Covidtopia – COVID-19 as Utopia

Life After COVID 19

By the end of September 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic registered 34 million infection cases with one million deaths globally. Notwithstanding Donald Trump’s ultra-nationalistic “America Frist” policy, the USA had, for weeks on end, taken the lead when it came to total deaths with 210,000 deaths and by the end of September it had a total of seven million Coronavirus cases. In India, Covid-19 deaths came close 100,000 with 70,000 daily cases and 6.2 million total cases.

Another way of seeing the impact of the Coronavirus is by looking at deaths per population. Obviously, large countries will have more deaths. By relating death to population size, one eliminates this. South of the USA, in Peru for example, the Coronavirus caused 880 deaths per million, in Belgium 850, in Spain 625, in the UK 611, and in the USA 573. On the lower end, are Germany with 112, India with 70, South Korea with 6, New Zealand with just 4, and Taiwan with just 0.3.

Despite such dire numbers, the Coronavirus has caused significant changes in our society. France has just announced a global requirement to wear face masks while German right-wing extremists run “hygiene rallies” attacking Germany’s parliament. Meanwhile, some cities and regions ordered a total lockdown.

Airports remain empty, as European children return to schools under strict social distancing rules. More and more returning holidaymakers will carry on working from home, at least those in white-collar employment. Not only in economic terms, but the global Coronavirus pandemic is also a true crisis. “Crisis” is a term originating from the Greek word krinein (κρίνειν), meaning to separate. And indeed, many have been separated during the crisis – from families through border closures, from colleagues through office closures, from their favourite local shops and restaurants through lockdowns.

Still, κρίνειν in its Indo-European meaning also indicates to sieve and to discriminate. The Coronavirus seems to discriminate between people but also between countries. In some countries like the USA, UK, India, and Brazil, for example, the likelihood of death is much higher compared to Taiwan, Germany, and New Zealand. In the midst of all that, the Corona pandemic also created a time to reflect and to think about what it actually means when traffic is down, and aircraft don’t fly –  our streets and skies are quiet, and our air is getting clean. Suddenly, we can see things we could not see for a long time due to drastically improved air quality.

The Corona pandemic will have a slightly positive impact on global warming even though global warming will continue to exist after the Corona pandemic has ended and we return to “normal”. This “normal” should not mean carrying on destroying our planet through over-consumption and recklessness. But there will also be more positives. Most office workers will not go back to “normal”. For them, “normal” no longer exists. Many will only spend two to three days in an office. Zoom meetings will replace much of the “normal” business travel.

All this will change the “normal”. To some, time for reflection means a realisation that we have just missed about fifty years in which we could have done more for the environment. For others, it means thinking about a new “normal” in which the Corona pandemic offers us time to think about a new kind of utopia. It might merge COVID-19 and utopia, creating Covidtopia. Just like the Corona pandemic, this new utopia covers the entire planet – the only place we know that provides the conditions for our life.

Still, if one looks at most of our politicians and how they acted during the Corona pandemic, it is no wonder that we are looking for intelligent life in space. So far, we have not found any. In other words, we are stuck with what we have: planet A – there is no planet B. Living on this little blue dot in space, we recently learnt what many had suspected already. In these unusual times, we cannot rely on the neoliberal hallucination that the free market will fix it all.

Instead, of the free market, the United Nations, for example, suggest a programme called “build back better” (BBB). BBB argues that we should build better after a crisis. We should not go back to “normal” – no more business as usual. As for global warming, business, as usual, might eventually kill us – but hopefully not earth.

One thing the Corona pandemic has undoubtedly achieved is a renewed global awareness that we are all made of the same stuff – we are human beings. We are not just servants to a market, diligent employees employed in Bullshit Jobs. We are not all mindless shoppers. Despite the neoliberal ideology of markets and competition, the Corona pandemic has led to an explosion of solidarity among people. Unlike the hallucinations of an impending Armageddon and civil war that is so prevalent among US-American right-wing extremists, the Corona pandemic has caused the exact opposite. Layers of mutually supportive relationships and shared world views became visible.

Most drastic were the changes to what we now know as a home office. For many, this meant the kitchen table or the living room. Suddenly, working and living turned the average house into a contested space. But the exposure of the home to uninvited people – your boss via Zoom – also brought new anxieties. On the upswing, plenty of workers enjoyed no commuting into the city office while bosses enjoyed higher productivity. A law firm boss said,

I have always preferred having my team in the office… but now, after experiencing how effective people can be, how much they enjoy their own space, I feel very differently. When life returns to normal, I will be open to allowing each of my team one or two days a week to work from home.

Such views are not uncommon. There simply will not be, as the lawyer said, a life that returns to normal. There will be no normal in corporate offices. Instead, the new normal will be, at least partly, working in a home office. Most likely, the days when bosses were more interested in the location of their employees rather than what they do, are over. The new work utopia will be, at least a few days per week, mean working from home.

Still, not all employees will ever be able to work from home. Beyond that, 100 million people might have lost their job during the Corona pandemic. For non-office workers like nurses and medical staff, the risk of Coronavirus infection has dramatically increased. 600 nurses have died already. In the UK, for example, 16.2% of all jobs are low paid. These are workers most exposed to job loss. Poverty in the UK has been on the rise. By mid-April 2020, three million people lived in households where someone had to skip a meal – an 81% increase from the year before. It has become so bad under UK conservatives that the UN’s rapporteur Philip Ashton had nothing polite so say about the Tories. Poverty and unemployment will impact most strongly on what Britons call BAME – Black, Asian and minority ethnic.

On the other side of the neoliberal society are 39% of UK employees who worked entirely from home during April 2020. For them, improvements in IT means the death of the five days per week trip to the city office. There is no turning back to a full-time office. The office of the future might just be a desk occasionally used by an employee in a city where office space is sold by the truckloads and streets, and parking spaces are empty.

Unlike the people in Bullshit Jobs, hospital cleaners, for example, have been called “minimum wage heroes”. Still, these workers receive slave-like wages but do an essential job in our health system. To avoid wages like those paid at Walmart, Amazon, Deliveroo, etc., people have set up co-operatives. Yet, the majority of co-ops in the UK are consumer-oriented rather than worker-owned co-ops. In the USA, the United Steelworkers union has also developed a union co-op model. In Wales (UK), a union co-op called Drive Taxi Co-op has been set up.

In food, such co-ops seek to end the global corporate food regime monopolised by a handful of corporations. Such co-ops deliver a veggie box direct to the door. Such schemes have increased by a whopping 111% in the UK since February 2020. Since this time, a plethora of mutual aid networks have cropped up around the world. In addition, community kitchens have been organised by teams of volunteers who deliver weekly community meals from surplus food collected from local stores. These operate without cash.

The Corona pandemic has also led to a rise in cashless money transfers. This might indicate a transfer to a cashless society. But cashlessness will also accelerate bank closures. Meanwhile, US credit card corporations – Visa, Master Card, etc. – literally “cash in big-time” while banks close. The UK has lost roughly one-third of its bank branches between 1994 and 2010 alone.

Much of the trend towards online banking has been engineered through the use of artificial intelligence (AI). Today, artificial intelligence is better in facial recognition than human beings. Yes, it is not about recognising and understanding. AI is about controlling. Artificial intelligence becomes truly worryingly problematic when it is applied to social problems. Often, this is done in the misbelief that technics can solve social problems.

In the area of crime, for example, artificial intelligence is supposed to predict which members of society will become troublesome rather than improving the situation across the board. It moves crime from a collective response to an individual perspective. Yes, crime remains a social issue. It does not happen in isolation. More often than not, crime is associated with poverty. Avoiding poverty remains one of the most successful solutions to crime.

Much of this works particularly well when it involves a social economy. Currently, there are 2.8 million socio-economic enterprises in the European Union, depicting a diverse range of organisations from co-operatives, to mutual, to community associations. Most of their income is re-invested with sustainability and mutual support in mind. A particularly sensible example of community support comes from Portugal, where the state granted (temporary) citizenship to many migrants to facilitate their access to social security and thereby helping to limit the spread of the Coronavirus. Today, Portugal has 179 deaths per million compared to, for example, the US’ 573. In other words, you are 3.2 times more likely to die from the Coronavirus in the USA.

Meanwhile, back in the UK, the government did the opposite of including migrants. It’s hyped up nationalism, the created the Windrush scandal, it engineered Brexit, and the British Tory party had a long and dirty war against the NHS. When Boris Johnson survived the Coronavirus, he announced,

we will defeat this Coronavirus and defeat it together. We will win because our NHS is the beating heart of this country. It is the best in this country. It is unconquerable. It is powered by love.

One should not take this at face value from a man who made his career by lying about the EU. When he was a Brussels reporter, he wrote Italy fails to measure up on condoms…Brussels bureaucrats. Worse, he also lied about Brexit. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson’s UK clocked up 65,000 deaths. The UK has the fifth highest Coronavirus death rate globally out of two-hundred countries. UK PM Boris Johnson wants us to believe in strong leadership. For three reasons:

  1. Both pretend to be in control when they are so clearly not: USA: 190,000 death and UK: 65,000.
  2. Secondly, they want to make us believe that leadership is necessary and even desirable. This is not the case.
  3. Finally, they also want us to believe that leadership is necessary for a crisis. It is not.

What is necessary is a communal effort. It does not depend on so-called leaders clocking up high death rates. Instead, it depends on people like Captain Tom who, for his 100th birthday, went on a walk to raise £1,000. He raised £33 million ($44 million) – a single man outshining Boris Johnson.

What Boris Johnson has also failed to deliver is any inroad on climate change. On 20th April 2020, the oil price dropped to zero for the first time in history. The Corona pandemic had let to a 20% to 40% drop in economic output. Global energy use declined by 3.8%, coal went down 8%. Meanwhile, renewables were the only energy source that recorded a growth in the first quarter of 2020. The decline in traffic had other positives. Across Europe, it reduced chronic pollution exposure. Through this alone, it is expected to avoid 11,000 premature deaths, 6,000 new asthma cases among children, and 600 preterm births. This is aided by the fact that air traffic declined by 90%.

This is good news for human beings but not for neoliberal economists asphyxiated in the ideology of endless growth. The end of growth came at a time when Japan’s economy has been at or near 0.0% growth for over 25 years. To neoliberal demagogues, the decline in GDP is bad news even though GDP measures everything except that for which makes life worth living.

A post-COVID-19 utopia – Covidtopia – will focus on what is worth living for. It also might include images of streets reclaimed from the monstrous, space-hungry presence of private cars; children playing, food growing, a population remobilised by occasional electric vehicles; and a plethora of local bikes, both pedal and electric, scooters and walkers. This is what life after COVID-19 can look like. A complete picture of such a life is outlined in Martin Parker’s Life After COVID-19 published by Bristol University Press.

Thomas Klikauer has 550 publications and is the author of Managerialism.



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