We must thank God that the ‘system’ is down, giving us a chance to pause, reflect and build anew
Beyond the pumas that have emerged in Santiago and the peacocks in Mumbai, the impact of coronavirus on humankind has been devastating – 1.2 million people infected worldwide, and nearly 65,000 deaths so far. Understandably therefore the question on everyone’s lips is, ‘when will life be normal again?’ Some predict, “…in some places, we will be able to begin to safely relax some restrictions in May or June. But life may not return to ‘normal normal’ until 2021.” (Henry Blodget, 2020 Business Insider Opinion, 4 April).
Yet the normal that we yearn for as we sit restless in our homes, was for many not much different to the horror that we are all suffering today. The count of life lost did not start with COVID-19. It surely did not dominate the media but it was there – a tragic indicator of lives as precious as those we mourn today extinguished due to preventable causes. Only the geography and income levels are different.
An estimated 6.2 million children under the age of 15 died from preventable causes in 2018, of which 5.3 million were children under five, half of them in sub-Saharan Africa and half within the first month of their lives. And 2018 was a good year, relative to previous years.
There is a lot more pain in what we call ‘normal’ – one in nine people, or 821 million, did not have enough to eat in 2018. That was mainly in Asia and Africa but to an extent amongst the poor in every city in the world. More painful though is the realisation that all this is caused not because humankind is becoming poorer and less able to care for its own but because those that have most want more, even at the expense of those who have nothing.
Global wealth grew to $360 trillion in 2019, and average wealth per adult hit a record $70,850. The average hides the reality that wealth is tragically skewed to the wrong pockets with the 26 richest billionaires owning as many assets as the 3.8 billion people who make up the poorest half of the planet’s population.
All of this is based on a system that is aligned with growth at any cost – disruption, competition – the winner takes all. It was never designed for all mankind, and it excludes as many as it includes – people who lack education, the elderly, differently-abled and others who cannot comply with its terms. The ‘losers’ are also human.
For many, that system was hopeless, and it is now – for all – also helpless. As useful as a catapult at a gunfight, or a $100 million F-35 fighter in a COVID-19 ICU. With vaccine trials requiring international co-operation, multiple medical crises merging and demanding rapid innovation, testing and deployment, and the critical importance of a co-ordinated, science based response to this global emergency, our monopolistic and confrontational system becomes irrelevant. COVID-19 is a preview of phenomena that are likely to be more frequent in a volatile, unpredictable and fragile world. That demands a ‘post normal’ definition of normalcy – a new normal.
Inequality is just one abhorrent feature of the normal we once knew. Yet as long ago as 1976 Fred Hirsch, enlightened economist, explained how growth had limits that would ultimately compromise human welfare. The ‘system’ and its proponents seemed to know better. Global warming is another. Each threatened our way of life but together formed an existential crisis.
Yet ‘normal’ was a collective blindness to both, driven by the system that influenced every aspect of mankind from politics to trade and accepted too many externalities. There has never been a lack of solutions, for even with global warming, Nicholas Stern set out in 2006, an achievable path to mitigating the crisis. It was only a flaw in the ‘system’ that favoured business (or profit) as usual instead of an intelligent response to an emerging threat.
It was never really normal before COVID-19.
We must thank God that the ‘system’ is down, giving us a chance to pause, reflect and build anew. We must pray that we will never revert to the notion of normalcy that we had pre COVID-19. Amidst the challenges we see a glimpse of what could be.
Twentieth Century Psychiatrist Jacob Moreno showed us that interaction – relationships – are essential to humans, and that creativity fuels progress. The ‘system’ stifled both, and in this brief period of lockdown, amidst the toll the virus has taken on human life, we see relationships, creativity, harmony and nature flourishing. We need to learn from this experience and build a kinder form of normal.
Incremental change is not possible because the system that defined normal is incapable of learning and is destined to suffer crisis after crisis. The 2008 financial crisis, the WTO promise of sustainable, free and fair trade, the reaction of some governments to global warming and a thousand other crises including the current one, prove that. Now is our best opportunity and we could be a part of the change we demand – of ourselves, from governments, businesses, scientists, academia, international organisations and every individual.
COVID-19 demonstrates the irrelevance of most things that fed the system – conflict, competition and dominance. It also shows us that without unity, collaboration, empathy and resource sharing, we cannot confront the challenges of hunger, climate, natural resources, and pandemics of the future.
In her column in last Friday’s Financial Times, the brilliant Arundhati Roy offers the best explanation of what must be done.
“Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. … It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.” Arundhati Roy (2020) ‘The pandemic is a portal’ Financial Times 3 April.
Let’s do it. Let’s demand that our leaders frame a world of genuinely United Nations, that instead of confrontation, superiority, conflict and politics, global debate will focus on unity, kindness, solutions based on science and human creativity and in doing so acknowledge the reality of our common future.
(Dilhan is the younger son of Dilmah Founder Merrill J. Fernando. He chairs UN Global Compact Network Sri Lanka and Biodiversity Sri Lanka. His brother Malik and he manage the hospitality and tea divisions respectively, of their family business in pursuing their father’s commitment to fine tea, the philosophy of making business a matter of human service.)