Life in the time of corona


A medical team officer detect body temperature or “thermoscan” at arrival terminal of airport in Indonesia. Photo credit Sipa

Vivek Menzes

Is this our collective new normal?

Three days ago, even as countries across the West began implementing a series of shocking, unprecedented policies triggered by the global coronavirus emergency, Bruno Maçães made a remarkable prediction.

The acclaimed political scientist wrote in National Review that this unfolding crisis “will likely become the most important story of our lifetimes.”

Maçães had observed the contagion’s advance up close, spending the first two months of this year travelling extensively through Asia. At 46, he’s also old enough to have lived through the epochal fall of the Berlin Wall which ended the Cold War, as well as the cataclysmic 9/11 attacks and their aftermath of map-rearranging wars.

Yet, his assessment is, the current moment will be even more impactful: “One way or another, the world is bound to look very different at the other end of the tunnel we have just entered.”

I follow Maçães on Twitter, and read this new article within minutes of its publication. When I reached out, and asked him to elaborate, he told me via direct message: “The virus seems to pose a fundamental threat to economic social life in modern societies. It is not a temporary correction. In that sense, it seems more serious than previous crises.”

It’s an astonishing assertion, but the evidence bombarding us from all directions underlines its plausibility. Everything has changed, at warp speed, and it’s already clear many fundamental aspects of our lives — the way we interact, shop, work, study — will have to be different now, with no return to “normality” on the horizon.

The Kashmiri-Indian academic, and international relations expert, Amitabh Mattoo aptly classifies the situation as “a global security nightmare bigger than WWII.”

The world’s response has already reached staggering proportions. Italy and Denmark are in national “lockdown” with their entire citizenry effectively restricted to home. The USA now bars all foreign travelers from the Schengen countries across Europe.

And perhaps most unbelievable of all, starting today (13 March), India will begin to enforce an astonishingly draconian ban on all foreign travelers for an entire month. We’ve never experienced anything like any of this, ever before.

Some detect silver linings amidst the unrelenting storm clouds. The visionary trends forecaster Li Edelkoort (herself in “self-imposed auto-quarantine”) told an interviewer: “The recent pictures of the air above China showed how two months without production cleared the skies and allowed people to breathe again. This means that the virus will show how slowing and shutting down can produce a better environment. We will have to kick all our habits off as if we are going off drugs. The impact of the virus will be crucial to building an alternative and profoundly different world.”

Can this hopeful new paradigm resolve the grievous, and growing, inequalities that have plagued most countries around the world in the 21st century? Early indication is precisely the opposite is likely to happen, particularly with regard to the now-inevitable exponential expansion of the digital realm into all aspects of our economic, social, and cultural lives.

The tech entrepreneur (and occasional Stanford faculty member) Balaji S Srinivasan tweeted earlier this week: “We’re in the middle of a Digital Dunkirk evacuation … tactical retreat to the cloud to escape the virus. Remote work, remote education, remote everything.”

But what if you don’t have access to blazing fast broadband, or credit cards. What happens to those who don’t have computers, or reliable electricity in the first place?

Even in the developed countries, less than a third of the population uses high speed internet, and across the rest of the world the percentage plummets below 10%. This means the already privileged minority will continue to dominate, accruing ever-greater advantages as public goods and services move online, thus leaving everyone else even further behind.

In the sub-continent alone, this means many hundreds of millions of entrenched, permanent “have-nots” — an obviously unsustainable, potentially volatile scenario.

It doesn’t have to play out quite that way, and examples of better options have emerged amidst the pandemonium of the past week. Ireland gave every citizen the right to well-funded paid sick leave, so no one would be anxious to report their symptoms, or enter treatment.

Italy suspended all mortgage payments and other household bills, thus greatly relieving stress on its beleaguered population (the UK and US seem likely to follow suit).

In his 1985 best-seller Love in the Time of Cholera, the Nobel Prize-winning Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez wrote the unforgettable line: “Wisdom comes to us when it can no longer do any good.”

The coronavirus first registered its presence in Wuhan in December 2019, and it took less than three months for the World Health Organization to declare the outbreak a pandemic (which happened this week on March 11).

That’s an extremely steep learning curve, but perhaps just enough to help navigate the perilous unknowns of our collective new normal.

Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India. The article first appeared in the Dhaka Tribune.

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