“We cannot kill the coronavirus, it’s a part of us”
I remember quite clearly back in the 1970s, when it slowly became apparent to Danish society that oil was a limited energy source. Car-free Sundays were introduced, and the prices of oil and petrol products increased considerably. As an extension of this, we also experienced that the problem was not fixed by having car-free Sundays. We couldn’t return to the same unrestrained over-consumption of oil products. We had to go through a crisis that demanded massive changes in our society and the way we generated and consumed energy. In retrospect, the oil crisis started what we are still seeing the effects of today: environmental focus, sustainability strategies and the green transition. For me, the oil crisis was an acknowledgement that changes in society affect us like an earthquake: massive and potentially devastating. It was also an acknowledgement, however, that everything can be different. Crises are thus a very tangible expression of a system’s lack of ability or willingness to make changes.
The world began to change, and we came to understand that, just as the Stone Age didn’t stop because we ran out of stone, then the Fossil Fuel Age would not stop either simply because we ran out of oil and gas, but because we replaced them with better, more environmentally-friendly and sustainable alternatives. In Denmark, both coordinated and uncoordinated changes occurred. At the peripheries of society, local smiths, wholesome enlightened types and dedicated idealists began developing wind energy and other alternatives: an energy source that is now one of the Danish pioneers, forming the basis for large-scale industries and thousands of workplaces in Denmark.
The similarity between the oil crisis and the coronavirus crisis is that society’s immune system, just as it did previously, has begun making society more tolerant and flexible in its ability to cope with the new and unknown. In the old days we believed that the immune system could be compared to a soldier fighting an enemy and that we could keep society healthy by removing what didn’t fit in. Today we believe more in an immune system that changes the entire system, so that it can cope with uninvited guests, which over time go from being parasites to becoming a part of the system – or alternatively, killing the host.
It cannot thus be said with certainty that everything will end happily when society is attacked, as it is being now by the coronavirus. Society cannot protect itself completely against every danger. Instead, society lives according to the mantra; what doesn’t kill society, makes it stronger. A society minimises potential risks by dealing with it as communication of risk. In the current instance, the risk of overloading the healthcare system has become so great that it runs the risk of collapse. The immune system releases the stream of communication that we must expand the capacity in the healthcare system, but also that society must change its behaviour in order to protect the healthcare system.
When society is pushed to an extreme, it shows its structure and the expectations we attach to the known world. It also shows us that everything can be different. We are now seeing that society is a global society. The corona problem is not Danish, Italian or American: it’s global. There is a lesson here for us to learn: we must learn to acknowledge problems globally and solve them locally. Next time a stubborn virus appears somewhere in the world, we must not only prepare the Danish emergency services: we should also dispatch healthcare personnel out to that place in the world where the problem has occurred and fight it at its hotbed, together with the locals. Is this anything new? No, not really. We have done this with our military for decades. We have adapted the Danish military to identifying and tackling global problems and local efforts outside of the Danish borders.
Society – by which I mean the global society – is, in my opinion, comprised of the sum of all the communications that take place in the world. That which is connected by communication is a part of the same world. What’s important for society right now is to maintain communication on the continuation of society. If society, either in the distant or not-so-distant future is wiped out, we will confirm this by the fact that all communication will stop.
How can we describe the situation here in 2020? Everyone in the world is communicating about the coronavirus crisis, and as a society, we have reduced our expectations of what we normally do. We have collectively bid farewell to the known world and begun to communicate in a new way about the new world after COVID-19. Our changed expectations towards society allow something new to breakthrough.
Right now in Denmark, we can already see that our world is a digital one. We are in full swing with investigating and developing the digital possibilities, because they can help us in the new world: for better and for worse. We can see that our financial systems are electronic, so that we are letting go of bank notes and coins and moving into a digital world where a virus is not physical but virtual. We are seeing our shopping becoming web-based, so we buy through online stores and get the goods delivered to our front door. In many ways, the coronavirus crisis has strengthened the development of the technologies and flows that were already in existence.
In a few years, we will hopefully view the coronavirus crisis as just one crisis out of many which society has got through: one big, and in many ways positive, step in our shared presentation and communication of the world within the world. We are first-hand witnesses to one of the 21st-century’s biggest global society events. I believe that we, as a (global) society will come out of this crisis stronger, and that despite the huge costs, we will gain a more robust society that is ready to resist the next challenge – together.