Coronavirus Context

Author: James G. Carrier

April 16, 2020

The virus pandemic has many effects. Among the newspapers that I read and the people with whom I communicate, one is that the disruption, hardship and death that it is causing means that we need to take stock. We need to recognise that we are not all in it together, but that the way our countries operate means that some groups suffer more than others. We need to envisage a better world where this is put right and, when the pandemic ends, bring it about.

We have been here before, though rarely have we confronted something so sudden as the virus or so immediately personal as city-wide and country-wide lock-downs. In the economic realm, for instance, many said that the financial crisis of 2007–08 and the ensuing Great Recession was going to bring us to our senses about the idiocies of a financial system run amok. In the political realm, the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 was going to teach us the dangers of neo-imperialist hubris and desire for war.

Although they differ in various ways, the virus, the financial crisis and the invasion of Iraq all caused disruption, hardship and death. Such significant events can lead to the sort of reflection and change that I mentioned. For instance, before the middle of the twentieth century Britain got its welfare state and the US got its first real social safety net. However, these followed two decades of depression and war.

As that suggests, we need to be careful if we want to figure out how the virus will affect things. We need to see the virus as an event, a relatively brief one in all likelihood, one that is occurring in a specific political-economic and social context. That context includes actors and forces that have orientations, practices and resources of their own, which are not likely to be changed in any substantial way unless the virus and its attendant disruption and hardship last a very long time.

As I write this, it has been about four months since the virus first was identified, and in that time the actors and forces in that context seem unchanged.

In Britain, health and social services were on their knees before the virus appeared, and the Conservative government has refused to recognise that Conservative austerity policies since 2010 were a key cause. That government keeps reducing the amount of additional protective gear that it says it will provide for English NHS health workers and the number of virus tests that it will perform. Instead, we are told to clap for NHS staff of an evening. Government supporters have told us that Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, recovered from the virus because he is a doughty fighter, suggesting that those who do not recover are inadequate, not sufficiently doughty.

In the US, the President told us that the virus was fake news, and refused to admit that he did so. He said that dealing with the virus is a matter for the states rather than the federal government, but that ending the lock-downs is his decision, not theirs. That same administration seems happy to fire those who disagree with it, even senior naval officers (Gibbons-Neff et al. 2020). And, of course, Trump’s administration, like previous ones, has allowed a bizarre system of medical care to develop. In it, hospital chains are laying off medical staff while the virus flourishes, because they make their profits on elective surgery, which has dropped sharply with the spread of the virus (Gabler et al. 2020).

In both countries, governments have promised substantial economic relief. Given the prevailing context, it seems to be headed for corporations rather than the public; after all, they are the engine of prosperity. And when it is over the cost of that relief has to be recovered, even though the real interest rate on US and UK government bonds is negative. In Britain, recovery is likely to see renewed interest in austerity. In the US it may well lead, again, to tax cuts aimed at corporations and those with lots of money, and spending cuts elsewhere.

In showing how these contextual forces are powerful, I do not mean to suggest that nothing will change, nor do I mean that we, as citizens, should bite our tongues rather than urge and support changes that we think would be beneficial.

However, if we as analysts want to consider what difference the virus will, or might, make, we need to see it in that context. We should not see it simply as a disruptive force that reveals shortcomings in government, the economy and the like. As I said at the outset, events have revealed those shortcomings before, but much of that context weathered the storm and survived into the present, often in more powerful form.


Gabler, Ellen, Zach Montague and Grace Ashford 2020. During a pandemic, an unanticipated problem: Out-of-work health workers. The New York Times (3 April).

Gibbons-Neff, Thomas, Eric Schmitt, Helene Cooper and John Ismay 2020. ‘There will be losses’: How a captain’s plea exposed a rift in the military. The New York Times (12 April).

Go to Editor View