The Irish Times view on the world after Covid-19: Rethinking our societies

Amid the darkness, we have also caught glimpses of light: the solidarity of neighbours, the heroics of frontline workers, the kindness of strangers

Government has changed, and so has many people’s views of its role. When we feel vulnerable, it turns out, we look to the State to step in. And it does, with a capacity for mobilisation and social solidarity that sceptics underestimated. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/ Collins

Government has changed, and so has many people’s views of its role. When we feel vulnerable, it turns out, we look to the State to step in. And it does, with a capacity for mobilisation and social solidarity that sceptics underestimated. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/ Collins

 

Contagious disease has shaped the world’s fortunes for centuries, but many decades of relatively good health had left the West unprepared for the pandemic epidemiologists always warned was inevitable. Shaken from their complacency, societies are urgently grappling with ways to adapt in light of a threat that is no longer abstract but horrifyingly real. In reevaluating how we live, however, we must look far beyond our vulnerability to disease and reconsider some of the most basic principles of our modern life. If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it is that such self-scrutiny is long overdue.

These have been bleak and difficult months. Hundreds of thousands have died and millions have fallen ill. Many more have lost their jobs or seen their incomes slashed. Nearly all of us have felt anxiety, stress and loneliness. Yet amidst such darkness, we have also caught glimpses of light: the solidarity of neighbours, the heroics of frontline workers, the kindness of strangers.

We have also seen paths to a better world emerge. It took a shutdown of the global economy and the freezing of our daily lives, but what we see quite clearly now is that many of us yearn for different ways of living. By forcing people to work from home, the crisis has made us rethink our commutes, our office lives, our dependence on cars. It has reminded us that technology can threaten our privacy, but also that it can be a lifeline. In a world without traffic, we are more attentive to nature, its consolations and the mortal danger we pose to it.

Government has changed, and so has many people’s views of its role. When we feel vulnerable, it turns out, we look to the State to step in. And it does, with a capacity for mobilisation and social solidarity that sceptics underestimated. Parts of the public service that seemed almost impossible to overhaul have transformed overnight. In a world destabilised in recent years by the rise of the autocrat and the demagogue, we have seen the value of expertise, of science, of quiet competence over heavy bluster.

Positive shifts that were difficult to achieve before the pandemic – the closing of gaps between private and public healthcare, the pedestrianisation of our cities or the need for equitable housing policies – have accelerated. In a spirit not unlike the immediate postwar era, when the European welfare state began to emerge, we are rethinking old assumptions about how we care for our elderly citizens, how we can build better urban spaces, how we can live more sustainable lives.

We applaud our health professionals on the doorsteps. We make sacrifices so that others may stay healthy. We look out for one another. Long may it continue. But this restoration of public values also comes with an obligation to act on it, and to demand that when the crisis is over, we begin anew.

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