Although the virus is very much still among us, the battle for control of the post-Covid-19 world has begun to rage, which adds to the intensity of the times.
As Antonio Gramsci wrote: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
So first, the past. Covid-19 was not a “Black Swan” event. The pandemic was not only predictable, it was predicted by various intelligence agencies and academic research institutions. But the consequent “perfect storm” induced by the confluence of the pandemic with a number of powerful political and socioeconomic events and trends was not so reasonably foreseeable.
An outrageously high number of black Americans are killed by the police each year. Who could have known that when Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd it would prove to become more than another bleak statistic and instead become an “historical fact” — the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, prompting global protests of the like not seen since the 1960s?
Such is the drama of history. As EH Carr’s wonderful, ageless book What is History? pointed out, at the very moment at which Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 BC he was just one of many thousands of people who did so that year — few if any would have realised the significance.
It was a fact, but a “mere” fact; only when historians could join the dots with the subsequent dramatic political and military events that ensued from Caesar’s journey could it be rendered as an “historical fact”.
Can a similar “historical fact” to the Floyd murder be identified in the realm of the economy? Perhaps not yet. But this past week, it emerged that the global oil industry is set to write off $1-trillion of “stranded assets” arising from Covid-19.
At the risk of sounding like an economic Darwinian, the fact that the pandemic will wash away a lot of bad businesses, big and small, is to be welcomed, especially if it helps fast-track the disposal into the dustbin of history of high-carbon industries such as coal and oil.
The question, of course, is: What will come next? What brave new world will emerge after the pandemic has receded or at least become enfolded as a part of an adapted human society?
However dystopian, a recognition of the scale and depth of this historical moment is first required.
Humanity faces a momentous fork-in-the-road, imposed by multiple, interlocking global and domestic system-level shocks and failures that include:
● The public health crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic;
● The consequent economic crisis arising from governments’ response to the virus;
● The deep-seated, structural socioeconomic inequalities that are both revealed and exacerbated by the health and economic effects of the pandemic, but which have deeper historical roots that include the 2008 global financial crisis;
● The climate-change emergency, which, if unchecked by serious action in the next decade, will by the middle of the century unleash on human society consequences so devastating to “normal life” that Covid-19 will seem like a tea party in comparison; and
● The political crisis arising from the failure of liberal democracy to take the necessary action to address inequality, racial injustice and the climate emergency. This has spawned on the one hand a dangerous wave of nationalist populism evidenced by the ascent to power of anti-poor, anti-worker demagogic leaders such as United States President Donald Trump and Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro. On the other hand, it has provoked growing civic action with a new wave of progressive political protests and movements such as #BlackLivesMatters, #Fridays4Future and #OccupyWall Street.
History suggests that the greatest progressive social advances tend to come immediately after human calamity — for example, the post-World War II 1945 social covenant in Britain and other European countries in favour of a welfare state and social security safety net.
To secure such an advance in the post-Covid-19 world will require at least eight things.
First, a joined-up understanding of the relationship between the human precarity exposed by the pandemic and the great sustainability challenges of the era, most obviously climate change.
Second, therefore, a recognition that “business as usual” is not an option — that things have to change in a fundamental, systemic way.
Third, and most critically, the economic model needs to be rewired, with a shift away from “growth” towards development and redistribution, recognising that in the Fourth Industrial Revolution era the old notion of “full employment” is unattainable and unrealistic.
Fourth, an active acknowledgement that this kind of structural, system-level transformation will require a wholesale reconfiguration of global finance and the redeployment of capital, and that government incentives, subsidies and policy must be focused on corralling such a fundamental shift within the whole financial system.
Fifth, a re-calibration of economic “globalisation” — but not a return to protectionist mercantilism; the globalisation genie cannot be returned to the bottle — especially in the context of an over-dependence on “just-in-time” supply chains.
Sixth, seizing the opportunity to fast-track the energy transition towards renewable energy sources and “green jobs”.
Seventh, recognising the pivotal role that infrastructure plays in all of these dimensions of economic transformation, to focus public and private investment on infrastructure that tilts both capital flows and national planning towards building long-term societal resilience but with short-term employment gains; and
Eighth, dynamic leadership will be required that can present a compel- ling vision of the post-Covid-19 economy, which will in turn forge a new social compact sufficient to over- come an obstinate political economy of vested interests that are resistant to change.
This is a hefty agenda and the future will be subject to even more contestation than the past. Although written in 1976, political philosopher Hannah Arendt’s words are even more apt in juxtaposition to today’s challenges. Comprehension, she wrote, means “examining and bearing consciously the burden our century has placed on us — neither denying its existence nor submitting meekly to its weight”.
Although I suppose I should not be surprised, I am aghast at the level of cynicism, and the unreasonableness, of much of the public commentary about the government’s response to Covid-19 — at least in Twitter circles, which should not be dismissed because it is now clear that social media represents the new frontline in political competition and in the contest for control of “the truth”.
Yes, the government has made a number of unforced errors. But the criticism invariably lacks any sense of perspective about just how difficult it is to govern during such a crisis.
In any case, a slew of litigation (including appeals to higher courts) is about to shed light on much of the government’s decision-making, including challenges both to the rationality of the tobacco sales ban and to the constitutionality of the Disaster Management Act.
Various scenarios are possible, depending on the court rulings that emerge. One is that the government’s whole approach is undermined, stretching credibility further and undermining public consent and compliance, which would be extremely unhelpful.
A more positive one is that judicial scrutiny will reinforce the authority of at least some of the government’s “big” decisions and that that will instil greater public confidence at a crucial and delicate time in the pandemic’s rampage through South Africa.
A pivotal principle of South Africa’s constitutionalism is the inculcation of a “culture of justification” to adopt the idea of constitutional law expert Professor Etienne Mureinik in the 1990s. Thus, in the case of the government’s Covid-19 response, the legal challenges provide it with an opportunity to explain what it did and why, and how it reached the difficult decisions that it did.
Important light will be cast into the inner workings of government at a time of unprecedented crisis. Read, for example, the affidavit of Trade and Industry Minister Ebrahim Patel in the “Esau” case brought by University of Cape Town students in the high court. I would be surprised if you did not conclude that here is a serious-minded member of a serious-minded Cabinet trying its very best under extremely testing circumstances — making, no doubt, as the affidavit concedes, mistakes — to reach reasonable and responsive decisions at every turn; ones that balance painfully competing public priorities relating to life and livelihoods.
Don’t take me at my word: whether you are well or ill-disposed towards this government, do yourself a favour and read this affidavit, and some of the others, and then with an open mind answer this question: Given the full context, is the government not, in fact, doing a pretty good job?
Richard Calland is associate professor in public law at the University of Cape Town and a founding partner of political risk advisory, the Paternoster Group