The pandemic upended the present.
But it’s given us a chance to remake the future.

(Martin Satí for The Washington Post)

It is one of the greatest moments in cinema. In the sweeping historical drama “Lawrence of Arabia,” the young British diplomat-adventurer T.E. Lawrence — played unforgettably by actor Peter O’Toole — has convinced a group of Arab tribes to mount a surprise attack against the Ottoman Empire, from whom they are seeking independence. Lawrence leads a band of these Bedouin warriors across the desert, approaching the Ottoman port of Aqaba from the rear. They cross the desert in blistering heat, braving swirling sandstorms.

Adapted from “Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World” by Fareed Zakaria. Copyright (c) 2020 by Fareed Zakaria. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Illustration by Martin Satí for The Washington Post

At one point, they discover that one of the Arab soldiers, Gasim, has fallen off his camel. Lawrence instantly decides that he must turn around and find the lost man. Sherif Ali, the chief Arab leader, played in the movie by Omar Sharif, objects. Another character tells Lawrence, “Gasim’s time has come, Lawrence. It is written.” Lawrence snaps back, “Nothing is written!” Then he turns around, ventures back, searches amid the sands and cyclones, and finds Gasim staggering about, half-dead. Lawrence brings him back to the camp to a hero’s welcome. When Sherif Ali offers water, Lawrence looks at him and, before quenching his thirst, calmly repeats, “Nothing is written.”

The world that is being ushered in as a consequence of the covid-19 pandemic is new and scary. The health crisis has accelerated a number of forces that were already gathering steam. Most fundamentally, it is now blindingly clear that human development as it is happening now is creating ever-greater risks. The backlash from nature is all around us, from wildfires to hurricanes to pandemics, of which covid-19 may simply be the first in a series. The pandemic has intensified other trends, too. For demographic and other reasons, countries will likely see more sluggish economic growth. Inequality will get worse, as the big get bigger in every sphere. Machine learning is moving so fast that, for the first time in history, human beings might lose control over their own creations. Nations are becoming more parochial, their domestic politics more isolationist. The United States and China are headed toward a bitter and prolonged confrontation.

It is a dangerous moment. But it is also in times like these that we can shape and alter such trends. To complete the story of our future, we must add in human agency. People can choose which direction they want to push themselves, their societies and their world. In fact, we have more leeway now. In most eras, history proceeds along a set path and change is difficult. But the novel coronavirus has upended society. People are disoriented. Things are already changing and, in that atmosphere, further change becomes easier than ever.

Think about the changes we have accepted in our own lives in response to the pandemic. We have agreed to isolate ourselves for long stretches. We have worked, attended meetings and had deeply personal conversations by talking to our laptops. We’ve taken online courses and have seen doctors and therapists using telemedicine. In a month, companies changed policies that would normally have taken them years to revise. Overnight, cities turned avenues into pedestrian walkways and sidewalks into cafes. Attitudes toward people previously ignored or overlooked are shifting, as can been seen in the newly adopted phrase “essential workers.” And governments have opened up their coffers in ways that were once unimaginable and could lead to much greater willingness to invest in the future.

Christopher Duncan places a photo of his mother, Constance Duncan, who succumbed to covid-19 on her 75th birthday, among the Covid Memorial Project's installation of 20,000 American flags near the Washington Monument on Sept. 22. (Amanda Voisard for The Washington Post)
Downed trees and flooding in West Pensacola near the Bayou Grove and Mulworth neighborhoods after Hurricane Sally struck Florida on Sept. 16. (Bryan Tarnowski for The Washington Post)
Firefighters work to protect homes from the El Dorado Fire in Mountain Home Village, Calif., on Sept. 10. (Kyle Grillot for The Washington Post)
TOP: Christopher Duncan places a photo of his mother, Constance Duncan, who succumbed to covid-19 on her 75th birthday, among the Covid Memorial Project's installation of 20,000 American flags near the Washington Monument on Sept. 22. (Amanda Voisard for The Washington Post) BOTTOM LEFT: Downed trees and flooding in West Pensacola near the Bayou Grove and Mulworth neighborhoods after Hurricane Sally struck Florida on Sept. 16. (Bryan Tarnowski for The Washington Post) BOTTOM RIGHT: Firefighters work to protect homes from the El Dorado Fire in Mountain Home Village, Calif., on Sept. 10. (Kyle Grillot for The Washington Post)

These changes could be momentary blips — or the start of something new. We could continue with business as usual and risk cascading crises from climate change and new pandemics. Or we could get serious about a more sustainable strategy for growth. We could turn inward and embrace nationalism and self-interest, or we could view these challenges — which cross all borders — as a spur to global cooperation and action. We have many futures in front of us.

We have confronted just such a crossroads before. During the 1920s, after a world war and a great pandemic, the world could have gone in either of two different directions. Some of the leaders who emerged from the conflict wanted to create structures of peace that might prevent another one. But Congress rejected President Woodrow Wilson’s plans, and the United States turned its back on the League of Nations and efforts to create a system of collective security in Europe. European leaders imposed harshly punitive terms on Germany, pushing the country toward collapse. These decisions led to a very dark world in the 1930s: hyperinflation, mass unemployment, fascism and another world war. A different set of choices could have led the world down an entirely different path.

The current pandemic presents similar choices. We could settle into a world of slow growth, increasing natural dangers and rising inequality — and continue with business as usual. Or we could choose to act forcefully, using the vast capacity of government to make massive new investments to equip people with the skills and security they need in an age of bewildering change. We could build a 21st-century infrastructure, putting to work many of those most threatened by new technologies. We could curb carbon emissions simply by placing a price on them that reflects their true cost. And we could recognize that, along with dynamism and growth, we need resilience and security — or else the next crisis could be the last.

There are those who want this crisis to be the start of a revolution. But we do not need an overthrow of the existing order in the hope that something better would take its place. We have made real gains, economically and politically. The world is a better place than it was 50 years ago, by almost any measure. We understand the deficiencies and the ways to address them. The problem has not been to arrive at solutions; it has been to find the political will to implement them. We need reforms in many areas, and were they actually enacted, these reforms would add up to a revolution of sorts. With even some of these ideas implemented, the world could look very different 20 years from now.

Countries can change. In 1930, most countries around the world had tiny governments and did not consider it their job to promote the general welfare of their people. By 1950, every one of the world’s major nations had embraced that mandate. It was not easy. On Oct. 20, 1935, Gallup published its first official public opinion poll. It revealed that — in the midst of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl — 60 percent of Americans believed “expenditures by the Government for relief and recovery” were too great. Only 9 percent said they were too little, while 31 percent said they were about right. That did not deter President Franklin D. Roosevelt from steaming ahead with the New Deal — and continuing his efforts to educate the American public about the need for government as a stabilizing force in the economy and society. Great leaders such as Roosevelt read polls to understand the nature of their challenge, not as an excuse for inaction.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivers his first radio "fireside chat" in Washington in March 1933. (AP)

Consider the European Union. At first, the coronavirus pandemic made its members close up. They shut down their borders, competed for medical supplies, and accused one another of malice and venality. Public sentiment was running strongly against the E.U. in hard-hit countries such as Italy. But after the initial shock, Europeans began to consider how to handle the fallout from covid-19. They recognized that it placed unprecedented stress on the continent, particularly on its weakest members. Thanks to wise leadership from the biggest powers — France and Germany — as well as from the E.U.'s top officials, an accord was struck in July to issue European bonds that will allow the poorer countries to access funds that are, in effect, guaranteed by the richest. This might sound like a technical matter, but it represents a dramatic step forward in a more deeply interconnected Europe. European leaders saw the direction in which covid-19 was pushing them and they pushed back. A pandemic that initially drove countries apart could prove to be the catalyst for a long-sought closer union.

The same tension between integration and isolation can be seen throughout the world. The pandemic is leading countries to look inward. But enlightened leaders will recognize that the only real solution to problems such as pandemics — and climate change and cyberwar — is to look outward, toward better cooperation. The solution to a badly funded and weak World Health Organization is not to withdraw from it in the hope that it withers away, but rather to fund it better and give it more autonomy so that it could stand up to China — or the United States — if a health emergency requires it. No single country can organize the entire world anymore. None wants to. That leaves only the possibilities of chaos, cold war, or cooperation.

It is true, as the critics charge, that real international collaboration requires some element of collective decision-making. While it sounds sinister to some ears, it is, in fact, what countries do all the time. It is the mechanism by which we regulate everything from international telephone calls to air travel to trade and intellectual property to the emission of chlorofluorocarbons. There is no global “one world government,” and there never will be — it is just a phrase designed to scare people into imagining a secret army descending on them in black helicopters. What actually exists, and what we need more of, is global governance, agreements among sovereign nations to work together to solve common problems. It shouldn’t be so hard. Cooperation is one of the most fundamental traits in human beings, one that many biologists believe is at the root of our survival over the millennia. If we are to survive well into the future, cooperation will surely help us more than conflict.

The imperative for cooperation is nowhere more evident than in the relationship between the world’s two greatest powers, the United States and China. We are entering a bipolar world — characterized by a reality in which two countries are simply head-and-shoulders above the rest in hard power. China is not simply the second-largest economy and second-largest military spender in the world. It is also as large or larger than the next four countries put together on both dimensions. It is no longer a technological copycat. Of the 500 fastest computers in the world, 226 are in China, twice the number that are in the United States. We can imagine two futures. The first one of competition in many arenas — economic, technological — but also cooperation to ensure peace and stability and to achieve certain common goals. Tackling climate change, for example, will be impossible without sustained and coordinated action from both Washington and Beijing. Or there is another path. The two most dynamic societies in the world could find themselves locked into ever-ascending spirals, from the militarization of space to the weaponizing of cyberspace — all fueled by an arms race in artificial intelligence and bioengineering, which could produce unintended consequences that are impossible to imagine today.

Sometimes, even in the midst of great structural forces moving in one direction, countries can make decisions that reshape our path. In May 1958, at the height of the Cold War, there was a moment of choosing in Minneapolis. The deputy minister of health of the Soviet Union, Viktor Zhdanov, attended the annual meeting of the WHO’s governing body, the World Health Assembly. As Harvard historian Erez Manela has noted, it was the first time a Soviet delegation had attended since the WHO’s founding a decade earlier. Zhdanov urged the organization to mount a global campaign to eradicate smallpox once and for all. In a nod to the United States, he quoted in his speech a letter Thomas Jefferson had written to Edward Jenner, who had pioneered the smallpox vaccine. “Future nations will know by history only that the loathsome small-pox has existed,” Jefferson wrote. It was an early attempt to put into action Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s post-Stalin plan of “peaceful coexistence” with the West.

The United States was resistant at first, not least for thinking the Soviet proposal would pull attention away from U.S.-led efforts to eradicate malaria. Yet once Washington threw its support behind the project, this cooperation ramped up during the Lyndon B. Johnson administration and became a central focus of the WHO. The two superpowers facilitated not only the mass production of vaccines, but also a program to vaccinate people throughout the Third World. By 1980, smallpox had been officially eradicated. Manela says it “was arguably the single most successful instance of superpower collaboration in Cold War history.” And it’s a lesson that Beijing and Washington should learn in the post-covid-19, bipolar world to come.

In “Lawrence of Arabia,” the lesson about fate vs. human agency gets more complicated. The night before the attack on Aqaba, the Arab tribes quarrel bitterly over a murder committed by one tribesman against a member of another tribe. As an outsider, Lawrence offers to execute the murderer so that justice could be done by an impartial hand — only to realize that the murderer is Gasim, the man whose life he had saved in the desert. And yet Lawrence walks up and calmly shoots six bullets into his body. The lesson, perhaps, is that Gasim was destined to die. Lawrence had been able to save him in the desert, and in doing so, gave him a reprieve. But, by his actions, Gasim threw away that chance for a different future.

The pandemic has made so many — nations and individuals — turn inward and become selfish. But an even larger crisis had the opposite effect on the greatest statesmen of the age. Twenty years after D-Day, CBS News invited the former supreme commander of the Allied operations, Dwight D. Eisenhower, to revisit the beaches of Normandy with Walter Cronkite and reflect. Eisenhower had seen the worst of humanity — the German Wehrmacht’s brutal fight to the finish — and yet, he had come out of that experience determined to try cooperation. As they sat overlooking the rows of graves in Normandy, Eisenhower said to Cronkite, “These people gave us a chance, and they bought time for us, so that we can do better than we have before. So every time I come back to these beaches, or any day when I think about that day 20 years ago now, I say once more, we must find some way to work to peace, and really to gain an eternal peace for this world.”

So, too, in our times, this ugly pandemic has created the possibility for optimism, change and reform. It has opened a path to a new world. It’s ours to take that opportunity or to squander it. Nothing is written.

Read more:

Fareed Zakaria: American exceptionalism has become a hazard to our health

Marc Lipsitch and Yonatan Grad: How to fix public health weaknesses before the next pandemic hits

George F. Will: How covid-19 could make a case against big government

Daniel Willingham: We can help shape how our children remember the pandemic — and foster their future happiness

Karen Attiah: Africa has defied the covid-19 nightmare scenarios. We shouldn’t be surprised.

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