There is no simple way to sum up this year. Fierce, terrifying, exhausting. Resilient, heroic, helpful. Was this a blip, an interruption of the ever accelerating, but no more than that, and things will return to what they were? Or will 2020 have a lasting impact and extend well past the events we are living through?
We asked experts from different areas to reflect on what has happened, on what this year meant. And how they think 2020 will affect what comes next. Read what they have to say – as we begin to make sense of this tumultuous, terrifying and hopeful time.
The art in this Covid Special was curated by the Berlin-based gallerist Esther Schipper – the virus, this is what her selection shows, has been among us for a while already.
Covid and Data
— Audrey Tang, Digital Minister, Taiwan
Covid and Democracy
— Christoph Möllers, Professor for Constitutional Law, Humboldt University Berlin, and Senior Advisor THE NEW INSTITUTE
Covid and Ecology
— Corine Pelluchon, Professor for Philosophy, Université Gustave Eiffel, Paris, Future Fellow THE NEW INSTITUTE
Covid and Art
— Esther Schipper, Galerist, Berlin
Covid and Capitalism
— Evgeny Morozov, Tech Writer and Publisher The Syllabus
Covid and Climate
— Andreas Malm, Climate Historian, Lund University
Covid and the West
— Pankaj Mishra, Writer, London
Covid and the East
— Yuk Hui, Philosopher, Berlin / Hong Kong
Covid and Social Impact
— Geoff Mulgan, Professor UCL and Senior Advisor THE NEW INSTITUTE
Covid and Uncertainty
— Wilhelm Krull, Founding Director THE NEW INSTITUTE
Covid and Grief
— Eugen Baer, Senior Fellow THE NEW INSTITUTE
While many countries around the world are hitting new highs in coronavirus cases, Taiwan has achieved a different kind of record – more than 200 days without a locally transmitted case. What did the island of 23 million do right? Experts say closing borders early and tightly regulating travel have gone a long way fighting the virus and that the country’s deadly experience with SARS has scared people into compliance.
When talking to THE NEW INSTITUTE, Taiwan’s Digital Minister Audrey Tang gives a different reason for the country’s successful response to the virus. “We see democracy itself as a technology, an applied social technology. In our perception, the constitution is something that you can tweak and change – we already did it five times and are now considering another change”, said Tang, stressing the agility and shared sense of responsibility among the Taiwanese people. “In a way, democracy is not very different from semiconductor design – anyone can improve it.”
Over the past months, Asian nations’ early action to stem virus spread has contrasted with Europe’s struggle with rising infections. In particular, after the first wave at the beginning of the year, countries in the Asia-Pacific region – including New Zealand and Vietnam as well as Taiwan, South Korea and China – suppressed Covid to lower levels and maintained tighter controls against resurgence. While Europe enjoyed its summer holidays, Asia kept international travel on hold.
However, the need for adjustment to the pandemic has by now also given rise to various research projects in Europe that try to bridge the gap between scientific enquiry and actual social change. Geoff Mulgan, Professor at UCL and Senior Advisor at THE NEW INSTITUTE, is part of the team leading a £2m collaboration, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), to better exploit the power of policy and research to help mitigate the biggest social impacts of Covid-19 and accelerate the UK’s recovery. For THE NEW INSTITUTE, he elaborated on the mission and status of the project.
In his interview with THE NEW INSTITUTE Berlin- and Hong Kong-based philosopher Yuk Hui, connects the East-West-divide in Covid-responses to deep-rooted conceptions of political liberties. “In Confucian or Taoist thinking the Western concept of freedom as political freedom is not present. This goes back to the social-political structures of the empire and the emperor – the individuals are people of the empire. The only freedom is the freedom you find inside, in art, in poetry, in painting for example or even in food.”
Indian essayist and novelist Pankaj Mishra adds another perspective to the pandemic’s effects on the West and, more importantly, to the perception of the West around the globe. “I think the pandemic will be seen as having accelerated a process that was already deeply advanced – the decline of Western ideological and intellectual hegemony. The material decline started a long time ago, but the hegemony was still intact through the years of decline.”
Mishra claims that many more people will be able to separate the reality of the West from its rhetoric: “How is it possible for a black person to be killed in the way George Floyd was? I don't think reading up on the enlightenment or the nobility of the founding fathers is going to be very helpful.”
Over the past months, we have realized that we are in fact facing a ‘double crisis’. Both the Covid-pandemic and global warning are phenomena which threaten millions of lives with clear science on how to solve them which governments, on a whole, have been rather slow to act on. Wilhelm Krull, Founding Director of THE NEW INSTITUTE, writes that, in times of crises, the public is increasingly dependent on forms of expertise in order to address such problems: “With respect to the coming weeks and months, perhaps even years, we should readjust the objectives of university-based research towards the common good.”
One apparent connection between the two crises of our times is that the destruction of biodiversity makes pandemics more likely.
Andreas Malm, Climate Historian with the University of Lund, reinforces this point when talking to THE NEW INSTITUTE: “The pandemic and the climate crisis share driving factors, mainly deforestation, which is the second most important driver of greenhouse gas emissions in the world. Global heating will drive more zoonotic spill-over, it will push animals to migrate, including bats that carry viruses. They tend to come into contact with human populations they haven't been in contact with before.”
While the Covid-pandemic is a general, global, all-affecting phenomenon, it also is a deeply personal one, afflicting an entity that is considered to be the most intimate and individualistic – the body. “Our vulnerability is connected to our corporality – the fact that we eat, depend on air, on water and so on”, says Corine Pelluchon in her interview with THE NEW INSTITUTE.
The Professor for Philosophy at the Université Gustave Eiffel (Marne-la-Vallée) and future Fellow of THE NEW INSTITUTE built an account of applied ethics on this observation, in her book “Nourishment”, published right before the pandemic, in February 2019. Being human essentially means partaking in a community of dependants, a collective of living beings that remains alive because it sustains what it lives from – it is this carnal thought that carries her ethics. And, thereby, her perception of freedom: “We cannot understand humans in the light of freedom. Freedom is important – but our dependence on nature and all the other beings sheds new light on the human condition.”
Christoph Möllers, Professor for Constitutional Law, Humboldt University Berlin, and Senior Advisor THE NEW INSTITUTE, adds to this perspective (LINK). He stresses that the pandemic might have the power to change mainstream perceptions of freedom – by turning an abstract threat (the consequences of living unsustainably) into immediate effect (the outbreak of a novel virus): “We have been talking about sustainability now for decades – but this crisis has taught us that sustainability is something very concrete. It's really about our own freedom. It's about us not leaving our homes and being somehow imprisoned – because we haven't been thinking sustainably enough. This is an important lesson.”
It is a lesson that Esther Schipper wants to use as a guiding principle for the future. When talking to THE NEW INSTITUTE, the Berlin-based Galerist, describes the double standards that lockdown measures have made so apparent: “It was really two-faced: One would be politically very concerned about climate change and working with artists on these topics – but at the same time jump board another intercontinental flight every other week. Corona finally taught us that it was about time to develop other ways of doing business.”
And while Covid seems to have served as tipping point for many and led to grave changes across sectors – some things just stay the same. In his interview with THE NEW INSTITUTE, Evgeny Morozov, Tech Writer and Publisher of The Syllabus, states: “I don't think Corona revealed anything we did not already know about capitalism – a system that makes certain priorities, and those priorities are based mostly on ideals of profitability and cutting costs. In the case of Covid-19, we saw it manifested in debates about what counts as essential work and what doesn't. The allocation and distribution of value in capitalism came to the fore. The rich got richer, yes, and I can feel moral outrage about that – I just don't see it as intellectually very enlightening.”
As this year comes to an end, one is torn between feelings of grief and hope. While December 2 might have marked the turning point, when the UK as the first country worldwide approved the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for widespread use, the iconography of the pandemic has lost nothing of its brute, dark force. Refrigerated trucks parked outside hospitals to store the deceased. Pictures of mass-graves hastily dug out by workers in ventilated protective suits. The terminally ill saying their goodbyes through iPads wrapped in washable plastic foil, dying in isolation.
Eugen Baer, Senior Fellow at THE NEW INSTITUTE, writes: “And as so many of these stories are told and heard, we realize that this pandemic has forced us to deal with great loss without having access to (…) basic elements of comfort that most of us rely on to overcome grief; for example — human embraces, a shoulder to cry on, hand-holding, witnessing the progressive signs of death, good-bye rituals, last-word memories.”