In a Plague-Time, Reading “Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World,” by Fareed Zakaria

Seventeenth in a series, Notes from a Plague-Time

As the coronavirus pandemic, by some measures, begins to ebb away, this might be the time to read a book about lessons learned from this world-wide event that has brought so much death and destruction.

Even for those of us who don’t quite believe it about the pandemic ebbing — Republican-generated contagion remains strong: in “vaccine resistance,” in red-state governors prematurely reopening their economies only to trigger new viral “hot spots,” in the unyielding anti-science mindset — this still is a good time to read such a book. Because: All ten lessons in Fareed Zakaria’s “Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World” revolve around human agency: our capacity — individually and collectively — to chart our course, post-plague.

As Zakaria writes in his Conclusion: “People can choose which direction they want to push themselves, their societies, and their world. In fact, we have more leeway now. In most eras, history proceeds along a set path and change is hard. But the novel coronavirus has upended society. People are disoriented. Things are already changing, and in that atmosphere, further change becomes easier than ever.”

It says something about the cynicism prevailing for generations now and exacerbated by COVID that I must hasten to add Zakaria is no Pollyanna. When he says “further change becomes easier than ever,” there is nothing at all easy about what lies ahead for us, post-pandemic. But the very idea of “leeway” — of room for humanity to maneuver — as opposed to sifting through the ruin left by COVID, has a tonic utility.

Zakaria, host of his own Sunday talk-show on CNN, a Washington Post columnist, and author of many books of popular history, writes with a broad historic overview, noting the myriad times a people saved themselves or took a fatal misstep. He knows his roster of lessons will strike the more radical as merely “an agenda for reform, not revolution”: “But we do not need an overthrow of the existing order in the hope that something better would take its place”; besides, he believes, his reforms “would add up to a revolution of sorts.” His writing style is mechanistic (lots of stats), but with many references to humanist markers. Writing this book, he says, allowed him to find his own way “to deal with the pandemic.”

“Plagues have consequences”: This overarching point introduces the book. Homer’s Iliad, about Greece’s siege of Troy, opens with the Greek armies ravaged by pestilence. In Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, about the war between democratic Athens and martial Sparta, a plague sweeps Athens early on, with calamitous results: “[H]ad there been no plague,” writes Zakaria, “Athens might have won, and the course of Western history would have been different — with a vibrant democracy becoming a successful role model rather than a flame that burned brightly, but then flickered out.”

Yet plague can yield advance. The bubonic plague of the 14th century wiped out fully half of Europe. But: “Beyond the material effects, the plague prompted an intellectual revolution. Many…asked why God would allow this hell on earth and questioned entrenched hierarchies — which had the ultimate effect of helping Europe break out of its medieval malaise and setting in motion the Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment. From death and horror came science, modernity, and growth.” (This heart sank: How to mount an “intellectual revolution” when nearly three-quarters of all Republicans still believe the lie that Donald Trump won the 2020 election? Was medieval superstition more malleable than today’s stark raving mad?)

These epic events can start with “asymmetric” shocks: “things that start out small but end up sending seismic waves around the world.” Examples: 9/11 was launched by 19 men armed with box-cutters, while the 2008 global financial crisis was sparked by an “obscure financial product, the ‘credit default swap.’” With COVID-19, “a tiny viral particle, circulating in a bat in China’s Hubei Province, has brought the world to its knees.”

The ten lessons of the book’s title flow from ideas Zakaria jotted down early in this pandemic, which he found held up over time. Each contains rich description of political, economic, and cultural markers, combining in a fast read of 250 pages. Briefly, they are:

Lesson One, “Buckle Up,” treats the increasing instability of the world, to which we must adapt. Lesson Two, “What Matters Is Not the Quantity of Government but the Quality,” explains itself. Zakaria gives highest praise to Franklin Roosevelt’s response to the Great Depression, from which apex, with the anti-government “Reagan Revolution,” we have fallen. But since our inception, America has been anti-statist and against big government. America, says Zakaria, must learn “not big or small, but good government.”

Lesson Three, “Markets Are Not Enough,” argues that conservative fealty to markets is not enough, that governments must play a more active role in the economy, especially in a pandemic and especially on behalf of low-paid but “essential” workers. Lesson Four, “People Should Listen to the Experts — and Experts Should Listen to the People,” treats both the “motivated reasoning” enabling a citizen’s belief in untrue things and the empathy-killing effect of power on the elite. Lesson Five, “Life Is Digital,” treats the pluses and minuses of a post-pandemic world that will be more online and automated.

Lesson Six, “Aristotle Was Right — We Are Social Animals,” treats the city as the site where we social animals thrive. He quotes E.B. White: “The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines.” Yet cities, being a country’s “most globalized part,” are incubators of disease. London’s case instructs: 1666 was a “devil’s year” for the city, destroyed doubly by plague, then the Great Fire, razing 80% of the city. “[C]rucially, Londoners chose to ‘build back better.’ The old city, mostly wooden, had been a tinderbox. The new city recreated itself in brick and stone. London as we know it today rose from the ashes.”

Lesson Seven, “Inequality Will Get Worse,” treats the inequality of income and health outcomes exacerbated by COVID, but rather stints on how to get the ever-richer 1% and ever-bigger corporations to share the wealth. Lesson Eight, “Globalization Is Not Dead,” counters a COVID-induced expectation that nations must turn inward: “Advanced economies are today, almost by definition, service economies,” and that servicing will continue. Lesson Nine, “The World Is Becoming Bipolar,” posits that the post-pandemic international sphere will feature two heavyweights, America and China. With China newly aggressive and America perceived to be in decline, miscalculation is rife; war would be truly catastrophic for a more pandemic-prone world. (Zakaria is no declinist: He believes America can prevail — and he finished this book while Trump was still president.) Lesson Ten, “Sometimes the Greatest Realists Are the Idealists,” presents Zakaria’s arguments against the cynicism and selfishness magnified by COVID and for restoration of a liberal international order.

Zakaria’s ultimate solution, following on his ten lessons, is: better “global governance.” Knowing “global governance” evokes fears of “one world government” and “a secret army descending…in black helicopters,” he nevertheless holds that only cooperation will save us: “agreements among sovereign nations to work together to solve common problems.” With terms like “sovereign nations” and its non-polemic tone, this book is one you can safely give to Republican friends as an invitation to the Renaissance. For their further reading (and yours), there are 60 pages of notes.

One criticism: Zakaria is such a deep humanist, but over and over he fails to recognize, in this book and on his TV program, the other half of humanity — women — in his citations for expertise, leadership, historical insight, artistic achievement, or even anecdote. Over and over, as Zakaria was teeing up another cite, I would be disappointed: “Sigh, another guy.” True, History has slighted women, too, but a card-carrying humanist should not.

This helpful user’s guide deserves to be in your kit-bag as we pull out of our COVID nightmare. Again, Zakaria sees an opportunity to use this fluid moment and to innovate, so as to recover from the damage done by the pandemic and recover America’s footing. Perhaps because he himself is an immigrant (he grew up in India), Zakaria believes fervently in America as a beacon to the world. He knows full well how America’s light has dimmed, but he also believes in our ability to recover. With this book, he maps the way.

[Note: Sadly, since publishing this book, Zakaria lost his mother to COVID-19, as he announced on his program in a moving tribute. Fatma Zakaria, 85, was a journalist and educator and lived in Mumbai, India.]

Our times examined via politics, culture, morality. Author, "Can America Save Itself from Decline?" Playwright. Contributor, HuffPost. www.carlaseaquist.com.

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