The corona paradigm shift

What a paradigm shift the corona crisis implies is still beyond imagination. What was initially seen as a short, manageable crisis has spread around the globe and has started to have very profound ramifications. The corona crisis is not only affecting the economy, but also our ways of life, working and thinking. It will have a deep impact on personal and political freedoms, social and healthcare policies, and on the world at large. The new normal is likely to mean more Big Brother.

Our freedom of movement will be much more constrained for a long time to come. Cultural events, the hospitality sector and travel will be affected by people’s anxiety about visiting restaurants, bars, concerts, cinemas, theatre and the opera. Air and sea travel will be hampered by passengers’ perception of impending, invisible disaster. Large conferences and trade fairs may simply be put out of the market. All will be relegated to a dull screen-based virtual world, increasing our dependence on big tech even more.

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The sector where this will have the far-reaching implications is sports, in particular football. Football matches with 60,000 spectators, which were a big propagator of the virus in Italy and Spain will be a thing of the past. With it, the whole sector will be affected, from the clubs, top players’ salaries, the ads and the broadcasting rights for matches. Matches without a crowd will simply be unreal. The same will apply to many other high-end sports, with probably golf as the only exception, where social distancing is the ‘norm’.

To weather the crisis, a large part of the developed world has moved to teleworking, or at least those who could do so, which will remain much more prevalent than could ever have been imagined before. It will impact work practices and labour relations, but will also be the end of the large concentrations of businesses in capitals and financial centres. The time of extravagant skyscrapers may be over, and decentralization will become the norm, with its effect on property markets. Some countries are well prepared for this, depending on their geographical and industrial structure; for others it will require enormous change and adaptation.

Moving to teleworking will further reduce the power of trade unions, and of collective wage agreements. Teleworking will minimise the importance of social contracts, and more will be moving to freelance work. It will increase the divide between blue and white-collar workers, with the former being much more exposed and in the frontline, creating the basis for more social conflict and upheaval. 

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Lockdowns and social distancing are not good for democracies. Parliaments say they continue to function, but when they do so they are mostly empty of delegates, with only a few turning up for real debates. Debates online are not the same as those in a hemicycle, where a minister is challenged on his or her policies. Parliamentarians are less involved and can be disregarded much easier on a screen. The pandemic has also been invoked to bypass parliament and enact special emergency laws. The case of Hungary sparked much debate on this matter, but also in France the special powers for the executive have been prolonged until July 24th, which seems out of proportion. 

The same curtailment of freedoms applies to privacy rules. Our privacy was already endangered by big data, but using such data now seems to have become the norm. An exception to the respect of privacy would be allowed for tracing apps, to limit contagion. At the same time, European countries are discussing which apps to use – locally developed ones, which are not compatible cross-border, or those of big tech, increasing even further Europe’s dependency on these firms, and giving them even more user data.

Hence also trade and international relations will be affected. The pandemic may be the end of the unlimited growth of international trade, which has been the big boost to economic growth of the last two to three decades. The healthcare pandemic already led to challenges to free trade, but the political implications may be even more far-reaching. The G20, which played a central role in resolving the previous crisis, is not present to the same degree, neither, it seems, are other international organizations, such as even the WHO or other UN entities. The top diplomatic gathering worldwide, the 75th session of UN Annual Assembly in New York foreseen for September 2020, will most likely not take place. Our brave new world will be locked down and reduced to much smaller circles, with globalization only continuing to exist virtually.

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