With hope on the horizon, we look towards the future with Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World with Fareed Zakaria in this week’s ISERP event.

Just 6 months into the pandemic, journalist, author, and CNN GPS host Fareed Zakaria was already thinking ahead. Zakaria had originally been working on a book about ideological revolutions, drawing inspiration from the French, Dutch, and Industrial Revolutions, but when the pandemic hit, he realized that this event was one that everyone in the world was impacted by in some way. In reflecting on the ways the pandemic’s consequences will be accelerating the timeline of a world whose history was already being sped up by years of prior human activity, Zakaria started writing Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World, hoping to look into what the future may hold, “not because the coronavirus is behind us, but because we have crossed a crucial threshold.” In this second event of the Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy (ISERP) Series: The History and Future of Planetary Threats, Zakaria discussed what lies beyond this crucial threshold and what lessons we should consider as we prepare for the shift into a post-pandemic future. 

A central question that emerged in the discussion about entering an altered post-pandemic world dealt with the growing educational and socioeconomic gap between the elite class and the working class that is increasingly perpetuating a distrust in institutions, contracts, procedures, and science. Globalization and the information revolution, Zakaria explained, were massively privileging the rich and educated while simultaneously leaving others behind. He shared a perspective from a blog post he had read detailing how someone in rural Alabama was surrounded by media produced from large urban areas like New York City, Chicago, and San Francisco, effectively making him feel forgotten. On the technological front, the rapid increase in innovation in science and technology meant patients were going in to see doctors who used complicated machinery to give them life-changing diagnoses and treatments through an entire process that patients often did not understand. Referencing a quote from As Good As It Gets, a moderator described this disconnect like “we’re getting a description of the water while we’re drowning.”

The resulting cultural anxiety–the need for people to feel that their place in society is safe–has been exploited politically with people’s economic anxiety to lead them to vote in ways that may seem irrational. With the gap between the elite and the working class being used to demonize the elite, Zakaria said, the working class feels they can no longer believe that people in power can serve their interests. In a time of crisis, this posed an even bigger challenge. From researching East Asian countries like South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan who have been overwhelmingly more successful at handling the pandemic (compared to Taiwan, for example, the US has roughly 2000 times more COVID-19 deaths per capita), Zakaria found that a government’s efficiency and capability did not lie with its size or necessarily even type of governance. Rather, it was trust between the public and the highly competent technocratic governments that allowed those governments to not only test and trace people in the early days of the pandemic, but also effectively isolate infected individuals to prevent transmission and a large-scale lockdown. This stands in stark contrast with the US, where there was mixed information and a distinct lack of centralized response. We need to listen to experts, Zakaria said, but experts also need to listen to the people who are impacted by the issues and policies they create to address problems in the system. He asserted that the problem is not that our economic policies are regressive or not progressive enough, but rather that they have been corrupted by privatization, distribution, and less stringent enforcement of tax evasion laws that prevent resources from going where they are meant to go. Until that corruption can be addressed, it will be difficult to make meaningful progress in bridging the divide between the elite and working class.

While Zakaria believes the onus lies with the elite to bridge the growing divide between the elite and the working class, he also recognizes that there needs to be empathy, something that the concept of meritocracy has eroded over the years. He implored that as students at a prestigious university who will eventually become part of an “intellectual elite”, we need to remember the dangers of buying into a concept of meritocracy that doesn’t account for luck and circumstance, or necessarily morally justify our positions. While he doesn’t have a full-fledged solution to offer right now, the inequities this pandemic has exacerbated highlights the need to have compassion and empathy for one another, making empathy a solid first step to take as we enter our post-pandemic world.

Image via @iserp_columbia on Twitter