IS IT NEARLY over? In 2021 people have been yearning for something like stability. Even those who accepted that they would never get their old lives back hoped for a new normal. Yet as 2022 draws near, it is time to face the world’s predictable unpredictability. The pattern for the rest of the 2020s is not the familiar routine of the pre-covid years, but the turmoil and bewilderment of the pandemic era. The new normal is already here.
Remember how the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001 began to transform air travel in waves. In the years that followed each fresh plot exposed an unforeseen weakness that required a new rule. First came locked cockpit doors, more armed air marshals and bans on sharp objects. Later, suspicion fell on bottles of liquid, shoes and laptops. Flying did not return to normal, nor did it establish a new routine. Instead, everything was permanently up for revision.
The world is similarly unpredictable today and the pandemic is part of the reason. For almost two years people have lived with shifting regimes of mask-wearing, tests, lockdowns, travel bans, vaccination certificates and other paperwork. As outbreaks of new cases and variants ebb and flow, so these regimes can also be expected to come and go. That is the price of living with a disease that has not yet settled into its endemic state.
And covid-19 may not be the only such infection. Although a century elapsed between the ravages of Spanish flu and the coronavirus, the next planet-conquering pathogen could strike much sooner. Germs thrive in an age of global travel and crowded cities. The proximity of people and animals will lead to the incubation of new human diseases. Such zoonoses, which tend to emerge every few years, used to be a minority interest. For the next decade, at least, you can expect each new outbreak to trigger paroxysms of precaution.
Covid has also helped bring about today’s unpredictable world indirectly, by accelerating change that was incipient. The pandemic has shown how industries can be suddenly upended by technological shifts. Remote shopping, working from home and the Zoom boom were once the future. In the time of covid they rapidly became as much of a chore as picking up the groceries or the daily commute.
Big technological shifts are nothing new. But instead of taking centuries or decades to spread around the world, as did the printing press and telegraph, new technologies become routine in a matter of years. Just 15 years ago, modern smartphones did not exist. Today more than half of the people on the planet carry one. Any boss who thinks their industry is immune to such wild dynamism is unlikely to last long.
The pandemic may also have ended the era of low global inflation that began in the 1990s and was ingrained by economic weakness after the financial crisis of 2007-09. Having failed to achieve a quick recovery then, governments spent nearly $11trn trying to ensure that the harm caused by the virus was transient.
They broadly succeeded, but fiscal stimulus and bunged-up supply chains have raised global inflation above 5%. The apparent potency of deficit spending will change how recessions are fought. As they raise interest rates to deal with inflation, central banks may find themselves in conflict with indebted governments. Amid a burst of innovation around cryptocoins, central-bank digital currencies and fintech, many outcomes are possible. A return to the comfortable macroeconomic orthodoxies of the 1990s is one of the least likely.
The pandemic has also soured relations between the world’s two great powers. America blames China’s secretive Communist Party for failing to contain the virus that emerged from Wuhan at the end of 2019. Some claim that it came from a Chinese laboratory there—an idea China has allowed to fester through its self-defeating resistance to open investigations. For its part, China, which has recorded fewer than 6,000 deaths, no longer bothers to hide its disdain for America, with its huge death toll. In mid-December this officially passed 800,000 (The Economist estimates the full total to be almost 1m). The contempt China and America feel for each other will heighten tensions over Taiwan, the South China Sea, human rights in Xinjiang and the control of strategic technologies.
In the case of climate change, the pandemic has served as an emblem of interdependence. Despite the best efforts to contain them, virus particles cross frontiers almost as easily as molecules of methane and carbon dioxide. Scientists from around the world showed how vaccines and medicines can save hundreds of millions of lives. However, hesitancy and the failure to share doses frustrated their plans. Likewise, in a world that is grappling with global warming, countries that have everything to gain from working together continually fall short. Even under the most optimistic scenarios, the accumulation of long-lasting greenhouse gases in the atmosphere means that extreme and unprecedented weather of the kind seen during 2021 is here to stay.
The desire to return to a more stable, predictable world may help explain a 1990s revival. You can understand the appeal of going back to a decade in which superpower competition had abruptly ended, liberal democracy was triumphant, suits were oversized, work ended when people left the office, and the internet was not yet disrupting cosy, established industries or stoking the outrage machine that has supplanted public discourse.
Events, dear boy, events
That desire is too nostalgic. It is worth notching up some of the benefits that come with today’s predictable unpredictability. Many people like to work from home. Remote services can be cheaper and more accessible. The rapid dissemination of technology could bring unimagined advances in medicine and the mitigation of global warming.
Even so, beneath it lies the unsettling idea that once a system has crossed some threshold, every nudge tends to shift it further from the old equilibrium. Many of the institutions and attitudes that brought stability in the old world look ill-suited to the new. The pandemic is like a doorway. Once you pass through, there is no going back. ■
This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline “The new normal”