Rearranging the world order
The current pandemic caused crisis will change the way we live and interact with the world and society, preparing us for potentially greater crises to come; writes Sudipto Ghosh
The COVID-19 pandemic will change the way to live and work once the crisis has passed. Most importantly, it will make us question our modes of consumption and question the market forces that drive peoples choices. But as the author points out, the choice is a class issue, for the millions', there is no choice, living on the margins of existence. It compels us to look at the post-Corona world as a better world to live in.
While governments have their hands full trying to sanitise villages, organise protective gear and hospital beds, it might give those of us under the lockdown time to ponder the future of the world after such an unprecedented event. Even developed nations have been caught unprepared despite early warnings from SARS, H1N1 and EBOLA, not to mention the earlier bubonic plague and Spanish flu.
COVID-19's initial spread, not along the fault lines of poverty but quite the opposite, has finally made some people sit up. The fact that the WHO has labelled Cholera 'The Forgotten Pandemic' — claiming that we are still in the midst of its 7th wave that started in 1961 and continues to claim up to 143,000 human lives every year — should give us enough indication that we have always considered epidemics as something to be recovered from, rather than opportunities for reflection and transformation.
The realisation that pandemics are here to stay, is slowly sinking in. If all other exigencies had to be put off until the pandemic was dealt with, what of subsequent strains of the virus, a resurgence of infection in those who have recovered, and expected seasonality of this or some other flu? Would the world stop every time an epidemic hit us? In all probability, we may see the COVID infection in circulation for a couple of years across the globe until a vaccine is developed and administered to everyone. With the graph of the market's plunge a mirror image to the curve of rising deaths, economists such as Mariana Mazzucato are pointing to essential flaws in a capitalist society.
Capitalism across the globe is facing a triple crisis: one created by the pandemic amidst pre-existing global financial instability, against the backdrop of a massive climate crisis. With the business-as-usual perspective of governments responding to the trigger rather than the vulnerability of the problem, large stimulus packages are being cobbled together towards failing economies and to keep the engine of capitalism running. The world will soon be flooded with undirected liquidity that will, in a repeat of the 2008 financial crisis, get ill-spent if one does not channel this through a vision for a world after COVID-19.
The pandemic has at least confronted one of the problems head-on. It has shown within weeks how the environment can be healed. Indian cities breathed clean air after decades with an AQI matching that of Iceland during days following rain showers amidst the lockdown.
The rivers are flowing free from the industrial froth and thousands of Olive Ridley turtles, after a gap of seven years, are day-time nesting on the beaches of Odisha. Are we willing to relinquish the luxury of clean air for the luxury of malls and cinemas now that we have experienced it? Can we afford to lose this valuable insight in a scramble to restore our economies when one is sure that the impending climate crisis will make this pandemic look like a cakewalk in years to come?
It may be unrealistic to imagine that we can keep mining activity and industry closed forever, but can there at least be a re-evaluation of our lifestyles now that a consumptive cycle has been broken by the lockdown? In light of the pandemic, international travel for tourism and work, migration of labour from villages to cities, and daily travel to work need to be reimagined. For instance, can we do away with international travel for work? Can we imagine creating better workflows within professions and businesses to pre-empt and minimise travel?
'Work-from-Home', 'Telemedicine', 'Virtual Events' and 'Remote Learning' are already new buzzwords that are making more and more sense today than ever before. Driving and Aviation contribute to 72 per cent and 11 per cent of all travel-related carbon emissions. If we can even cut this by half, we would have reduced a whopping 10 per cent of all global emissions.
By growing locally, buying locally, and acting locally we can further reduce emissions from freight by rail and water. This means altering food habits to eat fresh, eat out less, and managing household and neighbourhood waste locally. This is not new information but an opportunity that presents itself now, and that must be seized, rethink legislation vis-à-vis climate change and "intermittent" lockdowns.
The idea of social distancing across the 1st, 2nd or 12th wave of the pandemic will get moulded by and within cultures in unique ways. With it will come a review of societal and cultural habits by people themselves. Doctor Anthony Fauci, the US physician and immunologist, has gone on record recently saying, "we may never shake hands again", something Indians had done traditionally till western habits became popular.
At an institutional level, there must also be a review of national standards: of the capacity of vehicles and buildings, of the width of stairways, footpaths, classrooms, of air-conditioning and ventilation systems, etc. But also, the reassessment of certain types of buildings that put people in perilous proximity: cinema halls, stadia and religious congregation halls. The tracking of infection emanating from a stadium of 50,000 spectators, for example, will be an absolute nightmare.
One will see a drastic reduction in the construction industry. As has been seen on previous occasions of economic slowdowns, governments and corporations direct resources towards more 'urgent' needs and private individuals put off plans for the construction of that second home. Migrant labour supporting the construction industry — faced with bleaker possibilities of finding work in cities compounded by the inconvenience of intermittent lockdowns — may return to agriculture and food production.
Governments must focus to revitalise the agricultural sector which will not only aid the problem of migration to cities but will guide food production towards a new culture of eating fresh. Entrepreneurial activity in this sector could follow trends of eating healthy with plant-based options to replace grain, plant-based meat substitutes, or functional foods that help bolster the immune system such as fibre-rich insulin flour from Chicory root or probiotics from Spirulina. IPA
Views expressed are strictly personal