A Brave New World after the COVID-19 Crisis?

The COVID-19 pandemic had just broken out and the first strict lockdown had been imposed, so already some people knew everything about the “aftermath”. Encouraging messages were shouted at us from all sides. “This will change every individual and society,” wrote one young lady with high spirits, adding, “You have to hold on to the little beautiful things, the sunshine, nature waking up, phone calls with loved ones, good books, music; I got up today with Cardinal Schönborn and Mass on livestream.” She feels a “new sense of neighborliness” emerging everywhere. An old person with little inclination for such a poetic attitude towards life should probably feel ashamed.

Before the “Golden Twenties” of the 21st Century

That a great trial like the COVID-19 pandemic would make people better is a very idealistic expectation of the consequences of the crisis. There is no historical evidence for this. As regards the period following the plagues in the Middle Ages and the early modern period, we are told nothing of a period of conversion and renunciation of the sinful life that was considered the cause of the calamity. “People always remain the same. But that is their strength and their innocence” as Albert Camus makes the doctor Doctor Rieux say in the Plague, a book that enjoyed renewed popularity during the pandemic. Karl Kraus, however, does not want to hear anything about innocence: “The bullet has gone in one ear of mankind and out the other,” he wrote after World War I, full of angry cynicism.

As is well known, the decade that followed was not a time of reflection and a renewed modesty, but one of hectic lust for life and wild exuberance. They have been called the “golden, racy, roaring, crazy and lustful twenties.” We can probably expect the same in the upcoming twenties of the 21st century. It would be the obvious reaction of survivors who are glad to have it behind them. However, the Roaring Twenties were also a time of great creative vitality. At the time, of course, many artists had existential worries and were mainly focused on preserving their public subsidies, a task at which most of them proved quite capable.

High-Reaching Philosophers and Cynical Futurologists

Crises have always been the “big moment” for the intellectuals. Stella Rollig, general director of the Belvedere Museum in Vienna, once spoke of intellectuals’ “love of crisis.” The intellectual seeks the great explanation of the world or at least a “new system.” He does not bother with the exploration of individual causes of a crisis and the search for possible remedies. Perhaps possible corrections to the real world are too little for him in any case. That would make the great condemnation impossible and the prophetic gesture ridiculous.

The left-wing Slovenian philosopher of this Zeitgeist, Slavoj Zizek, for example, thinks that the current pandemic would make us “adjust our entire attitude toward life—in the sense of our existence as living beings in the midst of other life forms.” That is a bit of an exaggeration, but what is undeniable is that the current crisis shows “how global solidarity and cooperation are in the survival interest of us all and the only rational and selfish thing to do.”

Once again, the so-called futurists have opened themselves up to ridicule. In a widely circulated essay about the brave new age after the crisis, written after the outbreak of the pandemic: “Even the wealth losses from the stock market collapse will not hurt as much as it felt it would at the beginning. In the new world, wealth suddenly no longer plays a decisive role. More important are good neighbors and a thriving vegetable garden.” Here, the romance of the wealthy turns to cynicism about the vast majority of those living on modest incomes in a rented apartment with just a balcony.

People who lack nothing preach renunciation, but do not say what others should renounce.

Whether philosopher, sociologist, natural scientist, or bishop—all agree “that the COVID-19 pandemic will change the face of the earth,” as the Archbishop of Vienna expressed it with the well-known Pentecostal prayer. Because of the new Coronavirus there will be “a rethinking in economic matters but also in each case in one’s own lifestyle.” “Rethinking” has become a popular word in general. People who lack nothing preach renunciation, but do not say what others should renounce. All that these critics of civilization and preachers of poverty have come up with so far in terms of renunciation is a little less air travel per year.

Collateral Damage: The Infantilization of Society

One of the sobering lessons of the COVID-19 crisis is, of course, to learn what a bunch of whiners modern people are. Under the impact of the initial fear, travel restrictions were accepted without objection. As soon as the pressure eased, they were presented and perceived as if they were government harassment of the population. The relaxation of the measures, which were not very strict in Austria at any rate, was hailed as if we had all been freed from prison.

Self-pity leads to the paradoxical attitude of regarding the state as the enemy and at the same time expecting everything from it.

The mask requirement, a simple and, as it turned out, very effective medical precaution, was stylized into an “insult to civic sense” or ridiculed as a “farce.”  Self-pity leads to the paradoxical attitude of considering the state as an enemy and at the same time expecting everything from it. This infantilization of society may yet prove to be one of the greater collateral damages of the crisis.

The Irreplaceability of Nation-States—and Globalization

The COVID-19 crisis proved the irreplaceability of the nation-state. A state that has not built up a stable healthcare system in good times cannot be helped by EU solidarity in a time of crisis. There is no doubt that Europe cannot rely entirely on non-European producers for medicines and protective equipment. Stocks of healthcare materials, such as Austria once had, must also be rebuilt.

But this necessity must not lead to falling for deglobalization propaganda. Germany and Austria in particular, which live on exports, should not give in to such illusions. There are still people who would like to see the national economy “at least cut back a bit.” In view of millions of unemployed and thousands of acutely endangered companies, this is either unworldly or cynical. Economic utopians are also already spreading ideas about a reduction in working hours, with which the “available work” is supposedly distributed more fairly.

Do a Higher Proportion of COVID-19 Patients Have a Migrant Background?

Austria was reminded of an unpleasant fact in the COVID-19 crisis, which, however, will not surprise anyone: That we do not know if and how some hundreds of thousands of people who live in the country learn about and take note of the government’s orders and behavioral advice, because they do not know German. Therefore, information programs in 17 languages had to be created quickly. Even the minister who is responsible does not seem to be entirely sure that this has reached all its targets.

Nobody has seriously verified the “anecdotal evidence” that the proportion of COVID-19 patients with a migration background in intensive care units is far higher than their proportion in the population. However, the phenomenon has been verified in other countries. There is only conjecture about the causes: Ignorance or indifference to the danger posed by the virus; generally poorer health of the migrant population; cramped living conditions of large families; or work in exposed fields such as healthcare.

Accordingly, the assessments of the consequences of the pandemic on immigrant communities is diametrically opposed to coexistence with the majority population. While an integration expert raves about the experience of a “community of destiny,” the integration minister fears an increased retreat into separate parallel societies.

From Crisis to a Permanent State of Emergency

Three days before the first lockdown in March 2020, Austria’s then health minister—who belongs to the Green Party—said in a radio interview that the coercive measures the state was now using to fight the pandemic could also be used to solve other problems. He mentioned climate change, and not by chance. But since the “climate” will not be “saved” so quickly, this means announcing a permanent state of emergency.

The state’s seemingly limitless promise to give away money for everyone and everything (...) has taken root as an entitlement among many citizens.

That is the greatest danger that stands at the provisional or possibly only hoped-for end of this pandemic: The state’s seemingly limitless promise to give away money for everyone and everything, from taxi vouchers to various “solidarity, art, and community billions,” has taken root as an entitlement among many citizens. Every obscure NGO is allowed to consider itself state-supporting and wants to have any loss of donations compensated by the state.

The response to the experience of crisis and “need” is a strengthened state that reshapes society and controls the economy in the name of goals and political desires about which no democratic decisions have been made, because they supposedly take care of themselves anyway. Interventions in property such as rent caps are propagated in the name of state charity, along with expropriations of real estate in the name of “saving the city.” The pandemic has shown “what the state is capable of,” as an author of the Viennese “Die Presse” put it in a deliberately deceptive way.

Private Sector Companies: The Silent Heroes

One need not even point to the multiple failures of state bureaucracies in digitizing the healthcare system to recognize the superiority of entrepreneurial business. Many companies have used the crisis to improve their internal organization, streamline processes, develop new products, and drive digitization. New forms of catering have been developed, as have new forms of distribution. Virtually all managers of large companies affirm that they are prepared to “hit the ground running” after the crisis.

There has hardly ever been so much talk about money as there is now: The money the state does not have but is spending with both hands; the money citizens want to get from the state, whether it has it or not; the money that should best be taken away from the “rich” to pay off the debts that had to be made. However, one of the positive surprises of the COVID-19 period is that market, economy, entrepreneurship, competition, and profit are no longer dirty words. When a tanker is stuck in the Suez Canal or industries cannot get raw materials, even the economically illiterate have an idea of what supply chains are.

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