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August 8, 2020

Contextualising Covid-19

Opinion

August 8, 2020

As governments around the world strike a balance between health and economics, trying to negotiate a new normal, the Covid contagion has set into motion a number of transformations that will pan out in the years ahead.

New technologies are being seeded, work spaces are being remodelled, geographies are being realigned, and social narratives are being rewritten. It is still too early to appreciate its full impact, as some shifts will be transitory while others more enduring, but recorded human history spanning over five thousand years can provide a good backdrop to contextualise the crisis and its possible implications.

Despite our misplaced sense of a stable future, the long arc of history has been anything but predictable. It is checkered with interruptions, upheavals and transitions that continue to change its course at regular intervals. Each major diversionary period is marked by environmental changes, pandemics, mass migrations, conflicts and/or power shifts. Stories, poetry, myths and mythologies of the ancient world aptly capture these epic events that were beyond the common vocabulary of their times.

Just in the last century we experienced insurgences and revolutions, droughts and depressions, pandemics and local conflicts, the two World Wars and a cold war, holocaust and nuclear blasts, atomic standoffs and environmental fallouts. This is despite our stellar achievements with lunar journeys and quantum theories, the television set and the worldwide net, micro circuits and free markets. Ironically, the unparalleled rise of science and secularism also coincided with the unprecedented loss of blood and treasure during the same centennial.

This century too began with sanctions, invasions and dismemberment of nations, where millions either perished, were displaced or became permanently impoverished. Populist leaders have sprung up around the world like Socratic sweetshop salesmen, offering emotive and simplistic solutions to issues ranging from lack of opportunities to fear of loosing one’s identity and blaming outsiders and established institutions for their predicaments. False narratives and deep fakes have instilled a sense of self righteousness in populations that distrust the system, demean diverse views and dehumanise anyone who looks, talks or thinks differently.

So, given our unrelentingly turbulent past, it is tempting to view a passing viral disruption as a momentary bump upon a long and rough historic road. Yet the Covid crisis with its unique vector, velocity and vastness seems surreal. What began as a local viral outbreak soon manifested into a national epidemic and eventually a global pandemic. From a health crisis it turned into an induced economic crisis, a social dissonance crisis and a geopolitical crisis. It’s ripples have directly or indirectly touched oceans and forests, floras and faunas, spores and species, emissions and ecosystems – and all within a hundred days.

In contrast, historically seismic events have been more like a train wreck in slow motion. An epidemic could linger or reoccur over centuries if not millennia, killing millions during the period. A conflict would sometimes unsettle a local power base which over decades goes on to change a region’s landscape. Religions, ideologies and philosophies would most times take generations to take roots before spreading its pollen beyond its immediate denomination.

History might be contentious, controversial and complex, but it continues to ‘rhyme’; there is a method to the madness. In the first quarter of the last century there was populism, protests, and a pandemic; conflicts, a financial crisis and the reshaping of power dynamics. What followed then was the rise of fascism and a world war, the scale of which in cruelty, mortality and devastation was unrivalled in history. A hundred years later we are once again caught in the crossfire of similar forces – except our population, our proximity, along with our destructive capabilities are now many times more significant. It is no coincidence that with the increasing threats of nuclear conflicts and a looming environmental catastrophe, the hypothetical doomsday clock now stands at only a hundred seconds to midnight – the closest it has ever been to humanity’s self-annihilation.

Every disruption presents an opportunity to reflect, shorten the learning curve and accelerate reforms. The Covid-19 pandemic could be the canary in the coal mine to remind us of not only our vulnerabilities but also our inability to work together to face our common challenges. Globalisation has been a commercial and a technological venture and not a social, cultural or an equitable experience for a vast majority of the population. Quick fix populist leaders are a mere reflection of the exasperated and polarised populations that are desperate to change a system that is not working for them.

The eventual outcome of a low probability/high-impact Covid type event eventually depends upon the societal response to the many issues that are set into motion by the disruption. Will the virus unite or divide societies? Will it breed more blame or catalyse new cooperation between nations and cultures? Will digitisation democratise opportunities or further monopolise the powers of the tech companies? Will de-globalisation increase indigenous capabilities or the decouple global supply chains and efficiencies?

Karen Armstrong, in her 2009 TedPrize, launched the ‘Charter for Compassion’ to address the systemic failures of our time. The charter calls ‘to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves’ which is ‘indispensable to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.’ As momentary pristine skies once again give way to carbon emissions and stock markets rise in sync with the increasing Covid-19 death toll, now more than ever we need a compassionate world.

The global challenges that we now face cannot be addressed by an industrial age nation/state construct. Social contracts need to be rewritten and new conversations started. Compassion is not just a nice idea but a global imperative that needs to be implemented practically, creatively and urgently – not just for ourselves but for our entire ecosystem. Nothing short of a transnational movement can course correct our deteriorating trajectories, before thresholds are crossed for irreversible implosions. Meanwhile the ‘atomic’ clock continues to oscillate.

The writer is president, Charter for Compassion, Pakistan.

Email: [email protected] group.com