The coronavirus has fundamentally changed the world as we know it, but there are lessons to be learnt.
By Phillip Santos
No one would have imagined a day would come when almost all flights get grounded, people ‘voluntarily’ restrict themselves to their homes, people become things to avoid, industries shut down, hospitals in the developed world fail to cope with the number of patients, borders across the world get shut, decisions to choose who dies and who does not, become a casual indulgence and so on. But this and more is happening right now.
It is our daily reality.
As I write this article, the World Health Organisation had registered more than 780 000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and more than 37 000 confirmed deaths world-wide.
With countries such as the United States, Spain and Italy experiencing massive cases of new infections and deaths, no end to this crisis seems in sight, at least for now.
Although Africa has been slightly affected to date, a cataclysmic crisis is expected in the event of escalation.
But what lessons can be derived from this dark chapter in human history?
In his book Critique of Black Reason, philosopher Achille Mbembe, makes the injunction that “For, in the end, there is only one world.
It is composed of a totality of a thousand parts. Of everyone. Of all worlds.”
If this were the principle upon which many world affairs are conducted, humanity would have been in a much stronger position to deal with this viral pandemic among other planetary disasters.
In line with Mbembe’s injunction, there is arguably one major positive outcome from the Coronavirus pandemic.
It is the realisation that in mutual recognition and cooperation, humanity has a chance of surviving overwhelming threats to our very existence as a species.
A good starting point is the acknowledgement that indeed there is only one world to which all of us belong, to which our collective fate is bound and to whose health we owe mutual responsibility.
Likewise, the unfortunate circumstances of one human group, life form, and even the physical world are imbricated with those of everyone else.
In this article I want to discuss those issues around which opportunities for mutual recognition and cooperation are both remote and abound.
I will focus on three issues that should not pass without closer introspection—the climate, inequality and globalization.
The first is climate change. One of the conspicuous developments since the outbreak of the coronavirus has been a significant drop in carbon emissions, first in China, and as the virus spread, the rest of the world.
It is as if the world is going through a crash course on the necessity of cutting carbon emissions.
Researchers at Columbia University in New York told the BBC that “carbon monoxide mainly from cars had been reduced by nearly 50% compared with last year”.
The New York Times has also reported many cities in the United States, Europe and China are enjoying smog free atmospheric conditions thanks to a stoppage in manufacturing activities and restrictions on vehicular movement.
One is thus tempted to suggest the coronavirus is a deadly message sent from the future to warn humanity about what needs to be done right now, to avert the disastrous effects of climate change.
A significant point to take home from this crisis, is the realisation that radical measures can significantly alter the course of climate change.
When the world successfully eliminates the coronavirus, measures to contain climate change need not be as radical as the responses to the virus have been.
Nonetheless, it is now clear to everyone, that with commitment and through the application of corrective methods as advised by scientists, the rate at which climate change is unfolding can be slowed down significantly.
The second issue is inequality. It is also starkly clear that, left unaddressed, inequalities of various shades pose a clear and present danger, not just to those under their direct spell, but the rest of humanity as well.
Inequalities in contemporary society are manifested in economic differentials between highly developed and developing countries, between different classes within specific countries, between people located in different geo-spatial settings (rural and urban), and so on.
While some have rightly pointed out that the virus does not segregate its victims on any basis—age, class, race, gender and so on—its gravest effects are certainly going to be felt mostly by those without resources, and such effects are multi-dimensional.
For instance, attempts to stem the spread of the virus across the world include several measures aimed at restricting human mobility.
However, these measures operate as a double-edged sword.
On the one hand, abiding by these measures will protect people from infections and the spread of the virus, but on the other, since most of the impoverished people across the world do not have the capacity to stock supplies over the period specified by lockdown measures, they are at risk of starving and contracting other medical conditions, which are equally life threatening.
Cholera is an example of diseases that can easily break out when people are forced to live in close proximity and congested spaces.
Responses by different governments across the world make these risks associated with inequality starkly clear.
In developed countries, governments came up with rescue packages that ensure many people forced to stay at home continue to receive their salaries, that companies are compensated for loss of business and in the United Kingdom, even those in the informal sector will be compensated.
However, in most African countries and the rest of the developing world, the capacity for intervention at such a large scale is simply non-existent.
At the end of the lockdown measures, most people may not have any jobs to go back to, some businesses may not have the capacity to open again and many families may not afford to send their children back to school.
In his contribution to The Conversation, University of Johannesburg academic Steven Friedman dismisses optimistic views about the leveling potential 0f pandemics.
He argues that rather than drive social sensibilities towards cooperation across class, race, gender etc., pandemics can build on already existing and arising prejudices to widen the gap between people across the lines of difference mentioned above.
He attributes this tendency to irrational responses and prejudices that drive privileged social groups or members of in-groups, to blame outsiders such as immigrants and poor people, for spreading pandemics.
While these observations may be true, this pandemic offers humanity an opportunity to normatively rethink our mindset and attitudes towards each other.
The tragedies of the pandemic can also shock policy makers and other influential social actors into formulating policies that deliberately address inequalities for the preservation of the human species.
It is on this point that Mbembe’s injunction is apt.
It is neither adequate nor acceptable that the only way to show a human face towards developing countries is to come up with humanitarian support in times of crises.
Rather, good will must manifest in a paradigm shift among developed countries, that sees Africans and the rest of the Global South not as sources of cheap raw materials open for exploitation, but in Mbembe’s words, as people who “belong fully in this world that is common to all of us” on the basis of “the status of the right-holder”, and people who can “participate in the construction and the distribution of the world.”
Failure to address inequality as a social problem will mean a super-charged neo-liberal order proceeds with business as usual thereby amplifying not just the threat of climate change but also inequality.
In addition to the challenges related to inequality, the emergency measures put in place by various governments in response to the Coronavirus expose marginalised people to violence and ill-treatment by state enforcers of such measures.
It is precisely because of the inequities suffered by these people that they cannot fully abide by the imposed measures over specified periods.
Therefore, inequality exposes marginalised people not only to diseases that are spread through commercial activities that do not really benefit them, but also to authoritarian practices used to enforce mitigatory measures once such diseases become pandemics.
Some scenes of police and military brutality in South Africa immediately come to mind in this regard.
The last issue that requires some attention is the tension between the imperatives of globalisation and sovereign nation-states. Globalisation has been defined as “the intensification of worldwide social relations and interactions such that distant events acquire very similar localized impacts and vice versa” (Held and McGrew, 2007, p. 2).
The coronavirus aptly exemplifies this definition.
Sovereignty is arguably the degree to which a nation-state retains control over its internal socio-political and economic processes as well as its relations to other nations.
Generally speaking, globalisation comes with many benefits which include access to international markets, expertise, knowledge and technologies as well as easy movement across the world.
However, the sort of globalisation that is promoted by neo-liberal economics has been argued to have devastating consequences on developing countries.
Among other things it prefers the privatisation of parastatal entities, cutting back of government expenditure, deregulation of the economic environment and so on.
These aspects have meant limited funding for and the commercialisation of public health institutions and other public services both in the developing world and some developed countries.
As a result, most developing countries have dysfunctional public health systems and expensive private health services.
To be sure, corruption and maladministration in developing, and even some developed countries, have also been significant contributors to the collapse of local public health services.
However, the effects of limited funding for public services in the developing world should not be understated.
These developments effectively limit access to quality health care services by the impoverished.
In addition, the privatisation of parastatals and policies of deregulation led to massive job losses and the emasculation of local industries in the face of competition from international corporate behemoths.
Consequently, these massive job losses and the contraction of local industries are arguably partly responsible for the patterns of inequality and impoverishment visible in developing countries. It is imperative that global economic players pay attention to the imbalances of beneficiation created by the current organisation of the global economic system.
If the coronavirus has taught us anything, it is that, in the words of one World Health Organisation official, “the health of the most vulnerable people among us is a determining factor for the health of all of us”.
Part of the solution is to address inequality and eliminate impoverishment as well as to ensure access to quality medical services for all, in every country on the planet.
This brings us back to the context of the nation-state which must be allowed to do its best to build high quality public health services and an economy that truly benefit local populations.
But this must not be done at the expense of international cooperation and solidarity.
In the end, the three messages the coronavirus has brought from an otherwise catastrophic future is that we can still do something to change the course of climate change for the better, that we must value human lives and eradicate poverty or eliminate inequality, and that we are each other’s keepers although this must happen on the basis of mutual recognition within egalitarian national and international frameworks.
Phillip Santos is a senior lecturer at the Namibia University of Science and Technology. This article expresses his personal views.