Not with a bang but a whimper

It is certainly time for civil society to shape not only current measures but also our post-pandemic world


Paul Scott/sarwar Bari May 16, 2020
PHOTO: REUTERS

Do we have a new global dividing line marked by a pre-virus and post-virus world? Will the world be what it once was before the virus spread? It may be shocking to say but we hope not. Yes, we understand and deeply sympathise with the death and loss caused by Covid-19. But this pandemic is also the wake-up call. Quickly returning to business and behaviour as usual will cure nothing. Hopefully the damage caused by the virus can help create a worldwide spirit of idealism and solidarity which will reorient and impel both the public and private sector to act for the wellness of all. Is this too much to ask? Will the political realists and elites selfishly and narrowly continue to protect the interests of the few at the expense of the many?

With the end of this pandemic not yet clearly in sight, four points are certain. One, everyone has become an amateur virologist. Two, everyone has an opinion. Three, everyone speculates about the cause of the virus and how this crisis will end. And lastly, this opinion is intensely politicised.

This first point is logical as this is literally a life and death moment. What is unfortunate is the reality that we live in a post-truth age so the information many of us receive may not be accurate. This spawns conspiracy theories and potentially dangerous behaviour. There are those who rail against the politicisation of the pandemic, but one cannot rob people of their democratic rights. Voices must be heard and dialogue must be loud and open.

The death toll from Covid-19 has exceeded 300,000 worldwide. The Syrian civil war has killed at least 400,000 and the US invasion of Iraq killed more than one million. The Rwandan genocide slaughtered one million people. The toll from the earthquake in Kashmir was about 100,000. This includes a tragic number of children. Five tragedies of different origins but linked by one word: preventable. The smell of death in Balakot, the despair in refugee camps in Turkey, the unburied bodies in New York, expose a crisis in global institutions, domestic political parties, and civil society.

We are all deeply affected by these disasters and must ask fundamental questions. Why were most states unprepared? Why was planning so inadequate? Why was governance and lines of responsibility so poor? The pandemic, like a genocide or a natural disaster, does not happen out of the blue. Warning signs were obvious. Predictions about how fast this disease would spread and its possible origins were accurate.

In order to commit a genocide, the perpetrators’ last sin is to deny responsibility to escape justice. With the pandemic still raging, those responsible are already making excuses and shifting blame. Of course, we would be naive to think that this event would not be politicised but we also must not lose sight of our civic responsibilities to help design effective protocols for the future.

The debate over how to deal with the pandemic is fierce. Trying to think of policy choices and their multiple repercussions is extremely complex. Models on mortality rates are unclear because we do not know how many people are infected.

People have a right to be fearful. What approach should governments take in dealing with the virus? Should it be beating the disease or managing its effects? Imagine sitting in a room making a decision to shut down an economy and confining people in the expectation that infections and death numbers will peak and eventually flatten. Or, take less stringent measures. Sweden has controversially decided to manage the outbreak. Sweden has had 28,582 cases and 3,529 deaths till now. Since the onset of the virus many Swedes have changed their habits. Schools for older students are closed and universities shut. People try to work from home. Restaurants and bars are partially open. Large gatherings are forbidden. This is not an attempt at herd immunity but a realisation that a draconian lockdown will not result in the permanent eradication of the virus. The best that can be done is manage the outbreak. The UK has been inconsistent in its policy. France, Italy and Germany had strict lockdown conditions. South Korea is seen as being successful in its approach but even this success is tempered by the numbers of almost 11,000 total cases and 260 deaths. Once again, I cannot imagine being the person who estimates infection rates, calculates mortality and then forges policies.

Some have argued that this virus is the result of our war against nature itself. The list of zoonotic diseases is frighteningly long. It includes HIV, Ebola, Zika, Hendra, SARS, MERS and the Avian flu. It is too simplistic to say that our own health depends on healthy ecosystems. All our efforts have been on mobilising financial resources to provide healthcare for patients and limit transmission. These efforts are of course understandable. But as in other disasters, if we do not address the underlying causes then we will be just replicating our risk and paving the way for another pandemic.

Our ecosystems are a consequence of an economic order which prioritises market efficiency and profits over humanity. Who are the true victims of this pandemic? Those in the gig economy, people who own their own business, those who do not have access to adequate healthcare and healthy food. Of course, those without adequate health insurance will not go to the doctor when they are sick. The virus discriminates against the old, the poor and the vulnerable. Interestingly, men have a higher infection rate than women.

This pandemic has revealed the fissures and contradictions of the neo-liberal order and the crisis of democracy where the needs of the majority have been sacrificed by the greed of the few.

A list of those wounded by this pandemic must include elites, bureaucracies, traditional political parties, neo-liberal economics, and globalism. This list is a recipe for the growth and strengthening of right-wing populists. Or, perhaps to be more accurate, nationalist right-wing populist parties and their leaders.

It is no coincidence that many right-wing politicians are also climate change deniers. And perhaps, here is another virus victim. It is the apocalyptic visions promoted by Greta Thunberg. This immediate crisis will certainly push the looming crisis of global warming off the front page. National budgets will be redirected to healthcare and to pump priming damaged economies.

Another victim may well be our freedom of movement. In the US, many hated Trump for his call for walls and borders but because of this pandemic when will borders be as open as they were a few short months ago?

Should we be shocked at the unpreparedness of nations, regions, organisations and communities to effectively deal with this crisis? Many politicians have said we are in a war. Yet wartime imagery and language breed fear and anxiety. What are leaders asking people to do? The answer: stay at home, wear masks, wash your hands, and social-distance. We do fear that confinement may have even more negative consequences than the infection itself.

It is certainly time for civil society to shape not only current measures but also our post-pandemic world. In TS Elliot’s words: “This is the way the world ends — not with a bang but a whimper.”

Published in The Express Tribune, May 16th, 2020.

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