The great acceleration

The virus isn’t transforming us. It’s speeding up the changes already underway.
Simon Landrein for The Washington Post

It is a sign of Americans’ endless desire for reinvention — or maybe just our chronic navel-gazing — that from the start of the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve been wondering not just when it would end but how it would change us. We can’t experience the trauma of lockdowns, job losses and school closings, let alone the unfathomable tragedy of 300,000 deaths so far in the United States and multiples more worldwide, without coming out remade on the other side. How and where we live, work, heal, mourn, learn and communicate — surely everything will be different after this, right?

Carlos Lozada @CarlosLozadaWP is the nonfiction book critic of The Washington Post and the author of “What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era.” He won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 2019.

Some writers are already imagining the long-term impact of the pandemic on our culture, politics and economy, and they suggest that we may end up in much the same places where we were headed all along — except now we’ll get there faster, with less control over the landing and less time to prepare for life upon arrival. In their books, vaccines are not the only things moving at warp speed.

Life after the coronavirus “is going to be, in many aspects, a sped-up version of the world we knew,” author Fareed Zakaria writes in “Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World,” a survey of the possible socioeconomic and political consequences of the outbreak. In “Apollo’s Arrow,” physician and sociologist Nicholas A. Christakis warns that the pandemic can “amplify” our inequalities and divides, touching on what is most human about us, our griefs and our fears and our denials. And journalists John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge argue in “The Wake-Up Call” that this is a “history-accelerating crisis,” one that will deepen the dysfunctional politics and ineffective governance of Western societies.

In this great acceleration, we become ever more digital creatures, disadvantaged communities are increasingly vulnerable, and social activists are emboldened. In this great accelerating, America grows more isolated, the U.S.-Chinese rivalry gets more tense, and the impulse toward bigness, in government and business, is more pronounced. And facing this great accelerating, the writers suggest proposals for the world after the pandemic — overlapping aspirations that pine for human agency, a way to mitigate or at least harness the forces that the virus has let loose. They seek to slow things down or, failing that, to steer this accelerating world to a more appealing destination.

Within socially distanced circles, people enjoy a day at a park in Brooklyn in May. What will life look like after the pandemic ends? (Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images)

‘There are decades when nothing happens; and there are weeks when decades happen,” Vladimir Lenin supposedly observed. It can sound profound and ominous when you read it the first time, but when three books on the coronavirus crisis all quote the same line, it reflects something between an intellectual consensus and a lack of imagination. Still, in the authors’ telling, the crisis didn’t just compress decades of history into 2020; it was also decades in the making.

In the United States and throughout Europe, Micklethwait and Wooldridge argue, the state was already outdated, overstretched and overpowered by excessive responsibilities. “A different set of leaders might have done a little better — especially in America and Britain,” they write. “But the West has been too bad at government for too long to blame it all on them.” Governments’ specific failings — insufficient urgency in dealing with the virus, struggles in supplying protective equipment for health professionals and in organizing testing and tracing for the population — underscored the broader challenges officials faced, the authors argue, including a lack of unity among countries and a lack of trust and competence within them. As Christakis, a professor at Yale University, describes the initial U.S. rollout of coronavirus tests: “If the country were a student in one of my courses, I would not hesitate to hand it an F.”

Zakaria agrees that the pandemic has laid bare long-term shortcomings here: “a weak, malfunctioning state, highly unequal access to health care, relief mechanisms that help people with capital and connections much more than those who work for their wages.” More than the endlessly debated size of government, he writes, “what seems to have mattered most in this crisis was the quality of government.”

If the coronavirus highlights the weaknesses of American governance, it also may signal the transformations underway in American society. These include the deepening of our online lifestyle, at least for those with the freedom and resources to live it. “The pandemic served as a forced mass product testing for digital life,” Zakaria writes, “and for the most part, our technological tools passed.” Meetings, conferences, commutes — all have been rethought, first for convenience, then for safety, later for efficiency. Large technology companies will flourish and expand even further. In the corporate world, “the big will get bigger,” Zakaria predicts. “This is, again, the acceleration of an ongoing trend.”

In “Apollo’s Arrow,” named for the plague the god delivered upon the Greeks in Homer’s “Iliad,” Christakis offers a nuanced, sober view of the crisis and its possible aftermath. “Plagues reshape our familiar social order, require us to disperse and live apart, wreck economies, replace trust with fear and suspicion, invite some to blame others for their predicament, embolden liars, and cause grief.” His historical asides are especially grim: Nursing homes are an inadvertent 21st-century equivalent of the “pesthouses” that sheltered long-ago plague sufferers, he writes, while medieval bakers were at special risk of contracting the disease because rats were attracted to grain stores. “Essential workers who sell us food always seem to be at risk,” Christakis points out. The book is packed with fascinating and relevant passages from works on past pandemics, whether eyewitness descriptions of the Black Death, Daniel Defoe’s “A Journal of the Plague Year” or what Christakis describes as a “ridiculously glamorous” flu death scene in “Downton Abbey.”

A student follows along with a teacher's online lesson at a tutoring center in Culver City, Calif., in September. “The pandemic served as a forced mass product testing for digital life,” Fareed Zakaria writes. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

For our own moment, Christakis has plenty of concerns. He imagines a “dystopian scenario” in which employers bid up wages for those who can prove coronavirus immunity. He foresees hundreds of smaller colleges closing as students opt for online learning. He worries that the pandemic will worsen mental health trends among young people; after the outbreak subsides, he warns, “we may see an epidemic of post-traumatic stress disorder.” That comes on top of their deteriorating economic prospects. The classes graduating into the pandemic are “unlikely to catch up economically,” Christakis reports, and could experience lower wages for at least two decades.

Above all, he worries that the social disparities that had grown so evident before the virus will worsen because of it. “Affluent people are able to protect their health and livelihood more effectively than others. . . . Pathogens almost always affect the weaker members of any group, whether this is defined by a burden of chronic illness, advanced age, or substantial poverty.” Christakis also stresses that many covid-19 survivors will endure pulmonary, renal, cardiac or even neurological damage, leading to increased disabilities and ailments in subsequent years, a legacy he compares to what occurred after the 1918 pandemic. Pointing out that lower-income areas of the United States have shown higher infection rates than wealthier regions, Zakaria puts the domestic impact of the virus more bluntly: “It will cut America in half.”

The coronavirus pandemic is that paradoxical crisis that encourages isolationist attitudes — closing borders, hoarding resources — even as it requires international solutions and cooperation. “Everyone is connected,” Zakaria writes, “but no one is in control.” Certainly not Washington; the pandemic, he argues, “has accelerated America’s selfish turn — its abandonment of its role as leader of the free world.” Eager to fill the vacuum is China, which the authors suggest is poised to challenge American preeminence. Micklethwait and Wooldridge put the need for improved Western governance in dire, zero-sum terms: “If we ignore the wake-up call, or hit the snooze button, a Sino-centric world beckons, with the United States becoming a large offshore island, while Europe returns to what it was five centuries ago — an archipelago at the poorer, western end of Eurasia.”

The authors, no surprise, urge economic, foreign and social policy reforms. Micklethwait and Wooldridge call for an overhaul of the American health-care system, “making it cheaper and fairer,” as well as the introduction of a carbon tax, the simplification of the tax code, reduced regulations, a national service program, the elimination of unnecessary government agencies and the rebuilding of Western alliances. And though Zakaria displays a weakness for policy buzzwords — including “Nordic flexicurity” (look it up) — his ideas are sensible perennials: Invest in education, science and technology. Expand the earned-income tax credit. Boost worker training and retraining.

This is the sort of standard policy wonkery these authors could have pitched in the absence of a pandemic. But their point is that the crisis lends such moves greater urgency. The authors of “The Wake-Up Call” (Micklethwait and Wooldridge are editors at Bloomberg News and the Economist, respectively) are wary of a potential shift to the left after the pandemic, warning that “nationalist arguments for self-sufficiency and socialist ones for a big state have begun to blend.” And Zakaria emphasizes that America’s anti-statist traditions and its patchwork, multitiered approach to governance are “a nightmare” not just for combating the virus but for addressing many other challenges, whether infrastructure or climate change. “There is ample evidence that American government has been failing for a generation,” he affirms. “Covid-19 is only the latest, though perhaps the most serious, of many warnings.”

The outdoor dining area of a restaurant in Rowland Heights, Calif., was empty early this month as Southern California went into another shutdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

For all their doom and Zoom, the authors also foresee some positive developments — or at least potential recoveries — from the coronavirus era. Densely packed cities hit hard by the virus will come back strong, Zakaria predicts, because people are drawn to participation, collaboration and competition. “All past prophecies of the decay of cities have proved wrong,” he writes, quipping that, for well-managed cities, “density was not destiny.” And both Zakaria and Christakis expect a transformation in health care. With the increased use of remote doctors’ consultations, medicine may move to prioritize prevention over treatment, “which is a far more effective way to keep us all healthy,” Zakaria writes.

A former hospice doctor, Christakis is attuned to the personal and human tragedies of deadly disease and its potential impact on his profession. “The generation of doctors in training during the crisis are likely to have to confront their fears and think about their duty in a different way,” he writes. “I think training during a pandemic will heighten their sense of calling.” Indeed, he believes that plagues do not just inflict uneven suffering and death but also “elicit kindness, cooperation, sacrifice, and ingenuity.” He suggests — as does Zakaria — that the introspection forced by the pandemic may have played some role in igniting the wave of protests and activism in response to the killing of George Floyd this summer.

Christakis, as a social scientist as well as a medical doctor, stresses that pandemics are both biological and sociological events. Eventually we achieve immunity, or the pathogens mutate into milder variants, or humans slowly evolve to be resistant, producing an “uneasy genetic truce” with the germs. However, “there is a social end to pandemics, too,” he writes, “when the fear, anxiety, and socioeconomic disruptions have either declined or simply come to be accepted as an ordinary fact of life.” This recognition of the importance of multiple disciplines — of psychology and economics as well as epidemiology and medicine — is one of the most significant contributions these books make to the debates over the coronavirus. “Pandemics are too important to be left to the scientists,” Zakaria writes. “They are essential — but so are experts in other fields.”

Christakis notes that our anxieties surrounding the outbreak make us deny the facts about the disease to others and even ourselves. At the same time, he is hopeful that the pandemic might eventually help reverse the denigration of science, facts and expertise bedeviling America in recent years. “A society that feels besieged by the threat of the virus will increasingly treat scientific information, and not just scientists, seriously,” he writes, hoping in particular that climate expertise will receive a more thoughtful hearing. Noting that the 1918 flu pandemic stimulated new research and innovations in microbiology and public health, Christakis imagines that the coronavirus could likewise propel new investments in virology, medicine, epidemiology and data science.

It’s an encouraging thought. Both Zakaria and Christakis emphasize how medieval plagues played a role in past intellectual revolutions, undercutting old authorities and helping usher in the Reformation and Enlightenment values. “Might our era’s pandemic provoke a similar spirit of societal introspection, an equivalent shock to our complacency?” Zakaria wonders. Christakis even recalls how a nation emerging from war and pandemic a century ago experienced a “renewed sense of possibility” in the Roaring Twenties — a decade that witnessed women’s suffrage and the Harlem Renaissance — and he predicts similar artistic and social breakthroughs after this crisis.

Christakis writes of “cumulative culture,” how each generation is born into a greater wealth of knowledge flowing from the contributions and breakthroughs of the past. “It was this cumulative culture that allowed us to teach each other things about how to cope with the pandemic when it first struck,” he writes. His deeply knowledgeable book is itself a product of — and a contribution to — this cumulative culture.

But we can’t necessarily choose what parts of our culture accumulate and which cultural lessons we collectively draw. Christakis writes that the pandemic has awakened Americans to the importance of robust public health systems, “in the same way that 9/11 opened our eyes to the sophisticated threats to our national security, the great recession to the fragility of our financial system, and the election of various populist leaders around the world in the twenty-first century to the dangers of political extremism.”

Yet how did we respond to 9/11 or the financial crisis or political populism once our eyes were opened? The parallels are not always reassuring. Have we accumulated the right lessons from these crises? Are we confident in passing them on?

These thoughtful books may be too pessimistic in some instances, too optimistic in others, but they also may just be too soon — too accelerated — to glimpse the consequences we’ll live and the lessons we’ll draw from the post-pandemic world. There are decades when culture accumulates, and there are weeks when books are written.

APOLLO’S ARROW: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live

By Nicholas Christakis. Little, Brown Spark. 368 pp. $29


By Fareed Zakaria. Norton. 307 pp. $26.95

THE WAKE-UP CALL: Why the Pandemic Has Exposed the Weakness of the West, and How to Fix It

By John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge. HarperVia. 167 pp. $18

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