In northern Italy, where I live, COVID-19’s human cost has already been heartbreaking. It’s captured by daily updates about infections, deaths and unforgettable images of overflow facilities at hospitals. Rows of cots on the floor; people covered by shiny emergency blankets.
So much energy is necessarily focused on the frontline public health response. And yet the fight for our futures has already begun.
Too much of our increasingly restrictive, fearful present reflects the way that far-right movements would like the world to be. We can be sure that they will try to make some of these changes permanent. Already, they’re looking for ways to exploit the current crisis and its fallout to their advantage.
But there’s also reason for hope. In a crisis, people’s minds can get changed quickly; progress can be fast. We’re already seeing swift momentum on a range of issues – from tackling misinformation online to introducing universal basic incomes – in ways that seemed impossible months ago.
Tech giants previously unwilling to act on misinformation have sprung into action, banning fake news and giving the WHO free ads. There’s much more to be done, of course, while we must also be wary of corporations controlling what we can say. But it shows that where there is a will, there is a way.
Much more is possible, too. We may see anti-science movements recede or fracture. In Italy, Beppe Grillo, the anti-vaxx founder of the Five Star Movement (M5S) party, has already publicly backed the quest for a coronavirus vaccine. Some anti-abortion activists have also warned about democracies becoming police states with our civil liberties restricted.
Voters may demand more resources for public health systems. Facts might matter again. There is huge potential for this crisis to produce sea-changes in our commitments to equality and universal human rights, too. If nothing else, this crisis shows how essential it is to protect and care for others.
“The only way to beat [COVID-19] is to leave no one behind,” explained WHO executive director Michael Ryan. “We cannot forget migrants. We cannot forget undocumented workers. We cannot forget prisoners in prisons”.
How this crisis reshapes our world is not a foregone conclusion. It depends on us. But we can’t let those who want to shut down and disempower us gain the upper hand. Who seizes this moment will write the future.
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