An illustration of a discarded face mask lying on the street.
Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz

We're Being Too Optimistic About What Post-Pandemic America Will Look Like

The coronavirus has revealed so many of our institutions to be vulnerable or broken. But that doesn't mean they will change.

In March, when Politico surveyed "more than 30 smart, macro thinkers" on what will likely change when the pandemic is over, the predictions were heartening, for the most part. They included: a decrease in toxic partisanship, a renewed trust in experts and science, greater government involvement in pharmaceutical production and transformations to elections that could include widespread voting by mail and electronic voting. VICE’s tech desk did a similar exercise, pointing out that the coronavirus has exposed a lot of weaknesses and problems in the U.S. that could be alleviated by progressive policies ranging from universal health care to abolishing ICE. The online magazine Yale Environment 360 wrote that Bill Gates and other optimists have speculated that "the sudden transformation of our lives by COVID-19 will teach us about the virtues of mutual aid, and that it will shock policymakers into being more precautionary in the face of future risks," most notably the existential danger of climate change.


There's no denying that this kind of positive thinking about the future is attractive, and has undoubtedly served as a coping mechanism. And some coronavirus predictions seem much more likely than others (for instance, that those who can do their jobs from home may not return to offices for months). But there are already signs that in many ways, the world will snap back to normal at the first available opportunity. The notion that COVID-19 will shock us into being more responsible about climate change or will lead us to reform our institutions underrates the sheer force of inertia that made us so vulnerable to the virus in the first place.

Sure, coronavirus should be a wake-up call, on so many fronts. But leaders, particularly in the U.S., are likely to just hit the snooze button.

People tend to reach for old ideas in crises, not new ones

As the crisis has deepened, the Trump administration has essentially used it as an excuse to keep on doing what it's been doing. Donald Trump, keen to close borders at any opportunity, announced he was about to "suspend immigration," which turned out to just mean blocking green cards for some foreign workers and families of citizens seeking to come to the U.S. The Environmental Protection Agency has continued its rollback of emissions standards and even announced it won't enforce pollution regulations if the polluter claims it can't comply due to COVID-19. And the CARES Act, the first and largest piece of stimulus legislation, included $174 billion in tax breaks for rich people and high-revenue companies, according to the New York Times. Those policies represent the agenda the Republican Party would want to enact in 2020 even in the absence of the coronavirus.


Congressional Democrats have stayed the course as well, which means they're continuing to compromise rather than block stimulus bills in an attempt to force Republicans to agree to progressive demands. In the most recent legislative package, they couldn't even get any additional aid for state and local governments.

Across the political spectrum, the pandemic has failed to change minds. If you think that Medicare for All is a good idea, you probably believe that the coronavirus has shown why Medicare for All is a good idea. If you think the U.S. should reform its incarceration system or treat childcare workers better, you can wax optimistic about how the pandemic could trigger reforms in those areas (to pick two examples from a recent Vox prediction roundup). New York Times columnist David Brooks, who has been advocating for a national service program for at least eight years, just tweeted that he thinks "this is the perfect moment for a national service program." If you write for GQ, you may think that COVID-19 will trigger a menswear revival.

Daniel Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University whose book The Ideas Industry covered the world of think tanks and public intellectuals. When he surveys the landscape of coronavirus-related predictions, he's reminded of "garbage can theory." This is the idea that organizations have a pile of solutions that they grab for regardless of the problems they're facing. "There is a strong whiff of that in terms of looking at how people are talking about this," Drezner said. "Essentially what people are doing is… just saying the coronavirus pandemic demonstrates the idea that I had before is even more true now."


This isn't to say that anyone is being disingenuous, that Medicare for All is bad or that men won't start dressing better when quarantine ends (hope springs eternal). But a lot of the talk about how this pandemic will usher in a whole new paradigm seems to be motivated by a pre-pandemic sense that our current paradigm is a disaster. It also ignores the world's well-documented ability to resist change.

We're already seeing a repeat of the lackluster response to the 2008 crash

There are differences between the pandemic and the 2008 economic crisis, but some of the problems are the same. In both cases, an unexpected disaster suddenly seemed to expose all of the system's vulnerabilities, forcing governments to act quickly to cushion the impact from job losses and GDP declines.

In 2008, the U.S. failed in a couple key respects. The government's initial relief efforts focused on propping up struggling banks, while people who couldn't make mortgage payments never got enough relief. Then the Obama administration, evidently in an effort to appease Republican concerns about a trillion-dollar bailout, lowballed the amount of stimulus money needed to help the economy, eventually getting an $800 billion package passed through Congress. Though American and international efforts were enough to prevent an even worse disaster (as Drezner argued in his book The System Worked), that initial surge of cash was insufficient and a lack of follow-up, many economists say, made the subsequent recovery slow and weak.


"Basically we passed one really big bill, it lasted through the end of 2010 and then it kind of turned off," said Josh Bivens, the director of research at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. "By that point, Congress had changed hands and everything shifted toward more austerity."

The economic shock from COVID-19 is bigger than that of 2008. And Congress has pumped more money into the economy than it did back then, passing a $2 trillion stimulus package in March that included money for small businesses and individuals as well as larger corporations. Still, there are signs the government is replicating the mistakes of 2008.

Both Bivens and Drezner say that the stimulus packages already passed aren't enough. "Given the shocking size of the contraction we're facing, it's going to be too small," Bivens said, citing new numbers from the Congressional Budget Office predicting that unemployment could remain in the double digits in 2021. "The CBO projections look pretty solid to me and they're kind of horrifying."

Just as the previous bailout allowed banks to get back on their feet without paying much of a price, the 2020 bailout is a boon to large corporations. Last month, ProPublica's Jesse Eisinger reported that most of a $454 billion Federal Reserve lending program would help big business with few if any strings attached, allowing these companies to lay off workers and continue to pay executives exorbitant sums. (Even the conditions placed on corporations by the program, including a limit on shareholder-friendly stock buybacks, can be waived by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.)


Philip Mirowski is a Notre Dame professor whose 2013 book Never Let a Good Crisis Go to Waste documented how market-obsessed neoliberals who wanted to limit the power of government prospered during the 2008 crisis. He said he was "surprised by the extent to which many of the neoliberal policies have kicked in almost immediately this time around." This means things like the Fed using Blackrock, an asset management giant, to help facilitate debt-buying programs, or money supposedly set aside for small businesses (allocated, of course, by banks) flowing to restaurant and hospitality chains, including several firms owned by Trump donors.

Bivens predicts that the "real test" for Congress will come after the worst of the pandemic is over, when people are returning to work and the economy is slowly reopening, but unemployment is still rampant and millions continue to struggle. "I think almost everyone on Capitol Hill is like, Yes, during a recession, you need to do a big stimulus package, you need to run up the debt," he said. "But then just as soon as that recession is over they want to get back to worrying about deficits and debt."

The question is whether politics as normal will really reassert itself so easily. Here too there is historical precedent for the world to go through catastrophes without transforming itself.

Plagues don't necessarily bring about change

The influenza pandemic that began in 1918 and hit the world in waves for the next two years killed an estimated 50 million people—675,000 in the United States, far more than have been killed so far by COVID-19. Then, as now, social distancing made the world seem strange and lonely. The pandemic also damaged the economy, likely contributing to a depression in 1920. The Spanish flu was a horrific thing to live through, and it did serious, long-term damage. One 2003 paper found that children who were in utero during the pandemic were more likely to be disabled and were less educated and earned less in their lifetimes than other cohorts.

But not many people talked about the 1918 pandemic before we began comparing it to COVID-19, likely because in many ways it wasn't a turning point in history. Last semester, Drezner was teaching a class on the history of a global economy. "I think I devoted all of two sentences, for example, to the 1918 influenza pandemic," he said. "There was so much effort in the wake of the war in particular to try to rebuild what the pre-World War order looked like that… by the late 1920s, things looked kind of similar to how they did pre-World War I."


Whatever physical or psychic scars remained from the war and the pandemic, they didn't stop the U.S. economy from growing 42 percent in the 20s following the 1920 depression as the country entered an era of unusual prosperity. In a 2007 report on the pandemic, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis concluded, "Most of the evidence indicates that the economic effects of the 1918 influenza pandemic were short-term." And as Drezner wrote on his Washington Post blog in March, the pandemic did not transform international relations either.

There were a number of political upheavals following the 1918 pandemic. In the U.S., the women's suffrage movement was bolstered by the fact that women had entered the workforce in record numbers, thanks in part to the flu having killed a disproportionate number of men. Yet it's difficult to attribute any particular social change to the pandemic, since it came so close on the heels of another cataclysm, World War I, said Alexandre White, an assistant professor of sociology and medicine and Johns Hopkins University.

The 1918 pandemic "ultimately led in some part to the creation of the World Health Organization and new forms of international health cooperation," White added, but the WHO wouldn't be founded until after world politics rearranged itself following World War II. Similarly, the U.S. would soon transform during the New Deal era, but that wouldn't come about until after the Great Depression, more than a decade after the Spanish flu.

We probably *can* go on like this

COVID-19 has largely acted as a stress test that has highlighted what is already broken. The structural problems that expose Black people to a host of health problems have now resulted in Black people dying of the coronavirus at an alarmingly high rate. Businesses owned by people of color have traditionally been blocked from getting loans, and now they are having problems accessing new small business aid programs. Independent restaurants and media outlets that often struggled to make ends meet are now being forced to lay off workers and close permanently. Low-wage workers have long been mistreated and marginalized, and now many have to choose between returning to jobs and risking their health or having their unemployment benefits cut short.

An optimistic spin on all this would be that the public is now more aware than ever of these inequities, and the pandemic has inspired new forms of political action—wildcat strikes by workers, for instance. But 2008 also saw an outpouring of activism and outrage, and the priorities of the country's leaders failed to change. Instead, the economy gradually got back on its feet while the battle to make society less unequal plodded ahead slowly, bit by bit, with mixed results.

If the coronavirus pandemic follows the path of the 1918 flu and the 2008 economic crisis, the world's political energies will largely be devoted to restoring what we had, rather than using the opportunity to change things for the better. Whenever this strange, long moment in history ends, we might be surprised by how much things resemble our old world order. And that will be a disaster.

Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily. Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.