Moments of crisis have often been turning points in history, for good and for ill. COVID-19 and the social and economic earthquakes it has triggered have all the makings of an era-defining cataclysm. In the midst of the disaster, it’s impossible to know what the world that emerges will look like, but experts say one thing is clear ― its shape depends on the decisions leaders make now.
The pandemic could lead us down a dark path of authoritarianism, nationalism and mistrust ― the road mapped out, for example, by President Donald Trump’s attacks on the World Health Organization and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s tightening of his grip on power. But there’s another path, too, a more inclusive one beginning to emerge in places like Amsterdam, where leaders are embracing a philosophy that prioritizes residents’ well-being over economic growth, and South Korea, where President MoonJae-in’s party won a landslide election victory on promises to weave climate action into its coronavirus recovery plans.
Internationally and domestically, the spread of COVID-19 has exposed and exacerbated many societies’ deepest fault lines. How leaders respond to the crisis ― how they shape their countries’ recoveries, whose agendas they seek to serve ― could permanently shift the economic and political bedrock. Their choices may strengthen the tide of populism, racism and anti-immigrant sentiment that was already rising before the pandemic, or redeem liberal democracy’s failings and adapt it for a more equitable, resilient future.
“We’re at a crossroads,” said Åsa Persson, research director at the Stockholm Environment Institute. “There is a battle at the moment of these different world views, and time will tell what will be the outcome.”
Both paths have precedent in history. The trauma of World War I and its aftermath led to fascism, genocide and an even greater global conflagration. More recently, the financial crisis of 2007-08 helped...