Covid-19 is making us rethink our societies

"As the Covid-19 reminds us, no wealth can protect us from becoming infected."

There was a time when politics was considered the most important science. It is fair to say that the advent of liberalism, in the late 17th century subverted that logic and made economics the most important science. This change has been profoundly detrimental to our societies and to way how we govern people. There was a reason why politics was the most important science: because it provides a holistic approach to life in society. Politics, as philosopher Hannah Arendt stated, is about handling the freedoms of each human being within the general frame of the common good.

In these times of pandemic and looking at human behaviour, one cannot help but reflect on the type of society we had for the past decades, the type of society we have now that the Covid-19 is spreading and killing at an alarming rate and the type of society we will become after this is gone. This is the role of politics par excellence and this why politics is so important.

We were taught that individualism and self-interest were the main drivers of human action. We were taught that there is no common good or, if there is, it arises from individuals pursuing their own interests. We diligently defunded non-profitable activities because they were not deemed necessary for our economy. The arts were one of them. Investment in culture has been drastically cut. A vast majority of people does not go to the theatre, read or go to classical music concerts. We cut funding for education and research, in particular in the social sciences. We were told that productivity is the most important thing. We were told that we needed to maintain “sound finances”, with a 3 per cent deficit of GDP and a debt of 60 per cent of GDP. We made enormous cuts in our national health services in order to create “sound finances”, especially in countries that were bailed out, like Portugal.

All of this is now coming together to create the perfect storm during this time of pandemic. As a result of individualism, we became selfish and incapable of making sacrifices. When asked to quarantine, many ignore it and instead choose to go out thinking only about their self-interest, helping spread the disease. Paradoxically, those who quarantine have found out that our isolation time is made bearable by those very things deemed unnecessary: culture and arts. Musicians offering free concerts though live streaming or performing on balconies, libraries and publishers making books available online free of charge, theatre plays available for all. All these things are now helping to keep our mental health. Make no mistake about these times. As Covid-19 is killing and jobs are lost, another potent blow to our societies will be the impact on our mental health.

As doctors worldwide make a desperate plea for people to stay at home, what is also made clear is the lack of means our health systems face. Covid-19 is reminding us, like previous pandemics like the Spanish flu, tuberculosis or typhoid fever, that such diseases have killed millions in the absence of a free national healthcare system ( The Covid-19 pandemic reminds us too clearly that consumption and hedonism, which were promoted as supreme values by liberalism, do not make us immune to death and disease.

Neoliberal economics has failed us. The free market and for-profit businesses have made millions jobless and homeless. In Portugal, until a few days ago, entire families and the elderly were being evicted from the houses where they lived their entire lives in order to make way for hotels, Airbnbs and real estate speculation. As the Covid-19 rages our societies, evictions are being temporarily suspended, not just in Portugal but elsewhere. The homeless are being housed in empty houses or hotels. What will we do to these people after the pandemic is gone? Will we throw them into the streets again?

What about the low wage jobs like supermarket cashiers, cleaning employees at hospitals, truck drivers and the like who are now being lauded as heroes as they do the job they had always done but had never been valued by our society? Will we be willing to pay a decent wage that allows people to have a decent life?

Not all are bad news these days. A lot of help groups are sprouting: taking the groceries to the elderly, helping feed stray animals, medicine students volunteering to help. We are witnessing the emergence of a cooperative economy that is helping mitigate the problems left open by the free market. In the face of panic hoarding, governments are regulating economic activity. Socialism is back.

Will we watch the rebirth of the welfare state and the debunking of the myth of the efficient allocation of goods by the free market? As the Covid-19 reminds us, no wealth can protect us from becoming infected. What happens to one person impacts all others. The very definition of a common good. And the reason why politics should be the most important science, and not economics.

  • Professor of Political Science at the Institute of Social and Political Sciences (ISCSP), University of Lisbon