Comment

Winter is not coming, it is here! A time for transformative change

The coronavirus we are now facing will undoubtedly have a huge social, economic and cultural impact on the world we live in, as great, if not greater, than the financial crisis of 2008. As a growing number of us follow government guidance and self-isolate and communities enter into ‘lockdown’ mode, the world as we knew it will be on pause. Many of us are now grappling with basic questions of how we can support our families, loved ones and wider community in the challenging times that lay ahead and those of us who have been lucky and faced little adversity in our lives may now be tested. Aside from these immediate and practical challenges we are going to have considerable time to reflect on where we are and what events and actions have brought us to this point.

A whole range of developments, the trajectory and origins of which can be found in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008, will exacerbate the crisis we now face, in particular austerity as a response to that crisis, but also misconceptions as to what our priorities should be, have left many societies with weak and crumbling care systems, ill-placed to meet the potential challenges of the coronavirus. The trend towards zero hour contracts and job precarity will leave many families vulnerable and ill-equipped to face the financial challenges that may emerge from this crisis as they struggle to pay bills and keep their households going. In many countries there is a concern that the state will merely stay on the side-lines offering, in all probability, only limited support to those at the margins. In terms of priorities and budgets we clearly need to ask deep questions as to how funding into research and measures to combat infectious diseases have been underfunded over many years.

Another trend that has impacted on this crisis is the pathetic response of leaders like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson – in an age of ‘post-truth’ politics where facts, verified sources and the opinions of experts seems to count for little, the response from these leaders has been slow and at times confusing. A national crisis is a test of leadership and both Johnson and Trump have been found wanting in one of the biggest international crises to face the world since 1945.

Another trait of the times we live in is fanaticism and narrow nationalist dogma. In Hungary prime minister Orban sought in part to tie the emergence of the virus to illegal immigrants and Boris Johnson has insisted we must press on with delivering Brexit and is ignoring pleas to extend the deadline for negotiations with the EU. Leaving the EU without a credible agreement would deliver a huge shock to an economy already enfeebled by the virus. Johnson has also indicated that he will not tolerate alignment with EU regulations, the prize for him appears to be a ‘race to the bottom’ Brexit and chance to create a new Singapore type economy on the edge of the European Union that will threaten and challenge the European social contract. The losses and price of the dislocation to come is written off with bravado as a price worth paying to create a new and powerful vision of Britain.

The coronavirus will put into perspective the importance of international cooperation in efforts to control the virus and find a vaccine and solution. In Europe as the new commission formulates its plans for the next term many would like to see a radical ‘New Deal’ across Europe that revives economies damaged by the virus and austerity and creates a new European social contract. The European Commission faces a legitimacy crisis as reflected by the rise of the radical right and should understand that further mistakes could further the growth of political extremism and xenophobia. If the EU gets its response right, many in Britain might deeply regret the decision to leave the EU.

The changes of recent years have seen a paradigm shift, a fundamental restructuring of how we see ourselves and the world we live in, the coronavirus may prompt all of us to question the direction of travel of those changes. We are ripe for such transformation and over the coming months many will reflect deeply and profoundly on where we are. Those conclusions need to be translated into transformative action, deep and radical change. As the Democratic Party in the USA and Labour Party in Britain select new leaders they will need to reflect this mood. Old models and stances will no longer suffice, new radical models are needed that fundamentally change the world we live in through pre-distribution and social justice agendas. This would be a great leap but can be achieved through rational argument, deliberation and consensus without having to resort to the populist frames of dissension, intolerance and falsehood. Winter is not coming, it is here! But change for the better could also be on the horizon! For the sake of humanity, let’s hope so.

Andrew is an activist, Open Labour member and researcher based in Budapest. His new book ‘Britain and Europe at a Crossroads: The Politics of Anxiety and Transformation’ will be published soon https://bristoluniversitypress.co.uk/britain-and-europe-at-a-crossroads

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