A person crosses a mostly deserted 42nd Street following an outbreak of the new coronavirus (Covid-19) in the Manhattan borough of New York City, Monday.
The coronavirus crisis has thrown old certainties – held by individuals and societies across the world – into disarray. The unknown always inspires awe, even if scientists will certainly be waging a real battle to find ways of containing this new disease.
Some pundits predict that the day after will see a dramatic change in people’s behavior, a restructuring of institutions and a realignment of social and individual priorities. All that is highly unlikely, at least to the extent that some people would hope.
Other critics tend to interpret the outbreak as a by-product of globalization. Theirs is actually an attempt to combat the dominant idea which seeks to discredit the notion of the nation-state. Regardless of the wider consequences it has unleashed, this development is not linked to the spread of the coronavirus. When the Black Death ravaged Europe’s population in the 14th century, there was still no such thing as a nation-state, no globalization or mass movement of people and goods.
Ideological obsessions are not the safest path to self-vindication. Another ideological fixation that came undone in recent days is the ultimate delusion that private activity can substitute state healthcare and protect public health. The vociferous champions of neoliberal ideas, in their latest and quite extreme reincarnation, were found to be sorely lacking by real-life events as the crisis exposed the limitations of private clinics at a time when epidemics affect the rich as much as the poor.
States are deeply rooted in history. In all cases, they were established through the participation and the sacrifices of their citizens in times of war as well as peace. Even the most corrupt state, or state official for that matter, is to some degree obliged to abide by this contract.
By contrast, private entrepreneurs, who may be the most dynamic factor in the economy, are not the product of a collective effort. In any case, the state and the private sector are complementary; one cannot fully substitute the other.
It is necessary, as a result, to disconnect the ideologies which largely determine the behavior of people and political parties from the effort to deal with the biggest challenge facing humanity in decades.
In the past, men would turn to metaphysics in the face of pandemics. Today, religious leaders have left the war to the state and scientists.
If we manage to put ideological obsessions aside when the time comes to deal with the economic fallout of the coronavirus, then we will be able to say that something has really changed in the world. Of course, there’s good reason to doubt a shift of this sort.