My highlights from the keynote address “Is it tomorrow yet? How the pandemic is changing Europe” by Ivan Krastev

The pandemic is the actual start of the 21st century. And we now see many of the problems which were there and we did not pay attention. The world was changing dramatically and we have been trying to trivialize the changes. And then the pandemic came and we had to acknowledge the change and learn to adapt, as many of the changes that we might think are temporary, are actually here to stay. EU has become risk-averse. We tend to think that policies and governments can actually reduce risks to zero and this is worrisome. We have to distinguish between risk and uncertainty. In uncertainty you cannot anticipate the risks and you have to work with the worst-case scenario.

One question to pose is why, in a time when people should trust science more than ever, many chose to trust the conspiracy theories instead. One response would be that scientists disagree among themselves. There are contradictory messages and doctors have diverging opinions. Politicians used doctors and science to justify decisions that had already been taken.

Many governments approached the pandemic in terms of war, we are fighting the war against the virus. During war, though, people are pushed to move around and travel to safer places away from the fighting, while during the pandemic people were confined to their homes. A war is won by fighting shoulder to shoulder, while in the pandemic we had to keep the distance and stay away from each other. We were equally far from the neighbor next door as we were from someone living on the other side of the globe. People started to compare what was happening in their country with what was happening everywhere in the world.

Symbolic politics takes bold leadership. North Macedonia was in need of 4000 vaccines for its doctors and many countries could have spared 4000 doses for this. But it’s hard to assume such a decision when the public is waiting for the vaccines and there is a discourse of scarcity and the forecast of having to wait several months to get one.

Apparent winners of the fight with the pandemic turned very quickly into losers and the other way around. Politicians had to choose for what they want to be judged: the number of dead, the number of people in the hospital, the number of people vaccinated etc.

Some argued that authoritarian regimes did better. Actually, authoritarian leaders like the crises they pick themselves. This one was not as such and they had to admit they are not completely in control of the situation, which is not what they want to do. Many countries in Asia did better, regardless of the democratic or authoritarian regime, mainly because of previous experiences with SARS for instance. People were already used to wear masks and legislation for such situations was already in place.

During this crisis we discovered our vulnerability and this is here to stay. Over night flights were cancelled and borders were closed across EU. We saw that things which we thought to be impossible were actually possible very easy. The pandemic changed the borders of what we think is possible and impossible.

NGOs have to find their place in the new reality. There is the online space available for actions that could have never happened before online, like providing medical advice to the elderly who were afraid to go to the hospital so they do not get infected. Services will be redefined and funding will be available as part of the post-pandemic recovery efforts.

Applauding in a silent room is a good definition of Zoom meetings, while the image of the pandemic is definitely the empty Vienna airport in April 2020.

Many people talk about “when this will be over”. The question is: what does it mean to be over?

This event was organized by NGO Academy, a joint project of ERSTE Foundation and Vienna University of Economics and Business (WU Vienna) where I have been a lecturer in 2019-2020 on project design and management, good governance, organizational resilience, program& project planning and development.

NB: These are excerpts of the keynote which reflect my understanding of the ideas of the author. I do not claim to have recorded the exact phrasing, although occasionally this might be the case.