I’ve been avoiding the COVID-19 situation but I guess it’s not really possible to ignore it. I’m not going to offer any opinions or predictions on the pandemic itself because it’s a subject I know nothing about. I’m also not going to offer any prognostications about the effects on the economy because again I’m not an expert.
Instead I’m going to talk about the possible long-term political, social and psychological effects.
This seems like it would be a very good time for a politician to be in Opposition (or to be a presidential contender rather than an incumbent president). No-one can be certain if the worst case scenarios are plausible, or whether the optimists are right, or exactly at which point in between two extreme possibilities the truth might lie. Any policy has to be to some extent an educated guess. If a government guesses wrong it’s likely to pay a high political price. If the pessimists prove to be correct and the death toll is high governments will be blamed for doing too little too late. If the optimists prove to be correct and the death toll is low governments will be blamed for trashing the economy for no good reason. Governments and leaders that guess wrong are likely to end up being ex-governments and ex-leaders. If governments wait for more data and the additional data suggests that the pessimists were right then they have to take even more extreme steps the would have been needed if they had acted earlier. Such a government is going to look indecisive, and in a crisis that’s political death.
Of course if a few governments and prime ministers fall it doesn’t really matter, but the long-term consequence is likely to be populations with even less faith in government than they have now.
The long-term social and psychological effects on ordinary people could also be dire. People are worried but that anxiety could easily turn to anger, and human nature being what it is that means people will look for scapegoats. We’re already seeing an intensification of the generational hatreds that have been building for a while. This is particularly so on the dissident right with many younger people openly celebrating the idea of a disease that they think and hope will kill off the hated Boomers. We’re seeing a very ugly side of human nature coming to the fore.
We’re also seeing lots of crazy conspiracy theories. That’s been happening for quite wile but COVID-19 has kicked it into top gear. As a result of this disease we’re going to see a decline in trust of government and a lot more people buying into conspiracy theories. Of course governments in the West are handling the crisis very poorly but much of this is down to plain old-fashioned incompetence and political cynicism. Governments and political leaders don’t know what to do but they are desperately keen to be seen to be doing something. Especially in the West where they dithered for weeks instead of taking a few simple useful steps right at the beginning (such as shutting down all air travel both International and domestic).
On the dissident right we’re also seeing people celebrating COVID-19 as a means of stoking racial hatred. Now whatever your views on immigration and diversity might be (and I’m not a fan of either) encouraging more racial hatred is not something that any sane person wants to see. We already have quite enough.
Overall I think the long term result will be that people will become more anxious and more irrational, more unpredictable and more inclined to believe crazy stuff. Even if the coronavirus thing is dealt with successfully one way or another in the next few months those long-term consequences may be not just long-term but permanent.