Do you remember where the world stopped when the coronavirus appeared?
Is everything we are witnessing, everything we are living – or dying – with in the time of the coronavirus, is all of it going to carry the world into a new reality? What is that reality going to look like?
In these extraordinary circumstances, as we obey instructions, keep ourselves and each other safe, as we sit in our homes disinfecting our daily lives and living day by day, we are thinking about the world in which the coronavirus dictates everything. What will our societies look like in the future, or our economies, relationships, culture, education…? World leaders have declared “war on the invisible enemy” and called this “the greatest crisis since World War II.” Borders are closing, planes are grounded, the virus has caused global disruption.
The 1958 Nobel Prize winner in Medicine, US microbiologist Joshua Lederberg, wrote once that the single greatest threat to man’s continued dominance on this planet is – a virus.
Three years ago, following recommendations by UN Secretary General’s health crises task force, the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board was established. The main idea behind this body was to provide decision makers, countries, and governments around the world with expert and independent estimates of their capacity to respond to disease outbreaks and other emergency situations which may have an impact on human health. It was supposed to help create a roadmap for a safer world, by dealing with key gaps in local and global health systems, capacities for prevention, detection, and response to health crises, as well as the need to speed up research and development and boost global and regional capacity and funding.
On the eve of last year’s UN General Assembly, it was precisely this board, chaired by former Prime Minister of Norway and former WHO Director-General, Gro Harlem Brundtland, and Elhadj As Sy, Former Secretary General of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, that warned in its report that there was a serious threat of a global pandemic, caused by a lethal respiratory pathogen, which could possibly wipe out 5 percent of the global economy and kill up to 80 million people.
“We are not prepared”
The most important conclusion of the report was – we are not ready. A detailed study was published, which described how such a pandemic would impact political, financial, and logistics systems around the globe.
“Preparedness is hampered by the lack of continued political will at all levels. Although national leaders respond to health crises when fear and panic grow strong enough, most countries do not devote the consistent energy and resources needed to keep outbreaks from escalating into disasters,” the report said. UN’s General Assembly was held last year with a series of similar, realistic and alarming, reports talking about humanitarian crises, refugees, climate change, lack of drinking water, lack of food, and conflicts around the world.
Collective awareness does not deal with trauma very well. It is either denied or suppressed, or it runs so deep that it determines individual behaviour and national policies. Traumas that follow outbreaks, which have mostly been either contained or localized after WWII, seem to have left no trace of awareness of the vulnerability of the humankind, or of our place in the world. Our generation was not around to see the Spanish influenza or the plague. Our generation lived in the world of prosperity and comfort.
We belong to the generation of Western liberal democracies which has economically globalized that order. The outbreaks of SARS, Swine flu, and Ebola, which have cost the global economy some 40-50 billion dollars each, were contained, and, it seems, lost between the moving gears of the globalization machine which just kept grinding on. At the same time, experts kept publishing advice and warnings about the disruption to the global environment, zoonotic viruses, biological security, human behaviour, hyper-urbanisation, hyper-connectivity.
Only when we found ourselves in the firm grip of Covid-19 did we truly kick into gear, which reminded us – like the sting of a slap – of just how interconnected,how vulnerable we all are.
Now, in the solitude of our homes, we are finally discovering information which has been out there for years, about the effects human activity has had on climate, about the fragility of global supply systems, about unpaid labour in the areas of health care and home care. About the resilience and ability of our public and private health care systems to go full steam ahead in a crisis mode, about the future of work, about online life, or about biodiversity and the microscopic world that lives with us, but was here long before us.
About the human hand which bent the environment to its will, about food production, about the distribution of resources, about microbes which could destroy crops on one end of the world, causing market prices to explode on the other.
Although many countries and global bodies have listed epidemics, pandemics, and various disease outbreaks as priorities in their policies and programmes, we have been reminded now that we must take our reality, and our future, seriously. Now may not be the time to shout about how everything was staring us in the face all along.
Now, aside from surviving the crisis and finding an adequate response to it, is the time to look ahead and see how, and in which direction, the humankind can change course in the survival game for all seven billion humans on the planet who, even before the coronavirus appeared, had been dealing with a vast range of different starting positions, living conditions, and opportunities.
Multilateral organisations such as the WHO have fought to become - and remain - relevant, even as powerful nations such as the United States or China degraded and ignored them, held back their funding or questioned their findings.
The inability to come up with a global response to this current crisis can be easily seen everywhere. From Italy, the country which historically went through the most changes of government in modern European history, and now has the highest coronavirus death toll in the world – all the way to the United States, the land of private health care, where one of the world’s largest urban centres, New York City, now accounts for five percent of total global infections.
Even before the coronavirus, new scientific disciplines were in the process of forming, such as planetary health, which is focused on the ever more visible links between humans and the well-being of all living things and entire eco-systems.
David Quammen, author of the book Spillover, wrote in The New York Times recently: “We invade tropical forests and other wild landscapes, which harbor so many species of animals and plants — and within those creatures, so many unknown viruses. We cut the trees; we kill the animals or cage them and send them to markets. We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.”
Will the world change?
The world is led by politics and propelled by economy. With the coronavirus spreading, many rushed to the conclusion that this particular crisis - where we do not have anyone to blame like we had with the financial crash or terrorist attacks - has brought about an end to populism.
Before this state of emergency began, the enemies were migrants, globalization, our open borders. Those were the processes that, according to populists, threatened to destroy our sovereignty, our way of life. They were the main monsters and threats. But those challenges that we were facing, politically and economically, before the coronavirus, have not vanished into thin air.
Yes, people trust science now. Yes, people have decided, for their own benefit and for the benefit of their communities, to trust those who govern and have faith that they know what to do in a crisis. Yes, people have realized that there must be a common response to much that the humankind would face.
And that is a good thing.
For now, we can only speculate - which is a thankless task any way we look at it - on how our societies, as well as the global community, will look, after this crisis is over.
What does it mean today that the first cases of coronavirus have reached the most densely populated part of the world, Gaza Strip, or Syria, a country devastated after nine years of misery and human suffering?
What does it mean to know that Donald Trump, after being impeached, and in the middle of an election year, is painted into a corner over the state of the US health care system?
What does it mean to see videos of overjoyed Chinese doctors from Wuhan who take masks off their faces one after another, in a coordinated choreography as if they are in a parade, proclaiming the end of the state of emergency? What does it mean to see drones flying over Spanish promenades warning residents to go home?
What does it mean to learn that a Republican US Senator, Richard Burr, who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, had been briefed about the looming pandemic, and allegedly used that privileged information to get rich on the stock market?
What is the meaning of estimates of the effects the crisis will have on the global supply and demand chains, what about the changes in daily habits and needs in the time of this crisis, what does it mean to see schools completely move into the virtual world?
Our structural problems and challenges are still present. From corruption to tax havens, misinformation, cybernetic future, demographic challenges, migration, the future of social and economic policies of societies, all the way to the potential securitization and biometric control of our lives and our data. Only now, they are all entangled with the virus.
Behind the emergency measures, health action on the global scale but with national limits, because of which we have voluntarily given up our freedoms, from that of movement to freedom to touch, the time ahead will likely change immensely, but no one knows how just yet.
Will people show more solidarity? Will wars stop, will climate regenerate, will we live in countries in permanent emergencies, will globalization slow down? Will societies and economies sink or soar, will we go back to our roots, to what is immediately around us? Will democracy as we know it adapt and improve, or will we end up living in autarky, or maybe in autocracies? Can things - will things - stay the same as they were?
In an interview for the BBC in 1959, British philosopher Bertrand Russell was asked what advice he would give to the future generations.
Host: Suppose, Lord Russell, this film were to be looked at by our descendants, like the Dead Sea Scrolls, in a thousand years’ time. What would you think is worth telling that generation about the life you’ve lived and the lessons you’ve learned from it?
Russell: I should like to say two things, one intellectual and one moral: The intellectual thing I should want to say to them is this: When you are studying any matter or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed, but look only and solely at what are the facts. That is the intellectual thing that I should wish to say.
The moral thing I should wish to say to them is very simple. I should say: Love is wise, hatred is foolish. In this world, which is getting more and more closely interconnected, we have to learn to tolerate each other. We have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don't like. We can only live together in that way, and if we are to live together and not die together we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet.
In the coming days, through this series of articles and talks published on N1 television’s website, I will do my best to bring you relevant conversations on global topics ahead, stories from the world about our present and about our future, but also about some places which have vanished from front pages. We hope you will join us…