If new variants can be tracked and isolated, and if lower-income nations can be immunized at a much faster rate, we could be entering Covid-19’s third act. A virus with an unwieldy 30,000 base pairs was never supposed to mutate efficiently, but its teeming fraternity now extends beyond the mega-trillions, all randomly trying their luck. It could yet upset our dreams of escape.
If it doesn’t, a new world lies ahead, beyond all our reflections on successes and failures in personal resilience, yearning for family, friends and for what
was celebrating in 1631 when he wrote, “Towered cities please us then/ And the busy hum of men…” That new world is our future, when the earth’s myriad cultures start humming again. We will be changed, but how exactly and what choice we have is a task for the imagination, where hope and prediction meet. I’ve been holding on to two possibilities for lessons learned.
First, climate change. How familiar, that a viral plague was often predicted, that some governments made halfhearted provisions but most did not. A pandemic for modern times seemed alarmist, a spillover from a disaster movie. It ranked with a big meteorite collision or an abrupt reversal of the magnetic poles—theoretically possible but hardly worth wasting precious billions on it.
‘Covid is our mass tutorial, our dress rehearsal for all the depredations as well as tragedies that the climate emergency could bring.’
Now, we are inside that movie, which is also, after a year, a quotidian limitation, a bore and, overwhelmingly, a fact of life. Covid is our mass tutorial, our dress rehearsal for all the depredations as well as tragedies that the climate emergency could bring. We have had a taste of a planetary-scale disaster. We have been obliged to think globally, be scientifically cunning and spend money prodigiously. Now we must do it all over again. Or subsist in climate lockdown forever.
Second, government. When
said, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” he may have had inflation in mind. But his words have metamorphosed over two generations into an axiom for the political right: The market can, government cannot.
In the pandemic, that axiom looks like a flattened tin shed after a hurricane. The failure of the Trump administration to make an early and decisive federal response to the disease cost thousands of lives. In the U.K. version, the administration of
reflexively turned to business and spent billions, a lot of it uselessly and some of it with crony-ish abandon. Only slowly, after much prompting, did it discover well-established networks of low-cost expertise embedded in local government.
The pandemic holds up a mirror in which these twin lessons blend. We see our inequities starkly exposed—racial, social, the failure to share opportunity. Merging with that reflection are images of floods, droughts and forest fires. I hope our trial by virus has made us fitter and prepared us for this next global challenge by schooling us in a simple proposition: Good government is the only solution.
—Mr. McEwan’s many novels include “Amsterdam,” “Atonement”and, most recently, “Machines Like Me.”
Lessons of the Pandemic Year
Leaders in business, politics, science and the arts reflect on what the pandemic has taught them—about themselves, society and the path ahead.
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Appeared in the March 20, 2021, print edition as ‘Good Government Is the Only Solution.’