This is our second piece on the impact that coronavirus could have on all of us. We started debating on this on the 14th of April, about an hour or so after the PM’s address to the nation. Lockdown 1.0 was coming to an end; Lockdown 2.0 was about to begin.
We soon realized that putting down a pessimistic point of view is much harder than imagining the positive side to all of this. What can be darker than the human and economic costs that the world has had to bear since the beginning of the outbreak? Why indeed should we be looking at how things could get worse when the news is already full of gloom and doom? What good would it do? And the answer is that it’s much tougher to fight something if we don’t see it coming. The reason for imagining a worst-case scenario is to prepare for it, and if possible, prevent it. The virus is what the virus is; highly contagious and sometimes deadly. It is how we react to the virus that will determine where we end up.
Just a small caveat before we begin. In the short term, this virus will exact a huge economic and human cost. This is obvious and needs no elaboration, we’re therefore looking at the less conspicuous costs of this pandemic which we will need to guard against.
1. Fear and division
Fear is a key survival tool but irrational fear is a terrible thing. Master Yoda was at his insightful best when he said these words to Anakin Skywalker, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
The consequences of blind fear and bigotry have already been felt across the world, from Africans who faced discrimination in China to Asian Americans who faced it in NYC. In India, we’ve seen doctors and healthcare workers being attacked, people from the Northeast being discriminated against, airline staff being harassed, and communal slurs being thrown around online. Fear of the other can also manifest as ultra-nationalism. There have been as many cases of nations competing for resources as there have been about nations coming together to fight the pandemic. The longer this pandemic runs, the greater the possibility that the world will slip back into a darker, more tribal avatar.
2. The shrinking of liberty and privacy
Across the world, emergency measures have been put in place to fight this pandemic. And rightly so. We now have laws prohibiting the congregation of people in many countries. Many governments are also using smartphone data to figure out if people are violating lockdown norms. And while the extent to which surveillance tools are being used may vary across nations with some countries going in for tracking apps and even using facial recognition tech that can identify people who are wearing masks, the fact is that technology is being used across the world for surveillance. There have also been measures taken to counter misinformation. Hungary, for instance, has introduced a law that penalizes those who spread misinformation that hampers the government’s response to the pandemic with jail time.
These measures may be necessary today to halt COVID-19. But we need to remember that typically while governments are quick to impose emergency measures, they are slow to withdraw them. There is also the fear that these measures may be misused to shut down legitimate criticism of the government, take away our right to protest and invade our privacy.
Will our leaders – in the government as well as the tech world – have the wisdom to roll back these measures and kill these tools when the pandemic passes? If they don’t then life in the 21st century will be as dark as the one George Orwell envisioned in 1984.
3. Disaster profiteering
Historically, a crisis has often brought out our worst business instincts. Famines that ravaged India in the past were always accompanied by merchants hoarding food grains. And today, we’re seeing a black market in ventilators. But there are less obvious COVID entrepreneurs around too. And they have raised their ugly heads. Years and years of work done by committed organizations and individuals resulted in the ban of plastic bags in many parts of the world. Plastic manufactures though see an opportunity today. The Plastics Industry Association – an American industry body – is now lobbying hard to reverse this ban. Their logic – that reusable bags are riskier than plastic bags – is more greed than logic. But is it working? Yes, it is. Many states in the US have already reversed their bans. And what’s good for plastic could hold good for many other industries facing public pressure to adhere to environmental or safety standards. So the question is will policymakers allow narrow corporate interests to exploit this crisis or will the greater public good guide them?
4. The status quo endures
International organizations and governments have been simulating their response to a global pandemic for a while now to ensure that they’re prepared for such an event. In fact, the World Economic Forum, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation hosted an event called Event 201 in October 2019 to figure out how the world would manage a pandemic caused by a coronavirus. However, despite this, we’re scrambling to respond effectively to this threat.
This crisis has shown us that the status quo does not work. The healthcare infrastructure is broken even in the richest parts of the world. Income inequalities have been brought into focus. Migrants walking home on Indian highways and the police in France fining the homeless because they breaking lockdown rules by not staying at home just two cruel examples of a widening wealth gap. This system needs to be fixed. But if we don’t act to fix the system then nothing changes. And we go back to business as usual. This means that no surveillance systems will be set up to spot the next outbreak early, no systems will be put in place to contain a disease before it becomes a pandemic, no steps will be taken to fix a broken healthcare system, and no measures will be taken to improve the working conditions of migrant labor or reduce unemployment levels.
Nothing could be worse than not recognizing this pandemic for the wake-up call that it is. Nothing could be worse than being unprepared for the next pandemic that might be coming our way.
But we are not pessimists. Which pessimist would launch their business in times like this? The Spanish flu which devastated the world in 1918 dramatically changed how the world looked at public health; it was responsible for the setting up of public healthcare systems in many nations. We believe that history has shown that we rarely waste a good crisis. We believe that none of these scenarios will come to pass. However, to guard against them we need to act. We need to awaken the better angels of our nature and act with compassion and decisiveness.