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Corona

How do we distil a good narrative from 2020?

Written by Pim Korsten
January 14, 2021

2020 was the year of the coronavirus crisis and in 2021, we’ll hopefully be able to leave this crisis behind. How we do that depends on the story we create about it, and the language, metaphors, narratives we want to use. From the perspective of philosophical hermeneutics, we can consider the structure of this story, and how we can actively build a post-corona future.

Our observations

  • In his book Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present (2020), historian Frank Snowden writes that epidemics have led to large public investments. The plague, for instance, led to the beginnings of public healthcare, as the temporary agencies and emergency ordnances gradually changed into permanent institutions. In his book Epidemics and the Modern World (2020), Mitchell Hammond writes that such initiatives and the first iterations of public administration were therefore of great importance to the modern state.
  • According to French philosopher Michel Foucault, the Enlightenment and modernity were both a curse and a blessing. On the one hand, modernity has brought us much prosperity, in the form of disposable income, better healthcare, better social and physical infrastructure, and new innovations that make our daily lives better and more enjoyable. At the same time, Foucault contends modernity and the Enlightenment have also brought us a new form of power and discipline, “biopower”, and he viewed the new forms and institutions of public healthcare as laboratories for experimenting with new forms of social control.
  • In their book Metaphors We Live By (2003), George Lakoff and Mark Johnson pose that the metaphors we use in our language also influence our direct physical and social experiences. According to them, the conceptual framework from which we interpret and approach reality is metaphorical by nature, and thus subconsciously influences our thinking and actions. Metaphors aren’t fully rational but integrate feelings, thought structures and our imagination into a figurative “image of thought”.
  • Many contemporary thinkers emphasize that humans are a “story-telling being”, and that narratives are a fundamental determinant of how we relate to reality and are able to shape the future. Think of Yuval Harari in Sapiens, Alex Rosenberg in How History Gets Things Wrong, Jordan Peterson in Maps of Meaning, Jeremy Lent in The Patterning Instinct. The base unit of a narrative is a “narreme”, comparable to the “phoneme” (a unit of sound) in phonology (the linguistic study of sound). A narreme relates to the state of affairs in the world and the positioning of story development and events within a certain wider narrative framework.
  • In his magnus opus Truth and Method (1960), Hans Georg Gadamer poses that different domains of life and various sciences have a different understanding of truth and method from a merely scientific one. The humanities have their method of hermeneutics – the art of interpretation – in which meaning is sought. In his final chapter “Language as horizon of a hermeneutic ontology”, Gadamer contends that meaning is always linguistic in nature as man has always interpreted reality and himself from the perspective of a historical and cultural tradition.

Connecting the dots

In our Retroscope, in which we looked back on 2020, we wrote about the term “crisis”: a moment of truth when we must make decisive judgments on what is actually important and what isn’t. A crisis also always forces us to make a political and ethical choice to transform the current situation into a brighter, more positive future. This makes the coronavirus crisis a real crisis, which has set in motion important choices and developments in the domains of geopolitics, technology and culture. The question now is: how do we interpret the events of 2020, and how will we develop a narrative? This is a matter of how the coronavirus crisis can lead to a new consciousness and how we should understand ourselves. Firstly, we could characterize the coronavirus crisis as a “formative experience”, as a consequence of which a new generation will adopt a new set of values, norms and ideas. This is apparent in our scenarios from the Resilient World in the domains of technology, culture and geopolitics. The coronavirus crisis could also leave an imprint on our political, technical and social systems (just as the Second World War left an imprint on our socio-technical systems). “Imprint” is a term from biology and psychology, which refers to changing behavioral processes of humans (and animals) as a consequence of being exposed to external stimuli (e.g. imprinting in genetics and developmental psychology). The coronavirus crisis will also leave such an imprint on our subjective and objective consciousness.

It’s important how we formulate and understand this in language and concepts, express it in metaphors, media and stories. For example, think of the long-term consequences of pandemics on the development of modern institutions and public government services such as healthcare, and how we should understand and assess these new forms of “biopower”. What’s crucial in this is the narreme we develop; the wider framework from which we consider and position the coronavirus crisis and its consequences within a narrative axis. Northrop Frye (1912-1991) was an important thinker in the comparative narratology in literature. In his masterpiece Anatomy of Criticism (1957), Frye analyzes the narrative categories and patterns in different literary traditions, and devises an “anatomy” of historical modes, ethical symbols and archetypical myths and rhetorical genres.  How does this relate to the coronavirus crisis? And what can we expect from the so-called “post-corona narratives”?

The coronavirus crisis is best perceived from the tragic mode. The Ancient tragedy is about how people relate to their fate and ill-fortune, which serves to inspire pity and fear in the audience in order to achieve “catharsis”: emotional purification. The comedy, by contrast, is marked by protagonists making blunders and mistakes, while still ending happily, thus achieving catharsis in the audience through laughter, humor and enjoyment. The coronavirus crisis caught many people off guard, and is often seen as a manifestation of Fate (e.g. as a religious reprimand or nature’s pushback against the hubris of modern man). In this tragedy, we may apply the framework from Frye’s first essay to distinguish various tropes, such as the highly mimetic coronavirus tragedy (marked by the sacrifices people such as nurses make to fight the coronavirus) or the ironic tragedy (man’s weakness in the face of nature or other lifeforms). When we consider different types of “coronavirus symbols”, the first one we notice is the descriptive symbol of the virus that’s bringing humankind, and even entire “superorganisms” such as economic systems (e.g. healthcare or the economy) to their knees.

The visual symbol ties in closely with the use of metaphors, such as the prison as a metaphor for working from home, or the desert for the empty cities during lockdown. The mythical symbol displays the relationship to other symbols of our time that, as we’ve argued before, are metamodern in nature. The anagogic symbol represents the spiritual value of the coronavirus crisis, and whether it will lead to a better, more enlightened future or not. The mental side of the experience of the coronavirus crisis is also considered, such as the moods inspired by the coronavirus or our ideals in this post-corona world.

This brings us to the archetypical myths: which original images, figures and ideas emerge in our visualization of the coronavirus crisis? Describing these moods, ideals, experiences, in short: the mental side of the coronavirus, isn’t about explaining or categorizing various psychological phenomena – the cognitive and neurosciences are much better equipped to do this – but helps reveal the meaning of our world and existence in society. This means we can expect new media that – implicitly or explicitly – are a result of the moods of the coronavirus crisis and quarantine, in the same vein as the “post-9/11 media” or the “atomic culture” that arose after the bombings in Japan and the critical philosophy (e.g. the Frankfurter Schule) that came into being in response to the Second World War.

This shows that our visualization of the coronavirus crisis and the narrative we create about it is ultimately the product of how we interpret the historicity of the coronavirus crisis: is it the end of the world as we know it, thus an epoch of decay, or in fact the beginning of a better world and thus of spiritual reassessment? It’s interesting to see that “cyclical theories” such as the generational dynamics of Strauss and Howe, the theory concerning technological revolutions and hegemonic cycles and economic paradigm shifts point to such a turning point. They highlight that a post-corona world might look radically different, and that such a narrative might be constitutive or even performative in creating a better future.

Implications

  • The coronavirus crisis could become a new “grand narrative” with which rifts could be closed. This will probably be utopian in content, as a response to postmodern skepticism and modern naiveté. For this narrative to be told, it’s crucial that creative artists can get to work on this. Especially now that many of us are in social isolation, stuck at home without the possibility of seeing friends and family, it’s conceivable that the coronavirus crisis may lead to a period of enormous creativity and invention. Film makers, for example, now have the time to consider new formats and pieces. We’ve written before that the Zeitgeist and a “structure of feeling” are manifesting in art, media and popular culture.

  • Another important aspect of this visualization is speculative design. Precisely because the coronavirus crisis is a real crisis that’s changing the course of the world and humankind, we can’t extrapolate the past and have to experiment with new images and forms of visualization. What scenario thinking is to theoretical thinking, speculative design is to visualization.

Vaccine diplomacy

Written by Sjoerd Bakker
January 14, 2021

The global distribution of coronavirus vaccines can remind us of D-Day and the subsequent liberation of Europe. The companies and governments that deliver the vaccines will be hailed as liberators and will likely wield significant political power over the countries they ‘liberate’. China and Russia are clearly aware of this effect as they appear to be quite generous when it comes to distributing their vaccines to needy nations.

Despite concerns over the safety and efficacy of the Chinese and Russian vaccines, many nations are eager to use them. As a consequence, countries such as South Korea and India will be drawn closer to Russia, while Brazil, Malaysia, Indonesia and others will tilt towards China.

Europe and the U.S., by contrast, seem determined to get “their” vaccines to their own people first. While this may be a logical strategy from a domestic societal and economic perspective, the West runs the risk of alienating international allies. As such, sharing vaccines with the rest of the world is not only a matter of humanity, as it is mostly portrayed, but also of geopolitical power play.

Food security will have its moment on the world stage

Written by Julia Rijssenbeek
January 14, 2021

In the year when the World Food Program unexpectedly received the Nobel prize, the fight against hunger faced major setbacks. The COVID-19 crisis laid bare the vulnerabilities in the global food supply chains, causing food insecurity to triple in almost every part of the world, along with the number of people suffering from hunger. The pandemic further made clear that the way we grow food increases the risk of zoonotic outbreaks. Agriculture makes ecosystems more vulnerable and destroys habitats, thus creating the perfect conditions for viruses to emerge.

A third direct link between COVID-19 and our global food system is the undeniable fact that being overweight – a problem for more than a third of all adults globally – makes people more prone to suffering from the virus. To confront global food security issues, international cooperation is needed to set global goals and standards that integrally address the health of people and of our planet. In 2021, the global Food Systems Summit will take place, an event that might induce the establishment of an intergovernmental panel like the one on climate change (IPCC) or a treaty like the Paris Agreement.

The coronavirus is creating momentum for fiscal diet policy

Written by Pim Korsten
December 4, 2020

Of course, it wasn’t the coronavirus that put obesity on the agenda, but the pandemic could influence policy to reduce it. In most Western countries, the current approach is mainly geared towards education, creating awareness with campaigns or labels meant to stimulate self-regulation in the supermarket. According to the World Bank, this has been moderately effective, but it’s doubtful whether that is enough in a world where both wealth and inequality are on the rise. The WHO therefore pleads for a more fiscal policy, since ultimately, our wallets remain a crucial factor: unhealthy food is (too) cheap, healthy food is (too) expensive.

That’s why more than forty countries have introduced a sugar tax and the coronavirus appears to have resulted in an increased sense of urgency and support for this measure. However, in a world afflicted by COVID-19, where inequality is rapidly growing, the most effective fiscal policy is (wage) subsidy, aimed at making healthy food more affordable, especially for poorer families. Because of the costs, subsidies are not as widely supported as tax measures like the sugar tax, which at least create revenue. Seattle has found a happy medium between the two: “circular” fiscal policy, meaning the revenue generated by the sugar tax is used to cover the costs of the health subsidies.

Towards institutionalized anti-racism

The global protests ensuing George Floyd’s death have not only condemned racism in general, but specifically its deeply rooted systemic variant. Systemic or institutionalized racism, despite by some being framed as academic jargon, has real consequences and is responsible for structurally mistreating and marginalizing black people for centuries. Its ubiquity, tenacity and invisibility have even made us warry about if we will ever solve it. It seems that the only way to effectively combat racism is by fostering anti-racist socio-cultural, economic and technological structures that are as encompassing, resilient and normalized. A form of institutionalized anti-racism so to say. In this note, we allow ourselves to speculate to what extent we see a form of institutionalized anti-racism being materialized.

Our observations

  • In an earlier note we discussed possible precursors for the general increase in moral outrage. (e.g. #Metoo, climate change). Possible explanatory variables that were being considered were increase of discretionary income, secularization, social media and globalization.
  • The APM Research Lab presented a study which showed that three times as many black Americans died of the corona virus than white Americans, painfully emphasizing the structural marginalization of Afro-Americans in American society.
  • A study in Nature Human Behavior published this year shows that black drivers are more likely to be stopped by the police. Interestingly, the statistics also showed that black drivers were less likely to be stopped at night, as the driver’s skin color is harder to recognize by law enforcers.
  • The support for Black Lives Matter has gone up from a net support of -5% in 2017 to +28% this year, seeing the biggest increase after the death of George Floyd.
  • The Monmouth poll showed that 57% of the Americans believe that the police is more likely to use excessive force on black people than on white, as opposed to 33% who believed that the police is as likely to use excessive force on black and white culprits. Also 3 in 4 believe that racial discrimination is a big problem in the United States.
  • Greg Glassman, Crossfit CEO has resigned due to enormous social media backlash after releasing controversial statements regarding the Black Lives Matter movement.
  • A few big tech companies have announced that they upend their facial recognition technology. Amazon instituted a one-year moratorium on police use of Rekognition, while Microsoft will only provide access and Microsoft announced that they will refuse to share facial recognition technology with the police.

Connecting the dots

The recent global protests, signs of criminal justice reforms and the enactment of anti-racism policies in public life, flirt with the promise of real change for the anti-black racism movement. However, given the long history of broken promises one cannot fully escape the skepticism that these gestures will turn out to be short-lived and result in empty promises as soon as the public eye has moved to the next public concern. Hence, Maureen Johnson deems institutionalized anti-racism, i.e. deeper societal structures that oppose racism, as the only way to combat its counterpart. Hence, instead of focusing on the proposed reforms, we will speculate, in the spirit of neo utopian thinking, to what extent the current surge of anti-racism could be attributed to a deep transition towards institutional structures.

Some indications can already be found in the way these protests have evolved over the past decades. From the ‘60s to the protests following Floyd’s death, protests have become more global and diverse. This could indicate that the movement is gaining broader support in civil society and becoming more decentralized, making it harder for the entire movement to become marginalized or taken hostage by violent fractions. The decentralization is further reflected by the absence of a central charismatic leader of the magnitude of a Martin Luther King or Malcolm X. The documentary ‘I am not your negro’ shows the importance of their moral leadership (and their assassination) in the visibility and representation of the movement. On the other hand, the current absence of a central leader has the advantage of being less vulnerable and also creates the opportunity for a more amorph movement through which the heterogeneity of black identities and corresponding agendas can be represented.

When it comes to representation of black identities in mainstream media, we also see examples that oppose racism in a more nuanced way. Critically acclaimed movies like Moonlight and Dope or popular music artists like Frank Ocean or Childish Gambino have addressed the problems surrounding black hyper-masculinity and the issue of intersectionality, i.e. how the black identity combined with other identities (i.e. gender, sexuality, ethnicity) can result in special forms of discrimination. Black Panther, a $1.4 billion grossing Marvel movie, paints an optimistic afrofuturistic picture while also showing the nuanced positions within the civil rights movement.

In addition to traditional media, the rise of social media has probably even had a bigger impact on giving anti-racism a voice. Under the virtual umbrella of #blacklivesmatter, a vast coalition of activist groups and individuals is able to communicate, organize and create awareness on a global level. Civic journalism allowed the black community to expand on the aforementioned complexity and breadth of black identities and racist experiences. Furthermore, as the video of George Floyd’s death exemplified, smartphones and social media created grass roots surveillance. However, the civic scrutiny does not only apply to law enforcement, but also to other organizations in which employees call out tokenism and superficial PC behavior. Furthermore, the presence of social media has also created a real time social forum in which organizations cannot withdraw from the conversation and have to take a stance on the matter. Digitization also supports anti-racism through the broad collection and publication of socio-demographic and socio-economic data. Statistics like disproportionate incarceration numbers, unemployment rates or corona deaths among the black community, have helped in uncovering the painful truth of social inequality along racial lines. As written before, data has a will of its own, as the mere availability of data can help create awareness on latent social injustices and, as the protests have shown, help incite action. With the availability of AI we could even go a step further and directly influence biased decision making. Even though AI systems have shown to be racially biased, AI actually has the potential to make the decision making process surrounding racial related issues more transparent and controllable. This also explains why some tech companies are hesitant to share their facial recognition technologies with law enforcers as long as the required regulation is not in place.

The dissemination and reinforcement of anti-racist values, is not only driven by people but also by corporate structures. On the one hand, we can interpret anti-racist statements (and action) from large commercial companies like Microsoft, Disney and Nike as capitalist cash grabs of a social cause. At the same time, these companies provide a serious platform, cash grab or not, for people who intrinsically and authentically seek social change and who are suddenly able to reach a mass audience.

The emergence of institutionalized anti-racism does not mean that we should become complacent with regards to racism. After all, the existence of anti-racist structures does not automatically mean that racist structures are on the decline. Also, one could even argue, that the structural repulsion of racism could even lead to more subtle and invisible forms of racism such as benevolent prejudice, aversive racism and tokenism that are harder to call out and to deal with. Nevertheless, these potential pitfalls are no reason to abolish this utopia, but as a starting point to realize this speculative future.

Implications

  • As part of a larger trend towards moral outrage, we can see similarities with other protest movements. However, this does not necessarily mean that it will resonate as deeply as the black lives matter movement has, as it will depend on how broad (e.g. socio-economic, cultural, political) and deep the marginalization goes, and to what extent the specific movement itself is carried by economic, socio-cultural and technological structures.
  • Companies will not be able to hide behind a façade of PC-marketing. Instead, companies will be judged on their track record and past actions.

Corona and the end of the tech fix illusion

In the West, the corona crisis is providing us with a rather unique experience. Rarely have we been confronted with a problem of this scale without having a technological solution at hand. In the coming months, if not years, our battle with this virus will continue, and our technology will only be of scant help. On the one hand, this will lead to declining trust in technological solutions in general. On the other hand, this crisis may also inspire us with regard to human solutions to problems, in the form of regulation and behavioral change.

Our observations

  • From the onset of the pandemic, hopeful messages emerged about possible treatments, based on existing medicine (e.g. malaria drug hydroxychloroquine). As yet, none of these treatments have had significant results. Even the only drug approved for use, Remdesivir, only leads to moderate improvement and its availability is limited.
  • The whole world is eagerly awaiting a vaccine. The development of an effective vaccine appears to be going smoothly and we could see results within a year. This would be a true triumph for techno-science. At the same time, the distribution of the vaccine will be subject to an international political and economic joust and the technology, the vaccine, in itself will only be part of the solution.
  • In a number of countries, various corona apps are already being employed to help trace possible contaminations. However, it’s abundantly clear that an app alone can never be the solution. At the very least, it should be supported by policy to motivate or force people to quarantine themselves when the app says they may be infected.
  • The ongoing debate about the use(lessness) of face masks is indicative of our longing for a ready-made solution to the crisis that doesn’t require us to make any significant sacrifices. Critics continue to emphasize that a face mask can be part of a solution at best and that, even when they’re used properly, they can lead to a dangerous sense of false security.
  • The growing threat of viruses is linked to processes of deforestation and the loss of biodiversity. These processes are the result of our technological ability to intervene in nature on a large scale.
  • Evgeny Morozov previously made the argument that Silicon Valley in particular is guilty of technological solutionism; diminishing and distorting real problems until it seems as though they can easily be fixed by technological means. They then often present false solutions that in reality might lead to new or even bigger problems. Uber’s solution to the mobility problem, for instance, has many side effects (especially for drivers) while it doesn’t necessarily contribute to a more efficient or cleaner mobility system.
  • In the debate on climate change, eco-modernists argue that sustainable technology will enable us to reduce greenhouse gas emissions without having to change our lifestyles. Critics maintain that technology in itself will never provide a solution, as it can decrease emission percentages at best (i.e. making the economy less carbon-intensive but not carbon-neutral), inevitable rebound effects would partly offset these gains (e.g. a water-saving shower entices to take longer showers) and each technological solution in turn leads to new problems (e.g. environmental damage due to wind turbines).

Connecting the dots

The idea that technology will fix all our problems is deeply rooted in our thinking. It’s often suggested that we cannot imagine mankind without technology and that we’re therefore essentially technical beings. Technology has brought us much good and it’s thanks to technology that our life expectancy has risen so rapidly in the past centuries and our quality of life has increased so significantly. Nevertheless, our use of technology and the industrial modernity that it has birthed, have also unequivocally led to severe societal and ecological problems.
Partly because of these problems, technology critics have fought the illusion of the so-called technological “fix” for years. However, the illusion of the techno-fix has proved ineradicable. It’s based on a combination of trust in technology and limited trust in the ability, and the willingness, of humans to adapt their behavior. Moreover, it’s the most comfortable and uncompromising solution; technology will fix our problem and we neither have to think about it nor make any kind of sacrifice. A “quick fix” for the corona crisis, in the form of a vaccine, would quickly silence the debate on the structural causes of the pandemic and allow us to revert to our pre-corona practices in a heartbeat. Comparable to the way medication often takes away the necessity of aspiring to a healthier lifestyle. Because of this apparent lack of any human sacrifice, the idea of the techno-fix is inextricably bound up with a feeling of guilt, as if, like in the myth of Prometheus, we really don’t deserve to use technology.
In ordinary times, inasmuch as they’ve ever existed, there is more time to develop a technological solution to known problems. Until then, we’ll accept the lack of a solution as an ill-fated fact (when we’re sick) or simply put off dealing with the issue (as we do with the climate change problem). The corona crisis does not allow this type of acceptance or procrastination and immediately confronts us with our (technological) inability to procure a quick and “painless” fix. As such, the crisis is gnawing away at our illusion of the tech fix.
Technology was not able to prevent this crisis, by warning us ahead of time, for instance, or containing the virus in an early stage. Nor is there any ready-made medication or vaccine to vanquish the virus now. There may be many candidate medications and vaccines in development, but it will be at least several months before they’re approved and possibly years before they’re actually widely available.

Our initial hopes of a corona app quickly enabling us to ease the lockdown and contain the virus, have also largely evaporated by now. Developing and validating a decent app will take time and it remains unclear whether, and if so, how, we would actually employ this kind of app and what sacrifices we’d be prepared to make for it. As yet, the biggest victory over the virus has been achieved by human efforts and large-scale behavioral change. Though this is accompanied by severe economic and human suffering, it can also inspire us to put more faith in human solutions rather than technology hereafter. Most distinctly, this could translate to the climate change debate, which is marked by unilateral confidence in technological solutions. We trust that electric mobility will replace the combustion engine and that, with that, we’ll eventually be able to realize a fully climate-neutral mobility system. The same goes for green electricity, which we’ve embraced as a problem-free substitute for power from gas- or coal-fired plants. Apart from the practical issues such as scalability and security of supply, green electricity poses more fundamental problems, such as the use of scarce resources and the impact it has on surroundings.
The essence of these (false) solutions is the illusion they create that we can “save” the climate without having to change our lifestyle. The underlying conviction is that we’re not willing to make such a sacrifice as travelling less, for example, or reducing our total energy use. In fact, the prevailing notion seems to be that human beings are not or barely able to adjust their behavior at all without the clear prospect of a reward.
What’s interesting about the corona crisis, is precisely that a large part of the population does seem to be prepared to change their behavior and even have valuable experiences in the process. Of course, the corona crisis cannot be compared to the climate problem as is, if only because the latter is a long-term problem, but the argument that people are unable to change their behavior and that we should put our faith in technology, has considerably lost credence.

Implications

  • In the short term, the economic damage caused by the corona crisis will be the main focal point, and yet, (European) governments appear to be willing to make demands on companies receiving government aid to force them to take more societal responsibility. This will partly translate to technological solutions (e.g. the use of cleaner airplanes), but there also seems to be room for reflection on the value and necessity of irresponsible activities (e.g. flying to sunny destinations).

  • As we wrote before, our perspective on large digital corporations could further tilt as a result of this crisis and the more critical stance we’ll adopt towards (digital) technology. From this critical stance, our tolerance for intervention with these parties will likely increase.

The resilience paradox

All over the world, citizens, policy-makers, entrepreneurs and governments are asking themselves how they can become resilient. The corona crisis seems to be leading to an apotheosis of this popular ideal that has become prevalent in our society in the past decades. The notion of resilience therefore teaches us something about the spirit of the times and the way we relate to the world and ourselves. There are valuable aspects to the ideal, but dangers lie in the unilateral fixation on resilience.

Our observations

  • There is no clear definition of the term resilience. As is elaborately discussed in this article by correspondent Lynn Berger, it’s become a key concept in all sorts of domains and used to refer to several different things. A very generic description would be that resilience is the ability to continue to function as usual during times of adversity. When further specification is required – and this is where disagreement generally arises – the state of equilibrium (homeostasis) of a system is emphasized. Resilience is about optimal temporary adjustment to an external stressor (allostasis) with the subsequent rapid recovery of the original homeostasis or the establishment of a new homeostasis.
  • The term resilience has long been popular in psychology and mental healthcare. In psychological resilience, the emphasis is on mental defensibility: the ability to successfully respond to significant setbacks, traumatic events or other stressors. Mentally resilient people are able to adapt well and quickly become their old selves again.
  • In ecology, resilience originally referred to an ecosystem’s ability to adapt to severe disruptions in climate, such as enduring drought or heavy rainfall, without losing its equilibrium in the long run. Nowadays, the possibility that ecosystems can eventually become stronger or reach new states of equilibrium is more frequently highlighted as well.
  • Resilience also plays an increasingly large role for entrepreneurs, investors, economists and overseers. They regard resilience mostly as the ability to respond adequately to downward cycles, loss of demand or recession. Since the financial crisis, banks are regularly subjected to stress tests to establish their resilience. And organizations are focusing on the redundancy and buffers of their balance, diversification of the value chain and strength of cash flows, under the guise of resilience.
  • Authorities around cities and countries are not impervious to the ideal. All around the world, chief resilience officers are appointed, tasked with ascertaining whether their city is in fact resilient. Rotterdam, for example, recently launched its strategy for becoming a resilient city.

Connecting the dots

A crisis is making the call for resilience more urgent, but resilience was on the rise in our society long before the corona crisis.
First, this rise and popularity of resilience can be understood as an inevitable side effect of a different way of looking at the world. Resilience goes hand in hand with a world view characterized by complexity and uncertainties. This world view is the result of a scientific transformation but is also linked to the processes of globalization and the real or subjective threats of natural disasters, economic crisis and terrorism. Resilience is part of perception of life in which we feel as if we’re in a permanent state of crisis. In our hyperconnected, complex and uncertain world, unexpected dangers and disrupting events always loom, making the call for resilience all the more urgent.
But we haven’t just changed our perception of the world, we’ve also come to view ourselves in a different light. After WW II, the ideal of resilience mainly gained popularity due to psychology and ecology, but it also has roots in the biological thinking of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. For Darwin, adjustment to living conditions was of course already one of the most important drivers of evolution. And in the early twentieth century, there was renewed interest in the self-regulating ability of organisms in relation to their environment. To survive, systems may temporarily become unbalanced due to external influences, but they also have a natural inclination to restore equilibrium. Scientific insight into this mechanism has allowed us to help “nature’s” self-regulating system to bounce back. This applies to our own bodies, but this point of view has also proved valuable in understanding, for example, a political or economic “body”.
This new understanding of ourselves and the world has made it possible for us to remain healthy during uncertain times, because we increasingly understand how to deal with stressors without having to predict or control the future. With a resilient system, it doesn’t matter what happens, it can stand a bit of turbulence. We can learn mental skills that increase resilience, apply the right liquidity buffers to companies’ balance sheets or increase the biodiversity of an ecosystem, to enable these systems to better absorb shocks and restore themselves to a state of equilibrium (homeostasis) or even emerge stronger from the battle.
The ideal of resilience therefore undeniably have valuable aspects. But in the past years, there has been increasing criticism of the term, because it’s become a buzzword, used with abandon, often making it unclear what exactly the term refers to and how to measure it. Besides this debate about its definition and its overly loose application, there are a number of more substantial points of criticism.
The resilience of individuals, for instance, is not always beneficial to the community or the world. This became clear in a study into the emotional consequences of extreme weather Lynn Berger refers to. This study shows that persons that are resilient are less inclined to do something about the causes of extreme weather.

Scientists have dubbed this the resilience paradox: individual resilience may be at odds with the resilience of a group or community and can even thwart it. Resilience and indifference are therefore dangerously close on the same continuum. Another objection to resilience comes from, among others, psychologist Paul Verhaeghe. He has pointed out that the ideal of resilience is frequently employed by policymakers, organizations and psychologists to increase individuals’ resilience, without due consideration of individuals’ societal context. If a work environment leads to chronic stress, it’s convenient for organizations to increase the resilience of individuals. However, if they succeed in containing the burn-out epidemic, they will be less inclined to investigate the potentially unhealthy nature of the working culture. Health becomes largely one’s own responsibility. This also results in a resilience paradox: resilience goes hand in hand with systems thinking, but at the same time, it can also be counterproductive to finding systemic solutions.
Finally, there is the more cultural-philosophical criticism that resilience may also contribute to a hostile or tense, distant stance towards the world. By constantly focusing on our own resilience, we come to regard the world and the other more often and more consistently as a hostile source of danger, uncertainties and potential stressors. We find ourselves in a permanent and rather stressful state of alert. Healthy protection against the world could then descend into unhealthy isolation from the world, causing us to detach from others and the communities we belong to.
Oddly enough, this excessive protection actually makes us vulnerable and our mental health may suffer from this, as shown in a study into the effects of overprotective parents on children. It results in another resilience paradox: protection from one thing makes us vulnerable to other things. We endow ourselves and our children with a protective shield, but this makes it difficult for us to achieve intimacy, build trusting relationships and it makes us vulnerable to depression and other mental illnesses.
Resilience is a valuable and interesting concept – especially during the current corona crisis. But it’s important to practice moderation in working on our resilience and not to lose sight of the pitfalls of unilateral fixation on this popular ideal. A one-sided focus on resilience during the corona crisis can also lead to indifference, further individualization of care and a hostile and distrusting relationship to each other in our everyday lives.

Implications

  • We arrive in a difficult period of the corona crisis where the resilience paradox is clearly visible. The first phase of urgency and common spirit is behind us, but we are far from normal. In the “new normal”, social distancing is making us as society resilient in the short term, but we risk a lot for the long-term in terms of mental health. For instance, loneliness is bad for the immune system and an isolated life reduces life expectancy drastically.

  • The corona crisis reveals the resilience paradox is prevalent in the economy as well. Since the financial crisis, the attention for the stability of the financial system has grown. Banks which become to big make the system vulnerable, i.e. the too big to fail mechanism. Nevertheless, the economy as a whole is currently struggling with the same problem. Big companies have – to guarantee the preservation of existing jobs – an implicit bailout in their operations. The focus on stability of these companies in normal times is making us vulnerable during economic turmoil.

The notion of European sovereignty

What happened?

During the corona crisis, France and Germany have joined forces in setting up a European recovery fund of €700 billion. There is much debate about the design of the fund (e.g. size, grants vs. loans), as well as the discord between member states and the possibility of further European integration. But on closer inspection of the proposal, there’s something else that catches the eye as well. The idea of “European sovereignty”, here imagined as support for industrial champions and protectionism against strategic investments from China, is gaining momentum. How should this be interpreted?

What does this mean?

In the twentieth century, the EU saw itself mostly as a “post-sovereign power” and imagined a world in which international governance (in the form of multilateral institutions) would create a new type of order – a world no longer subject to the power politics of superpowers. However, the idea of European sovereignty, which champions “strategic autonomy” against the U.S. and China, in fact points to a Europe poised to engage more in power politics and partly take leave of its “multilateral dream”. Is the notion of European sovereignty a productive idea for the future of Europe?

What’s next?

It is likely that France and Germany, to provide a lifeline to the EU in light of a deep crisis and hegemonic conflict between the U.S. and China, will launch more initiatives to create European sovereignty (e.g. supporting industrial champions, protectionist policy). However, although this would strengthen the strategic position of Europe, it is highly likely that internal tensions will rise. Smaller EU members will always be vigilant about French-German projects to reform the EU. The resistance of the “frugal four” in the coronacrisis is the writing on the wall. If France and Germany take too little account of the interests of smaller EU members, Euroscepticism will grow in the coming years.

Our collective brain

What happened?

The corona crisis is showing us how alike we are in our thoughts. In early March, on the same day, virtually all of us came to the conclusion that there actually was a crisis and that we should hoard toilet paper and hand sanitizer. A few weeks ago, we also apparently all concluded that it was OK to go out in droves, without any announcement from authorities. Meanwhile, during the lockdown, we all spontaneously decided to work out, ride our bikes and go rollerblading outside. None of these phenomena, trends, hypes or crazes are unique or new, but this crisis does confront us with these new forms of collective thinking.

What does this mean?

There are new rules of play and we have to learn to deal with them. We’re exploring the boundaries between what’s allowed and what isn’t and are keeping a close eye on each other in the process. It’s no wonder then, that we’re learning from each other, mimicking each other or that we just happen to arrive at more or less the same idea. Furthermore, many of these ideas are of course put into our heads by companies and their marketing channels. At the same time, this is also a morally charged period, making us extra aware of our own behavior and others’; who is breaking the rules and who is slightly exaggerating? On the beach, therefore, it’s not just crowded, it’s dangerously crowded.

What’s next?

This heightened awareness of our collective behavior can evoke different responses. We can accept the situation and possibly even derive a feeling of solidarity from it. After all, we’re all in the same boat, going through the same struggle. On the other hand, it’s conceivable that we’ll look for activities and products that still do make us feel original and authentic. This could lead to increased demand for more personalized products and services and, as soon as it’s allowed again, even more exotic holiday destinations.

A liberating vaccine

Insofar as there can ever be a definitive end to the corona pandemic, a vaccine will probably play the most substantial role in this. This is not just a matter of whether there will ever be a vaccine and if so, when, but also of who will be the first to develop it and subsequently who will get access to it. It’s highly likely that this will be a lengthy process, with countries partaking in an extreme form of vaccine diplomacy, and the choices they make will reverberate for years, if not decades, to come in international politics.

Our observations

  • Many dozens of candidate vaccines are currently being developed. Testing and approval procedures are being accelerated and carried out simultaneously as much as possible (e.g. operation Warp Speed in the U.S.). A number of vaccines is now being tested on humans and companies are already investing in production capacity in case their vaccine is approved.
  • An eventual vaccine will not immediately be available to the entire world population. Not even now that major pharmaceutical companies and NGOs are investing tens of millions of dollars to prepare for the large-scale production of vaccines that have yet to be tested. Depending on the type of vaccine that is developed, several factors will determine the production speed. This could pertain to specific equipment, the availability of well-trained personnel and, of course, the availability of high-grade raw materials. Even something as seemingly banal as the availability of medical glass in which to package the vaccine, could be crucial to the speed at which production can be increased.
  • Most vaccines will be developed by large pharmaceutical corporations, possibly in cooperation with universities. These corporations are currently promising that they’ll do their part to achieve a fair, global distribution of their vaccines. This is important to their reputation, and revenue, and they want to avoid becoming a pawn on the geopolitical stage (e.g. by becoming nationalized).
  • Meanwhile, governments will involve themselves specifically in the distribution of scarce doses and they will initially take national societal, economic and geopolitical interests into account when doing so. During the swine flu outbreak in 2009, it became clear that a number of rich countries were only concerned with protecting their own populations and were impervious to appeals for international solidarity. The fact that the Chinese Academy of Military Medical Sciences is involved in the development of a highly advanced vaccine highlights once again the geopolitical importance of a corona vaccine.
  • It’s not surprising that countries believe themselves to be co-owners on the vaccines. Be it directly or indirectly, the state is always involved in processes of innovation: as financier, educator, custodian of infrastructures, etc (i.e. “the entrepreneurial state”). This legitimizes the role of the state as divider on a national scale, but also enables it to primarily utilize the technology for its own population (although every vaccine will have partly been facilitated by knowledge from the scientific community). From a moral perspective, one could, however, also argue that any vaccine is always the result of previous efforts from, and data shared by, the international scientific community and no country could ever be the sole owner of the final vaccine.
  • Uit moreel oogpunt zou je echter ook kunnen beargumenteren dat elk vaccine dat ontwikkeld wordt direct of indirect ook gebaseerd is op eerder werk van de internationale wetenschappelijke gemeenschap en dus nooit het exclusieve eigendom van een enkel land kan zijn.
  • At the initiative of the European Commission, an international consortium of mainly European countries – the U.S. did not participate at all – and NGOs, has raised $8 billion dollars for, among other things, global collaboration in the development of a corona vaccine. The WHO is also developing guidelines for an effective and fair distribution of an eventual vaccine.
  • Not everyone is enthusiastic about the advent of a corona vaccine. The anti-vax movement has campaigned against vaccines in general for years and is also up in arms already over a possible corona vaccine. On the other end of the spectrum, there are those advocating to make these vaccines compulsory.

Connecting the dots

An effective vaccine could definitively end the corona crisis. Worldwide, many dozens of vaccines are being developed and some are hopeful that the first vaccines will be approved this year. This would, however, be unprecedentedly fast and chances of this happening are slim, if only because vaccines can also have serious side-effects (e.g. dengue fever and SARS). Moreover, there are doubts about the actual degree and duration of the protection a vaccine can offer, and mutations of the coronavirus could lead to an existing vaccine becoming less effective. Nonetheless, even if a vaccine doesn’t get approved until next year, or even later, this would be an enormous victory for modern (multidisciplinary) science and would liberate us from the pandemic that’s disrupting our society.
It’s worthwhile to speculate on the question how this process of liberation will take place. In our collective imaginations, there seems to be a notion of a vaccine being hailed as a liberating army that will abruptly end a drawn-out war. This image ties in with the war rhetoric that has been applied to this crisis with abandon (e.g. we’re at war with an invisible enemy and healthcare professionals are on the frontlines). In reality, the approval of a vaccine will be much more like D-Day; the beginning of the end of the battle, but hardly an immediate cease-fire.
This D-Day will probably only take place in the country of origin of the vaccine and, because of its scarcity, it will initially only reach part of the population there, presumably groups such as healthcare workers and the elderly. From that moment, it will still be months, if not years, before both the entire population has been vaccinated and there is herd immunity. This period will be characterized by debates on who is most in need of the vaccine (e.g. nursing staff), who deserves it the most (e.g. based on lifestyle) and, depending on the local care system, who is willing to pay the most. As in the current phase of containment of the pandemic, the debate will oscillate between the importance of public health (i.e. vulnerable groups first) and that of the economy (e.g. hospitality workers first).

On a global level, the question will then be which other countries will get access to the vaccine. Initially, it’s highly likely that the country that developed it will keep production entirely to itself, something Trump seems to be aiming for, but at a certain point, part of the production will also become available to other, friendly or high-paying, countries. By means of licenses, other countries will also be enabled to start their own production. India and China are currently the biggest producers of medicine, mostly developed in the U.S. or Europe, and will be particularly well-poised to start their own production lines. Furthermore, international hackers also seem to be engaged in attempts to ascertain the required recipe.
Depending on which country will be the first to develop an effective vaccine – China and the U.S. seem to be the frontrunners – there will be an extreme form of vaccine diplomacy. Especially China is likely to deploy a possible vaccine to strengthen ties (i.e. soft power) with other countries around the world and possibly also to gain more direct advantages (e.g. better terms in trade agreements). Building on the comparison with World War II, the distribution of the vaccine could even determine the sphere of influence of global power blocs. After the war, Europe was divided up among the allied powers. This could also happen to countries or regions that, for example, become dependent on an American or Chinese vaccine, which would place these countries under more direct influence from their vaccine donors.
It’s no wonder then, that the WHO and European Union are placing such emphasis on global cooperation in the development of the potential vaccines and are attempting to come to agreements about fair distribution in this early stage.

Implications

  • The availability of a vaccine could mean that the economy can go full steam ahead. If several countries are able to “open” much sooner than others, this will lead to large disparities in wealth, which will also impact power relations between these countries. This could result in vaccine nationalism, but at the same time, countries also have an economic and medical interest in a global or regional “liberation” from the pandemic (e.g. in terms of international value chains).

  • The development and distribution of a corona vaccine will have considerable consequences for both national as well as international societal cohesion and cooperation. The eventual vaccine will probably be used as a vector of soft power and possibly also as a more direct means of power.

  • The distribution of a vaccine will also be a stress test for European unity and solidarity. There are several explicitly European development projects, but it remains to be seen whether a possible vaccine resulting from them would in fact be regarded as such or as a national product, with producing countries vaccinating their own populations first after all.