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, socialising 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 realise that the ambit of security needs to expand, from being strictly state-centric to become more human-centric.
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. 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?
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 organisations 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.
Will this pandemic accelerate the shift of the epicentre 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.
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.
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.
This virus also 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.
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.
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 behavioural 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 honoured 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, colour, 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 grey that had clouded our vision for so long.