Wars leave their mark on society, whether fought against fellow citizens, foreigners or diseases. Social science research shows that war reduces individualistic tendencies and increases empathy. Individuals behave in a more co-operative and altruistic manner; they are more inclined to join social groups.
There are differences depending on the type of war: unlike civil wars, international wars generate common interests which bridge the gaps between groups.
Much of this new altruism is directed towards those in our own group, the “in-group”, like our fellow citizens in a war against an external enemy. A health war against Covid-19 has the advantage that this group extends to everyone and there is no “out-group” other than the virus (provided we do not follow the US President in calling the virus a “Chinese disease” and that the “every country for itself” reflex does not prevail).
If this crisis exhibits the same gap-bridging pattern between compatriots and across countries, this could be good news, given the recent trend towards populism, nationalism, ethnic and religious intolerance. From this point of view, the reformulation by Emmanuel Macron, the French president, of the fight against the virus as a “war” may have been judicious.
If one can be reasonably optimistic in this regard, it is less likely that the development of public policy will take a longer-term perspective. Are we finally going to learn our lesson? We are under-investing in education and training; we overlook the fight against climate change and various other policies that would limit the damage caused to the next generation by climate, artificial intelligence, debt, inequality and other impending challenges.
Covid-19 reminds us of our vulnerability. We need to invest in effective health systems and promote research that will allow us to respond quickly to emerging threats. We were already aware of the lack of research on antibiotics, given the increase in antibiotic resistance.
We were concerned about biological warfare. We tremble with fear at the melting of permafrost. We now realise that the problem is even wider. Global health crises are no longer “rare events”.
More broadly, we need to rethink our collective allocation of resources between everyday consumer goods on the one hand, and health and education on the other. We must realise that the fight against climate change, like that against the virus, is everyone’s responsibility.
Are we ready to spend enough on health research? Are we ready to pay a carbon tax to save the planet? If our answer to these life-threatening questions remains “no”, then our tendency to procrastinate, our belief that the problems will go away on their own or be solved by others, and our collective irrationality will get the better of us.
We must take advantage of the pandemic to act together on social norms and incentives. We must convince people that certain behaviours are anti-social and frowned on by the majority of the population; in short, using social pressure to push economic actors in the direction of the common good, rather than encouraging them through their wallets.
However, over the past 30 years we have been unable to change the social norm on climate change without introducing sufficient financial incentives. Reducing our individualism often goes hand in hand with increased accountability for our actions, as demonstrated by the success of efforts to ban smoking in public places.
An evolution toward less consumption and more investment may also benefit from a reorientation of national budgets. The holy grail is accounting rules that prevent governments from requalifying consumption as investment. Designing such an “incentive-compatible golden rule” will be difficult; for instance, an increase in teacher salaries could be placed just about anywhere on the spectrum between the two categories.
Another approach would consist in creating independent observatories of long-term public performance, which would assess and inform the public of the country’s preparedness for various challenges, such as preventing a pandemic.
The PISA rankings of schools and the Shanghai rankings for universities, despite their shortcomings, have been instrumental in alerting parents that their children could receive a better education. Such information is key to a well-functioning democracy.
None of this will happen without us. We must abandon our collective short-termism, embrace a new solidarity that is intergenerational. Such a societal change would at least be an unexpected tribute to the victims of Covid-19.