If we assume that the main task of the social sciences is to provide a theoretical understanding of the events taking place in the world, then the past year and a half since the start of the coronavirus pandemic has provided sufficient time to start doing this. The specific nature of the social sciences in the 21st century is the almost-obligatory combination of theory with a set of values and an ethical imperative. In this regard, the question of ethical analysis of the pandemic is quite appropriate.
Here it could be interesting to look at previous examples. The world wars gave rise to the concept of collective security. The Cuban missile crisis has shaped the modern theory of foreign policy decision-making. The aftermath of many previous major disasters has yielded some form of ethical and theoretical analysis. After Chernobyl, the theory of risk society emerged, which was further developed after Fukushima. What new theory will emerge after Covid? Is it only the theory of the green transformation imperative? After all, the thesis that the Covid crisis should provide a convenient start for restructuring the world economy on green principles is becoming more and more popular. If you look at the global agenda today, its main focus is not at all on overcoming the consequences of the pandemic, but on climate and decarbonisation. Does this mean that the pandemic, in fact, has become only a pretext for a green transformation and therefore does not deserve attention in itself?
During the year and a half of Covid, there has been a discussion about whether the world has changed after the pandemic or remained the same. Various answers to this dilemma are reflected in the publications of the Valdai Discussion Club. in our opinion, properly in this context, the issue of ethical responsibility and an ethical understanding of the pandemic should be considered. What is perhaps quite clear is that the pandemic did not change the egoism of states in world politics. From this point of view, nothing has really changed.
In any case, there is the natural question of what should be done (if anything should it be done at all) to make the consequences of eventual future pandemics less devastating than today? To understand why this choice is ethical, it also makes sense to look at previous disasters. Again, after Chernobyl and Fukushima, the world began to rethink nuclear energy and ideas about its safety; it was removed from the green/clean spectrum. In the discussions held during the first years after both accidents, opinions that the ethical choice of mankind should be the rejection of nuclear power were loudly voiced. Over time, however, they came to naught.
Here the question of how strategies are chosen clearly arises, and Chernobyl can be said to resemble a pandemic. The question is, which is better: to develop in this or that direction, which has been working normally and profitably for decades (cheapness and purity of nuclear energy), knowing that once in a generation a catastrophe can occur, or completely abandoning it.
A similar question arises in relation to a pandemic: is it necessary to create emergency medical capacity (beds) and infectious diseases hospitals, which are not really needed from year to year in the developed countries of the modern world, with their level of healthcare development? Would it be better to redirect these resources, in the interests of society, to other goals (we won’t consider the corruption-generating component of this optimisation of medical infrastructure in a number of cases). Are pandemics a once-in-a-generation (or more often) occurrence? A catastrophe can occur, like Covid, for which the medical system in most countries will not be ready. Is it necessary to keep medical reserves in a frozen state and waste resources on them, given the usual state of affairs?
Therefore, even now, if we assume that Covid is an exception, something that could happen once in a generation, then there is no need to keep medical reserves any longer and return to optimisation in ordinary conditions. It seems that several years after the end of the epidemic, this creeping transition back to abandoning reserves and optimising medical infrastructure will somehow happen. This is how the crawling return to nuclear power happened a few years after Chernobyl and Fukushima. Thus, from the point of view of the ethical perception of the challenges of the risk society, nothing really has changed. And heightened ethical responsibility, at least at the level of a desire to change something, will lose steam after first couple of years.
A separate topic related to the ethical perception of the pandemic is a kind of “medical totalitarianism”, when medical officials determine the basic parameters of the life of society (quarantines, lockdowns, masks, etc.). As the first fears of uncertainty subsided last spring, this medical totalitarianism increasingly began to be perceived as a real threat to human rights and freedoms. Therefore, it led to large-scale social protests in many countries, which often took on a violent nature. Will this medical totalitarianism (a kind of medical analogue of the movie The Matrix) become, not a one-off reaction of the authorities to the pandemic, but a long-term aspect of the ‘new normal’ where restrictions remain with us forever? There is an understandable managerial temptation to do so. The more restrictions and prohibitions, the simpler the system of control becomes. Here a new nuance appears to the thesis that “nothing has changed in the world”.
Another area of the new normal after Covid is the issue of poverty, food security and hunger. The economic crisis expected to follow the pandemic, the rise in unemployment, etc., can become delayed long-term triggers to strengthen these processes. Food security is also linked to climate change. All this can lead to obvious social consequences - including the possible erosion and depletion of the global middle class. In turn, these processes can increase migration flows, despite borders, at present, being more tightly closed. Incidentally, it is quite possible to maintain enhanced border controls from a long-term, post-Covid perspective or to selectively open them - since for developed countries the closed borders represent a convenient tool to control unwanted migration pressure, a temptation that won’t be given up lightly. Thus, it is possible to predict the growing social stratification both within countries and between them - as a real medium-term consequence of the pandemic. Superimposed on the almost inevitable stratification of winners and losers in the green transformation/hydrogen economy, this could be an important factor in the evolution of the world in the future. Thus, the post-Covid world will become more socially polarised than it is now. This will also become part of the new normal and just another nuance to the thesis that “nothing has changed in the world”. And the new ethics will have to explain this.
As a result, it seems that the coronavirus "does not deserve" serious ethical comprehension (at least so far) at the level of value determinants of world politics, similar to the comprehension of wars and nuclear disasters. Does this mean that the pandemic is just an annoying accident, which should not distract humanity from other really important matters?