3 Keys to Real Pandemic Recovery

Written by on May 25, 2021

In all likelihood, in the history of the 2020s, COVID-19 will be a footnote. When our great-grandchildren think about the 2020s, they will probably remember the pandemic just as little as we—until last March—remembered the Spanish flu of 1918–1919.

Pandemics and other natural disasters are rarely history-shaping events by themselves. Instead, natural disasters accelerate and intensify cultural realities and trends.

This is why my Praxis colleagues and I wrote a piece in March 2020 arguing that the lasting “ice age,” the long-term effects of COVID-19, would be more about economy than epidemiology. The little ice age would not so much be the twelve to eighteen months of pandemic “winter” itself but the dislocation and social change that would be left behind.

Today we see three major dislocations, not caused by the pandemic but accelerated by it, that should shape the horizon of christian action in the next decade.

First, the K-shaped recovery.

We speculated last spring about whether the economic recovery would be V- or U- or L-shaped, but in fact it has been K-shaped. Some asset classes, like large public equities, have done incredibly well. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of small businesses that were viable before the pandemic have closed entirely.

Work has been K-shaped. Almost no one enjoyed this past year, but if you could work from home with screens and words and symbols, it was a lot more bearable and doable than if you worked away from home with people or with things.

Even within companies, there are K-shaped dynamics. As Sequoia Capital wrote in March, “We’re seeing a difference between how business metrics are performing and how many people in those companies are feeling.” That rings true.

This is an acceleration of previously existing trends. For decades now, the global capitalist economy has seen what statisticians call mean-median divergence, with vast benefits accruing to the fortunate and greater precariousness accruing to the rest.

For many, the experience of the past year was K-shaped. Most of us, more than we would have expected, found ways to thrive this year. But some of us have faced terrible loss or are embedded in communities that faced terrible loss.

We did not see the K-shaped recovery coming, but we could have and maybe should have—because K-shaped is the shape of our world.

The K-shaped recovery is by no means the only story that will be told about 2020 and beyond.

The most important resource in any system, especially under pressure, is trust. This year, we discovered afresh how many of our institutions are K-shaped—serving some populations quite effectively while serving others desperately poorly. This is hardly news. But what accelerated during the last year is a collapse of trust that these institutions can be redeemed.

We would like to believe that social institutions are built on foundations of fairness, so that they could eventually be improved to serve everyone well. But in the 2020s—and this is the second long-term trend that accelerated this past year—more and more Americans believe that these institutions are fundamentally unfair, designed to serve and protect only the upper half of the K.

This was true for many of those invading the US Capitol on January 6, who had become convinced that the country’s institutions of democratic elections had been corrupted. It was also true for many of those who protested last summer after the murder of George Floyd, calling for the abolishing of institutions of public justice on the grounds that they are hopelessly corrupt.

And this erosion of social trust took place, not by coincidence, in a time of massive bandwidth compression—the third trend the pandemic has accelerated.

When people are together in person, we are probably exchanging gigabits per second of information. Through multiple sensory channels—sight, hearing, and much more—we absorb and transmit what we are thinking and, more importantly, feeling. During the pandemic, that information stream narrowed dramatically. We went from gigabits in person to megabits on Zoom—a thousandfold reduction. Text messages, tweets, and Facebook posts are measured in kilobits—a further thousandfold compression.

When we compress information, we lose context. We lose emotion. We can transmit the “facts,” but we lose the meaning. It is fine to text your spouse to get milk from the grocery. It is almost always not fine to text to say you’re sorry you forgot their birthday.

Trust can be broken at a distance (as in that text message!), but it is almost impossible to restore at a distance.

Most of the real challenge in any conflict comes down to this question: Do you understand what it was like to be me at the moment of rupture, the moment when things went wrong? And almost always, to attain that level of empathy (to have some sense of what it was like) and to communicate it (to have you believe I understand) requires in-person presence.

These trends—K-shaped dynamics, loss of social trust, and bandwidth compression—were already in place before COVID-19, but the virus accelerated them. No real recovery from this pandemic will be complete without addressing them.

Indeed, I’ve been asking myself, “How do you recover from a K-shaped recovery?”

There is a biblical model for how to recover from a multifaceted disaster. The ancient world was also K-shaped. Disease and famine could lead to crippling debt. War could displace families and communities, even whole nations. All these led to enslavement—the ultimate loss of freedom, the ultimate K-shaped social reality.

And for a society that was always in danger of going K-shaped, God prescribed Jubilee.

Jubilee, described principally in Leviticus 25, was an economic reset. Every fifty years, debts were to be canceled so that no family could end up permanently on the wrong side of misfortune or even misbehavior. Land was to be restored to families, preventing the concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands and preventing the creation of a perpetual landless servile class.

Jubilee was an institutional reset. Power couldn’t end up permanently benefiting, and in the hands of, a small elite.

Jubilee was a reset of persons to a place where they could be known. By returning to their land with clear title, even those who had lost everything could be freed from homelessness and alienation, restored to home and reconciliation.

Imagine the effects of this kind of national-level, economic, institutional forgiveness. Imagine the jubilation as those who had ended up in bondage were freed. Imagine the freedom, also, of those who were “winners” in the old system no longer having to coerce and dominate their brothers and sisters.

This would be a world where, as Isaiah said, the poor would have the good news proclaimed to them. What good news? That they were no longer enslaved to their debts; that their loss, their mistrust, their shame had been wiped away; that the day of the Lord had come.

Jubilation is the result of forgiveness. Jubilation is the result of mercy. Jubilation is the result of the true God being known, worshiped, and obeyed.

And this is the day that Jesus said, in his first public address in Luke 4, had come to fulfillment. We pray for it every time we say the prayer he taught us, in Matthew 6. “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” This is a prayer for Jubilee to come. For trust to be reestablished by costly, genuine repentance, forgiveness, and mercy.

But we are at a perilous moment—even as the peril of the pandemic seems to be receding in the US, and we pray will quickly recede in other parts of the world.

One hundred years ago, the Spanish flu, which came on the heels of the Great War, receded. It was followed by the Roaring Twenties. We can totally understand what people at the time were feeling. This summer is going to feel like that in some places—euphoria and jubilation.

But the Roaring Twenties were followed by the most devastating decade of the twentieth century, at least in economic and geopolitical terms. Because in fact they were built on a precarious, K-shaped world order.

Most notably, the Treaty of Versailles imposed on Germany a war reparations debt of 132 billion gold marks—$269 billion in today’s terms. It was a ruinous settlement that arguably was a major factor in the collapse of the German financial system in 1931. Within a year, that triggered similar crises in the UK and the US and set off hyperinflation in Germany that directly contributed to the rise of National Socialism.

The Roaring Twenties were jubilatio

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