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Fintan O’Toole: Five things we learned from the pandemic

From fake news and racial stereotyping to wealth inequality, the pandemic has taught us a lot about what thrives in a global crisis

If we are now in the endgame of the Covid pandemic, this might be the time to ask: what have we learned? Plagues are tests, and some of the results are quite clear. Here are five of them.

1. The nation state is still primary

One of the paradoxes of the pandemic is that it has been at once utterly global and intensely national. On the one hand, the virus spread with unparalleled rapidity. The sheer scale of foreign travel and the depth of interconnectedness meant that not just the original strain but most of the successful variants made light of geographic distance. Likewise, and in spite of vaccine chauvinism, the scientific response has been international, with data being shared more quickly and thoroughly than ever before.

The EU, much criticised for the slow beginnings of the vaccination programme, got its act together and played a crucial part in making sure that its member states did not end up competing against each other for supplies.

And yet, the overwhelming majority of people have looked first and foremost to their national governments for leadership and reassurance. This is not to say that those governments have always provided those things: some of them, like those of Donald Trump in the US and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, were actively malevolent. Only about half of people in developed OECD countries said they trusted their governments in 2020, when the pandemic was raging. But national systems and institutions – good and bad – were still the ones that determined, not just how many people died, but how well or badly people were protected from economic disaster. The virus made us all citizens of the world, but it emphatically did not make us citizens of nowhere.

2. Racist stereotypes make bad policy

It is hard to overstate the extent to which, in the early days of the crisis, lazy assumptions about the Far East shaped western responses. The belief was that people in western democracies are, as Boris Johnson constantly claimed of the English, "freedom-loving". Orientals, on the other hand, are more submissive, less individualistic and more willing to take pain for the common good. This nonsense fed into the idea that policies being successfully implemented in Asia – from lockdowns to mask-wearing – were all very well for those people, but would not be tolerated here.

There was, of course, no evidence for any of this. It just rose up from the swamp of historic prejudice. And it turned out that people are people. Faced with an obvious threat, the vast majority of us accepted the imperative of strict public health measures and difficult personal sacrifices. Where there were different attitudes, they were rooted, not in race, but in politics: America’s Blue and Red tribes, for example, saw the pandemic very differently and often behaved accordingly. Attitudes to authority shaped by national histories influenced responses in Germany and former communist bloc countries. But supposed racial differences were not the issue.

3. For older people, out of sight is out of mind

It was obvious for a long time before the pandemic that many older people could and should be cared for properly in their own communities rather than being segregated into residential homes. The plague, especially in its first phase, made this truth a matter of life and death. It meant that the most vulnerable people were concentrated in settings that are invisible to most of society. They had little collective voice and almost no purchase on political decision making. Their lives were not prioritised, and the cost was fearful.

This experience should not be put out of mind again. The least we owe the dead is a thorough rethinking of how people in the late stages of their lives can be seen – and heard – as citizens and members of the community.

4. Gross inequality is a virus resistant to disasters

We knew, of course, that extreme economic inequality is built into the current model of global capitalism. But the pandemic has underlined the extraordinary degree to which every crisis for humanity now just sucks money upwards. While governments have spent vast sums of public money shoring up economic life, a small corps of private individuals has been able to profit mightily.

At the start of the pandemic, billionaires collectively owned 2 per cent of household wealth worldwide. By the end of last year, they owned 3.5 per cent. In 2020, the billionaires were collectively worth $8 trillion (€7.09 trillion). In 2021, that rose to $13.1 trillion. The pandemic has been a $5 trillion bonanza for a tiny minority of humanity. Without radical action, the power of that minority over the rest of us will continue to increase.

5. Fake news is now as much a public health issue as sanitation or clean water

Figures released last week by the Centre for Disease Control in the US showed that unvaccinated people aged 65 and older are almost 50 times more likely to require hospitalisation with the virus than people the same age who are fully inoculated.

In the richest country in the world, people are dying of ignorance. The biggest reason why people are not vaccinated is disinformation. Studies show that an astonishing 78 per cent of Americans have heard and believe at least one of eight different false “facts” about Covid-19, and that one in three either believe or are uncertain about at least four of these fables. A quarter of Americans believe that the vaccine contains a microchip that is implanted in the body and a fifth believe that getting a vaccine alters your DNA.

There is thus a direct link between the deadliness of the plague and the ability of people to absorb and act on accurate information. This virus of disinformation is not naturally occurring; it has been genetically engineered for political purposes and for profit.

It may be that the world just about gets away with tolerating such a high level of distortion in this pandemic. It has relied on pre-existing antibodies of inherited trust in science, in medical authorities and in some parts of the media. They have been strong for the bulk of our populations to grasp what’s good for them and get vaccinated.

But what about the next time? Disinformation is multiplying and there is no effective effort to make those who profit from it accountable.

What we’ve learned definitively is that fake news is a public health problem. A polluted information system is as likely as a polluted water supply to make people sick.

If you undermine public broadcasters, strip away legal obligations to ensure fairness and accuracy, and allow corporations like Facebook to make mega profits from the spread of disinformation, you are weakening the collective immune system that allows us to fight off pandemics. Any serious preparation for the next one has to start with that realisation.