Pandemics among other calamities have re-shaped the core of faith, politics and economic structure of societies for millennia. Fear grips nations across the world as death tolls rise on an exponential basis, and much of the global population remains under lockdown. Our generation may be more fortunate than its predecessors. Living in the digital age, many are in a better position to face these shutdowns given their heavy dependence on technology (for work, socializing and entertainment). Today, people can still conduct meetings using Zoom or Skype, communicate with their loved ones and experience remote learning while schools remain shut.
Few things can be said with certainty nowadays, but one fact is well understood by now; in spite of the most sophisticated advances in science and technology, we are not past disasters of such a global scale. In a war-ridden world increasingly becoming divided along ethno-nationalist lines, no one anticipated such an outbreak or paid heed to warnings, as international powers remained busy developing their military arsenal. It is high time governments revise their priorities and realize that the ambit of security needs to expand, from being strictly state-centric to become more human-centric.
Microbes vs. Missiles
As is evident today, infectious diseases may prove to be as big or perhaps a greater risk for millions of lives rather than wars in the coming age.
Chomsky has questioned why the crisis came about in the first place. He calls it a “colossal market failure.” Ordinary capitalist logic dictates that no one simply cares, the corporate sector only responds to market signals. Short-term profit goals often absolve actors of any responsibility regarding the long-term consequences of their actions. Governments were not sufficiently prepared to battle a health emergency in an atmosphere where “public good” is perceived to be an outdated notion. “The invisible hand” that has dictated decision making for far too long has abandoned its most loyal followers, highlighting a dire need to revisit the free market doctrine.
Bill Gates’ early warnings have resurfaced in light of the current situation. According to him, endemics like Ebola should have served as early indications and pushed authorities to prepare for the next outbreak. “Time is not on our side,” he said and rightly so. Institutions like WHO are struggling to maintain their credibility as the international body is equipped to monitor but not prepare for these pandemics.
Given the benefits of science and technology available to us, an efficient response system can be built with the strengthening of such institutions and investment in R&D. Just as we have frontline soldiers and ammunition ready for a wartime situation, similarly preparations can be made to tackle health crises. Simulations must be carried out and a team of health experts must be devoted solely to the study of epidemics that are available to be dispatched in times of need.
The pandemic is rewriting international relations, as countries turn their attention inward and struggle to save citizens and their economies. What will this mean for global political trends?
One of the most significant trends today in international politics is the absence of global leadership. In the past few decades, the US has established its reputation as a hard power indulged in what Trump calls “endless wars”. This pandemic has brought to the fore questions of how the balance of powers will play out as a result of this crisis. The Superpower has exposed its ability to fight and bomb countries out of existence but unable to spearhead a campaign against a global health crisis. Instead, its administration has so far maintained a self-interested outlook and displayed incompetence on many fronts.
So far, international coordination has been pretty weak with the US and Chinese leadership having constant verbal spats over who was responsible for the pandemic. Global solidarity is not a matter of choice anymore. As much as the populist leaders of the world insist, countries cannot close themselves just yet.
Cooperation is a must in order to eliminate the virus. Accurate disclosure of information among countries is absolutely crucial in order to contain the highly contagious virus. Such updates would ensure that countries restrict travelling accordingly and test incoming travellers from affected regions. Exchange of medical equipment, medication and trained personnel is also necessary to assist the worst-hit regions of the world.
International and regional organizations like the UN and EU have to step up their efforts to combat the virus. The World Bank recently lauded SAARC for making an effort at cooperation. A video-conference between South Asian leaders was held in March, making it the first high-level meeting since 2014.
Responses to the outbreak are determining the political fate of many leaders. Trump’s frustration regarding his suffering popularity is pretty obvious with constant meltdowns in front of the Media. For others, it proved to be a blessing. The relatively low number of positive cases in one of the most populous countries in the world, India, is proving to be a boon for Modi’s political future whose popularity suffered a major blow as the country was torn by unprecedented chaos, communal rioting and mass protests against a discriminatory Citizenship Act.
Will this pandemic accelerate the shift of the epicenter of global dominance from West to East? Some are saying China has already won this battle. This isn’t so much a battle about democracy versus dictatorships, but that of efficient governance and the level of public trust in their governments. The “West” as a brand has suffered a severe blow in the wake of this crisis while East Asian countries are serving as a model for the rest of the world to deal with the pandemic.
The Debate Around Privacy and Big Data:
Some of the biggest success stories in the time of Corona came from China and South Korea. And this success would not have been possible without extensive use of surveillance technology. Mobile applications were used to track citizens’ movement, and even their body temperatures. Contact tracing also turned out to be an efficient means of keeping people aware about their proximity with infected individuals.
Years ago, this kind of sophisticated technology may only have been deemed suitable for tracing criminals or terrorists. One of the biggest compromises that citizens have to make, in the coming age, is giving up their right to privacy, a battle that the common man was already losing. Digital surveillance and big data allows for implicit police states to be created. Given increased anxiety around other unknown potential threats, citizens may be willing to cooperate with any such measures in the future.
There is no escaping the emergence of big governments worldwide even in liberal democracies. Despotic steps that would otherwise never be approved under normal circumstances could easily be justified until there is a major breakthrough in the treatment of this virus. The leadership of Hungary, Israel and UK are already being criticized for making authoritarian moves in the wake of the Corona epidemic.
Revisiting Humanity’s Relationship with Nature
Likes nations, individuals practicing social distancing are looking inwards to find the strength and answers to their dilemma. While scientists all over the world strive to develop a viable treatment to face the international emergency, people are encouraged to strengthen their inner selves, boost their immune system and maintain good mental health to battle challenges ahead. Many instructors offer free yoga classes online during quarantine to help people maintain their physical and emotional well-being.
We may emerge from this pandemic soon, but how will we deal with other looming dangers that are emerging because of our earnest efforts hitherto to destroy the planet?
Humanity has attempted, in the last few centuries, to tame Nature and attempted to conquer it. With the effects of climate change now observable in almost every corner of the Earth, the credibility of humanity’s invincibility has come under serious question in recent years.
This virus serves as a quick reminder for humans, as they evolve and progress, nature can catch up easily. Microbes can wreak unimaginable havoc on the planet. There are other man-made disasters that are yet to unfold before us. In the war for survival that awaits us, this will feel like a mere battle.Climate change is not just a threat anymore; it is a reality that cannot be ignored. Self-serving profit makers in fossil fuel industries and enabling political leadership need to be held accountable. Collective responsibility needs to be taken by leadership from all corners of the globe.
Margaret Klein Salamon of the Climate Mobilization says, they have been trying for too long to “get people out of normal mode and into emergency mode.” Going “back to normal” does not make sense because things were not normal as they were. The emergency mode is difficult to maintain, as people are not scared to see their loved ones suffer immediately as a result of climate change compared to the fear around Corona. But the fact remains; there will be a lot of suffering unless preparations are made accordingly. As mentioned above, our neo-liberal capitalist dogma will fail to save us from impending disaster.
It is high time we reevaluate our relationship with nature. Humanity is heavily dependent for survival on the ecosystems it attempts to control. If we do not change the way we behave with other living beings like animals, we will continue to face similar health crises in future.
Many have asserted that Religion, as we know it, is in grave danger in the time of Corona as many religious festivals and places of worship have been deserted all over the world due to social distancing measures. But it is times like this that even those who are usually disconnected with their God, find solace in prayer or rekindling their spiritual side.
People have been forced to recalibrate their thinking during these times. When they see the calamity affect the upper echelons of their society, in some cases, their elected representatives and even royalty, they revert to the spiritual realm to find their answers and seek its benefits as a form of meditation as well, something that is highly recommended in these times.
Religion like many other aspects of society is adapting to the need of the hour. Congregational Prayer and rituals may temporarily be put on hold but faith remains a resilient force in these testing times.
Future of Work
The onset of Corona has accelerated the digital revolution. The digital economy is thriving whereas traditional businesses are suffering. Wherever possible, working from home may become a norm unless it’s absolutely necessary to resume the old routine. For some, it may even prove to be somewhat convenient, for example, working mothers, who are often overwhelmed by societal pressures and uncooperative supervisors when it comes to flexibility and understanding their problems. Add to those, poor and limited child-care facilities in a country like Pakistan, making it extremely challenging for them to pursue a career.
Unfortunately, not many will be able to escape the inevitable economic crunch as a result of this pandemic. This virus may leave millions across the globe out of work. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have the option of working from home given poor Internet facilities and the lack of proper privacy in their households. Distance learning can also never replace a fulfilling college experience.
While countries are worried about delaying the opening of their economies to avoid the crippling after-effects, some adjustments will have to be made to restart businesses. Organizations are coming up with different solutions such as allotting days for specific employees to come to work to comply with social distancing norms. Countries that have experienced the first wave of the virus and are experiencing a second one, like Singapore know that things are not going to go back to the way they were. They are operating on a circuit breaker model; something the rest of the countries may have to follow until there is a medical breakthrough.
Social Distancing: The New Normal?
How will human interaction change as a result of this pandemic? What happens when the lockdowns come to an end? Will the paranoia go away just as quickly? The pandemic has already changed our behavioral patterns in a lot of ways. Our basic social instincts may undergo a change creating a new normal. It may become second nature for us to avoid shaking someone’s hand or hugging our loved ones in an effort to protect them. Sanitation and hygiene standards will become stricter than they may ever have been in public places.
Online communication has already seen an unprecedented spike during these times. The ironic thing about distances is that it ends up creating and intensifying connections. People tend to talk more often with those who are physically not present and far away. Reconnecting with acquaintances and distant family members, who are experiencing the same dilemma as them, seems to provide comfort and safety to many.
Gratitude towards other people is growing as new heroes emerge in times of hardship. Healthcare workers, risking their lives to save others, are being specially honored from Europe to India, as people come out during quarantine to applaud their work. Many acts of kindness are also bringing people together. With many working to provide food to those in need, artists doing free concerts on Instagram and others help people by giving free workout classes online. A common enemy is forcing people across the world to unite and look past differences such as class, color, race and religion.
Our future depends on the decisions we make today. Given the common challenges faced by humankind, does it suit any country to choose nationalistic isolation over internationalism? Our experiences so far have shown that nationalism may not offer the solutions required to battle future challenges and in fact sentence the entire humankind to virtual extinction.
What the world needs right now is responsible leadership that understands that a decision taken in one part of the globe directly affects fortunes at the other end. Humanity will do a great service to itself in developing a symbiotic relationship with Nature in order to survive.
It’s still not too late, for better sense to prevail. The reality of our situation should be as clear to us now as the bluish-black expanse above us strewn with stars as opposed to the thick veil of gray that had clouded our vision for so long.