Business Economy

The global human experience of the year that changed the world

Naveen Chandra | Updated on October 20, 2021

Adam Tooze’s Shutdown is a well-researched ringside view of a pandemic-induced polycrisis and how states and societies responded

Perhaps ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet’, the rock song by Randy Backman years ago, would be a more apt title for this book.

The most challenging thing about writing a book on the impact of the pandemic on the world’s economy while the pandemic continues to rage is that it can at best capture history at the present, but it can’t claim to know how the story will eventually play out.

As we witness the virus in action every day and as every aspect of it is still fresh in our memory, leaving us all with some personal experience of it, it may perhaps be too early to call its ending. For instance, as I write this, cinema theatres in Mumbai that contribute 40 per cent of India’s box office are shut, so any impact on consumer viewing habits is still unknown. Even local trains that ferry 8 million people to work every day in this maximum city is open only to frontline workers, so the post-pandemic work culture may yet need to be seen. Airlines still run with capacity restrictions and restaurants and malls globally are yet to figure out a foolproof way to admit customers without spreading the virus any further. Just last week, Singapore reported a surge in cases, even as Latin America continues to grapple with its first wave. The post virus world is yet to emerge from the haze.

I, therefore, picked up Tooze’s book with a little scepticism.

Calling this pandemic a ‘Polycrisis’, Tooze captures the waves of unprecedented disruption caused by the virus across industries and paints a vivid picture of the global devastation caused. French complexity theorist, Edgar Morin had coined the term ‘Polycrisis’ to capture the convergence of eurozone crisis, the Ukraine conflict, Brexit, the refugee crisis and the surge in nationalist populism all at the same time. He observed that in such times, distinct threats merge into a single new threat, as current problems get layered with historical, ideological and political problems, all of which intersect and interfere with each other. Covid-19 has brought conflicts of economic, political, tech and personal issues to the forefront, all pressing for solutions at the same time.

By standards of historical plagues, coronavirus isn’t very lethal, but the unprecedented reaction to it converted it into a global crisis, throwing up the structural tensions that had built up in societies over time.

Tooze makes an interesting point that political responsibility is generally measured against forward-looking projections, forecasts and warnings. In the sense that greater the threat, greater the responsibility. That’s why states often pass laws against fortune tellers and prophets of doom since their predictions can endanger public peace of mind. But there are no laws against social scientists and epidemiologists predicting catastrophes so when the Imperial College of London predicted that the death toll from Covid would run into millions, governments felt a chill in their spines. And those that didn’t heed the warnings paid a price, like Trump, who was busy with his impeachment as the pandemic spread or like Brazil, where the government came under pressure for its poor handling of the public panic.

No hospital in the world is prepared for a runaway pandemic. Fact is coronavirus exposed the institutional lack of preparation across the world, whether it was a rich country or poor. Tooze chronicles in great detail the responses from governments around the world as they mirrored each other, with direct transfer of cash to the lower rungs of society, a dropping of interest rates, moratoriums on payments, a fund for business recovery and general government intervention in society of an unprecedented scale not seen since the world wars.

Like any other event, the pandemic also threw up new winners and losers and Tooze compiles some interesting data points. Amazon doubled its workforce during 2020 even as hundreds of companies filed for bankruptcy as 95 per cent of the worlds’ economies suffered a contraction of capital and 3 billion adults were forced to work from home. UK discovered that 9 per cent of kids in the country didn’t have access to computers. As exports stalled, nation states turned inwards for economic growth, benefits of globalization were being questioned.

In comparing the response to the virus between the democratic United States and state controlled China, Tooze observes that while China created the massive disaster in the first place, it’s response was equally massive, swift and severe, punishing ruthlessly the early mistakes in Hubei Province and Wuhan and locking down China in early Feb to control the virus. On the other hand, in the United States, the Trump administration veered from denial to warning to blaming China to dilly dallying on mask guidance, mashing up local lockdowns and dismissing scientific advice, all resulting in an astounding death toll.

At places, Tooze leftist leanings come to the fore when he launches his commentary on neo liberalism.

The coronavirus remarkably managed to concentrate all minds across the world on a single issue. German Chancellor Merkel went on to say that the nation state is obsolescent, that individual countries weren’t prepared to respond, and that Europe needed to act together. She then reversed her decision not to support Eurozone bonds and went ahead and helped create a large reconstruction and resiliency fund.

As Tooze writes about the global attempt to create a vaccine for a constantly mutating virus, he details Operation Warp Speed which was launched in May 2020 as a collaboration between biotech firms, big pharma, the pentagon and US department of health with a $12 billion budget to manufacture the vaccine with six leading pharma groups, including Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson . In a chapter that reads like a movie thriller, he says that the military members of Operation Warp Speed turned up in military uniforms and set a battle rhythm during daily meetings.

Tooze terms a risk that is taken for granted so much that it is underestimated as a Gray Rhino and how we may be missing a pattern of how the viruses are now appearing frequently. Since 2003 when SARS broke out there has been a steady influx of newer viruses, Avian Flu 2005, Swine fly 2008, Ebola 2014, MERS 2015, Zika 2017 each of which had a local nerve center and smaller area of influence till Covid stuck in 2019 and created a global pandemic.

Except for the vaccine manufacturer Serum Institutes’ struggle to supply the doses, India doesn’t get much of a mention in the book. The migration of labour, walking many miles back home, the delay in vaccines due to the election season, the first-time stock market investors who added unprecedented monies into a great rally, the rapid adaption to digital and above all the massive funds raise that changed the game for one of the world’s richest men, Mukesh Ambani, may be the real impact stories to tell.

Tooze choses to use Shutdown instead of Lockdown in the title of the book to imply a voluntary induced shutdown rather than forced closure. In India, PM Modi had used the word Janata Curfew. Shutting down from the world also meant looking inwards to one’s family, redefining the family relationships and structure. Tooze doesn’t discuss the impact on personal life due to the Shutdown. Marriages and divorces, families spending all time together, home studies, loneliness of people, religious challenges of cremating bodies due to a shortage of coffins and other such issues don’t find a mention at all.

Tooze peppers his easy prose with research nuggets, to make it a brisk read. Read the book for a thorough ringside view of how the pandemic unfolded across the world and how states and societies reacted and how completely unprepared we are for the next pandemic.

Naveen Chandra runs a movie studio that produces regional language feature films.


SHUTDOWN: How Covid Shook the World’s Economy

Adam Tooze

Penguin Random House

368 pages; Rs 899/-


Check out the book on Amazon

Published on October 20, 2021

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