This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
T. S. Eliot (1925), The Hollow Men.
On April the 30th, the daily national afternoon update on the CoViD-19 situation in Mexico was dedicated to children. Questions, drawings and videos posted from all around the country received full attention from Health Deputy-Minister López-Gatell, who has become a celebrity for the soundness, assertiveness and accessibility of his presentations. A 6-year old girl candidly voiced her main concern: “will this be over by my birthday on May 6 and will I be able to invite my friends to party?” Priorities are priorities to everyone. When lockdown lifting begun in Copenhagen a few days ago, barbershops and hair salons were reported to be fully booked. When you have to put on a brave face on reality, you better do it well-groomed.
Even if it is becoming increasingly clear, as suggested in one these notes, that the post- Coronavirus world will only bring a permanent “new abnormal”, people in lockdowns are craving for what they miss the most of from their pre-pandemic lives. For a majority of the world’s population that means food, basic income and the most elementary means of subsistence. For the ill, the disabled, the street wonderers, the split lovers, the claustrophobic, the socially active, the outdoors sportspeople, the opportunity for a relief and an enjoyment back to some of the often free and most valuable things of life. Once the excitement of the day after dwindles, it shall give way to the hardships of coming to terms with the new realities. There are certainly the economic costs to be reckoned, the employments lost and broken businesses, the damages to democracy and civic participation, the lagging tasks to catch up with, the relationships to mend, the projects to resume. Not where we left them, but where they are now. Or aren’t anymore.
One of the first realities to be reckoned with is that the CoViD-19 contingency itself will be far from over. What each country has experienced so far is furtherance through the first wave lifecycle of the pandemic from the local occurrence of the first case. Hence, those offering predictions on “when will covid-19 end” such as the dedicated website from the Data Driven Innovation Lab at the Singapore University of Technology and Design launched on April 18, may end up generating false expectations and confusion in the general public, no matter how many caveats they add to their “predictive monitoring”. Offering precise 97%, 99% and 100% ending dates is misleading, for the best current understanding of the current and other epidemics suggests a second wave might emerge anytime, that herd-immunity is still uncertain, that a treatment is not yet available and that a vaccine will probably not be readily available before mid-next year. In brief, CoViD-19 is here to stay at least through 2021 and its effects are bound to last much longer.
Regardless how much the measures taken by each government prove to be sound in retrospective and more robust benchmarks become available, such measures have been discretionary. So will be the date and pace to end lockdown wherever implemented. Such degree of uncertainty, novelty, unpreparedness, and day-by-day reality check will most likely become the general background tone for individuals, organizations and societies for months ahead.
What we have been globally going through is not just a new coronavirus pandemic. Given its scale and speed and above all, unprecedented impacts the CoViD-19 crisis is a good example of what Marcel Mauss conceptualized in 1966 as Total Social Fact, i.e., “and activity that has implications throughout society, in the economic, legal, political, and religious spheres”. Not just the genetic intricacies of the new coronavirus remain to be untangled in the upcoming months, probably years. The social, economic and cultural impacts will only begin to emerge as the first global wave fulfills its life cycle. Meanwhile, the day it ends will expose all kind of priorities, most prominently two opposing drives: those urging to get back to where things were and those urging and acting to capitalize on this crisis and grab the opportunity for deep socio-cultural and environmental transformations.
Regarding the economy and society, we find on the one hand corporate capitalism, big banking, fossil-fuel companies and servile governments pushing once more for profits privatization and debt socialization. Several countries are bundling contingency funds for big corporations and small businesses to disguise the lion’s share aimed at the former. The Bank of England has bought debt from oil giants Shell, BP and Total. The first US bailout includes $25 billion for airlines. Surveillance Capitalism is being furthered by digital corporations entering agreement with public authorities to seize the opportunity offered by contagion-tracking apps.
On the other hand, this is the first time in history when the whole global economy has halted so generally and so suddenly: an unplanned experiment on de-growth whose root-cause is external to the economy and beyond economic geography. The global / local convergence is being experienced simultaneously by most individuals through both their home and digital windows to the outside world. Witnessing a negative oil price was not foreseen any time soon. The most necessary condition for the survival of human civilization–reduction in the overall consumption of renewable resources, has been unexpectedly put to test. However harsh a recession it brings, mankind will overcome it. What mankind will not survive is the continued logic of relentless growth. Awareness of the urgency to change our economic culture has been prompted by the pandemic realities. Rent-strikes through the lock-down have sparkled in cities around the world. According to a Satista COVID-19 Barometer survey in the US, on expectations for the day after, only 9.4 percent expected things ”to go back exactly the way they were”, while 60.1% expected “all countries better prepared for global crises”. This extended view may render a tempered globalism and a more vigorous internationalism, exemplified by Portugal granting temporary residency status to asylum seekers to help them weather the coronavirus crisis.
Regarding the climate emergency, we find on the one hand, huge fossil-fuel projects such as the controversial Keystone XL pipeline being surreptitiously pushed through the lockdown, while the Trump Administration has announced the lifting of environmental controls to boost industrial production. Important environmental research projects will be affected by the quarantine. The Glasgow climate summit COP-26 has been postponed for next year. The Japanese Environment Minister announced mid-April that the Paris Agreement could die if commitments are placed behind economic recovery. Conversely, global heating will only make propagation of zoonotic diseases or those transmitted by mosquitoes like malaria and dengue more widespread.
On the other hand, CoViD-19 has dramatically shown the impact a few months of human lifestyle transformation can have on air and water pollution, CO2 emissions and wildlife recovery, providing an unplanned lab for the kind of policies that averting a devastating climate crisis require. The University of Helsinki Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air pointed out that China has reduced emissions by 25% (when its Paris Agreement commitments were only to peak by 2030) due to pandemics-control measures. Also, environmental consciousness and action has been boosted by the lockdown experience and its effects. The Sunrise Movement has engaged in online learning aiming at passing Green New Deal policies in the US. The Fridays for Future movement sparked in Sweden by Greta Thunberg has held regular digital strikes. The youth-led movement Zero Hour, is producing weekly podcasts focused on environmental justice.
Free-market liberalism, which translates as regulated for all except a privileged few, will require the same level of Government proactivity and social interest priority that brought the most effective policies to deal with the pandemics. This will happen to the extent civic pressure is exercised. In the middle of the pandemic, the Norwegian Supreme Court admitted an appeal in the landmark case The People vs. Arctic Oil.
Major world regions and individual countries will begin to experience the ending of the first infection wave. Just that. Citizens and governments from all around the world will have to balance economic recovery with new CoViD-19 outbreaks and sustained environmental protection. Paraphrasing Churchill, this is not the end of CoViD-19, it is only the end of the CoViD-19’s beginning. It could also be either the beginning of the end of a dysfunctional economic culture or the beginning of the end of human civilization.
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