Could the coronavirus crisis be a moral turning point, an impulse for real change? This may sound like an untimely or even cynical question in view of the millions of infections, the hundreds of thousands of deaths, the brutal recessions and the mass unemployment.
But now, more than half a year after the pandemic broke out, an increasing number of people are seeing COVID-19 not solely as a disaster, but also as a possible catalyst for reforms. And as an event that has torn down mental barriers that were hitherto thought permanent.
“The pandemic has shown that we are capable of not always making economic considerations our first priority,” says the German philosopher Markus Gabriel. “We have done the right thing morally, and decided to prioritize health at almost any economic price,” he told the news magazine Der Spiegel in an interview.
Could the coronavirus be a catalyst for the abandonment of rampant consumerism and for a critical assessment of globalization? Could it finally make us face up to ethical questions that have been pushed into the background?
And what about innovation and reform? World governments’ response to the pandemic has advanced not only digitalization but also international cooperation in the search for a vaccine. It has caused the German state, at last, to spend more money: On Europe, on culture, on education,on care.
At the end of April, the German Cabinet decided to raise the minimum wage in the care home sector. But a one-off bonus payment went only to workers in elderly care, which disappointed many nurses looking after COVID-19 patients in intensive care units.
All the same, the theologian Johann Hinrich Claussen feels that the new respect for people working in the teaching and care home professions is one positive consequence of “this terrible pandemic.”
Claussen, culture commissioner of the Protestant Church in Germany (EKD), said he found it “encouraging that the protection of life has a very high value in our society.” The degree of society’s humanity can partly be gauged in the way it deals with children and old people in crisis situations, he says.
Claussen said he was particularly impressed by the German government’s Neustart Kultur (“Culture Relaunch”) intitiative, a €1-billion ($1.2 billion) scheme passed by parliament at the end of July. “There is no premium for scrapping cars, but money for art and culture,” he noted, referring to aborted plans to boost the car industry by paying car owners to trade old cars for new. For Claussen, this was a sign that Germany still saw itself as a country that values culture even amid the coronavirus crisis.
In the business sector, the measures imposed to stem the spread of the pandemic have triggered a digitalization drive. According to a survey of some 800 German human resources managers carried out by the ifo research institute, most businesses intend to make more use of online conferences and offer options for employees to work from home even beyond the pandemic.
The economist Thomas Straubhaar believes this marks a “huge transformation.” “In the post-coronavirus era, digitalization will be the successor of globalization,” Straubhaar, an economics professor in Hamburg, wrote in a guest editorial for the daily Die Welt.
More working from home
“Global supply chains were too vulnerable. The national security of supply is too important. Data streams will replace trade streams. Video conferences will make business trips superfluous. Home offices will replace work offices,” wrote Straubhaar.
German Labor Minister Hubertus Heil is already working on a bill that will give people the right to work from home if possible. Heil, from the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), has pushed for changes during the pandemic — especially, for example, in the meat industry. After COVID-19 outbreaks in several slaughterhouses, contracts under which workers are employed by sub-contractors will be banned in the sector, along with the use of agency workers.
The coronavirus is also speeding up some climate protection measures in the energy sector. Politicians were forced to link both the German government’s €130-billion aid package and the historic €1.8-trillion EU aid package to climate protection measures.
Climate experts have praised the fact that the German aid package does not include purchase premiums for cars running on gasoline or diesel but does give support to the development of electric vehicles. At the EU level, 30% of the joint budget and the coronavirus fund are to be used for climate protection.
Climate campaigners like Fridays for Future have said much more could have been done, but philosopher Markus Gabriel is cautiously optimistic. “If I were a member of ‘Fridays for Future,’ I would tell those in power: You have proven in the pandemic that everything can go fast. So it is a political lie to say that we can’t solve the climate problem by democratic means,” he says.