The Prospect editorial: Endure today, build tomorrow

Our writers survey the pandemic and ask: what now—and what next?
May 7, 2020

Where do we stand? And how on earth do we get out? It’s a rare moment where an editor can be entirely confident about the two questions weighing on pretty well every reader’s mind. In this issue, we have something to say in answer to both. But because this is Prospect, it is also our role to squint over the horizon, at where things are heading next. Hence a third question: what sort of world might we find ourselves waking into, blinking, after we eventually throw off the nightmare that is Covid-19?

Taking our three questions in reverse order, we invite the esteemed historian Margaret MacMillan to paint a panoramic picture of the fallout from seven centuries of catastrophes—from the Black Death to the financial crisis, by way of the trenches. She distils immediate advice for our leaders: trust the people and tell them the truth; keep nimble amid fast-moving events; and invest all the resources you can in figuring out what you’re up against, which in the coronavirus context means testing. But above all, don’t assume that once you’ve weathered the storm, things will go back to what they were. From the Thirty Years’ War to the Great Depression, crises have eventually remade the old order. History teaches us—says MacMillan—that the precondition for this re-ordering taking a benign form is a spirit of magnanimity towards those who have endured an especially difficult crisis. Today that means not only the frail and the elderly who are especially prone to the virus, but also the low-paid young who are (see Speed Data) making the biggest financial sacrifice in the lockdown.

With public policy being radically remade at extraordinary speed, a rewriting of the social contract is moving from the realm of the unthinkable to that of the unavoidable. MacMillan also highlights how previous transnational crises, such as the Second World War, have recast relationships between different societies around the globe, and asks whether the border-busting problem of the virus could do so again.

This is where economist Dani Rodrik jumps in, picking up the challenge of President Macron’s recent remarks about the need to reconfigure globalisation. He asks what a new world order would look like if it were built from first principles. There’d be a lot more emphasis on public health, climate, even human rights, and a more relaxed approach to economics; global rules would concentrate only on very particular problems, and leave everything else to nation states. If—a big if—the World Health Organisation can survive the hailstorm of criticism it is enduring from the likes of President Trump (see Ngaire Woods) then it might yet become the central instrument of globalisation on a rewired planet.

Before we can get to such grand plans for the future, though, there is the here and now to navigate. Which brings us back to my second question: how can we escape? Absent a vaccine, still likely over a year away, the most plausible answer is testing and tracing, so we set Stephen Buranyi to find out what the Germans have got right on that front, and the obstacles the UK faces in emulating their apparent success. And with the lockdown strangling the economy, we also hunt for possible tips in Sweden, where—Richard Orange reports—the official epidemiologist Anders Tegnell has, for the moment at least, become an unlikely folk hero by relying on voluntary distancing and a (hopefully) controlled spread of virus exposure across the population. Tegnell insists it’s mere common sense, and Orange concludes the jury is still out.

[su_pullquote]“From the Thirty Years’ War to the Depression, crises have remade the old order”[/su_pullquote]

But before society can throw off this disease, there are some remarkable and varied immediate symptoms to explore, taking us back to my first question about where we stand. MPs, to take one small but telling example, are scattered to the four winds like never before, so how—asks playwright James Graham—does politics work without a political stage? And how is it, asks Dan Hancox, that our supermarkets were allowed to come so dangerously close to running of such basic foodstuffs? Barbara Speed, meanwhile, wants to know why we can’t sleep; Hephzibah Anderson writes on behalf of every bewildered parent who suddenly finds themselves turned into a teacher; and Jonathan Nunn ruminates on what it is about lockdown that is turning so many of us (and, apparently, especially men) into wannabe sourdough bakers.

Whizz through the many strange ways in which this virus has already remade our day-to-day lives, and those big ideas about its potential to reorder the globe for tomorrow no longer seem quite so fanciful.