A predominantly prudent response
Not since the Second World War has German society experienced a challenge to society that compares to the current global pandemic. While it is not possible at this point to fully assess the implications of this crisis for public health, the economic and society, the measures and regulations adopted to date are unprecedented in post-war German history in terms of their scope and impact on citizens across the country.
From a psychological perspective, epidemics are closely associated with fear. The threats posed by disease lurk everywhere and penetrate both society and the individual in an insidious manner. Despite the available forecasting and modelling technologies, epidemics are unpredictable and even more so when they reach the limits of controllability. The apparent loss of control that accompanies an epidemic offers fertile ground for fear, insecurity and aggression. Especially among people whose responses to threatening situations tend to be combative, this can translate into growing aggression towards substitute objects because the actual aggressor, the virus, cannot be attacked directly.
Nevertheless, it is remarkable that (at least thus far) over two thirds of the population in Germany have reacted to this crisis calmly and prudently, by and large following health guidelines and accepting restrictions without protest. Those voicing vociferous opposition or seeking to gain some advantage by acting aggressively are, as far as we know, a minority.
But this willingness to accept restrictions cannot last. It is possible that once the crisis begins to subside, the fears and aggressions now held in check will target new substitute objects.
The extremist threat
In all likelihood, a variety of groups will seek to make political capital from the crisis. Germany's mainstream political parties have largely abstained from exploiting this situation, a fact that has significantly boosted public trust in the political elite in Germany. Nevertheless, two potentially dangerous trends have emerged:
- On the one hand, far-right movements are endeavouring to exploit the Corona Crisis. In their view, globalization, the intake of refugees and Germany's evolution towards a tolerant multicultural society are the main drivers of this crisis. The risk exists that a significant shift towards re-nationalisation and de-solidarization with other countries could translate into a policy of isolationism. In order to curb this trend, it is important that leaders stress the value of international cooperation in crisis management, the need for global research, for example to develop a vaccine, and the special benefits of international and global identity and solidarity. This is an effective way of counteracting ethno-nationalist and nationalist narratives.
- On the other hand, far-left actors have seized on the current crisis to portray the virus as a consequence of rampant capitalism and the neo-liberal global economic order. These narratives assert a close connection between capitalist economies, the wildlife markets in China, international trade and the allegedly exclusive focus of large corporations on profit. While the excesses of capitalism are worthy of criticism, these narratives overlook the fact that, in times of crisis, market economies benefit from the flexibility and versatility of private actors. Global corporations and small and medium-sized enterprises have developed creative, innovative, and effective solutions to overcome bottlenecks and other challenges arising in the current crisis.
Admittedly, the democratic state does not have at its disposal the same powers to guide behaviour wielded by authoritarian regimes such as China. But democratic states with market economies can be far more flexible, creative and efficient in combating threats. Europe's strength lies in its plurality and diversity. At the same time, the successful management of this crisis presents opportunities to gear economic performance more closely towards sustainable production processes, products and services, and to build resilient infrastructures as a precaution against future threats.
Making the economic recovery sustainable
There have been widespread calls for government to support efforts to reboot the economy by launching major investment programmes, among other measures. But if the state is to spend taxpayers' money kick-starting the economy, then it should, as the guardian of the common good, take a role in determining which direction the recovery effort will take: the energy industry must remain focused on replacing fossil fuels with renewable energies; industrial production must pursue the goal of achieving climate neutrality by 2050 at the latest, or even sooner, and agriculture should launch ambitious programmes to reduce emissions of gases harmful to the climate and to manage soils sustainably. Finally, the tourism industry could also focus on expanding the shares of ecotourism and sustainable mobility options. After all, there is little sense in combating the global crisis caused by the coronavirus through investments that will fuel existing global crises such as climate change. You do not enlist Beelzebub to drive out demons …
Solidarity with the weak and disadvantaged must be part and parcel of the shift towards sustainability in the wake of Corona Crisis. This includes the allocation of more support and resources as well as greater recognition of the sacrifices brought by professionals working in the health care system and critical infrastructure as well as standing by all those people whose livelihoods are threatened by this crisis. The flexibility and efficiency of the market economy, in combination with political and social solidarity and empathy, are essential for efforts to overcome the crisis.
A change in lifestyles?
It will be interesting to see whether some of the current restrictions will be maintained on a voluntary basis once the crisis has passed. The current (involuntary) turn towards self-sufficiency is certainly welcome from a sustainability perspective; on the other hand, in the aftermath of the crisis, a weakened economy will be dependent on increased demand for goods and services. In previous, less drastic crises, such as the BSE crisis, changes in behaviour (e.g. an increase in vegetarianism) were only short-lived. But if the Corona Crisis lasts longer, new routines could emerge that gradually become uncoupled from crisis management efforts. It would certainly make sense to unroll state incentives with a view to promoting sustainable consumption (e.g. in the areas of energy supply, food production and mobility) in this context. The range of options runs from expanding cycle pathway networks to providing financial incentives to replace older diesel vehicles with electric vehicles. Such programmes should be prepared now, so that they can be rolled out immediately after the crisis concludes and while the memory of more frugal times is still fresh.
Throughout history human societies have adapted to new threats with flexibility time and again. Contemporary society has become increasingly vulnerable due to its interconnectedness, global interdependencies, and complex chains of effects – as a result we now face a painful transition period. In future, we must invest far more heavily in the development of resilient systems, in social welfare and care facilities and systems as well as sustainable production processes if we wish to be better prepared to tackle systemic risks.