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Cultures in Crisis – the World After Covid-19

It all seemed so mundane, yet at the same time, deeply unsettling.  Two people in a supermarket aisle, fighting over the remaining pack of toilet roll.  Such a familiar setting – yet the behaviour told us something was terribly wrong. 

Those early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, when this video went viral, already feel like a distant memory.  Weeks in lockdown do that to the mind – it stretches and narrows time.  And now there’s a sense we’re emerging, blinking into a familiar yet new light, unsure how to behave, uncertain what we’ll find.  

As those who lost loved ones or brushed close with their own death testify, such moments remind us of the fragility and preciousness of our lives.  Even those of us who are fortunate – who did not lose friends or family or jobs, who remained free of the virus – have a greater sense of appreciation.  We resolve to make more of our lives; focus on what matters; do better.  There’s a rising tide of good intent. 

Yet in the years to come, after Covid-19, we will find a world in the most challenging era since the end of the Second World War.  It will be marked by widespread unemployment, financial insecurity, social unrest, and cultural crises.  The demonstrations sparked by the tragic death of George Floyd have given vent to decades of frustration at the reality black people are still living with intolerance, inequality, and injustice.  Such societal problems were with us before Covid-19 and will be with us for years afterwards.

Beneath this coming pressure, our societies risk fracturing even further.  The poor will become poorer.  The middle-class risk becoming poor.  And the rich… will stay rich, fueling existing resentment at wealth disparity.  Our domestic politics risks becoming even more divided and divisive.  Our streets risk descending into cycles of upheaval and repression, on which authoritarian leaders act out their controlling ambitions, ostensibly for the good of the people, whilst furthering their own cause.  And above it all, the spectre of our international community, which demonstrated a worrying inability to collaborate when acutely challenged, will see a resurgence of nation-state rivalry, as the few restraints that helped to keep global order are dismantled. 

It all sounds hideously dystopian.  Yet it need not be.  In the post Covid-19 world, how we respond to these pressures – as individuals, societies, and as an international community – will affect how we live for decades to come.  And one of the key elements that will drive those responses is our own cultures.  

Differences during the pandemic were clearly visible.  Masculine leaders pumped up with machismo – who either played down the risk and the need to respond or played up their own brilliance (or both) – seemed impotent and out of touch.  Leaders who responded with empathy and calm reassurance – who acknowledged the gravity openly, made clear what could and would be done, and reminded us ‘this too would pass’ – restored some of our lost faith. 

Our cultures were no less instrumental on a societal level.  In streets from Mumbai to Manchester, communities stepped up to support the vulnerable; health care workers risked their lives and in some cases PTSD from what they saw; police were spat at as they protected those at risk in violent homes.  

Yet our trust and our adherence to government directives varied.  Sweden did not enact a lockdown.  People follow guidance already, so when asked to socially distance, they could probably be relied on.  France enforced mandatory paperwork for a drive to buy groceries, because when told to conform they are more likely to resist.  And the US, with a saddening predictability, divided on cultural party lines, with libertarians demonstrating against the infringement of their rights, while Sander-istas called for caution.    

At the heart of these differences is the degree to which our cultures are collectivist or individualist –   whether we prioritise society over the citizen, or the citizen over society.  Of course, this is not binary.  It is a scale, with cultures lying more to one end or other, and others hovering around the middle.  Other important cultural values will have a major impact on our future too – how egalitarian, consultative, inclusive, feminine, long-term, restrained, orderly, innovative.  These made a difference through the pandemic and they will make a difference again.  

In the years to come, the security and quality of our lives will depend on what we do individually, as communities and as nations.  If we choose leaders who demonstrate compassion, calm competence, and the ability to provide a difficult combination of hope and reassurance; if we can act in the longer-term interests of our collective society; if we can compromise; then we may be able to mitigate the dystopian vision (and avoid fighting over toilet roll). 

Rupert Potter is a former diplomat, who now supports international trade & investment.

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