Why this pandemic is different


The pandemic has highlighted the urgent need for a new balance between the nation-state and supranational institutions. Barring that, the devastation wrought by COVID-19 will only increase. In many ways, the current pandemic looks a lot like its predecessors. For starters, predictable or not, disease outbreaks have always caught the authorities off guard—and the authorities have often failed to respond quickly and decisively. During the COVID-19 crisis, lockdowns and other social-distancing protocols have similarly prevented people from visiting their dying loved ones and upended funeral traditions. Another parallel between the current pandemic and its predecessors is the tendency to embrace experimental palliatives. During the pandemic of the so-called Spanish flu a century ago, scientists blamed bacterial infections and designed treatments accordingly. We know now that influenza is caused by a virus; no bacterial vaccines could protect against it.
Of course, researchers working on COVID-19 have a much more advanced understanding of disease. But, as we await a bespoke cure or vaccine, existing antivirals—such as those long used for malaria—are being tested, with mixed results. The use of one such drug, chloroquine, has raised concerns after patients receiving it showed signs of heart-related complications.

Epidemics not only ravage economies but also throw societal inequalities into sharp relief, deepening mistrust in the status quo. The disease may not discriminate between rich and poor, but their living conditions always make the poor and marginalized more vulnerable. Machiavelli, who witnessed—and probably died in—the plague in Florence in 1527, viewed the outbreak as the direct result of misrule. Criticisms of China, Trump, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and others have echoed this sentiment.

The current pandemic, by contrast, is more likely to reinforce three preexisting—and highly destructive— trends: deglobalization, unilateralism, and authoritarian surveillance capitalism. Almost immediately, calls for reducing dependence on global value chains—already gaining traction before the crisis—began to intensify. And, under the cover of the fight for life, authorities beyond just China or Russia are trampling on liberties and invading personal privacy. Two world wars have shown that a global order organized around egocentric nationalism is incompatible with peace and security. The pandemic has highlighted the urgent need for a new balance between the nation-state and supranational institutions.

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