Cover story: where will Covid-19 leave us in five years? - Spear's Magazine

Cover story: where will Covid-19 leave us in five years?

Cover story: where will Covid-19 leave us in five years?

The year is 2025, and you turn your mind to the fateful events of five years before: the coronavirus outbreak that entered your consciousness when a place you had never heard of in China went into lockdown. Since then, people you know may have died from Covid-19. Quite possibly, you or loved ones suffered from the virus. Perhaps what stays in your mind are fragments of the news – medical staff in blue hazmat suits, and the daily news briefings from Downing Street or the White House. It could be the Queen in imperial purple saying: ‘We will meet again.’ Things have not been quite normal since.

The race for a vaccine took longer than expected. Testing fast emerged as the answer – and only recently have you stopped having to do your routine 28-day tests for the virus so the government can keep the economy working, but at the cost of intensive monitoring. The virus has sprung up again around the world, and subsequent lockdowns have been imposed. You haven’t set foot inside a supermarket in three years. Here Spear’s offers an insight into what might come our way…

***

When confronting the world in 2025, Spear’s turned first to Ian Goldin, professor of globalisation and development at Oxford University, and a man who understands global risks like few others. This former adviser to Kofi Annan and Nelson Mandela has long understood the danger posed to the world from diseases such as Covid-19. ‘By 2025 we will have a vaccine, hopefully well before that,’ says Goldin, who is speaking over the phone from his home in Oxford.

‘We will all have our vaccination cards and be showing them at airports. An optimistic picture is that all our phones will have pathogen sensors in them and will be an early surveillance system globally and we’ll have a Nato-equivalent for pandemics in all the regions that can respond and will be responding to threats.’

He barely draws breath before adding that we’ll have a ‘global vaccination capability with DNA sequencing that will reduce the threat’. The battle against coronavirus will have some unexpected benefits, too: ‘When people look back at this period,’ Goldin hopes, ‘they’re going to say, “Yes, we woke up. We reformed the system, we now have a much safer world and in learning to deal with coronavirus in 2020 we’ve also learned to cooperate with climate change and financial crises and cyber threats and antibiotic resistance and the world is a safer, better place”.’

Let’s hope so.

***

Nor does Goldin foresee a let-up in globalisation: trade flows may fall, but digital flows will increase and so will people’s desire to travel. Supply chains are being disrupted already by ‘AI, robotics automation… bringing production systems closer to home, even to basements of buildings’, he says.

‘The most important aspect of globalisation is idea flows, technology flows and system flows, like the market economy and valuation of companies – the movement of ideas embodied in products like brands.’

The other big force changing our world, the economic rise of Asia, won’t be halted either: ‘The growth rates might come down – might move from 6 per cent growth rates to 4 per cent – but that’s still well over double the rest of the world and triple what Europe will achieve.’ So the economic centre of gravity will continue to head east.

Instead of deglobalisation, Goldin foresees ‘a transformation in the place, nature and in aspects of it’.

‘The thing that really has deglobalised in the last ten years is politics. We have this yawning gap between integrated systems and the divided nations – the Westphalian system of governance.’

This leads to the one thing that Goldin is not prepared to predict: what happens next. ‘The world is at a crossroads in 2020,’ he declares. ‘We are fighting a world war. What I don’t know is if we’re fighting the first or the second.’

It’s a war because we have sacrificed the needs of our economy to the greater good. And while it is mainly the older citizens dying in this ‘conflict’, the younger generations are being asked to make sacrifices in terms of education and other life opportunities which are on hold. They’ll also be paying for it in taxes of the future.

If it’s the ‘First World War’, then we can expect a worse world to emerge: one where heightened nationalism, ideology and populism, coupled with societal divisions, are a prelude to a greater conflict. If it’s the ‘Second World War’, then the world that emerges benefits from global institutions and solutions, suffers less inequality, and is ‘a safer and better world’.

‘I can see optimistic signs,’ Goldin says, such as the willingness to put human life before economic gain and success of the lockdown – in terms of the society solidarity shown thus far. ‘There’s absolutely no sense of this not being the right thing to do. That I think is a tremendously positive thing.’

Companies have got involved too, turning to producing ventilators, masks and hand sanitiser. ‘And in many case companies were ahead of governments in telling their workers to stay at home.’ But against this is the lack of international leadership, says Goldin. ‘This is very different from the financial crisis of 2008.’

This is reinforced by the weakness of the World Health Organization – because ‘their shareholders won’t give the capital and mandate they require’, notes Goldin. ‘There are positive signs at national level, but at the international level there’s a very worrying, almost deafening silence.’

With luck, the Covid-19 crisis will ‘jolt the system into much overdue reform’. ‘That can’t come from the institutions themselves,’ he says, with a view to the United Nations. This has to come from the shareholders, the nation states, many of whom are most resistant to change, ‘like football players not wanting a referee with a red card’.

‘What we’re seeing with the pandemic, I’d hoped we would see with the financial crisis, but [there] was not sufficient reform of the financial system – the IMF, the World Bank, central banks etc. I hope that this is a sufficient wake-up call.’

But it might be different this time, because pandemics are peculiar threats. While you could hope to fix climate change by getting the 12 countries that cause 85 per cent of the damage to agree, pandemics can start anywhere.

‘A pandemic can come from literally anywhere, so it needs all countries to come together to stop the next pandemic.’ Goldin’s plan, therefore, is to apply the Nato principle to disease, to have a body with the power to act as a rapid response force to combat pandemics – even more essential when you consider there might be 11 billion of us sharing this planet in 2050.

The question is, can our national governments – or other ‘creative coalitions’ of willing actors such as cities, regions and companies – come together and make it work? Goldin does not have the answer: ‘For me the most important question is “does politics globalise more or less?”, and that goes back to the First or Second World War question.’

***

Spear’s put this to one of our foremost historians of the 20th century, one also with a strong understanding of economics and technology: Professor David Edgerton of King’s College London, author of the majesterial re-analysis of Britain’s last century, The Rise and Fall of the British Nation.

What did he make of Ian Goldin’s thesis? ‘I’m not sure the metaphor works in the way that he thinks it works,’ says Edgerton. ‘These analogies with the war are not helpful. We’ve had a great financial crisis in the recent past which might be a better guide,’ he adds, noting that we may see ‘a correction’ to the politics that emerged after 2008.

‘There’s a radical dis-analogy to be drawn, actually,’ he says of repeated comparisons between the Covid-19 crisis and the Second World War. ‘What we’re seeing now is an unprecedented demobilisation of the economy. We’re not moving people around; we’re having them stuck at home.’

The war also led to full employment and a shortage of workers. ‘What is unique about it is this radical demobilisation. This is new and very important and very interesting.’ If not the war, can Edgerton compare to some other crisis in our recent past? ‘I think it is unprecedented,’ he says at last. ‘I really do. And it’s important to recognise that.’

Searching for examples of where economies have been ‘crashed’, he concludes: ‘The only sort of comparisons in terms of crashes are things like economies of defeated powers in World War Two or the Soviet bloc after 1991.’

So what does this seasoned observer of the British state through all the highs and lows of the last century predict will happen as a result by the mid-2020s? ‘We’ll see a return to a more traditional NHS, more centrally directed, much better planning for pandemics in the future,’ he declares.

‘There’ll be a greater margin of reserve capacity than we’ve had. Then I think the whole social security system will be looked at – the relative treatment of the self-employed and employed, income support measures, the realisation that the welfare net in the UK is incredibly thin has come as a shock to the majority of the population who haven’t had to experience it.’

The balance of the state and the private sphere, in other words, is going to change – and that goes to the heart of government, says Edgerton: ‘We have been living with a crisis of legitimacy of British politics and a hollowing-out of the state to act. Both this epidemic and Brexit have been real tests of that. I had been expecting the realities of Brexit to hit that de-legitimised, incapable state machine, but actually it’s Covid-19 that has hit first.’

So our politics will change: ‘We are going to have a much greater emphasis on the notion that you have to look after society as a whole, not just individuals. And that has important consequences about how we think about the NHS, education, the resilience of the economy and globalisation.’ He adds: ‘I don’t necessarily think the left are going to win. Many on the left are projecting on to the war a particular story of victory of the left and seeing Covid-19 as analogous. I think that’s wrong about the present and it’s wrong about the Second World War.’

***

But politics is going to change. Spear’s picks up the phone to Tina Fordham, a political scientist at boutique advisory Avonhurst and formerly chief political analyst at Citibank, during which time she is credited with ‘calling’ the Arab Spring of 2016. What’s her read of the crisis as it plays out into the political sphere?

‘Economic policy is moving to the left, whether it’s industry bailouts or direct financial support, and that’s regardless of the political orientation of the government,’ she says, speculating as to whether this will lead to the adoption of universal basic income. By the same token, ‘politics are moving to the right when it comes to the biggest peacetime crack-down on civil liberties and civil rights.’

And here comes a warning: ‘Although they are inevitably couched as temporary, it’s harder to reverse them and to repeal them. So it may be that they are more long-lasting than we might think.’ Don’t forget that wartime rationing continued until 1954, albeit on a diminishing number of items, in Britain.

So what predictions is Fordham prepared to offer for 2025? ‘Putin will still be in charge in Russia,’ she declares. ‘Boris Johnson could still be the UK prime minister because Labour is in such a mess. Brexit could be suspended and the regime in Iran could fall.’ This last, down to Tehran’s poor management of the virus, is adverted as a silver lining.

She adds: ‘Italy will still be in the EU and so will all the other countries.’ This is because the crisis will draw the bloc closer together, in her view. Perhaps the biggest unknown is the generational impact: this will become a seminal moment in the lives of the young.

On the economic front, Fordham predicts the death of shopping malls and the rise of a delivery culture and expansion of the gig economy – but these workers will have more social security protections than hitherto. She offers one more final prediction: the US election in November could be delayed.

‘If people can’t go to the polls, Congress will have to delay it. These are things we thought were unthinkable or implausible.’ Still, come 2025, we may just be emerging after the end of Trump’s second term…

***

Several days after this phone call, Fordham joins Spear’s for its Covid-19 Briefing webinar. Also on our panel is Dr Amitava Banerjee, associate professor in clinical data science at UCL – he’s one of the virus modellers that we’ve been reading a lot more about in the past months.

Banerjee dialled in from the new Nightingale Hospital London, where he has been drafted. In addition we had Rothschild & Co’s global investment strategist Kevin Gardiner and Amsterdam & Partners founder and Spear’s columnist Robert Amsterdam.

As those who listened in and asked questions know, it made for a lively session. Beginning with health, Dr Banerjee predicted a base case of 50,000 excess deaths in Britain (with a best-case scenario of ‘tens of thousands’) because of Covid-19. He said that once the initial crisis is over, society will have a ‘diffcult look in the mirror’ to decide on what it values the most as a result of the pandemic and that there is a ‘high chance’ of a relapse.

‘How much do you value social care?’ he asked. In the meantime, the economic cost of the lockdown would lead to ‘probably the sharpest decline in economic activity that I can remember’, according to Kevin Gardiner.

‘The economy in the financial crisis shrank by 6 per cent but it took over a year,’ he noted. ‘The economy is probably delivering declines of that magnitude within the space of weeks – there is little doubt that this is one of the sharpest ever downturns we’ve ever seen.’

The British economy could ‘easily exceed’ the record Q2 decline of 2 per cent experienced in 1979, Gardiner suggested, but it is possible that we could see a ‘relatively quick snap back’ in the late summer if the pandemic is dealt with. Robert Amsterdam, dialling in from New York, castigated the ‘horrific’ handling of the crisis by world leaders. Covid-19 was a ‘demonstration of complete absence of responsible governance in the world’, he thundered.

Warning there was ‘complete breakdown of trust’ in governments, the international lawyer attacked what he called a collective failure in political leadership. ‘The bottom line is that we’ve been led by a group of leaders who have proven to be wildly incompetent,’ he fulminated. The case of Italy will ‘potentially cause tremendous problems’ for the EU, he predicted, while it is ‘very possible’ that Donald Trump will succeed in the presidential election. ‘People are wondering where the hell the Democrats have gone,’ he added.

When finally she got her time on the microphone, Fordham agreed with Amsterdam’s fears over the decline of trust, but highlighted how the ‘strong civil society’ response to the virus, as well as other forces in play, were laying the foundation for a new ‘social contract’ emerging from the coronavirus outbreak.

The political Impact mapped

‘It’s going to have to address several things with healthcare, the way in which key workers are also some of the lowest-paid, most economically insecure workers in our system when hospital workers are on zero-hour contracts,’ she said. ‘There will be less tolerance for that.’

Looking ahead to what mark Covid-19 will leave on our world, Gardiner reckoned the global economy and capital markets will climb the initial ‘wall of worry’. Living standards, he predicted, will be higher in 2025 than they are now, while the global economy might be 10 per cent bigger in five years than it was at the start of 2020.

Fordham repeated her prediction that Brexit may not take place but expanded on her thoughts on the EU. It was ‘make or break’ time for the bloc: ‘The public is more sympathetic to look at a solution that shares the burden and promotes more solidarity than the leadership is,’ Fordham said, adding that she was ‘optimistic’ on the future prospects for the EU.

Banerjee predicted that the crisis would bequeath us a ‘new normal’ in terms of how healthcare is practised and how we fund our health service. The outlook for 2025 and beyond for Amsterdam, however, was far from rosy. There will be a ‘very long, very hard period of adjustment’ ahead, he said. ‘We’re going to have a whole new class of unemployed. We’re going to need massive bailouts of some key sectors. When we reach something like what we view as normal, it will look very different.’

***

To establish what that new normal might look like, Spear’s turns to the wise heads at the National Institute for Economic and Social Research (NIESR), Britain’s oldest economic think tank, just off Smith Square in Westminster.

The institute’s director, Jagjit Chadha – also visiting professor of economics at Cambridge – does not mince his words when we ask for his assessment of the impact of the crisis on our world.

‘It’s incredibly hard to understand how important this will be,’ says Chadha. As a result of the ‘structural reform’ that has taken place in the British economy over the past 30 years, the country became a part of a global supply chain focused on international capital, he adds.

The financial crisis of 2008 offered a chance for a ‘reorientation’ of this proposition, but it also exposed other risks to the economy, such as an industrial rebalancing of Britain’s productive base. And this matters because crises like Covid-19 tend to expose pent-up risks. ‘We haven’t actually got the trade-off quite right between the private and public sector,’ asserts Chadha.

‘We’ve known for a long time that maybe our provision of healthcare isn’t what it should be across the country, [or] our transport and broadband systems, levels of further education – they’re not where they should be.’

With ‘successive governments’ to blame for this, Chadha believes that what we’ll learn as a result of this crisis is that these ‘public goods’ are recognised as being ‘incredibly important’ for running a modern, high-human-capital economy. ‘They’re not things that you can scrimp on at all. They’re actually a critical part of what we do. And that I suspect, will be the main thing we learn over the next few years. We cannot afford not to build up these bits of public good provision which I think one can argue have somewhat withered over the last 15 or so years.’

One legacy of the financial crisis, this time round, is that governments acted more promptly. They are ‘learning that the artificial rules about the levels of deficits we can run and the extent to which debt can be cranked up are more apparent than real’, says the economist.

‘With very low interest rates, there’s quite a lot of space for governments to provide the level of insurance that’s required.’ Of course, unlike the financial crisis, this pandemic is blameless. It is also affecting everyone everywhere, which leaves nowhere to hedge risk.

The latest forecasts from the institute have world growth reducing by four points below baseline estimates for the year of 3 per cent. That’s -1 per cent, a figure not seen since 2009. The severity of such projections has led several commentators to announce the end of an economic era and the subsequent opening-up of new ways of thinking.

As seen already, those ‘leftfield’ ideas such as universal basic income have returned to the realm of public discussion. Chadha is unfazed. As long as governments don’t spend more than they save, don’t issue more monetary liabilities and maintain an inflation target, everything is par for the course. ‘I have a difficulty understanding what people mean by unorthodox ideas – often today’s unorthodoxy becomes tomorrow’s orthodoxy,’ he says. ‘Who would have thought central banks would be owning 20-30 per cent of government debt 15 years ago?’

***

And who, 15 years ago, might have warned of the outbreak of such a virus as Covid-19? Step forward Dr Dennis Carroll, an infectious disease expert with 30 years’ experience, and one of the experts who saw it coming. In a startlingly prescient Netflix documentary, Pandemic: How to Prevent a Global Outbreak, he predicted that ‘it’s not a question of if, but a question of when we will see a new respiratory virus’.

Dr Dennis Carroll

‘[I said], in all likelihood, it will come out of China and it has the opportunity to sweep around the world,’ says Carroll, reanimating his Netflix broadcast, but via Zoom, from his boathouse in Washington. It is hard to ignore the coincidence of viewing this series, mere weeks before the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic. Was the timing deliberate? The expert shakes his head. ‘If Netflix was that clever, I would invest in them,’ he says. ‘It was totally by accident.’

But Carroll’s foresight about the coronavirus wasn’t ‘just a guess’. ‘We know,’ he insists. ‘Because we know much more about the underlying driver, what propels a virus circulating in wildlife to become a threat to humans.’ In his former role as the US Agency of International Development’s (USAID) director of the Emerging Threats Unit, he’d overseen a project called PREDICT since 2009, which had already identified 2,500 viruses that could ‘spill over’ to humans.

These include 160 coronaviruses, of which Covid-19 is a family member. He calls this branch of research the knowledge of ‘the viral dark matter’. ‘We understand that those dynamics in fact are playing themselves out with a ferocity that speaks to greater frequency of these effects.’ And yet, the Trump administration had not paid heed to Carroll’s insight the way the Bush administration had during the Sars outbreak in 2002.

‘[Bush] had his staff mount a serious effort to draft and disseminate a nation pandemic preparedness strategy, addressing both domestic and international issues,’ Carroll says, recalling his experience of working under three US presidents at USAID.

Trump, however, axed the $15-$20 million annual funding to PREDICT last September, a decade after its inception by Carroll. The decision to wind down occurred three months before the first reports of Covid-19 infections emerged from Wuhan. Carroll found the working environment ‘more complicated’, so he retired from USAID in that same month.

But PREDICT has not ended, he points out.

‘It’s sort of a glide down,’ he says, explaining that he’s in the process of transferring its pool of research into the larger, more global effort he recently joined, called the Global Virome Project. The scientific ‘start-up’, according to Carroll, has estimated that more than 600,000 strains of viruses in wildlife could potentially infect humans.

The organisation could help build ‘a much more robust toolbox’ to fight a pandemic. ‘Rather than building our sciences around individual viruses and thinking about counter-measures for each individual virus, let’s move the sciences of virology, but [in the realms of] Big Data,’ he says.

 

‘So rather than [focusing on] a coronavirus, we sweep up the genetic profile of 75 per cent of the 4,000 to 5,000 estimated, distinct, coronaviruses that are currently in circulation. And we use machine learning to begin to think differently about how we construct a vaccine, not against an individual, but can we get a broad spectrum – even a universal vaccine.’

Where might the next pandemic appear, so we attempt better to prepare? ‘Sub-Saharan Africa,’ he predicts, adding as an afterthought, ‘where megacities are going to be.’ He explains that population pressure is one of the biggest drivers of pandemics, especially when land use change brings human cities closer to the wildlife, where an estimated 1.67 million species of viruses circulate.

He gives an example. ‘Uganda today has a population of 42 million people, but by the end of the century the city of Kampala will have a population of 42 million. We’re looking at population dynamics which are just extraordinary, and within a sea of viral and mammalian diversity, which is historic.’

***

Also judged to be historic will be the monetary cost of paying for the campaign against coronavirus. With governments around the world having committed funding and fiscal stimuli to the tune of 2 per cent of their GDPs, taxes will rise and economic performance will suffer.

At a Policy Exchange webinar in April, Lord Darling of Roulanish, who was Labour chancellor during the financial crisis of 2008, was asked whether or not he thought the fiscal exit strategy of the crisis would lead to permanent or temporary tax increases.

Lord Darling gave the question shortish shrift: ‘A temporary tax – that’s what income tax was when it was introduced by Pitt and it’s still temporary. The pre-fabs after the Second World War… The fact is, at some time this is going to have to be paid for.’

In the future, it’s likely that the country will commit more of its treasure to health partly because no one will want to go through this again, but also because we are now more aware of the threat. ‘We do need to make sure that we are resilient because this won’t be the last thing that will come and get us,’ Darling cautioned. ‘We need capacity in the health service and capacity to deal with it if people are not allowed to go to work or are restricted in what they do.’

His appeal echoes the comments of Ian Goldin at the start of this article: the response lies in concerted global action: ‘In 2009, international cooperation was absolutely critical,’ Darling said. ‘We need to see far more, both on the health front but also on economic front, because governments will need to work together as never before to rebuild our economy – our economies.’

We will need all this and more to defeat Covid-19. The good news is that the world’s scientists now know much more about it, and groups of experts are beginning to form huddles to get their heads around the enemy – the beginnings of the Bletchley Parks of this crisis. In the coming months these groups will focus on the means of progressing mass testing or developing a vaccine – one that may lie in examining the relationship between human DNA of sufferers and the genetics of the virus itself – or in devising better treatments and therapies for those suffering from the disease.

At the risk of upsetting David Edgerton, I think it can be said that we are now moving towards the end of the beginning in the war against Covid-19. There will still be weeks and months of uncertainty to follow, but we can hope that it will all be done by 2025, though we will still be paying the price for that victory for years to come and remembering those whom we have lost.

With additional reporting by Arun Kakar and Rasika Sittamparam

This piece first appeared in issue 74 of Spear’s, available now. Click here to buy a copy and subscribe

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