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April 3, 2020

The globalization of Covid-19

Opinion

April 3, 2020

The writer is a social scientist at the School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne.

Life is as absurd as it is meaningful. The source of all absurdity is death; we all have to die one day. The coronavirus has not changed the way we live but also the way we die. Human solidarity these days is defined not as coming together, but staying away from each other.

Unity is demonstrated through self-isolation and social distancing for human survival. Even millennials who would think they would live forever are now compelled to revisit their assumptions about life. Older people are praying for more time and opportunity to correct their moral deeds and be fit for doomsday.

Death is also different. Small funerals, online memorials, and grieving from afar is the way to go. People with Covid-19 (or the coronavirus) reportedly face death alone in many countries, ‘with palliative care services stretched to the limit, morgues inundated, funeral services suspended, and many dead unburied and uncremated’, say anthropologists Tamara Kohn and Hannah Gould from the University of Melbourne.

A friend told me that his old mother’s greatest worry is that people won’t be able to attend her funeral if she dies these days. The comment shows an intrinsic sense of sociality of people even when imaging death. It is not the sociality of life but also the sociality of death that is at stake.

The greatest absurdity that we face, however, is the obvious evidence that it was not just the Stone Age when human beings were living at the mercy of nature. With enormous technological development, we still are at the mercy of nature. In older times, nature dominated because of underdevelopment. Today, nature’s domination is because of development’s disrespect for nature.

Modern capitalist development rests on the principle of unlimited production for profit maximization. The same profit-maximization motif enables economic agents to allocate resources in ways that are conducive to growth and dynamism. Production, however, itself is contingent on consumption. Without sufficient consumption, which creates more demands for production, the production cycle would be paralyzed.

In the age of globalization, the phenomenon of mass production and consumption became globalized. More human and technological interaction, global supply change, increased migration and globalization of labour for the increasing cycle of production and consumption has given birth to global consumer societies that have shown disrespect for anything not made by humans. This left nature on its own and to act on its own.

The coronavirus is an excellent example of this. Increased interconnection at the global level provided smooth sailing for the coronavirus to reach all parts of the world to kill thousands. At the same time, it is taking its course to correct the state of things in the world. Significantly, the negative impact on production and consumption is making the environment better.

According to some media reports, amid the coronavirus outbreak, due to the shutting down of production houses of mass production and due to the diminishing consumption, a hole in the ozone layer is in recovery. According to New Scientist, a hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica has continued to recover, leading to changes in atmospheric circulation. The ongoing recovery has, according to ScienceAlert, stopped many dangerous changes in the Southern Hemisphere’s atmosphere.

Covid-19 has also broken certain myths. The recent outbreak of the pandemic has explicitly demonstrated that it is not the market but the state that can contain the pandemic. States in the world are reasserting their writ. Organized social forces and social activists with a whole slew of interests – including the environment – will have to take it upon themselves to draw more public attention to this issue. Through mass organization, environmentalists can pressure the state to impose significantly more regulations on firms to conduct activities that are less detrimental to the environment. They can also pressure governments that people would be better off by spending trillions on health instead of weapons of mass destruction.

The coronavirus has also exposed the myth of individuality based on the principle of rationality. Shoppers have shown heightened irrationality and violence, stripping supermarkets of toilet paper, masks, hand sanitizers and dried goods like rice, wheat, pasta and others. The Guardian reported that the police had charged two women for an alleged fight over dwindling supplies of toilet paper in a Sydney supermarket. Police said they were called to a Woolworths store at Chullora at about 7 am after reports a 49-year-old woman had been assaulted.

A video of the incident was shared on social media and showed a group of women pushing, yelling and fighting over a shopping cart filled with toilet paper. The same state of affairs was seen in Melbourne reported to me by my daughter and a few colleagues. Geo News reported recently that people in Western countries have started throwing away food items they had stockpiled.

Another myth challenged by the coronavirus is about eliminating poverty and inequality. The dominant discourses of capitalist development have been taking poverty and inequality as a necessary part of progress under capitalism; something that is difficult to overcome. Several governments in developed and developing countries are planning to end up mailing bank cheques or delivering cash and food to their poor citizens. They are also removing conditionalities from welfare benefits, and guarantee housing to prevent social and economic collapse and early deaths from Covid-19.

These policies may immediately lift millions of people out of poverty for a short period. So, it’s not actually ‘complex’ at all. Indeed, these policies may be expensive, but if they weren’t affordable, they wouldn’t be possible. If governments are going to underwrite the entire global economy in response to the coronavirus, then eliminating poverty is undoubtedly affordable.

So what lessons do we learn? The first lesson is that we live on a finite planet with limited ecological and natural resources that ought to be preserved for sustainability purposes. If we neglect, nature will take its corrective measures taking the lives of thousands around the world.

In this context, we need to revisit the concept “small is beautiful” introduced by E F Schumacher long ago in 1973. He warned us against the avarice for more and more production and consumption at the stake of nature. After 47 years since he introduced his concept, the coronavirus reminds us to reconsider his warning against the race for unlimited production and consumption.

The second lesson that we learn is that individuals in the industrially advanced Western world are not as rational as it was assumed so far. The third and final important lesson that we learn is that eliminating poverty and inequality is not idealism. It is achievable provided there is political will among the ruling elite around the world. If the current absurdity we face due to the coronavirus does not lead us to find new meanings of human life and nature, pandemics of the same sort will keep reappearing.

To conclude, I would cite the poetic verses of B J Sadiq (writer and poet) – a friend and relative:

What a tragedy to be in a world,/ That spends billions on arms, /And not a coin unfurled/For plagues, disease and harms,/ When pandemics alone can wipe off our race,/Who needs weapons to rest the case?/ Where malignity, greed and mammon reigns, /Nature with death responds and stains,/ Had there been no creed, no nations, no divisions, /The world be a better place, and we’d all be one,/ That’s man for and all his blunders,/ God’s failed project, amongst other wonders.