Unto the Breach
Reasons for hope in 2021 –
Vaccines, Biden and broader shifts give some grounds for optimism
The Financial Times – Opinion: The editorial board – 1 January 2021
For many, 2020 will always be synonymous with misery; the pandemic will be remembered for isolation, anxiety and — in too many cases — loss. Yet beneath the surface there have been trends and shifts that give us, if not reasons to be cheerful for the coming year then, at least, more grounds for hope for the future.
The most positive prospect for 2021 is the rollout of coronavirus vaccines. These hold the promise of returning some sense of normality; if governments can ensure enough of their populations are vaccinated then social, family and working lives can start to be restored. The biggest challenge is ensuring this happens not just in the rich world, but across lower- and middle-income countries.
The defeat of President Donald Trump opens up the potential for a rejuvenation of multilateralism. American scepticism over international trade is likely to last. There is, however, a world of difference between a US that acts constructively and one that wishes to dismantle a rules-based system of international relations.
The EU’s response to coronavirus also showed the power of international co-operation. True, at first member states succumbed to nationalist instincts. But in stark contrast to the eurozone crisis a decade ago, they then managed to pull together and enhance the institutions of the trade bloc to become more responsive to shocks. What has been dubbed the “Next Generation EU” may, so far, be a branding exercise for the pandemic response fund, but it also demonstrates the bloc’s potential to renew itself.
European regulators have led what is becoming an international effort to rein in excessive power on the part of the tech giants, without undermining the benefits to society they have provided during the pandemic. In the US, so far, that seems to mean using existing antitrust powers — in December the Federal Trade Commission and a group of 48 attorneys-general sued Facebook, alleging it had abused its market power. In the UK and EU, new proposals for reforming competition law would attempt to shift how “digital gatekeepers” behave in the first place. If these attempts work they could help to make the internet closer to the free and open vision of its founders.
A critical mass has been building behind fighting climate change, too. China, the world’s biggest polluter, committed in September to reducing carbon emissions to net zero by 2060. The People’s Republic is just the latest among many to set such a target. These pledges on their own will not do much to stop global warming. But they demonstrate that the world is taking the problem more seriously, and that advances in technology — renewable energy sources and batteries alike — are convincing governments a transition is less costly than once feared.
Progress will probably be slow in fighting racial and gender inequality, but the wave of protests following killings of black Americans by police officers has led businesses and individuals to reflect on current and historic injustices. The determination to create a fairer future will not disappear. Incoming US president Joe Biden’s cabinet is already set to be the most diverse in US history.
Moving forward on all these fronts may be difficult in economies devastated by the pandemic; public appetite for reform may be exhausted. Unemployed and destitute workers might turn against anything that suggests further self-sacrifice. Yet there are economic opportunities that can be seized, new forms of working emerging, and politicians across the world have pledged to “build back better”. If there is one reason above all for hope for the future it is that the past year has demonstrated, firmly, our ability to adapt.