Can Covid-19 Help Create a New Renaissance?

By Professor Sohail Inayatullah

An earlier version of this appeared in Rohit Talwar, editor, Aftershocks and Opportunities. London: Fastfuture, 2020.
I would like to thank Dr. Peter Black for useful comments on earlier drafts.


Seven paradigms or discourses are used to understand possible responses to Covid-19. These are: the medical, next disease, beyond meat, leadership and climate change, the end of capitalism. The final discourse suggests that we may be able to create a new renaissance.

During the global financial crisis over a decade ago, the Financial Times reported that at its heart this was a narrative crisis. How you dealt with it depended on the story you used. Was it a mortgage crisis, a banking crisis, a geo-political crisis of the shift to the Pacific (higher savings rates), a financial crisis, or even a crisis of capitalism? Ultimately, the deeper crisis was waived off, and Wall Street was saved at the expense of Main Street. China also helped to save the day and all returned to normalcy. The window of a possibility of deep change did not materialize.

We are in a similar situation today. As during the French Revolution, time is plastic, we have entered uncharted waters. Once the crisis nears its end, many will be tempted to go back to the world we knew. However, this is also the opportunity to create a different world – a portal as Arundhati Roy, argues. As biosecurity expert Peter Black argues, “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”

What we do will be decided by the narrative we use. How deep do we wish to go, how much do we wish to change? Here I present seven paradigms, or discourses, to understand the possible responses to Covid-19 that may play out.


In this narrative, the goal is to use the pandemic for political points, to hold on to and extend power. Thus, in India Modhi and his cronies blame muslims. In the USA, Trump and his regime, call it the Kung-flu, the China-virus. Instead of a focus on global solidarity – we are all in the same storm, though different boats – the focus is on division. Equally significant has been the rise of the conspiracy movement, largely prevalent in the extreme right and the spiritual left. Feeling powerless and believing in over-inflated agency, they create grand theories where there is a secret elite – often Jews – who have created the virus for unknown purposes. In both approaches, it is political point scoring that comes first.


However, If COVID-19 is a global health crisis i.e. a disease crisis, then the answer is easy: find the cure and the vaccine. Ensure open science, the free-flow information, and find the medical solutions. The main insights will be that global science – the free flow of information – working together can create the difference. As a Spanish biological researcher commented: “You give the footballer one million euros a month and biological researcher 1 ,800 euros. You are looking for a treatment now. Go to Cristiano Ronaldo or Messi now and they will find you a cure. Science and technology with predictive artificial intelligence and innovative companies lead the way.


While this resolves the short and medium range future, what happens when a similar zoonotic disease erupts? To meet an increasing demand, wildlife are being sourced from more and more remote patches of the planet that humans have disturbed (i.e. land use change)—to satisfy resource consumption needs at the broadest level. More erratic excretion patterns of viruses follow, coupled with mixing of species that increase the risk of so called ‘spill over events’ that manifest more as a food consumption crisis. Required here is the banning of wet markets, of eating of exotic animals. It also means challenging masculinities in East Asia and the search for exotic alternative health potions. But mere legislation will not solve the day. We need to ensure that those trading in these lucrative areas – the bounty hunters – find new work, otherwise, the trade will just go underground. This again is not just a Chinese national issue but one requiring a global coordinated effort. It will require Interpol to begin to shift toward becoming Earthpol.


Perhaps this is more than just a zoonotic crisis. It is not just wildlife that is the problem, but our consumption patterns. Many blame factory farming and warn that the next pandemic will emerge from how we produce food. Hence, we need to redesign cities and what we eat so we do not encroach in wildlife areas. We also urgently need to change our relationship with meat. While challenging meat may be too much for many, the current production models certainly need to shift.


We now know that global focus is possible. Global coordination is possible. Solutions unimaginable months ago are now the new normal. This crisis can be seen as a pre-run, a mock trial, preparing us for the real event – climate change. Some of the drivers for the zoonotic disease challenge, such as land use change, are also directly related to climate change. What we learn today, or the changes we need to make today, can be crucial for the world we create. Thus, this crisis is essentially about leadership. Can we ensure the shift to a greener planet? This means moving toward solar energies and ending the fossil fuel era.


As we enter a severe recession, or a seven year malaise, possibly a global depression, the real issue is economic. Creating a world where “money keeps on rolling” and not getting stuck in the hands of a few becomes urgent and imperative. This is a world where glo-cal solutions are focused on equity and prosperity. One where universal basic income, free education, health, and housing for all, are not the sole concern of the left, but required for global security. We thus need to challenge the world capitalist system with its mantra of “more, more, more for the few.” In this scenario, uneven development distorted by deep global inequity cannot continue. Capitalism dies: we help it disappear. Most likely this will mean three economic spheres as argued by Shrii Sarkar, the founder of Proutist Economics. Global cooperatives, globalized industries and markets. It will require global governance if not global government. For many, this means surveillance and the loss of individual liberties. For others, this means the end of identity based on whom one hates and other imagined realities. It means accepting that we are human beings first. Innovative technologies create stunning wealth for all.


This then is a much deeper crisis and challenge.

  • Our view of ourselves as material beings is being challenged. We can either panic or go deep within and mindfully find peace.
  • Our view of ourselves as defined by the nation-state is being challenged. Viruses do not care about boundaries nor does nuclearisation bring safety.
  • Our view of ourselves as outside of nature, as separate from Gaia is being challenged. Our view of ourselves as defined by economics only is being challenged. More and more will recognise and identify ‘the Growth Delusion’.
The deep challenge lies in fixing the great imbalance. In our four spheres of life: economy, society, spirit, and nature, we have overly favored one at the expense of others. We need a great Gaian rebalance, moving to a world with a quadruple bottom line: Prosperity, Purpose, People, and Planet. COVID-19 can help us create a new Renaissance – a transformation of self and society, home and plant. There have been two historical renaissances. The Asian Renaissance was personal: the quest for inner peace, enlightenment, the utopia of the mind. The European Renaissance challenged dogma, allowing science and art to flourish, creating the possibility of revolution after revolution against authority that does not serve the utopia of the material world.

We are in a similar process now. However, after the vaccine is found there will be a push to go back to what we know, the used future. If we are not careful and purposeful, it will be a pause followed by the pursuit of light-speed economic growth—back to where we were. Gaian leadership at this time is about charting a new direction, exploring scenarios, and creating global systems that help us arrive at a new future.

Professor Sohail Inayatullah is inaugural UNESCO Chair in Futures Studies; Professor, Tamkang University, Taiwan; Associate, Melbourne Business School, Australia. Researcher, and Metafuture is an educational think tank which explores futures-oriented issues and is currently offering online courses in Futures Studies.

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