Four authors consider how covid-19 will change the world
IN “THE SEVENTH SEAL”, a film by Ingmar Bergman, a knight returns from the crusades to find his homeland ravaged by the plague. Suffering and devastation have shaken his faith in God. When Death comes for him, the crusader proposes a game of chess in order to eke out enough time to commit one act—any act—that might bring meaning amid the pestilence.
在英格玛·伯格曼（Ingmar Bergman）的电影作品《第七封印》（The Seventh Seal）中，一位骑士参加十字军东征归来，发现故土瘟疫肆虐。苦难和毁灭动摇了他对上帝的信心。当死神前来时，骑士提议与死神下一盘棋，以尽量拖延时间去完成一件事——任何一件可能在瘟疫中产生意义的事。
In the teeth of a scourge on the scale of covid-19, the impulse to draw significance from suffering is again strong. However, as is clear from the first of what will surely be shelf-loads of books about the coronavirus, in a secular age a pandemic is principally seen not as a question of inscrutable divine will, but as a test of earthly powers.
All these books have to grapple with the problem that they were written amid great uncertainty. Even now much about covid-19 is still unknown—not just when the pandemic will end and what it will leave behind, but also about the nature of the virus itself. These authors are thus attempting to write the review before the final reel has been loaded into the projector.
The most successful is “Apollo’s Arrow” by Nicholas Christakis, a doctor and sociologist at Yale. He deals with uncertainty by looking back, using history, epidemiology and sociology to put covid-19 in context. This is the book if you want to understand about flattening the curve and herd immunity, or how America’s response fell short in those critical early months of the pandemic because of Trumpian politics, bureaucratic turf wars and the failure to create enough reliable testing.
其中最成功的是耶鲁大学博士、社会学家尼古拉斯·克里斯塔基斯（Nicholas Christakis）所著《阿波罗之箭》（Apollo’s Arrow）。他用回溯来解决不确定性的问题，利用历史、流行病学和社会学来把新冠疫情放在宏大背景下讨论。如果你想了解压平曲线和群体免疫，或者想知道在疫情爆发之初关键的几个月里，由于特朗普式政治、官僚集团的争斗以及未能打造出足够可靠的检测手段，美国如何应对不足，你可以读读这本书。
Dr Christakis’s title refers to the pestilence that Apollo visited upon the Greeks for enslaving the daughter of a Trojan priest. And, sure enough, he lays out a litany of human failings—chief among them the struggle to learn from the past. Pandemics are an old enemy that has scarred humanity, but once they abate, he writes, people tend to put the search for meaning aside, pick up their lives and party.
Other authors seek to draw more ambitious conclusions. Yet, because they are erecting their arguments on half-built foundations, they risk being highly speculative. Ivan Krastev, for instance, is a Bulgarian political scientist and a master of the brilliant epigram. In his extended essay on covid-19 he observes how “the strangeness of the pandemic experience is that everything changes but nothing happens”, and how in normal times the elites can afford to travel whereas, “in the time of covid-19, they can afford to stay at home”.
In between pithy observations, Mr Krastev deals with the theme of whether this disease could be the destruction of the European Union—or perhaps its making. When Italians and Spaniards were dying by the thousand, the EU seemed as relevant as the Holy Roman Empire had been when its subjects were unaware that they were even part of it. He worries that populists, despite having a bad pandemic, will come storming back when it is over. But, he goes on to argue, the virus has also taught Europeans that to be safe in a dangerous world, they must stick together—while the EU’s failure has spurred governments to opt for greater integration. Mr Krastev calls this “the great paradox of covid-19”. Readers may think he is having it both ways.
And yet, if analysts seek to avoid too much speculation, they risk being conventional. That is because when the future is extremely uncertain the safest approach is often to extrapolate from the present.
At least, that is the path taken by Fareed Zakaria, a television host and pundit in America. His “Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World” begins with a rousing warning that this pandemic “is new, upturning many of our daily patterns and presumptions”. But his lessons mostly confirm the things that many commentators—including The Economist—were worrying about before the pandemic: the rivalry between America and China, the potency of the digital revolution and the effects of inequality.
至少，美国电视节目主持人和时事评论员法里德·扎卡里亚（Fareed Zakaria）是这样做的。他的《疫情后世界的十大教训》（Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World）在开篇发出了唤醒众生的警告：这场疫情“是全新的，正在颠覆我们的许多日常模式和假定”。但他总结的教训基本上再度确认了包括《经济学人》在内的许多评论方在疫情爆发前就已经在担心的事：中美对峙、数字革命的威力，以及不平等的影响。
Struggling to be born
Mr Zakaria is a skilful and sober guide on this whistle-stop tour. Along the way, he makes some wise observations: that cities will not fade, because urban life is too rewarding; that globalisation is not dead, because it is too valuable; that experts have their place, so long as they listen to non-experts. But these reasonable points, too, undermine the breathless promise with which the book begins.
Scott Galloway, an entrepreneur and professor at New York University, narrows his field to the coronavirus and business. He conceives of it as a source of disruption and a bringer of rapid change. This allows him to rehearse his theories about the state of business—how products are replacing brands, and how companies are having to choose between selling products at a profit (as Apple does) or selling their users to other businesses (as Google does). Mr Galloway is entertaining and informative on how companies deal with crises, and on the ripeness of health care and university education for disruption. Somehow, though, you get the impression that these were all things he believed before people began to fall ill in a wet market in Wuhan.
One point of agreement among these authors is that government must change—which is also the focus of “The Wake-Up Call”, written by our former editor, John Micklethwait, and our Bagehot columnist, Adrian Wooldridge. And, indeed, few would be against governments that help create a fairer society while also being more effective and smaller. But that is a manifesto rather than a prediction.
这些作者有一个共同的观点：政府必须做出改变。这也是本刊前总编约翰·米克尔思韦特（John Micklethwait）和白芝浩专栏的作者阿德里安·伍尔德里奇（Adrian Wooldridge）合著的《警钟》（The Wake-Up Call）一书的焦点。其实很少有人会反对能帮助创建更公平的社会、同时又更有成效和更小规模的政府。但这是一种宣言，不是预测。
The lesson from Bergman is that, when mankind is faced with great suffering, meaning often lies in small things. At the end of the film, when the knight is on the verge of defeat, he distracts Death for a moment by knocking over the chessboard. This gives a minstrel couple, who in an act of kindness had fed him milk and wild strawberries, the chance to escape with their baby—and live. The post-pandemic world will take time to emerge. Chances are that it will first be found in the details. ■