Reflection on the Ditchley conference - Living with COVID-19:

Matthew Holehouse - conference rapporteur reflects on:

Living with COVID-19: what are the implications for the world if a vaccine remains elusive?

October 15 – 16, 2020

A world permanently without a vaccine for coronavirus seemed quite possible when the Ditchley conference met (largely virtually) to discuss such a scenario in mid-October. The results of the Pfizer/BioNTech phase three study wouldn’t come through for another month, and the idea that mass vaccination programs would be underway in Britain and America by Christmas seemed too much to hope. In such a world, societies would be compelled to choose between attempting to suppress the virus entirely, attempt a so-called herd-immunity strategy, or live in a limbo of recurring lockdowns.  We ended the conference in a position something like that of the scientists at that point: without a vaccine to the social challenges posed by covid-19, but with a much better idea of how the disease attacks societies, and why it has proven so damaging. That damage is in part because it presents such a grave threat to life, economic well-being, and civil liberties. But a common thread in the discussions was on the virus as a dislocating force.

An end to the pandemic is now in sight. But our reflections on what it would mean if a vaccine could not be found will be no less important. The roll-out of vaccines will be faltering and uneven, and the crisis of 2020 will have long-lasting effects in reshaping governments and societies.  

One dislocation comes in time. One participant described the virus as behaving like a Tardis, the time machine in Doctor Who.  For many, the pandemic has lurched them backwards a century, to an age when a fatal disease could be caught on the high street, and when the cost of international travel restricted the opportunities for migration, education and cultural exchange. Many will face greater hardship, and precarious work. Rather than a “new normal,” for many societies it is a return to an “old normal”.

Yet elsewhere it is an accelerant. Many businesses have undergone a decade of change in months, embracing mass remote working, new flatter hierarchies and new distribution models. We heard how state capacities – from online healthcare to surveillance – have expanded overnight. Politics has gone into fast-forward too: the pandemic coincided with campaigns such as Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion or universal basic income; governments’ dabbling with once unthinkable ideas out of dire necessity has widened the window of voters’ expectations.

The job of democratic politics is to regulate change in society: to hold back forces of disruption in some areas, to hasten them in others, and to create a sense of their electorates as a caravan, moving on a common journey. (Think how many election slogans are variants of “forward together”). How do they respond when voters feel they are living in 1920, their bosses in 2030, and are dabbling in ideas from the 2040s? Much of the appetite for grand new political programs in response to covid-19 (to “build back better”) can be seen as a desire to reassemble the scattered caravan, and to rally the electorate around a shared agenda and a common sense of time. That will be the consuming task for elected politicians in many countries after the vaccine.

A second dislocation is one of consensus. Resilience has become a buzzword for governments in the crisis. But it refers not only to supply chains and kit stockpiles, on how to cohere a pluralistic and diverse society around a common strategy, with a shared understanding of sacrifice and burden sharing – the focus of much of our discussions. Many European countries managed this for the first months, but later found greater dissent; others, such as the United States, struggled to forge a consensus at all. We heard how this had worked elsewhere: in China, through the coupling of an authoritarian state to older social norms of the defence of the family; in Singapore, through strong civic leadership; and through independent expertise and peer pressure in Japan.

A third dislocation comes in how societies relate to one another. There is the physical: the suspension of mobility on which great international cities depend, and the effort to shift supply chains away from China. We discussed how crisis has been marked by weak and unreliable international leadership, and an every-state-for-themselves approach. There has been a reordering and flattening of hierarchies between states. It has eliminated the distinction between those which habitually live with infectious diseases, and the rest. Many states which were regarded as leaders in public health, and exporters of expertise and leadership, have been humbled. Some small states – New Zealand, Iceland, Taiwan – have excelled.

The most profound dislocation we discussed is one of democracies’ faith in their own models. The sense that covid-19 has highlighted deep flaws in the performance of government is found not only to the UK and US, we heard, but in African democracies too. The plentiful availability of data on infection and death rates allows for unforgiving comparisons between winners and losers. The dash to roll-out vaccines will too produce a competition between models reminiscent of the space race. (Note the unsubtle rivalry that has emerged between go-it-alone Britain and its former partners in the EU; more is at stake than merely bragging rights. Nor is it an accident that the Russian vaccine was named "Sputnik V".)

Perhaps the greatest risk presented by a world without a vaccine would be the loss of faith among publics if they conclude that a resolution to the crisis is beyond the grasp of their elected governments altogether: a scenario in which nightclubs and swimming pools could open in Beijing, but not in London. There is no reason why liberal democracies should be less able to manage pandemics.  Many have proven remarkably effective in implementing previously-unthinkable lockdowns, and in some cases, suppressing the virus entirely. European laws on privacy, for instance, provide a rulebook rather than an obstacle to contact tracing. Healthy democracies are intolerant of the graft, cover-up and official underperformance which corrodes public health services. (Contrast the woeful response in Russia to that elsewhere).

Still, much of our political culture - from elections to disaster movies - rests on the premise that with the right elected president or prime minister in office, any crisis can be resolved and normality restored. (Think how Hillary Clinton asked Americans who they wanted to answer the White House phone at 3am.) The promise of modern government is that, sooner or later, it comes to the rescue in time of flood, wildfire or disease. A pandemic with no end in sight would weaken this compact. A vaccine brings the possibility of an exit. That will save lives, and a certain idea of government too. 

Matthew Holehouse
British political correspondent 

The Economist