Since the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent war on terror, the outbreak of the novel coronavirus is the second most consequential development of the 21st century.
It is drastically changing contemporary life, infiltrating its social, political and economic aspects. In the absence of a vaccine to prevent the virus’ spread, social distancing – a measure considered most effective to slow its spread – is redefining modern life.
Plagues and pandemics are as old as human civilisation. Across time and space, these infectious diseases have affected civilisations and changed the course of human history. Though the evolution of civilisation from a nomadic to a sedentary lifestyle following the agricultural revolution enabled humans to live in villages, towns and cities, it also exposed them to large-scale infectious diseases.
Covid-19 is the latest addition to a long series of pandemics. For instance, the Black Death in Europe (1347-1351) killed approximately 25 million people. The aftermath of the Black Death increased social mobility and created new work opportunities. Interestingly, the way people are hoarding face masks and hand sanitizers today, back then people turned to religion. For instance, repentant Christians marched through the streets of Europe flagellating themselves to appease God.
Similarly, the Spanish flu in 1918 that killed over 50 million people worldwide led to massive breakthroughs in public health systems through investments in research on pandemics. Likewise, the Hong Kong Flu (1968-1970) that claimed one million lives helped the global health community to understand the importance of vaccination in preventing future outbreaks.
Social distancing is redefining the notion of respecting personal space. People are keeping a distance of one to two meters (three to six feet) in queues to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. A similar practice is being adopted in the seating arrangements at these venues.
Social distancing has also promoted the culture of teleworking – work from a flexible workplace instead of coming to a central workplace. Tech giants and social media companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Google have allowed their employees to work from home. Other public and private sector organisations have come up with business continuity plans where employees come to work on alternative days, or two teams work from home and office on alternate weeks.
Similarly, the closure of educational institutions has promoted the culture of digital learning. Teachers are using WhatsApp, Facebook and other social media platforms to share updates and instructions about lectures, mid-term papers and exams. Going forward, these innovative methods of teaching and learning are likely to redefine traditional pedagogic methods.
The aftermath of Black Death in Europe ended the universalist culture and the Middle Ages. Though it will be too extreme to suggest that Covid-19 will herald the end of globalisation, it is bound to undergo some major changes. The outbreak has come on the heels of US President Donald Trump’s ‘America first’ approach and Brexit. Border closures and travel restrictions during the pandemic will fuel native nationalism, protectionism and anti-immigration sentiments in the West.
Furthermore, the pandemic has exposed the vulnerabilities of a globalised economy such as disruption of global supply chains. To avoid future disruptions to global supply networks, the major economic nations might transform into self-sufficient economies, the exact opposite of globalisation. If this happened, whatever was an advantage in a specialised economy would turn it to a disadvantage and vice versa.
Trump’s go-alone approach, instead of coordinating a collective response against the coronavirus with its allies, has exposed Washington’s incompetence to lead a global response. At the same time, the major European countries are occupied in coping with Covid-19 related challenges. This has allowed China, which has now recovered, to take the lead by helping nations like Italy and Iran, two worst-affected countries by the virus. China has publicly committed to providing 1,000 ventilators, 2 million masks, 100,000 respirators, 20,000 protective suits, and 50,000 test kits to Italy. Similarly, it has assisted Iran by sending medical teams and 250,000 masks.
Jack Ma, the co-founder of Chinese e-commerce site Alibab, has also pledged to send 20,000 kits and 100,000 masks to each of Africa’s 54 countries. He has also dispatched 2 million masks, 150,000 test kits, 20,000 protective gears and face shields each to Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand.
Beijing’s willingness and Washington’s reluctance or inability to be a global leader against Covid-19 is changing the perceptions of the two superpowers’ position in global politics. China has gone on the soft power offensive to showcase the efficacy of Chinese response against the coronavirus – notwithstanding that the pandemic spread in the first place due to its mishandling and coverups. Presently, both China and the US are in a mad rush to come up with a vaccine for Covid-19. If China succeeds in developing the vaccine first, it will further boost China’s global image.
The aftermath of Covid-19 is likely to result in stringent rules for migrants and foreign workers looking for employment opportunities in developed countries. People living in disease-prone areas might be barred from opportunities and places open to others. Also, the criteria for getting a work visa, permanent residence or nationality in developed nations will become stricter. Same goes for travelling where visitors might need to furnish a health certificate in addition to a passport and a visa.
Eventually, the novel coronavirus pandemic will end but when and with what cost, we do not know. For now, intermittent outbreaks will continue until communities develop herd immunity or a vaccine is developed. In any case, the longing to go back to the old life will witness some setbacks as some of the lifestyle changes adapted to flatten the Covid-19 curve will stay forever.
The writer is a research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School ofInternational Studies, Singapore.
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