by Michiel Van Oudheusden Fabien Medvecky and Stevienna de Saille
15th July 2020

In dealing with the COVID-19 virus, a repeated message is that we ought not to politicise the pandemic. At the same time, our social media feeds are replete with stories about how the virus will change the world because it has cruelly laid bare the frailty of our healthcare systems and underscores the need to build more resilient societies in anticipation of future shocks.

There are reasons to be hopeful for our post-pandemic world. As Daniel Sarewitz contends, we are converging around a shared concern of valuing life. We have witnessed acts of heartwarming solidarity, and many countries are enacting social support policies which had been unthinkable just a few months ago.

Yet, as discussions about how to emerge from lockdown begin to circulate, we hear the same old disagreements across the political spectrum about the substance, pace and direction of ‘post-COVID’ change. Environmentalists insist that we must give up flying and other excessive luxuries to enact deep ecological transformation. Conservatives are promoting sovereignty and the nation state over international cooperation. Free-marketeers demand contracts (and bailouts) for the private sector while equally predictably, anarchists proclaim the end of global capitalism.

Hopes of durable structural change are further tempered by our past experiences with worldwide systemic crises. In the wake of the 2008 global economic meltdown, financial institutions – including the World Bank – called for profound economic transformation. Twelve years later these changes are as elusive now as they were then. The financial system largely returned to business as usual and policy makers made status quo choices at the expense of social considerations; many of the decisions now being taken to ‘open up’ threaten to follow a similar path.

This should not make us cynical about the prospects for transformation, but it’s important to bring these political and economic realities into the present debates about our ‘post-COVID’ future. Developing a truly convincing response to the present crisis will depend on many factors, many of which are still unknown: the availability and cost of a vaccine, who benefits from the crisis in the short and long run, what we care to remember and what we intentionally, inadvertently or carelessly choose to forget. Most importantly, it will depend on whether and how we fight for the changes we want to see, be it healthcare for all, universal basic income, or more coordinated climate mitigation strategies.

We must also not overlook the politically directed changes already heading in a different direction than many of us would like to see – the US is rolling back environmental protection under the guise of ‘getting the economy going again’, several countries have moved closer to dictatorship and surveillance is likely to increase with greater contact tracing, whether accidentally or by design. Those who want to see durable change for the better need to act now by developing strategies and robust political alliances for sensible, equitable responses which can adapt to our present and future uncertainties.

In our forthcoming book, Responsibility Beyond Growth, we argue for mobilising these alliances around the notion of responsibility, combined with new thinking about how to organise the global economy ‘beyond the market’. By focusing on what different parties mean by responsibility and by encouraging innovation which ignores our usual GDP-growth measures of success, we turn to politics in the purest sense of the term – the art of contesting and constituting power for social decision making, not the argy-bargy of whose ego is most massaged.

Without this dedicated and sustained political engagement, the COVID-19 pandemic will pass as ‘just another crisis’ – an unfortunate calamity that has hit us hard but will not unleash the crucial social and political change needed to build more responsible and resilient societies. Instead, it may lead us even further away from a world in which we are able to thrive.

Michiel Van Oudheusden, University of Cambridge, Fabien Medvecky, University of Otago, and Stevienna de Saille, University of Sheffield.  The authors are social scientists studying the relationships between the political economy, innovation policy and concepts of responsibility.

Responsibility Beyond Growth by Stevienna de Saille, Fabien Medvecky, Michiel van Oudheusden, Kevin Albertson, Effie Amanatidou, Timothy Birabi and Mario Pansera is available on the Bristol University Press website. Order the book here for £15.99

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