Brave new post-Covid world

by Stan Hirst

Gloomy and rain today. Just like yesterday. And the day before. Day before that too, come to think of it. Suits my sombre mood.

Newsline does not help much either – tells me that only 2.3% of the Canadian population have received the first shot of Covid-19 vaccine as of today. The figure for British Columbia is 2.7%. The news on Covid-19 incidence is more uplifting – numbers of new cases and the incidence of mortality from the virus infection are both declining. Good to know for an elder whose risk of death from Covid-19 is currently about 10 percent.

The statisticians and the futurists, not slow to exploit a good crisis, are throwing all manner of prognostications at one another regarding the lasting effects of the crisis. They seem to agree on a few forecasts.

  • Although vaccines will become widely available and population herd immunities will build up, the expectation is that many people will still prefer working, shopping, and learning online.
  • Zoom and its competitors were around well before the pandemic, but now that folks have experienced the safety and convenience benefits of these services there will be a permanent shift in consumer behaviour.
  • We witnessed in 2020 the largest mass exodus from offices and schools the world has ever seen. The big movers and shakers such as Facebook and Google have announced that they are preparing for permanent remote work.

It might be a brave new world but it won’t be an honest one. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission uncovered a social media scam that cost consumers $117 million in the first six months of 2020 alone. While business scrambled to bring offerings online during the pandemic, they created a cesspool of new social and technical vulnerabilities for criminals to exploit. This can only increase through 2021 and beyond as fraudsters get more creative. I wish that guy with the accent would stop calling me about non-existent malfunctions in my Windows 10.

Remote learning was something of a novelty in 2020. Moving forward into 2022 and beyond it seems that more than half of all college students now prefer online classes because of their flexibility. The impacts on enrollment and teaching modalities will be marked and long-lasting. Video games have undergone a surge in adoption and usage (except in my home).

This adaptation is all very impressive but is it “better”? Global leaders, including the British Prime Minister and the newly elected U.S. President use the term as a populist slogan, and the rest of the world is obediently following suit. These range from learned academies to banking institutions and and a host of corporate CEOs. Civil society activists around the world, on the other hand, prefer to connect the phrase to the dimly undefined future. Arundhati Roy describes the pandemic as “a portal, a gateway between one world and the next”.

Whatever usage we employ, it seems self-evident that if we are to “build back better” after the pandemic, we need to consider what it means exactly to say “better”. Businesses and politicians use the term to imply opportunities to reclaim lost time, lost markets and lost profits. The alternative universe treats the slogan as a label for new ways of organising societies and communities, and promotes the recovery effort as channels to move investments towards more inclusive, resilient and environmentally friendly outcomes. They extend the term to refer to include broader and more intangible benefits such as public health and welfare systems. They maintain that governments’ expansion of public health infrastructure in response to the pandemic can only have longer term benefits which deserve investment.

Those who read the news and listen to intelligent media are fully aware that the pandemic has exposed the realism that societies without effective social welfare systems are not only more susceptible to greater humanitarian and social fallout during a major crisis, they are also more vulnerable to the spread of Covid-19 and other diseases. Those without adequate sick leave or medical and unemployment insurance are more likely to continue working, despite succumbing to the virus. There seems to be a growing recognition of social welfare as a kind of “social immune system”.

The world has hardly been devoid of disasters up to this point. Something of the order of a billion people have been decimated in recorded history by pandemics such as plague, influenza and smallpox. The Covid-19 crisis has at least two important and interrelated characteristics that make it different from earlier disasters.

  • It is not a physical disaster but is all about public health and socioeconomic structure, hence the use of the term “building back better” as a metaphor carries a big risk of misunderstanding, bias, and even intentional misdirection.
  • The pandemic is not a short-term sudden event but rather a drawn-out crisis of cascading and interlinked disruptions. There arises the consequent challenge to balance short-term relief and long-term economic recovery.

Governments and communities attempting to build back better are now faced by linked and simultaneous health, economic and social crises. Building back better could either focus on one particular aspect of the crisis or attempt to tackle a bewilderingly complex set of interactions across natural, social and economic systems. Either strategy faces risks of oversimplification, bias and unintended consequences.

For the past 250 years, give or take, we have clung to the notion, generally credited to British philosopher Jeremy Bentham, that the best measure of right and wrong in society is the path to “the most happiness and least pain for the most people”. Since the Industrial Revolution that idea has been adjusted to the idea that more production coupled with more consumption is the road to true happiness. The devastating effects of a single-minded focus on growth on our planet are well known; the deleterious effects on individual lives are becoming increasingly apparent.

In setting out to build back better we might do well to direct the conversation to the subject of values. The evolution of post-pandemic structures, policies and activities should surely support these values and goals. The alternative is to continue on our current trajectory and run the serious risk of sinking deeper into personal alienation and malaise, societal discord and environmental catastrophe.

A complex topic such as the one before us now requires an innovative, possibly radical set of responsive measures. News media, whether print, online or broadcasted, are currently spewing forth a plethora of descriptions and assessments of pandemic-related social and environmental changes, and what needs to be done, immediately if not sooner. There seem to be two main types of recommended post-pandemic responses emerging from this melange:

  • restore the previous status quo through support to all sectors and to all levels of the economy through restoration of falling markets, support of all kinds to trade and industry, expansion of trade and industry, and exploitation of new resource sources; Alberta’s current plan for post-COVID recovery seems to focus on pipelines and increased oil production; or
  • a great reset of society and economies through policy reforms designed to revamp and reconfigure all aspects of global societies and economies, social contracts and working conditions; this is the response being globally touted by the World Economic Forum (WEF).

These countervailing ideas are splitting Canada and huge sections of Canadian society asunder. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau clearly believes in the WEF philosophy of “a great Reset” which, amongst other things, holds that capitalism is inequitable and urges global governance and global wealth redistribution. The countervailing argument put forward by conservative leaders such as Alberta Premier Jason Kenney criticizes the Great Reset as little other than “a grab bag of left-wing ideas for less freedom and more government”.

Whether there was ever a pandemic or not, it doesn’t change the bare fact that Canada needs to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 50% to prevent the catastrophic 1.5o C increase in Earth’s average temperature, which is the critical “danger line” for planetary ecosystems and human life in general. Right now we’re nowhere close to being on track to forestall a climate crisis.  Only radical systemic changes to how we live and work and manage the ecosystems under our care can ever point us in the right direction.


  1. Stan, you seem to suggest there are two options after the pandemic is finally over. We can either return to the way things were, i.e. the status quo. Or we can engage in a “great reset” and an improved social and environmental situation. It seems to me neither will happen completely. Some things will return to the status quo ante. Other things will change, hopefully for the better. To me the interesting question isn’t either/or, but what will stay the same, and what will change.

  2. An excellent piece Stan. I wish that it could get wider circulation, it gives a balanced discussion of the current and future issues. However I note that you were writing on a black dog day! Could it be that a touch of optimism could be generated when the sun shines! We have become more considerate and mindful of each other, more easily done when one is part of a WASP community! But on the wider scene how do we influence the push towards radical systemic changes?

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