Reflections on covid-19: Ten lessons for a post-pandemic world

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Climate change is causing repeated calamities in many parts of the world, Here in Spain, Europe, heat waves and devastating fires are causing havoc.

Preamble

One of my good friends, former minister Kadress Pillay, lent me the latest book of Fareed Zakaria entitled, The ten lessons for a post-pandemic world. Fareed is one of the most respected journalists, columnists and authors in the world. I receive online everyday Fareed’s global briefing, containing sound insights and powerful analyses of major international events and I relish his perspectives based on tremendous research globally. I wish to share the gist of Fareed’s ten lessons with l’express readers.

Lenin is supposed to have said: “There are decades when nothing happens, then there are weeks when decades happen.” Coronavirus may not be novel, but plagues are not. Throughout the centuries, humans have been confronted with plagues, pestilences, wars and famine, e.g., the bubonic plague in Central Asia and Europe in the 14th century; smallpox brought to Latin America by Spanish explorers in the 15th century; Spanish flu in 1918; killing 50 million people, more than World War 1 casualties. Ever since the 1990s, sudden and massive seizures have gripped the world. About one in every decade with cascading effects: the outbreak of the Ebola virus, SARS, MERS, avian and swine flus, which spread so quickly and widely that experts warned of a future global epidemic.

In 2001, the world was shocked by the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US, provoking an intense global war on terror, leading to bloodshed, revolution repression, refugees and millions of casualties. In 2008, a financial crisis caused the worst economic collapse in the US; it rapidly conflagrated and turned into a global financial crisis with devastating impact on the life of people, especially in vulnerable economies. Now we are amid a deadly pandemic.

Lesson One: Buckle up

Economies are expanding. Consumption is running high. Instability is growing. Sustainability of humans is at stake. The latest UN reports conclude that nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history. 75% of all land have been severely altered. Ecosystems are collapsing and biodiversity is disappearing. Desertification and climate change are causing repeated calamities in many parts of the world. These and lots of other challenges, such as bioterror and biological weapons, are threatening human existence itself. We do not realize how a tiny viral particle ori- ginating from China has brought the world to its knees. We are racing without measuring the risks. It is time to buckle up.

 Lesson Two: What matters is not quantity of government, but quality

The pandemic is testing the capacity of all governments to perform. Covid-19 has become a super performance evaluator. We have seen governments acting with superiority and warlike attitudes, resulting in faulty policies. Countries with super digital and medical capabilities, like the US and the UK, have performed miserably during the pandemic. Before that, the emphasis was on the size and role of the government in the economy, but now the focus should be on the quality of government. Simply enlarging government size does little to solve societal problems effectively. Good government is about limited power, but clear lines of authority.

Lesson Three: Markets are not enough

Thatcher and Reagan ushered in the economic era favouring the broad expansion of free trade that brought virtually all countries into a single world economy. Core to this is the belief that most problems can be solved by more open markets and greater liberalization. It is not an automatic process. Importantly, regulations will have to be tailored to ensure that competition is free and fair. Governments must get back to making major investments in science and technology, education and health; and restructure government programmes, curtailing bureaucracy. The challenge is to make it possible for citizens to face that environment of global competition and technological dynamism, armed with tools, training and safety nets.

Lesson Four: People should listen to experts, and experts should listen to people

Science is all about the process of learning, discovering with failures, disappointments and successes. In the fight against the pandemic, two types of government have emerged. One, which relies on experts and the other that pushes aside the experts. We have seen heads of states refusing to wear masks, like the Brazilian president, while the president of Mexico and former US President Trump consistently undermined their own expert guidance and encouraged people to go out, attend rallies, shake hands and hug. Fortunately, many others have acted with common sense and adopted good governance principles by favouring constant dialogue with relevant stakeholders. Clemenceau said that war was too important to be left to generals. He meant that we needed other kinds of professionals to supplement them. Likewise, pandemics are too important to be left to scientists. They are essential, but so are experts in other fields.

Lesson Five: Life is digital

Almost everything today runs on software. Data is the new oil for every business and is key to their growth. Smartphones now connect much of the world to the Internet and for most people, their iPhone is their computer. One of the biggest developments during the pandemic has been medicine. Tele-medicine, online doctors and consultants are gaining ground. Artificial intelligence (AI) is replacing humans. A process like diagnosis, which is fundamentally about collecting, organizing and analysing information, can be done by the computer faster than the human brain. The post-pandemic period will witness the growing importance of AI and robots. Machines already outsmart humans in many analytical tasks. Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom worries that the development of general AI could threaten the human species itself.

Lesson Six: Aristotle was right, we are social animals

Covid-19, along with other plagues and pandemics, are known as Zoonoses, i.e., infections that jump from animals to humans. For a virus to become a full-blown pandemic, it must find its way to an urban setting. Covid-19 has illustrated this principle perfectly. In the US, New York City with its crowded streets and subways became the biggest epicentre. All the major cities in the world turned into hotspots for Covid-19 and, with the movement of people, the virus quickly spread to other areas. This led to rising cries of support from all quarters (governments, international bodies, like the WHO, businesses, billionaires, artists, etc) thus making huge amounts of money available for medical equipment and facilities, early production of vaccines and global distribution of vaccines. The display of human solidarity is yet to be defined. Aristotle, in his work Politics, written in 350 BC, describes man as a social animal and argues that human beings cannot be fulfilled, except in a city. For him, humans are unusual animals that are not fully formed at birth. They must be shaped by their environment and the best place is the city. The reason why our cities grow, even when faced with calamities, is because humans are naturally drawn to participation, collaboration and competition. Covid-19 will not short-circuit human interaction. Isolation and lockdowns might have the opposite effect, reminding humans of that simple profound insight that by nature, we are social animals.

 Lesson Seven: Inequality will get worse

Pandemics should be the great equaliser. In what way? Mexican artist Jose Posada remarked: “Death is democratic. In the end, regardless of whether you are white, dark, rich or poor, we all end up as skeletons.” However, inequality may always remain with us. Covid 19 will erase much of the progress on equality. Global inequality will widen. Low-income countries will suffer most. The gap between rich and poor countries will be accentuated as the world divides in two: places with good healthcare systems and places with inadequate ones. The latter will thus be unable to attract foreign investment and tourists and, consequently their economies will suffer. In the post-pandemic world, the retreat to safety and security will also manifest itself in the corporate sector. In today’s economy, big is beautiful. Large companies and banks can easily find new customers across the globe; small companies will trail behind. Between the pandemic and lockdown, large digital companies have become vital and have seen their profits soaring up. Small businesses are at risk. The post-pandemic period will further deepen the divide not only among nations, but also among communities. Historically, the lesson is clear. If the growing inequalities are not addressed, Revolution may follow. Inequality may be inevi- table, but in the most fundamental, moral sense, all human beings are equal.

Lesson Eight: Globalisation is not dead

There is a paradoxical feature in pandemics. Even though they are named from specific locations they are decidedly not contained by borders because of movements of goods and passengers over the centuries. Covid-19 has shown that global supply chains make us vulnerable to medical goods and some food items. Many countries spoke about the danger of dependence on foreign suppliers for medical products. For instance, they relied on China for the massive supply of face masks. In April 2020, compared to a year earlier, global air traffic fell by 94 %, provoking a cascade of dramatic effects in the world economy. But at the same time, the greatest shift in global economy in recent years has been the rise of digital economy. All countries want a share of the global market. Hence, there will be a huge expansion of foreign trade and investment by multinational companies and China through its Belt and Road Ini- tiative. Globalisation will forge ahead, spurred by the collapse in communication costs as we pay less and less to communicate digitally. Will globalization be disturbed by the intensifying competition between US and China, or will levels of interdependence and sustainable relations accelerate the pace of globalization? Time will tell.

Lesson Nine: The world is becoming bipolar

We have one world and now two superpowers, US and China. Holding the position as world number one trading nation in goods, in shipbuilding, in the production of solar panels and wind turbines, China is the biggest market for cars, computers and smartphones. It also holds the largest foreign exchange reserves. Its rise is so dramatic that one can see the outlines of a bipolar international system. Prior, it was a multipolar system with several great powers, making wars inevitable. Europe was at war for centuries. After WW2, US and USSR, locked in a cold war for 50 years, established a bipolar order, but fortunately there was no direct military confrontation between the two nuclear powers.

With the demise of the USSR, Russia’s role has slipped to the advantage of China. Are there dan- gers in power transition when a rising great power bumps against an established one? American hawkishness is rooted in the fear that China might at some point take over the globe. But this era of superpowers is different. Already, US and China are deeply intertwined economically, and this provides incentives for cooperation. Today the world is defi- ned as a single global system and hopefully, we can envisage bipolarity without war.

Lesson Ten: Sometimes the greatest realists are the idealists

After WW2, nations felt the need for international cooperation and established the United Nations and its specialized agencies; GATT to promote world trade while European leaders idealistically worked on creating the European Union. With the building of regional organisations, the scene was set for the emergence of a global system. However, at the start of the pandemic, leaders surprisingly abandoned their ideas of international cooperation, acted unilaterally, shut their borders and even restricted key medical supplies. Self-interest prevailed. Nationalists argued that multilateral cooperation did not stop the pandemic and even criticized the WHO. Is Covid-19 provoking the demise of the present multilateral system, or will US and China uphold it?

The US has never faced an adversary as formidable as China. In the light of existing multilateral channels of cooperation and defence, any attempt of China to break out of global rules will draw strong opposition. The best way is to strengthen multilateral rules, but the US should not itself flout those rules. If it does, China will do the same. With the pandemic, climate change, world and space militarization, the threat to human existence is real. The only realistic solutions are multilateralism, international cooperation and diplomacy. Wisest leaders should understand history. Harvard historian Erez Manela recalled that during the cold war, the two superpowers, US and USSR, facilitated the mass production of vaccines against smallpox, which was successfully eradicated in 1980.Together, we can overcome the current global problems.

Conclusion

Fareed Zakaria has realistically surveyed the post-pandemic international scene for us and has come up with ten lessons. We may agree or disagree with his analysis. That can be the subject of a specific debate, but I believe that what we can safely take home is the absolute need for each government to make sound policy decisions based on good governance and best practices in consultation with relevant stakeholders. The economic and social landscape is bubbling with all sorts of unexpected problems and there is an urgency to pool all our resources and brains to arrive at sustainable decisions. Let us not allow pessimism to kill optimism…

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