact to how we live, to keep the virus killing more people (some times very incompetently and clueless done), or it was just ignored leading to more death

      but it does make the population more …cautious.

      and a side benefit, was that the flu had a lot less of an impact than it normally does
      who knew that reducing interactions of people, will impact the amount of flu infections

  6. Mikel

    “It marks the end of the neoliberal era of individualism and its primacy of markets and prices, and heralds a swing of the political pendulum back to state intervention…”

    There’s another “end of neoliberalism” claim. They don’t really grasp the blanket of corporatism draping decisions as negative and a big aspect of neoliberalism.
    Let’s come back to this after the end of eviction moratoriums, unemployment insurance, and the next matket crash….see who gets rescued and who gets left out in the cold again.
    Let’s see what the continuing grand inflation housing costs does to people.
    Over inflated asset prices and high cost of living don’t strike me as the “end of neoliberalism” and into something better.
    It’s going from neoliberalism to neofeudalism…with govt serving to give it a stamp of official aporoval.

  7. bassmule

    FWIW: I’ve just returned from a weekend in NYC. And discovered a material benefit of the pandemic: Just about every public space (restaurant, subways, Penn Station, etc.) was scrupulously clean. A benefit of the much-despised “hygiene theater,” it seems. My hope is that citizens will come to expect this level of cleanliness from here on out. That would be something.

    Aside: The new Penn Station is quite deluxe, but the best part is that Amtrak is that actual human beings now come into the waiting area to announce train departures, track numbers, delays, etc. And answer questions from confused travelers. Nice.

  8. HotFlash

    Going back to square one WRT Covid, and speaking to Objective Ace at 12:25 pm. It does seem, or at any rate, I have been told, that acquired immunity is stronger than that offered by vaccines. Actual immunologists will have to weigh in on that, and some have. Whatever, let’s assume, in the absence of any research at all, that they are at least equal. So, the goal of herd immunity is to have everyone immunized, by whichever route, no? It would seem then that testing for immunity would save some $$ if testing for immunity is cheaper than vaccinating, possibly better (or maybe not), but probably without additional unknown/unknowable risk (new technology, fast-tracked testing, preselected groups, no follow-up of vaccinated persons, etc., etc. It seems that $24 per dose is Canada’s cost for Pfizer, two doses plus transport and dispensing costs might come up to what, $150? $200$ plus, of course, the costs passed onto citizens to get there and all.

    Antibody tests seem to cost about the same, but aren’t usually covered by Ontario Hosp Insurance Programn(OHIP) and are actually warned against (surprise!) as degree of immunity conferred was unknown. That was in Dec 2020, before we had vaccines, but it seems that the same caveats apply to vaccines and no comparisions could be made. However, people who have been fully vaccinated have gotten Covid, esp that rascally delta variant, no studies have been made that I know of, so what are we to conclude and how?

  9. Tom Bradford

    Oh dear. It took a little while for the dazzling rosy glow in which the author of this piece is immersed to fade from my eyes.

    Here in New Zealand there is no pandemic and life is going on pretty much as normal thanks to a swift and efficient Government response. Note the ‘as normal’. That it is different almost everywhere else is down to incompetence at the top. Is this being recognised by the great unwashed? Perhaps in Brazil in the demonstrations against Bolsonaro, perhaps in the growing anger at Modi in India, but in the US the disastrous response of Trump to the pandemic cost him the election by the skin of his teeth while in the UK the equally incompetent response of Johnson returned him and his party to Government to continue the shambles with a hugely increased majority.

    Yes there were ‘concessions’ to the great unwashed after WW2, paid for by their taxes and advertised as ‘rewards’ for their ‘sacrifice’, but in fact dispensed by the powerful in order to head off exactly the sort of wide-spread ‘envisioning’ of effective social change the author dreams of above.

    No. Individual heads might roll where their incompetence becomes too obvious and they are thrown to the mob by the powerful as appeasement but in times of fear and uncertainty like this to ‘rock the boat’ with fundamental change is to create even more fear and uncertainty up with which most people will not put, while a return to ‘normality’ is what most people want.

    The deep changes the author dreams of in this piece only occur in situations so dire no-one has anything left to lose, or has enough security that they believe change can only make things better, neither of which is the situation in most of the world.

  10. Sound of the Suburbs

    Stopping global crises.
    Learn from the mistakes of others, don’t copy them.

    Japan led the way and everyone followed.
    At 25.30 mins you can see the super imposed private debt-to-GDP ratios.
    What Japan does in the 1980s; the US, the UK and Euro-zone do leading up to 2008 and China has done more recently.
    The PBoC saw the financial crisis coming unlike the BoJ, ECB, BoE and the FED.

    “Oh dear, we did what you did in Japan. Now we’ve had a financial crisis and are facing a Great Depression just like you.” US, UK and Euro-zone policymakers in 2008.

    Japan could study the Great Depression to avoid this fate.
    (The US had done the same thing in the 1920s (see graph above), it always seems to happen with neoclassical economics)
    How did Japan avoid a Great Depression?
    They saved the banks
    How did Japan kill growth and inflation for the next thirty years?
    They left the debt in place and the repayments on that debt killed growth and inflation (Japanification)

    1. Sound of the Suburbs

      In the 1980s, it looked as if Japan would take over the world, but bad financial practices have seen their economy flat-lining ever since.
      Japanese companies found they could make more money from their financial arms (Zai Tech) than they could from their traditional businesses, for a while anyway.
      House prices always go up and their real estate boom would never end, until it did.
      Jusen were nonbank institutions formed in the 1970s by consortia of banks to make household mortgages since banks had mortgage limitations. The shadow banks were just an intermediary put in place to get around regulations.
      Japan has never recovered.

      Leveraging up a real estate bust would take out the global economy in 2008.
      They transmitted the problem to other countries with complex financial instruments.
      “It’s nearly $14 trillion pyramid of super leveraged toxic assets was built on the back of $1.4 trillion of US sub-prime loans, and dispersed throughout the world” All the Presidents Bankers, Nomi Prins.
      When this ponzi scheme of inflated asset prices collapsed it took out the financial systems of the US, UK and Euro-zone.

      We are still learning the hard way.

      The last lamb to the slaughter, India
      They had created a ponzi scheme of inflated asset prices in real estate, but it collapsed.
      Now they need to recapitalize their banks.
      Their financial system is in a bad way, recovery isn’t going to be easy.

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