Looking Ahead:
(October 31, 2020)


            One goal of this Agile Aging blog has always been to keep informed and stay engaged, maintaining a vibrant senior life. Easier said than done in recent months, as the coronavirus pandemic has locked us down and hemmed us in. Compounding these constraints, the hotly contested election has dominated the information flow with fleeting statistics, partisan spin and anxiety-provoking commentary.

            In the midst of this tumult, I reached out to a recent publication that takes a longer perspective, looking beyond our immediate stress to ask where are things going and what can we do about it.

            The new book is TEN LESSONS FOR A POST-PANDEMIC WORLD. Its author is well-known to many blog subscribers, and well-qualified to unpack complex issues. Born and raised in Mumbai, India, Fareed Zakaria studied political science at Yale and government and international relations at Harvard. Deeply engaged in reporting on U.S. and international public policy, Zakaria hosts CNN’s weekly GPS (Global Public Square) program, carried worldwide. In his spare time, he’s a regular contributor to the Washington Post and the Atlantic Monthly.

            He paid attention to the pandemic’s threat years earlier than most of us. That’s presumably why his publishers have dedicated the entire back cover to an uncannily prescient augury. Warning his television audience in 2017, Zakaria’s alarm reverberates with hindsight like the unheeded incantation of a modern-day oracle:

One of the biggest threats facing the United States isn’t big at all. Actually, it’s tiny, microscopic, thousands of times smaller than the head of a pin.  Deadly pathogens, either man-made or natural, could trigger a global health crisis, and the United States is wholly unprepared to deal with it….Bio-security and global pandemics cut across all national boundaries. Pathogens, viruses and diseases are equal-opportunity killers. When the   crisis comes, we will wish we had more funding and more global cooperation. But then,   it will be too late.


            By no stretch a scholarly thesis, TEN LESSONS doesn’t even include an index. But it is serious and substantive; 60 pages of end-notes provide links to the research sources underpinning 250 pages of text. The book has a clear structure: one lesson per chapter. It reads like a collection of linked essays. The core themes can be readily harvested and summarized:

  1. Global crises, including pandemics, are inevitable. We need to get thoroughly prepared and stay prepared.

  2. We need better governance, not bigger government.

  3. Unfettered capitalism is out-of-control; reassertive regulation is overdue.

  4. We need to respect science and “listen to the experts.” In return, the experts need to avoid elite arrogance and unaccountability.

  5. We need to manage rapidly advancing digital technology; especially bioengineering and Artificial Intelligence.

  6. We need to accept worldwide urbanization, but also humanize our cities.

  7. COVID-19 is accelerating and exacerbating already destructive inequality.

  8. Nationalist populism is pulsing, but obituaries for globalization are premature.

  9. For better and for worse, 21st century international relations will be dominated by U.S./China competition.

  10. A functional multilateral system offers our best forum for solving global problems.

            Zakaria approaches his subject from multiple perspectives. He analyzes major public-policy challenges in their domestic U.S., foreign and international dimensions. He reviews those challenges’ past and present evolution and proposes future solutions. And he reassesses these issues through the coronavirus lens, highlighting the pandemic’s obstructions and opportunities. “This is a book not about the pandemic, but rather about the world that is coming into being as a result of the pandemic and – more importantly – our responses to it”.    

            The author exhibits a wealth of communication skills. A self-described “centrist,” in this book as in his broadcast interviews he consistently invites and respects opposing viewpoints. Zakaria’s style and vocabulary are accessible but never dumbed-down. He doesn’t duck hard truths or sugar-coat unwelcome opinions. And he’s adept at distilling complex topics into digestible syntheses. It surely helps that he is a subject-matter expert in his own right, not merely a quote-collecting journalist.

            Here’s a representative sample of his talents at work. In a passage mischievously headed “The Great Danes,” he illuminates details often finessed or slanted in partisan debates comparing the American and Nordic economic systems. Zakaria begins by debunking the stubborn myth of America as a land of opportunity, with unique upward mobility. Numerous studies by conservative and liberal experts have consistently demonstrated that moving up from the bottom of the economic ladder is much more difficult in the United States than in the other leading industrialized countries. Anticipating a rebuttal that America has to absorb a uniquely large share of poor immigrants, the author points out that Canada and many Northern European economies are taking in larger percentages.    

            Narrowing his focus to Denmark, he notes that it is often disparaged by President Trump and other conservatives as “socialist.” In fact, Denmark’s economy is more open to capital investment and trade than America’s. And its capital-gains and estate-tax rates are lower. Zakaria acknowledges that income-tax and sales-tax rates are much higher in Denmark than in America. But in return, Danish middle-class and poorer families receive state-funded universal health care, free education through graduate school, worker-retraining programs more available and generous than in the States, superior infrastructure including public transportation, and dozens more annual vacation days.

 The author diplomatically but persuasively concludes:

 I think most Americans would choose the Danish model. More than just the free education and nice trains, the overwhelming advantage of Nordic “flexicurity” is that it embraces the dynamism at the heart of the modern, globalized world and yet eases the anxieties it produces. And these anxieties, of course, have reached new heights amid the pandemic.


            When first encountering Zakaria’s new title, I wondered whether he and his publishers might not be jumping the gun. How could he confidently and competently discuss a post-pandemic world when the pandemic’s duration and long-term damage remain unknowable?  In late October, the number of COVID cases is increasing in 47 of 50 U.S. states; the aggregate national total is unprecedented. Much of Europe is also reeling. Peaking hospitalizations are overwhelming resources. Some statistical models project U.S, pandemic deaths to double within three months. True, several candidate vaccines are in clinical trials worldwide. But their target dates for mass distribution keep slipping. On Zakaria’s own CNN show in October, Bill Gates, wearing his public-health philanthropist hat, speculated that the coronavirus might be with us for at least two more years. And to complicate mitigation prospects, President Trump continues to downplay the virus’s seriousness and to mock epidemiology experts and safety precautions. In this tumultuous climate, isn’t post-pandemic strategizing presumptuous?

            But I’m also aware that there’s a risk, for concerned citizens as well as for policy-makers, of becoming so obsessed with breaking-news headlines that we lose track of precedents, context and prospects. Preoccupation with soundbites and campaign ads should not distract us from preparing for coming years and coming crises. Looking ahead is a prerequisite for staying ahead. In a basic sense, committing to strategic planning is the core purpose of this book. Not merely forecasting what the future may look like, but advocating policies to shape it.

            In his Introduction, Zakaria writes about the coronavirus pandemic with characteristic vision and acuity. He synthesizes the history of plagues, from ancient times to today. He attributes the new virus’s global penetration and pace to “nature’s revenge,” an ecological reaction to the destruction of habitat by reckless pursuit of short-term profits. He places the new crisis in context, aligning it at decade intervals with two other era-defining shocks: the 9/11 terrorist attack and the 2008-09 Great Recession. He draws hope from scientific precedents, most notably, the international collaboration to eradicate smallpox, successfully concluded in 1980. (I loved the quote, “Outbreaks are inevitable but pandemics are optional.”) Zakaria joins diverse experts in insisting that public-health vigilance and economic restoration are synergistic, not antithetical.

            Along the way, the author spices his pandemic recap with intriguing insights. The devastating 1918-19 Spanish flu received its name not because it originated in Spain but because that country was a World-War-I noncombatant. Therefore, unlike its equally infected neighbors, it did not censor news. The unintended consequence was that the only information about this pandemic was emerging from, and associated with, Spain. More seriously, I was startled to read that the three leading public-health guidelines during that crisis were social-distancing, mask-wearing and hand-washing. One hundred years later, for all of our scientific and technological progress, we’ve added only infection-testing and contact-tracing to that regimen.     

            In Zakaria’s analysis, COVID-19 is distracting from or complicating all the political, economic and technological issues addressed in his new book. In several cases, like populism and inequality, that disruption is not merely a pause but an exacerbater. In others, like urbanization, he interprets this derailment as an invitation to rethink and reform economic and social practices.  


            For me, the LESSONS chapter that best illustrates Zakaria’s approach is his treatment of the intensifying global competition and potential conflict between the U.S. and China. (Having worked for years in China as an advisor to the Chinese Government and in Central Asia under the sponsorship of the U.S. Government, I was predisposed to listen up.) His discussion is lively, multifaceted, current, linked to the pandemic, non-partisan and cautiously optimistic. It is also refreshing contrarian – not in the sense of argumentative or adversarial, but willing to question conventional wisdom.

            Dealing quickly with this rivalry’s pandemic links, Zakaria notes COVID’s origin in China, that government’s early cover-up, and President Trump’s subsequent China-bashing to deflect criticism from his own administration’s leadership failures. He references commentators’ ongoing debate over whether China’s swift lockdown, mitigation management and “PPE diplomacy” signals the superiority of authoritarian regimes for dealing with sudden crises.

            Seguing into the widespread contention that Trump’s mishandling of pandemic management confirms American geopolitical decline, Zakaria rejects this assessment as premature and too pat. America remains uniquely powerful – economically, financially, militarily and technologically. He concedes that it is probably declining in global “soft power,” defined here as “its appeal, example and capacity to set the agenda.” But he characterizes these diminishments as reversible. The relevant dynamic, he asserts, has been not America’s decline but China’s rise, with increased economic and political maturation leading to increased independence and assertiveness.

            Tracing the recent history of U.S./China relations, Zakaria faults prior American administrations for arrogantly assuming that a prospering China would automatically privatize and democratize. He calls out the Trump Administration for clumsy flip-flopping and racialist demonizing. No apologist for Chinese nationalism, the author unsparingly profiles Xi Jinping as self-interested, repressive and xenophobic. For the near-to-medium term, he foresees dangerous bipolar posturing, feinting and sparring. 

            Interestingly, he finds the late-19th century imperialistic jostling between dominant Britain and ascendant Germany a closer precedent than the US/USSR Cold War. Zakaria takes no comfort from that precedent, noting that mismanagement of that Continental competition helped provoke successive World Wars. This time he hopes there’s sufficient trade and investment interdependence and geographic separation to keep bilateral tensions from escalating into armed conflict.


            As I mentioned at the outset of this review, I reached for TEN LESSONS as a respite: from the anxieties of the bitter election and the constraints of pandemic sequestration. The book accomplished those objectives and much more. It got me thinking again about public-policy issues. And thinking prospectively and proactively about priority reforms. Even the pandemic has positive potential, as a catalyst for change.

            Fareed Zakaria is broadly and deeply knowledgeable, an able communicator and a moderate commentator. On-air and in print, I find his presentations consistently informative and penetrating.

            In this book, however, I was distressed by the omission of climate change from the author’s list of key public-policy issues. In my opinion, it belongs at the top of any convincing agenda of human-development priorities. Like all the other policy challenges central to Zakaria’s analysis, attention to climate change has been disrupted and complicated by the coronavirus pandemic. For example, how can we facilitate mass evacuations ahead of wildfires or hurricanes while enforcing anti-COVID mask-wearing and social-distancing safety protocols? Conversely, opportunities for climate-change mitigation might be markedly enhanced by the pandemic’s impact. E.g., as COVID has cratered commercial-aviation mileage, CO2 emissions have been dramatically reduced. Likewise, as auto commuting has been significantly replaced by working from home, city streets are being repurposed for non-polluting bicycles and pedestrians. This topic is briefly mentioned in TEN LESSONS. I would have favored a major upgrade.

            As for the book’s multiple virtues, what I most valued was the author’s tenacious advocacy for political consensus-building and socio-economic equity. We’re discouragingly divided in this contentious era, between classes, races, religions, ideologies and nationalities. And yet it’s apparent that humanity’s most pressing problems – from climate change, to famine and water shortages, to migration and immigration, to peace and security, to devastating pandemics – demand cooperative solutions. We’re all in the same crowded boat. Rowing in different directions is never going to get us to safe harbor before we sink.


Coming Next Month:
ELECTION REFLECTIONS (November 30, 2020)