Covid as Critical Juncture – please comment on this draft paper/join us on Zoom

My LSE students are a challenging lot (not as in ‘problem’; as in ‘challenging’) and their questions got me thinking about Covid-19 as a critical juncture. The result is this short-ish (12 page) paper (much improved by the students’ comments on earlier drafts). Please send comments. We will also be discussing it on Zoom next Wednesday (8th April) 2.30-3.30pm UK time, if you’re interested.

The meeting details are the following:
(you’ll need to download Zoom if you don’t have it)
Meeting ID: 539 628 797
Password: Juncture

Below are some extracts (only a fraction of the paper, so please don’t say ‘you haven’t discussed X’ without checking the full version!):

‘Critical Junctures’ are the scandals, crises or conflicts that can throw the status quo and power relations into the air, opening the door to previously unthinkable reforms. In Plagues and the Paradox of Progress, Thomas Bollyky argues that such events include health shocks: ‘Encounters with infectious disease have played a key role in the evolution of cities, the expansion of trade routes, the conduct of war and participation in pilgrimages.’

So what might be the longer term impacts of Covid-19?


Covid-19 shines an unforgiving light on all political leaders and systems, exposing their strengths and weaknesses in preparing, detecting, responding and (eventually) leading the recovery from a crisis.

At a national level, Nic Cheeseman sees three different mechanisms through which Covid undermines democracy:

‘Authoritarian leaders use COVID19 to ban rallies and protests, and in some cases cancel elections, eg by declaring states of emergency. Less obviously, authoritarian leaders simply do more of what they have always been doing in the knowledge that no one is paying attention. The third mechanism is more universal and less intentional, at least in the short term. The assumption of emergency powers by governments creates long-term problems because these powers – and the new technologies developed to respond to crises – are rarely fully reversed when the crisis is over. This is the ‘ratchet effect’ and it is far more insidious.’

Nowhere has the encroachment on democratic and civic space been more apparent than over the issue of surveillance. Data protection has been swept aside in many countries in the interests of tracking and containing the pandemic (see Economist summary table).


Social norms:the expectations that guide assumptions and behaviour about how we relate and treat our fellows, can change in the aftermath of a CJ.

Gender: The crisis is heavily gendered, both in impact and response. Women comprise the majority of health and social care workers and are on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19. Mass school closures have particularly affected women because they still bear much of the responsibility for childcare. Women already do three-times more unpaid care work than men – and caring for relatives with the virus adds to the burden. In many developing countries, the informal economy (often predominantly female) is receiving much less state attention than waged work. There is a clear risk of increased violence against women as a result of self-isolation.

What is not yet clear is whether this will lead to longer term rethinking of, for example, the importance and policy priority given to the care economy. World War One was followed by an upsurge in women’s emancipation, whereas after World War Two, women were driven out of the workforce and back into the home. Which will it be this time?

Solidarity: The extraordinary mutual aid response and explosion of volunteering in many countries could be a turning point in many people’s relationship with their communities and with politics. Once the virus is defeated, some will probably morph into social movements, perhaps in the way that the civic action in response to Mexico’s 1985 earthquake sowed the seeds for new social movements that ultimately led to the overthrow of Mexico’s one party state.

Space as a Human Right: At a personal level, the sudden limitation/removal of public space through lockdown makes us acutely conscious of space as a public good. Will the crisis lead to new priority and attention being given to the right to space?

The Economy

The Economist believes that ‘the world is in the early stages of a revolution in economic policymaking.’ Austerity has gone out the window; ‘whatever it takes’ is on the lips of the world’s leaders. It even sees a possible knock-on effect: ‘If central banks promised to fund the government during the coronavirus pandemic, they might ask, then why shouldn’t they also fund it to launch an expensive war against a foreign enemy or to invest in a Green New Deal?’

This may of course be wishful thinking – magic money trees abounded during the global financial crisis, but rapidly disappeared in the upsurge of austerity that followed.

The impact on low and middle income countries has received less media attention in the North. By 28th March, foreign investors had pulled $83bn out of emerging markets since the start of the crisis, the largest capital outflow ever recorded. Remittances from migrant workers – often a crucial lifeline that globally comes to four times the volume of aid – are also bound to fall.

What does this mean for Aid?

Aid agencies will be forced to respond to what could become an extraordinary humanitarian situation – imagine the impact of Coronavirus running riot in overcrowded refugee camps with few facilities – and also to maintain work on existing priorities. Where will the money come from? A survey by the New Humanitarian concluded ‘attention and resources could shift away from some of the world’s most vulnerable populations even as COVID-19 presents a new threat to them.’

In the short and medium-term, there will be a desperate need for debt relief that by one estimate could free up $50bn over the next two years. In the longer term, development cooperation will have to play its part in ensuring that the post-Covid recovery ‘leaves no-one behind’, for example by addressing the generational damage caused by the lockdown of most of the world’s schools.

Some Implications for Advocacy and Campaigns

Advocacy around the pandemic is likely to follow a sequence:

  • Advocacy bearing witness to the impact of the pandemic, especially on vulnerable/forgotten populations (eg shanty towns, prisons).
  • Advocacy for particular policy responses, such as debt relief, or safety nets for those in the informal economy.
  • Advocacy to address the unintended negative consequences of the responses.
  • Advocacy to shape the priorities of subsequent recovery policies.

The tone and content of advocacy and campaigns will need to adapt to where we are in that sequence – business as usual is neither wise, nor feasible.

Tone: At a time when the public is anxious, scared, and in need of comfort, I am startled by how much of the advocacy I see on my timeline retains its pre-crisis angry, finger-wagging tone. All too often, the general message seems to be ‘we were right before; now because of the virus, we are even righter. Why aren’t you listening? You must be stupid and/or evil.’

Content: What will emerge in the medium/long term is unpredictable, and activists will need to ‘dance with the system’ as it changes around them:

  • Some existing advocacy priorities will become less salient – a real challenge to organizations where advocates become deeply identified with ‘their’ issue.
  • Some advocacy priorities will become more relevant and powerful, provided they can be convincingly linked to the crisis (see the gender-based violence example, or the importance of the care economy).
  • But new issues will also emerge, like the earlier discussion on space as a human right.
  • New threats will also appear, as what Naomi Klein dubbed ‘disaster capitalists’ seize on the crisis as window of opportunity. Defensive strategies – stopping bad stuff from happening – are likely to be needed.

Final Thoughts

Stepping back from the detail, I am struck by the gulf between the discussion in governments such as the UK and US, and the response from the ground. At the level of national leadership, the moment feels more like World War One – a crisis that bequeaths a legacy of suspicion and non-cooperation for years or decades to come, sowing the seeds of future crises. But in the streets and communities, the upsurge in solidarity and compassion feels much more World War Two, a moment of courage and creativity, of new forms of human organization emerging to make the world a better place.

The question for advocates and campaigners then becomes how do we enable that World War Two spirit and commitment to find rapid and lasting political expression?

If there is one message from this paper it is that advocates and campaigners, fired up by what Martin Luther King called ‘the fierce urgency of now’ must embrace, study and understand that history in order to shape it. Because it is a history that is being written right now, by all of us.

Here’s the link to the full paper

Featured image: Renato Gizzi, CC License

Subscribe to our Newsletter

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of our emails. For information about our privacy practices, please see our .

We use MailChimp as our marketing platform. By subscribing, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to MailChimp for processing. Learn more about MailChimp's privacy practices here.


22 Responses to “Covid as Critical Juncture – please comment on this draft paper/join us on Zoom”
  1. Silva

    Some interesting thoughts, but it is sooooooo much focused on a theoretical UK experience. There is much more already to be seen… and much more food for thought could be extracted from the experience of other countries in Europe. Oscillations among utopia and dystopia are concretely materializing already, to an extent that this paper is failing to appreciate. Equally, options for advocacy are much messier than the general trends shared so far. And there is a desperate need for an advocacy of the “here and now” capable not only to witness, but to quickly propose and link to action. Another big theme absent here is how we can learn from the humanitarian know-how and approaches (meaning: the capacity to work bottom-up and empowering at the time of disaster). There is a lot that we would have applied elsewhere by default, to other crisis… but has been absent in the modalities of response to this crisis.

  2. Steve Golub

    Duncan, I’ve read the full paper and am impressed with your attempt to grapple with such a vital, sweeping, evolving topic. I can’t pull together an overall analysis right now, much less offer a list of suggestions. I’ll instead just offer some initial observations:
    1. One possible upshot of the COVID-19 catastrophe is that it’s somewhat increased the chances of us in the United States ridding ourselves of the catastrophe that is Donald Trump. Above and beyond his appeals to nativism, racism and sexism, his one big argument for re-election was that our economy (even given all its inequality and inequities) seemed to be doing well for some folks whose votes mainly hinge on having jobs, a modicum of business success, expanding stock portfolios, etc. COVID-19 has flushed that argument down the drain. In addition, Trump’s three months of ridiculous denials and disinformation about the seriousness of the virus should come back to haunt him come our November presidential election. And while Joe Biden is hardly inspiring or my first (or second, or third, or etc.) choice for the Democratic nomination, he does have a certain appeal to the very on-the-fence voters needed to defeat Trump. So COVID-19 could help rid the United States and the world of a demagogue whose second term in office would gut our democracy and wreak various types of havoc across the globe, not least in terms of political and economic development.
    2. Nonetheless, there remains the possibility that Trump will, in his own way, “not let this crisis go to waste,” in at least two ways: a) He could conceivably convince enough Americans that he somehow saved the day, claiming (as per the Imperial College study) that 2.2 million people in the United States would have died, if it were not for his actions that kept the deaths to “only” 10 or 20 percent of that. I don’t think he can get away with this, but then again I didn’t think he could get away with a lot of things he’s gotten away with. b) Aided by the legislatures and governors in a number of our states, and perhaps even by our Supreme Court, Trump could exploit the public health crisis to postpone the election, suppress Democratic turnout or otherwise de-democratize the process. For example, and to make a long legal story short, those Republican-controlled state governments could cite the crisis to cancel voting and substitute their own preferences for selecting the “electors” whom voters normally pick by virtue of majority votes in each state. Normally just a formality, those electors are the folks who actually select the president under our very odd system. And yes, our constitution would allow this.
    3. If I had to bet right now, I’d go with Biden beating Trump. But Trump has shown that there is no low too low for him to go, and the Republican Party has gone along for the ride all the way.
    4. One positive upshot that I’m more positive about is the environmental impact. Lots of businesses, government offices and other organizations will discover that they don’t need nearly the same number of workers commuting in five days a week, if at all. This will not only spare the air in terms of fewer cars, buses, etc. in daily use. It also will have ripple effects in terms of not nearly as much office space, heating, electricity, etc. being consumed. The driver here will be financial savings rather than saving the earth. But it will reduce carbon and other emissions, nevertheless.
    5. I’m less sanguine about the fall-out on other fronts. The coronavirus will devastate many low income countries in ways that could make the harm to Spain and Italy look relatively minor. (One saving grace is that the lower life expectancies under normal circumstances in poorer countries might ameliorate the devastation, given that it hits the elderly the hardest, though on the other hand the percentage of the population vulnerable due to compromised immune systems and other health problems is higher in such countries.) The result could well be not just economic havoc, along with widespread death and permanent health damage to survivors, but severe conflict, instability and population flows.
    6. I’m afraid that the negative impact on development aid will be at least threefold: a) Much development assistance will be converted to humanitarian aid for years to come. b) It also will be converted to security assistance. c) The governments of wealthier nations may well cut back on overall development assistance, due to both limited resources and urgent problems to address at home.
    7. Having said all this, it could well be that more favorable trends and policies could take hold years down the line, as the health and economic ripple effects of COVID-19 finally fade. But it’s also possible that the crisis will bring out the worst in people and governments, with very nasty political ripple effects holding sway.

  3. George

    Duncan, I must confess I haven’t read the full paper – sorry. But I wonder whether there’s also something around how the crisis could shape social norms around our relationship with the natural environment. My understanding is that coronavirus jumped from bats to humans (in so-called ‘wet markets’), as have many other virus that became epidemics (SARs, Ebola, even HIV). As our global population expands it pushes closer and closer up against the ecosystems where the world’s remaining biodiversity resides (forests, wetlands etc). This increases the likelihood of future leaps by animal viruses to human populations – and of course urbanisation increases the likelihood of these spreading rapidly. At the same time, here in the UK at least, there seems to be quite a lot of media attention on how the lockdown is creating opportunities for normally pressured wildlife to thrive, as well as talk of people (at least those of us priviledged enough not to be overwhelmed by the complete loss of jobs and incomes) reengaging with the natural world and appreciating the precious time each day spent outside the house. Could this be the opportunity to get biodiversity and preservation of the natural environment back into the forefronts of people’s minds? Perhaps this is idealistic thinking from the mind of a priviledged individual who to date hasn’t experienced the personal suffering that COVID19 has unleashed for thousands already (both in terms of health impacts and income impacts). However, if we want to address the causal mechanisms behind the pandemic, I think at some point as a society/societies we’ll have to be asking about our relationship with the natural world and whether are willing to carry on with the current trajectory with these associated risks.

  4. Narayan Manandhar

    Superb observation: “At the level of national leadership, the moment feels more like World War One – a crisis that bequeaths a legacy of suspicion and non-cooperation for years or decades to come, sowing the seeds of future crises. But in the streets and communities, the upsurge in solidarity and compassion feels much more World War Two, a moment of courage and creativity, of new forms of human organization emerging to make the world a better place.” Can we have WWI +WWII = WWIII?

  5. I read the paper. Thanks for stimulating and inviting a collaboration. Three points to add: 1/ the likelihood of increasing violence in poor countries as their govts mis-handle movement restrictions (I heard of de-densifying slums in South Africa, and the possibility of farm inputs not being supplied in other places), 2/ that in 2021 global institutions fail to get nations to agree on action on the climate crisis because govts are too stressed by C-19 to consider it, and 3/ donor wallets are more than “constrained” – they are surely almost empty! Oh, and a nod to Singapore for preparing for the oh-so predictable pandemic (SARS, Gates TED in 2015) would be a nice touch.

  6. Is this the start of a new geo-political divide?

    On one side of the divide, Covid19 is likely to become endemic where health & disease surveillance systems cannot keep pace.

    On the other side of the divide, Covid19 will be controlled (maybe eradicated) by social isolation.

    People will be unable to cross this divide to the ‘Covid19 free’ side without being quarantined.

    Until Covid19 can be controlled (maybe though vaccination?), countries that use social isolation will distance themselves from those that cannot – and separate themselves from countries with weak disease surveillance systems. This will have wide-ranging consequences. Caveat – this is futurology.

    Duncan & Students – yours is important work. Thank you!

    Jake Broadhurst
    Innovation & Uptake | End Violence Lab

  7. Larry Garber

    Thanks for sharing the draft, which includes much food for thought. Two points as you further develop: consider also points in time that were considered critical junctures, but turned out not to be. While my inclination is that this pandemic fits the definition, I wonder what we can learn from those times when we thought the world was changing and then it did not. From a more narrow perspective, I think that we may see major changes in how government institutions operate – elections conducted by mail or on-line, similarly for legislative work – whether in committee or in plenum, and even the work of the judiciary may look very different. The political and social implications of these changes deserve consideration. Again, thanks for providing this provocation to think about the new world that may emerge from the current crisis.

  8. Amanda Griffith

    1. Under Politics what I think is missing is that this is going to be used by the populists to argue for greater nationalism and closing of borders and anti-migration.
    2. Under Society what is missing is any mention of the impact on children, for example 1 in 10 children globally live with kinship carers, 1 in 3 in some countries in Africa. Most of those kinship carers are grandparents. With poor health care systems, and the far greater incidence of the illness in poor communities (7 times higher in some countries in Europe already) there is the potential for high mortality of grandparent carers and therefore children needing alternative care. Yet the care system is ill prepared to deal with such a spike. Whilst, the impact on livelihoods is potentially going to lead to even greater migration, both of adults leaving children behind and of children leaving their families in search of opportunities. Migration is going to rise but border controls may be tougher and migration will become even more of a political rather than social issue. Also under Society the lack of investment in the social service workforce is already impacting on the care sector and will be greatly challenged to respond. One of many consequences is that child protection cases are not being assessed and children in lock down are facing heightened risks of violence. Children are victims of domestic violence too.
    3. Economy, the knock on of changes in purchasing habits such as the retail sector no longer purchasing garments, resulting in stopping production in factories in Bangladesh is going to hit those in low income jobs significantly.
    4. Chris Roche is right, I work for a global network of local CSO’s and they are responding now to the crisis without any support from the AID sector. We anticipate them being the first line of response and possibly one of the few mechanisms for response for some time. This is a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate that local organisations are best placed to respond, they have the relationships with communities, they understand the social, political and cultural context in which they are operating and they have existing expertise and understanding to adapt their services rapidly. They will also be around for the long term to ensure sustainable solutions and embedding changes. This is a real opportunity for them to demonstrate that national CSO’s can respond effectively to national emergencies but it needs to go further. This is the opportunity to see local CSO’s as setting the agenda not just in humanitarian context but across the board. They should be leading the AID agenda, setting and delivering the advocacy, they should be in the driving seat. What is needed is facilitating their collaboration and providing an international platform so that local CSO’s are at the international table as equal agents of change, not just practitioners operating on the ground. Localisation as it is playing out still risks INGO’s setting the agenda for changes and working with local CSO’s to deliver their localisation plans. The real shift of power will be when local CSO’s decide how they want to interact at an international level, they design and implement the advocay, they have the power over resource allocation and they are governing the agencies that are working internationally.

  9. Kevin Zakariah Ndemera

    I think the COVID19 crisis might just have the potential to dig into the conscience of the leaders of states that, by design, have remained or progressed to become more fragile. Unless for some reason the epidemiological trajectory of the crisis in such countries does not follow the same path as we see in some highly developed societies. That way COVID19 might just prepare their minds for advocacy messages around building societies that are resilient to such shocks

  10. Suzanne Cant

    Politics – centre right changing dramatically – Keynes now the answer – GFC and now COVID – in the future conservatives will no longer be able to justify small government nor that supporting developing country health systems doesn’t have an ‘external’ benefit for domestic aid constituencies

  11. Ray

    Interesting article – glad to have the chance to comment and speculate.

    Talking to HIV/AIDS activists, one of the things that often comes up is their disease affected people in the wealthy world. It was easier then to make the case to help elsewhere. COVID 19 may be similar.

    For global health, you’d imagine far-sighted leaders would want to invest more in international health regulations and the like. Other areas of development assistance may struggle relative to health?

    Leaders in developing countries will also come under pressure to shut their borders and foreigners will be blamed for spreading disease.

    Finally on gender – I think you’ve maybe missed the most obvious point. The disease is disproportionately killing men, particularly older men. That has lots of political implications (perhaps more attention, more funding for hospitals vs. primary care etc….) than if it were a disease that predominantly affected those with less power and status.

  12. Kieran Breen

    Thought this was a thought provoking paper which raised many valid points. I have tried to pull some of my own thinking together in two very brief articles
    I suspect as ever there may well be a big disconnect between those “delivering” at ground zero and “thinkers” and “politcians”, whilst I remain optimistic that this CJ has opened the door for “green new deal” action there is also the more worrying aspect of states taking on draconian powers which they might not be so keen to give up.
    Strange times and dare I say how US president elections play out will have huge impact on global response to aftermath?

  13. Kieran Breen

    Just read whole paper and it looks good raises good points and like the fact it seeks to learn from the past but the future ain’t what it used to be? I think you rightly raise concerns about states who have adopted draconian powers and if they will easily give them up.
    Re the 1945 Moment, I recently wrote a very brief article on this
    I think the way forward is for head and body of development movement to unite but as you know often a big disconnect between HQ and field staff and southern and northern NGO’s.
    Lastly, the US presidential elections are crucial, the victor will have a huge impact on global response.

  14. Good start DG, but from what I see in the blog way too nervous in terms of possible progress. Spain just announed UBI. On “aid”, things could be revolutionised (along lines of Global Public Investment, wink emoji) but in this blog you kind of imply a slight shift in resource allocation… will try and join on Weds, abrazos de Colombia, JG

    • Duncan Green

      Trying not to let myself slide into ‘this changes everything’ over-optimism as we did in 2008, Jonnie, but let’s see what people say on Wednesday. Hope you can make it. Do you seriously think UBI will survive after Covid is over? Why?

      • Rob Nash

        I have a feeling UBI may not persist beyond the ‘re-opening’, but also that now that it is absolutely on the mainstream policy map it has significantly more chance to become an enduring feature in future. Particularly if we are moving into a phase of durable disorder where periods of calm between shocks/disruptions are less likely to be taken as the default state – i.e. UBI may not be seen as a BAU policy tool, but that may change over time if it becomes clearer that there is a new configuration of BAU and a better understanding of UBI and receptiveness to it. Maybe.

  15. Congratulations to Duncan for this important thinkpeace. I would agree to the critical juncture theory and compare the current Corona crisis to two earlier events of my lifetime: The Fall of the Berlin Wall, aka the end of the bi-polar world and the victory of neo-liberal capitalism on a global scale, and 9/11 and the re-production of the enemy, aka terrorists, islamists, etc. in order to assert control over populations, be it within democratic societies, or geopoltically by regime change elsewhere.

    That’s why a subscribe to Jake Broadhurst’s comment that the long-term effects of the Covid19 crisis will be border control and (digital) surveillance in the global north and the laissez-faire endemic in the marginal spaces and populations of the global south.

    However, state authorities, regardless what political systems we are talking about, will severely curtail the neo-liberal experiment of recent decades: global supply chains will be reviewed from a security point of view (which is going to be national). Likewise, global travel (not to mention migration and asylum) will be regulated as public health risk.

    The fundamental raison d’etre of a state is the security of its citizens, the idea of Rousseau’s social contract taming Hobbe’s homen homini lupus. In the years to come, those who uphold principles of democratic discourse and participation, favour open over fragmented and closed societies, fight for social justice and personal freedoms, will face a chilly breeze. Many governments will be tempted to use the security and public health narrative to invoke and perpetuate a “state of exception” (according to Carl Schmitt, pro-Nazi-Philosopher of the 20th century) which frees the executive from legal and moral restraints to its power that would normally apply.

    And the tools to enforce the state of exception will range from old-school curfews to 21st century digital surveillance. The civil society has to be as varied in its response, and – more than anything else – develop a vision of human security that understands the current crisis as critical juncture and game changer.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *