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The Post-Covid World Will Not be the Same… Really?

A year ago, when almost half the planet was under a form of lockdown owing to the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, wishful thinking flourished, in France and elsewhere, about the opportunity this might give for building another world. A tiny little virus had achieved what the threat of the catastrophe brought about by climate change had not. Brakes were being put on unsustainable practices: the exploitation of natural resources, the production of goods, consumption, the disposal of polluted waste. The neoliberal dogma of ever reducing State intervention in economics had been suddenly forgotten, as massive public subsidies were distributed to support businesses and individuals, and vast sums of money were poured into public health systems. Jobs often gone unnoticed and unvalued suddenly became prominent, and their essential nature rediscovered: nurses and nursing auxiliaries in hospitals and nursing homes, storekeepers and supermarket workers, cleaning workers, caretakers, transport workers… Much consumer spending and most leisure activities were rendered impossible, while interpersonal relations became very difficult under the constraints of social distancing. In this context, it became clear that a happy life is more about human relations than about the possession of material goods.

Was Covid, then, a great opportunity to reset our personal and collective priorities? Alas! What very soon became more vocal was the desire to come back to “business as usual.” Political and economic discourse today centers mostly on recovering pre-Covid rates of economic growth, and most people – understandably enough if we bear in mind the suffering engendered by the pandemic and its consequences – are longing for a return to their former, pre-Covid life. Can we then really say that the world post-Covid will not be the same?

The answer to that question is nevertheless yes. First, we must acknowledge that we have become different. Whether we like it or not and whether we are more eager to recognize it or to deny it, the fact is that we are not the same people as we were one year and a half ago. Our bodies, directly or indirectly, have been affected by the disease; our minds have been impacted for better or worse by  the restrictions, the uncertainties, and the disruptions to our plans. Our relationships have been reconfigured. We have changed. Of course, not all of us in the same way: much depends on our age, gender, social position, and cultural background. Hence, once we recognize those changes, we must also acknowledge the increased inequalities fostered by the crisis. Not only did we change as individuals; there were also substantial objective changes at a collective level. To give one significant example – a positive one – for the first time in the history of the European Union, member states agreed on a mechanism to undertake common indebtedness in order to raise money for financing a recovery plan. The pandemic that initially brought to the fore nationalistic withdrawals – remember the lack of solidarity shown with Italy at the outbreak of the pandemic – has ended up provoking an institutional breakthrough for European development. Another example of obvious change brought about by the pandemic is the boost given to digitalization and distance working. It remains to evaluate the positive and the negative aspects of this transformation, but in this respect there will be objective differences between a post-Covid 19 world different and the pre-Covid 19 one. These are only a few indicative examples of obvious changes that render unsustainable the idea of a mere return to “how things were before.”

Second, the pandemic has made us more conscious of the limitations of our social systems. Obviously, the pandemic is not bringing about a magical transformation of our society, prompting a better, more just world, a world of greater solidarity, with greater care for creation. Many signs are pointing in the wrong direction: the lack of international solidarity concerning the distribution of vaccines to fight against the pandemic; the fragmentation and fierce divisions within societies, local communities, and even families concerning vaccination, often to the point that reasonable dialogue is almost impossible; the restarting of the economy with the same levels of detrimental impacts on the environment and on social justice as before, etc. Nonetheless, the opportunity is there. Though it is not prompting a magical transformation, the pandemic is revealing the many dead ends our economic, political and social systems are rushing us into. There are many lessons to be learnt here; we can build on this new awareness. The pandemic offers us a very useful magnifier pointing up out social inequalities, ecological disorders, failures in our economic models, weaknesses of our democracies, etc.

In the end, we are facing a moral decision. As the French philosopher and sociologist Edgar Morin, who just celebrated his 100th birthday, puts it: “catastrophes (the Covid-19 pandemic is one of these) produce two opposite types of behaviors, altruism and egoism.”[1] It is a matter for us to decide. In the language of faith, Pope Francis’s message is no different. “[Lord], you are calling on us to seize this time of trial as a time of choosing. It is not the time of your judgement, but of our judgement: a time to choose what matters and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not.”[2] “When we come out of this pandemic, we will no longer be able to do what we have been doing, how we have been doing it… I ask you: How do you want to come out of it? Better or worse? And that is why today we open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit so that he may change our hearts and help us to come out better.”[3]

Will the world post-Covid World be the same? No it won’t. It will change, for the better or for the worse. Let us choose to make it for the better. The first step is to undertake an ethical discernment about what has happened and what has been revealed since January 2020. For believers, this ethical discernment is also a spiritual discernment.

[1] Edgar Morin, Leçons d’un siècle de vie (Paris, Denoël: 2021), 91.

[2] Francis, Extraordinary Moment of Prayer, St Peter Square, March 27th 2020.

[3] Francis, Video Message on Pentecost Vigil, May 30th 2020.