It’s not the end of the world. But we shouldn’t let that discourage us.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our world in ways we’re only just beginning to grasp, and countless others that still elude us. As of this writing, the virus has killed more than
more than a million people—many of them dying frightened and alone, isolated from loved ones. On the economic front, early estimates suggest global GDP losses could total over $9 trillion by 2021. Millions have lost their jobs and face homelessness, hunger, and psychological trauma.
Beyond the loss of lives, livelihoods, and damage to economies, hundreds of millions are facing the loss of familiar routines and experiences: hugs, handshakes, and human contact of all sorts, the small intimacies we once failed to notice, and now barely recall. Working at jobs, buying groceries, seeing friends and family members, a multitude of other experiences large and small are missing or radically transformed by an invisible entity that isn’t even fully alive.
So much is lost.
We work for transformation, for endings. But is this what we desired?
In a word, no.
Let’s start with numbers. In a previous post, we defined the end of the world as including two types of events: global and existential catastrophes (the latter are a subset of the former). COVID-19 does not pose a direct existential risk. Though the numbers vary widely by country, no nation is reporting a case fatality rate of higher than around 15%, and most are significantly lower. Humanity will survive this pandemic.
Further, there is no evidence suggesting that COVID-19 will permanently destroy humanity’s long-term potential. Even if we never develop a vaccine, all available evidence suggests our species will eventually adapt to the coronavirus, as we have with so many deadly viruses before it.
The likelihood of COVID-19 causing a global catastrophe is somewhat more difficult to calculate. Death tolls will almost surely fall well below the global catastrophe threshold of 10% - 25% of world population. Economic projections are even more uncertain than case fatality rates. While global economic losses could exceed the $10 trillion threshold set by by some scholars, it seems unlikely, based on all available evidence, that the direct impacts of COVID-19 will exceed the resilience of human civilization.
This virus will not end the world.
There may, however, be some reasons for optimism.
Though COVID-19 won’t directly produce an existential or global catastrophe, its secondary impacts may hold more promise. Here are four possible scenarios.
Totalitarian surveillance state
Cowed, fearful, and destitute populations are particularly susceptible to manipulation by demagogues. This effect is amplified by the current and wide-spread dissemination of disinformation, corroding public trust in traditional arbiters of truth—e.g., the news media, science, academia, and government agencies. Leaders with authoritarian ambitions may use disruptions and uncertainties caused by this pandemic to seize control. Their quest for securing and maintaining totalizing power may be abetted by the same means used manage the crisis. The technologies currently used for contact-tracing and enforcement of quarantines—cellphone apps, drones and robots, big data, etc.—may accelerate the emergence of powerful surveillance states unlike anything seen outside of science fiction. In the hands of authoritarian leaders, these technologies could well forestall the possibility of effective, popular resistance. Robust versions of this scenario could even constitute an existential catastrophe if it becomes permanent, extinguishing humanity’s long-term potential.
The economic damage, social disruption, fear, and desperation produced by COVID-19 will likely produce acute political instability, not just within nations, but also between them. For instance, competition for scarce resources, or even for an eventual vaccine, could exacerbate existing tensions. Domestic ambitions to galvanize and unite citizens may embolden national leaders to act aggressively towards foreign enemies, real or perceived. Given the chaos, anxieties, and stakes of the pandemic crisis, any number of events could rapidly escalate into open conflict between nuclear powers, and eventually, a catastrophic exchange.
At present, labs all over the world are working furiously to develop a vaccine or cure for COVID-19. Given the urgency of this task, it is likely that certain safeguards and regulations meant to ensure the safety of such measures will be relaxed or dismissed entirely. Even as they cooperate, nations will also compete for the prestige and economic rewards that will come to those who first develop a solution. Yet the impacts of an inadequately-tested, rapidly and globally distributed vaccine or cure could well prove catastrophic.
End of capitalism
At present, COVID-19 has produced massive job-loss on a global scale. As the growing mass of workers can no longer sell their labor to sustain themselves, those who own the means of production will see their capacity to appropriate surplus value produced by that labor radically diminish. Capitalism cannot thrive in such circumstances. This may ultimately lead to a renegotiation of the social contract for nations across the globe. What might follow in its stead is uncertain. What is certain is that such a scenario would constitute a global catastrophe and an end of the world as we know it.
These are only a few of the possible scenarios. More research is needed to evaluate the most effective methods of advancing and accelerating their potential, as well as exploring other futures that may emerge as this pandemic continues to unfold. Even in the midst of intense uncertainty and widespread suffering, we can look upon this crisis as an opportunity.
Because the greatest doomsday machine is human creativity.