Opinion

How Covid Built a Bridge Between the Worst of Past and Future

My colleague David Wallace-Wells, in his newsletter last week, described the Covid era as a time machine — one that unwound years or decades of progress and threw us back into the past. The rise in mortality, the spike in violent crime, the learning loss for children — each of these turned us back toward the conditions of an earlier period: the higher homicide rate of the late 1990s, the higher death rates of the turn of the millennium, the lower National Assessment of Educational Progress test scores of the 2000s.

As Wallace-Wells suggests, there are different ways to read this regress. It’s grim news of some sort, no matter what. But you can treat it as a truly dire signifier of the fragility of progress, or else emphasize the good news — that even after a global plague that killed millions of people, we’re still in a basically familiar landscape, a world that looks more like the George W. Bush era than some postapocalyptic desolation.

I was particularly interested in his time-machine image, though, because I, too, wrote a column about Covid as a time machine, way back in the early days of the pandemic. But I had a different kind of DeLorean voyage in mind: In that piece, I argued that the pandemic was an accelerant, hurrying along social, political and technological changes that might have unfolded more slowly otherwise, hurling us forward toward the 2030s, not back into the past.

Whose time-machine analysis makes more sense? I think there’s no need to choose; synergy is possible. Both capture something real about our post-pandemic situation, which has combined acceleration with regress in interesting, if mostly unfortunate ways.

The regressive trends Wallace-Wells is describing are developments that seem very specific to pandemic conditions, disruptions and disjunctions that you probably would not have predicted even on a slower time scale just looking at the world circa 2018.

The sudden change in the mortality rate is the most obvious example; there was stagnation in American life expectancy before Covid, but even in the shadow of the opioid epidemic there was no good reason to expect such a sharp decline. But one could say the same of murder rates: You might expect fluctuations as a downstream effect of protests or de-carceral policies, but before 2020, I would have bet against an aging society with a steadily expanding surveillance apparatus returning to the homicide rate of Bill Clinton’s second term.

I would put inflation in this category as well. Our long era of low interest rates seemed linked to deep socioeconomic features of the developed world, an aging population above all (since old societies grow more slowly, and old people save more and spend less). And it took extraordinary fiscal profligacy, spending on a scale unimaginable outside of an emergency, to bring inflation back — along with all the supply-chain issues that were unique to the pandemic as well.

By contrast, the aspects of the Covid era that I discussed or tried to predict in my fast-forward column were accelerations, not disjunctions. The decline of churchgoing, for instance, was a feature of 2010s America before the pandemic closings detached a larger number of people from their places of worship; that detachment was the same trend, just experienced more rapidly. The growth of working-from-home and virtual commuting, similarly, was a leap upward that followed a “continuous rise” in the pre-Covid decades. The leftward lurch among elite institutions in the George Floyd era, the purges and defenestrations and ideological ferment, was likewise a case of an existing trend — the “Great Awokening” that began somewhere in Barack Obama’s second term — going into pandemic overdrive. And the baby bust of 2020 was, of course, an acceleration of a fertility decline that began with the Great Recession more than a decade before.

Some trends didn’t shake out exactly as I anticipated three years ago: The decline of newspapers, for instance, continued on trend but didn’t actually accelerate. In other cases the acceleration went so hard and fast that there was a snapback, sometimes mild (the modest fertility rebound in 2021) and sometimes more striking: Just as wokeness went further than it would have absent the pandemic, so too has anti-wokeness enjoyed more political and cultural success than it might have if the leftward movement in the elite had ground onward at a slower pace.

Then in still other cases the acceleration overshot the fundamentals and created a crisis, or at least a mess. That’s basically the story in Hollywood, where the shift to streaming was bigger and faster than it would have been without Covid pinning everyone to their couch or screen, but ultimately so big and fast that it created an unsustainable new status quo, which neither the studios nor the striking screenwriters and actors appear to know how to stabilize or unwind.

“It will be the same, just a bit worse,” Michel Houellebecq predicted mordantly about the world after the pandemic. So far, the interaction between the fast-forwarding I saw happening and the falling-backward trends that Wallace-Wells describes mostly falls into the “worse” category. It basically lays on extra burdens: We’re going to be dealing with various mid-21st-century problems somewhat sooner because of Covid, and yet we’re also stuck dealing with problems we thought we’d left behind in 1999 or even 1982.

Before 2020 you could look ahead to the 2030s and say, Well, growth will be slow because of the baby bust and population aging, but at least we’ll be able to carry big deficits and enjoy safer cities as we slide into twilight. But now we look ahead and say instead, Well, the baby bust has worsened, threatening a more senescent and stagnant future, but now we’ve also got the crime problems and inflation problems of a much younger society. Thanks to Covid’s forward-lurching time machine, some aspects of our decadence have deepened; thanks to the backward lurch, it’s also become less cushioned, more uncomfortable, and chaotic and dangerous.

For countervailing optimism, the main place to look is technology. Whether Covid played a big causal role or not, there does seem to have been a technological acceleration in the past five years, a break from the relative stagnation (or digital-only innovation) of the prior decades. How far any of this will take us is unclear: The A.I.-driven economic boom remains as hypothetical as the Skynet apocalypse, and as Benjamin Breen notes (in an essay I quoted in last week’s newsletter), the true nature of scientific revolutions is often clear only in hindsight, and the correlation between tech breakthroughs and societal improvement is always complicated and contingent.

But if we’re being hopeful, the hope should be that any potential technology-driven boom could help reverse the kind of 1990s-meets-the-2030s dynamic we have right now — bringing back the best of the ’90s, not the violent crime rates but the rising productivity, social optimism, and more robust marriage rates and birthrates (perhaps mediated by the rise of work-from-home), but all set in a more futuristic landscape of cheap, abundant energy and rapid biomedical advances.

A form of time travel, a collision of eras, a fondly remembered past and a desired future converging in our timeline — all that sounds pretty good to me. Just not this collision, this combination, this early arrival of a disappointing future darkened further by the return of the problems of the past.


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