The World Health Organisation has now declared the current outbreak of novel coronavirus known as COVID-19 a pandemic. They were slow to act. But at least this puts officials in every country on a new level of alertness. It changes very little else.
Global supply chains continue to be severed, large events cancelled, small businesses, especially those that rely on tourists, are shutting their doors, beaches, airports and shopping malls are deserted, as people change their travel plans, work from home, and generally impose their own quarantine
The mood in some countries seems to shift daily. Official notices and reporting in Thailand, for example, have been mostly low key and unflustered. At this stage, a comforting reassurance prevails. Even in Bangkok, the only sign that something untoward is going on is the number of people wearing face masks. Realising that misleading information can lead to panic, and that both could have enervating effects on the national psyche, authorities here have opted for messages exuding a composure that seems to fly in the face of the latest news from countries like Korea and Italy. So how much can we trust information that is so conflicted?
Nobody can say for sure if the current outbreak is the plague we have constantly been warned about – a global pandemic, like the deadly Spanish flu outbreak of 1918, that infected about one-third of the world’s population and killed anywhere between 20-50 million people.
Countries having to deal with the problem range from Armenia and Luxembourg to Iceland and Indonesia. If this is in any way similar to Spanish Flu, especially given the casually itinerant nature of today’s populace, it could theoretically claim hundreds of millions of victims.
Fear and uncertainty are causing most of the reactions – some verging on panic. The totality of action across the spectrum of government departments, health professionals, the WHO, event organizers, tour operators, airlines, and individual businesses, has been clumsy and confusing. Officials telling people not to panic is, of course, not at all helpful. There have even been a few instances of government ministers diverting attention from their own problems by using the spread of COVID-19 as a scare tactic.
Corporate media adds to the confusion. The appetite for alarmist headlines is an obsession, irrespective of the topic. Putting things into perspective, by publishing pertinent and accurate data, is no longer seen to be their most seminal role in a world where profit is king. Actually sensationalism, infused with contradictory information and the wildest of misinterpretations, is in itself a contagion (within the neoliberal context) for which we have not yet found a cure.
The hardest part is trying to find pertinent and precise information, putting all of it into valid perspectives, prior to responding strategically, with just the right amount of insight, as well as sensibly, with just the right amount of caution. In some ways panic could be a worse outcome than the pandemic itself – peremptorily curtailing travel and shutting down the production of essential goods. As China is responsible for producing around 28 per cent of the world’s manufactures it would be surprising if the supply chains of essential drugs, medical oxygen and surgical masks were not impacted in some way.
Indeed, without due care and coordination, the surfeit of inconsistent public health warnings and travel advisory messages we are currently subject to through various channels aimed, no doubt, at jolting people out of their usual complacency, can all too readily add to the sense of dread that seems to be building steadily.
How is one expected to gauge the reality and scale of the emergency with all of the deceptive data taking so much air time? Because of various postponements and cancellations throwing my schedule for the coming months into disarray, I am at home in my village enjoying a quiet time to write and recharge. I feel anxious yet impatient. Should I be concerned, as isolated as we are from the nearest city? Should I fly down to Bangkok, as some are suggesting, in order to stock up on indispensable medicines? How long is any lock down likely to last? How close are we to discovering a vaccine?
Much of our anxiety from questions like these borders on the irrational. Yet it is still sufficiently corrosive as to disrupt the routines of ordinary people in the most extraordinary manner. In several countries, towns are being put on immediate lockdown, curfews are being imposed, public gatherings banned, sports events held behind closed doors, and schools closed.
Local businesses that rely on tourism are already reeling. Months of inactivity could easily send them out of business for good. Even some very large corporations, like the Asian airlines for example, are worried. The impact on international travel and the leisure industry could well be devastating. In addition, fears of an uncontainable pandemic, amplified by wrong information and gossip, is causing trust in public institutions to erode still further.
What can we conclude and how should we act when the intensity and force of fear becomes a far greater threat than any virus?
We should avoid being reckless or unduly cavalier, of course. Conducting business-as-usual is out of the question. On the other hand, antiretroviral treatments are already showing promise while around 20 research teams around the world are racing to find a vaccine. As yet, there is no need to change our entire way of life because a few people have been infected.
To put things into perspective. Tens of thousands die each year from severe seasonal flu. The COVID-19 virus is more contagious than most forms of flu. Each person with the virus appears to infect 2.2 other people. However, even that information is not totally accurate owing to the early mismanagement of the outbreak in Wuhan.
So far, the death rate is thought to be around 1.4% of those infected – around 2,915 people from 80,174 diagnosed infections. This could be higher, if we have been given misleading figures, or lower, if and when we are able to factor in mild or symptom-free cases that remain undetected.
Naturally even a low death rate can take its toll if the number of infections escalates globally. This past week, for the first time, the number of new infections outside China were greater than those in China. That is certainly an ominous sign and a strong indication it will still take months to bring this virus under control.
Opportunities in the Noise:
The World Health Organisation has belatedly declared the current outbreak of novel coronavirus COVID-19 a pandemic. It can be argued they were slow to act. But at least this now puts officials in every country on a new level of alertness. The reason for the declaration is the alarming speed and severity of the outbreak globally – together with the relative inaction (including the wrong actions) from governments.
The WHO announcement actually changes little else, apart from grabbing our attention and amplifying socio-economic patterns that were already beginning to unravel, mostly for other reasons – the pressure on systems of production from the quest for endless economic growth; the globalisation of transportation, both people and goods; the promise of happiness at the end of the consumer rainbow; the pollution of air, water and oceans arising from the use of fossil fuel energy and plastics; etc.
The next few months will be critical as the disruption to community habits and routines escalates. Global supply chains have already been severed and large public events continue to be cancelled. Small businesses, especially those totally reliant on tourists, are shutting their doors. Some may not recover. Beaches, airports and malls are deserted as people alter travel arrangements, work from home, and self-quarantine as best they can. And yet most responses are simply herd mentality expedience subscribing to habit and mimicry rather than data-driven evidence.
Officials are still conflicted in their views regarding the severity of this pandemic. Much of what we think we know is still speculative. Nobody can say for sure if this is the epic killer plague scientists had been predicting. Personally, I am inclined to believe that more dangerous pathogens, possibly thousands of years old, are still waiting for us, trapped in layers of permafrost under the Tibetan plateau. If that is so, they will be released into the air as glaciers melt from a heating climate, no doubt taking us by surprise in terms of their source, infection and mortality rates.
Meanwhile there is much we can learn from the current situation.
As I previously pointed out, the popular press thrives on drama as much as social media. This issue is not one we should treat lightly. It is not easy getting to the truth these days. Pure fabrication, slip-ups, rumours, propaganda, half truths, outlandish conspiracy theories and hysterical headlines, jumbled up with a few cherry-picked facts, cause a level of confusion that is distressing and totally unnecessary.
It could be argued that the constant histrionic commentary, together with the manner in which even official announcements are broadcast, right down to a carefully crafted syntax, is causing as much anxiety and potential panic as the virus itself. Set against much of the restrained coverage from hospital wards and emergency clinics around the world where, in spite of the stress and demands being made on exhausted staff, a sense of relative calm prevails, that is incongruous.
Once again it raises the question of how we find unbiased, data-driven evidence, and act upon it, amongst all the hubbub and pandemonium of a global crisis. Perhaps it is time to institute a multi-national “emergency response” unit to deal with global existential emergencies. Armed with the necessary legal authority to overule sovereign states, this body would coordinate data; validate reports; sythesise and broadcast life-saving information; and instruct all sectors of society on how best to deal with any emergency. Even now this might be a positive step for dealing with the issue of climate catastrophe.
Some people are heartened by the fact there are several teams around the world racing to find a vaccine for this dangerous disease. What is not often realized is that these scientists are working for private companies and are in competition with each other. This means that if and when a vaccine is found it will be patented immediately, becoming the property of a commercial enterprise focused only on making profits from that vaccine.
More than likely any vaccine discovered will be cheap to manufacture. However there can be no guarantee that it will be available at a reasonable cost when it becomes available on the market. Any company that has a government-granted monopoly has the key to fabulous riches. And should any other company produce a similar vaccine in competition with the patent holder then that entity will most probably be sued. That is commercial competition after all.
Better alternatives do exist. But they challenge the entire ethos of predatory capitalism. Might it not be wise, in times of any existential threat to our species, to quarantine certain laws until the crisis has passed? For example, a vaccine would undoubtedly be discovered much faster if all these scientists currently competing against each other were able to collaborate and share their information instead. For that to become viable, competitive behaviour would need to be held in abeyance; alternative mechanisms for funding (in this case) biomedical research would need to be agreed – although that could be done through direct public funding; while monopolistic patent laws would need to be overturned, possibly entrusting ownership of any discoveries to the commons, for a period of time.
Whenever there is a shift in our collective conditioning there is a predictable reaction. Known and expected patterns invariably lead to complacency, and then to hubris. But when these patterns are disrupted unpredictably, and suddenly, the thermometer of apprehension rapidly rises. Negativity and anxiety can easily take hold in that environment. When that occurs, opportunities are drowned by the sheer scale of the risk of doing anything different.
The level of disruption we will encounter over the coming months is almost unprecedented. The only certainty I can see is that familiar patterns will continue to unravel in the most unsettling ways. Most individual and corporate mindsets will turn to caution and frugality. But we should also be mindful of opportunities: chaotic conditions invariably offer the most insightful of us a chance to change things for the better and to usher in a new order.
For example, it is no coincidence that the impact of the coronavirus in Wuhan city, which caused the lockdown of the entire Hubei region, resulted in the shutdown of all industrial production. In turn that allowed the skies over the region to brighten, and the air to recover from human activity by becoming less polluted. Having experienced that, it would be foolish for officials in Hubei not to be reconsidering what they need to do to preserve such healthy conditions without compromising the local economy.
For some people this will be a chance to move off-the-grid in order to lead a different kind of life. For commercial entities it might be a chance to pause, to shift direction, scale down, or recalibrate strategy. It also offers each one of us the chance to re-evaluate what being human means in such a globalised age of entanglement. It offers us a chance to decide what we actually need in order to remain contented and prosperous too. For this is a time of reflection and of learning. A time we must not waste.
From a futurist’s perspective there are always valuable lessons to be learned from how we deal with any situation involving large numbers of people – particularly those events that can cause harm to so many people or change the course of history. Diverse tactics for dealing with the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak, together with conflicting messages from governments – including the same government from one moment to the next – are quite literally littered with unforeseen consequences we would do well to analyse more deeply.
Most arise from delusions and misrepresentations that have evolved into sacred dogma over the years, and yet are now prisons of our own invention – such as the natural order comprising mostly unnatural or fabricated inventions we regard as essential to life – like competition, social division, economic growth and punitive-based rules regarding what individual can and cannot do.
If that were not so crazy it would be the darkest comedy ever imagined. But this is real. Not even the most talented comedy writer could make this stuff up.
The Philosophy of Separation:
It is ironic that the (almost universal) strategy we are presently adopting in order to contain the outbreak, that of self-imposed isolation, or what is euphemistically referred to as social distancing, is one of the root causes of the lunatic reality we ourselves have created. Separation, from each other and from nature, is endemic within our social structures – epitomised by the philosophy of individualism and patent law for example.
It is surely karma that we now need to reinforce personal separation to protect us from this disease when public policies emphasising closer community engagement and cooperation might have allowed us to avoid the worst, which is undoubtedly still to come. Incidentally, the alternative mainstream strategy – that of herd immunity – being adopted in the UK, is even more farcical and downright negligent. The theory of second wave immunity is reliant on false assumptions, good luck, and a dearth of actual understanding posing as contrarian wisdom. More than that though it seems citizens over the age of 70 will be asked to self-isolate for up to four months, in order to protect them from the virus. As I entertained previously, you simply cannot make this stuff up.
The best comedy always has an element of tragedy embedded in it somewhere. True to form this came from Donald Trump last week. The President of the United States, a nation that views and promotes itself as the leader of the free world, offered to buy a vaccine from German scientists exclusively for use within the US. Such a brash, self-interested notion takes competitive behaviour and predatory capitalism to new heights, and the concept of national sovereignty into a mercenary and divisive era.
It does not stop there however. We have the current corona virus outbreak to thank for revealing just how many of our power structures and compliance procedures are built on punitive threats and fear, as opposed to the public interest. Policy changes made in reaction to the coronavirus also reveal how absurd so many of our rules are to begin with.
Governments giveth and governments taketh away – seemingly at whim. But mostly they impose and intervene in ways that are, on any evidence-based arguments, utterly fallacious and illogical. Take yesterday’s decision by The Transportation Security Administration in the US. Due to the coronavirus outbreak, they have agreed to waive the familiar 4-oz (100 gram) limit for liquids and gels on airplanes. But for hand sanitizer only!
This restriction, like the equally familiar removal of shoes and belts as we pass through security screens, or the banning of mobile phones on takeoff and landing, has been a core element of travel since 2006. So if we can now take 12 ounces of hand sanitizer liquid with us, will the airplane blow up? No actually. Flights will be no more dangerous today than they were yesterday because the ruling was incongruous in the first place.
Again in the US, the city of San Antonio has announced they will no longer incarcerate people for minor offenses in order to keep jails from being crowded with sick citizens. So why were they doing it in the first place? Removing homeless people off the streets? Not in the midst of a crisis. So why do it in the first place? Shutting off water or electricity as a punishment for hardship? Cities have suddenly found new ways to keep services on. Sick casual employees forced to take unpaid leave if they want their jobs back? The list of pointless rules and regulations goes on and on and on.
Rituals of Government Theatre:
Scour the entire range of public policies and I promise you will find countless rules and regulations that are not based in fact and serve no useful purpose, other than to keep people employed. After all, if a regulation can be so easily waived, why was it imposed in the first place?
Naturally there are explanations for these things. In spite of protests from officials, they are usually designed to make our lives just a little more difficult, to discipline specific groups of people, and to ensure that money keeps flowing into the coffers of the wealthy.
Until now many people believed what they were told – that such policies were too expensive to change or would upset the way things are meant to be done. But surely not now? The rule-makers have revealed themselves for what they are – mostly middle-aged white men operating machinery they barely understand and speaking into microphones supplied, in many cases, by the Wizard of Oz himself – otherwise known as Rupert Murdoch. We are witnessing the revealing of truth.
Ignoring the Data:
If we really do nothing different after this crisis, except try to return to the situation that existed prior to November 2019:
- We would have to ignore the fact that although a vaccine is possibly 12-18 months away (because of patent laws and mandated government testing slowing things down) treatments using a cocktail of broad spectrum antiviral drugs like Remdesivir, anti-malaria drugs like chloroquine, and anti-HIV drugs such as Kaletra, seem to be working.
- We would deliberately fail to notice that scientists working cooperatively and openly sharing their information, would undoubtedly find a vaccine faster than is possible under the rules of commercial rivalry.
- We would overlook the fact that certain countries, including China, Singapore, Thailand, and South Korea, that suffered the brunt of the SARS outbreak in 2003 and learnt from that, quickly controlled the spread of the virus (through rapid testing and quarantine measures) without the draconian disruptions to daily life being imposed elsewhere.
- We would arrogantly downplay the warnings of expert virologist Shi Zhengli who believes there are many more variants of the coronavirus that have not made the leap to humans. Yet!
- We would also need to assume, that when the current crisis passes, we will choose not to change our behaviour in any way, shape or form – even though some temporary lifestyle adjustments made during the crisis – including working from home, using online meetings, and cutting back on airplane travel, might be preferable in terms of quality of life.
But the real challenge is whether we can tolerate governments and large corporations attempting to return to business-as-usual.
The key in this regard will be data. Outside of the few Asian countries mentioned above, we are still failing to test a population in a manner capable of precisely calculating infection, morbidity, and mortality rates. Meanwhile reckless politicians, hell-bent on mimicking each other by orchestrating police-state interventions, allow markets to collapse, enterprises to close, educational programs to be interrupted, routine activities to be cancelled, and travellers to be forced into a self-imposed quarantine, without a shred of evidence that we actually know what we are doing.
Once doubts creep into the communal mind regarding the efficacy and relevance of public policy and the motives of decision makers, it is much harder to turn back the compliance clock and to convince concerned citizens they should meekly submit to policies that are deceptive nonsense.
Perhaps the gift of this crisis will be a world in which we begin to question the relevance, viability, and resilience of strategies without the benefit of data-driven evidence that the path we are on is heading in the right direction and will get us to the destination we desire. Meet you on the other side.
As a child, whenever we were caught on the hop, or something untoward occurred, my mother would exclaim in a somewhat apprehensive voice, Whatever next! Nothing of any consequence ever did happen next. Unlike today. With disruption now commonplace, astonishing events pile up like chords in the finale of a Rachmaninoff piano concerto. What an extraordinary era to be living in as our intertwined world turns on itself once again. Whatever next?
There is an inevitability about the coronavirus pandemic. One can almost inhale the sense of panic. We are just at the starting line. Yet already, instability and anxiety are sculpting an unfamiliar world in which everything we thought constant is morphing. Nature has decided to hit the reset button, showing us once again that the control we thought we exercised is only a cruel illusion. Is that a threat or a gift? I think we are about to find out…
Most of what we assume to be enduring is in fact transient. Almost certainly that includes us. We share the planet with around 100 million biological life forms. More than 99 percent of species that ever lived on Earth, over five billion, are estimated to have died out. There is no valid reason to suppose we will be exempt from a similar outcome. Certainly everything that we have created can be terminated in the blink of an eye. Equally of course, once invented anything can be reinvented – usually better than before because human knowledge is expanding exponentially all the time.
Momentarily we are all caught up in the experience of a developing crisis and intent upon survival. Our attention is on adapting to events that are likely to unfold over the coming months as we move inexorably into a global lockdown. When that passes, as it eventually must, we will reconsider the circumstances which led to all of this, viewing ourselves and our activities with a more critical eye.
Looking to the immediate horizon what new disruptions are there in store? Will we still tolerate leaders that trip over every obstacle, and politicians that lie to us constantly but then expect us to heed their words when catastrophe strikes? Will we still be cowed by fear and ignorance? Will we have learnt to shape events? Or will we remain the victims of circumstance?
Throughout history, every epidemic has exploited weaknesses secreted in the most fragile fault lines of the society. Cholera, for example, moved along fissures brought about by poverty. These ecological nooks and crannies allow disease to effortlessly alter geopolitical landscapes and shift personal relationships. They also usher in suppression and entrench socio-economic prejudice.
The fault line exposed by the current pandemic brings clarity to who we really are, relative to others and to nature. Particularly, in this case, our lack of regard for other species. Can we learn from this in order to avoid more disturbing civilisational consequences in the future?
As successive countries mimic each other, going almost from blasé indifference to overreactive panic, one thing is abundantly clear. It is inevitable that we will be transformed in some shape or form by the coronavirus outbreak, possibly in ways we least expect. We must certainly be prepared for it to shape personal interactions and social affiliations, the structure of work, scholarly theories, artistic output, and the built environment.
The most blatant insight to be had already, from the dire situation in which we now find ourselves, is how physically interconnected we all are. We live in such a densely entangled world – one that cannot suddenly be disentangled. Well, not easily. In a reality where damage to an individual is damage to the health of us all, community wellbeing is obviously more important than profits for a few. But our collective behaviours strongly suggest we do not really believe that.
As pandemics run their course they hold up a mirror to societal norms as well as our most common belief systems – reflecting a universal morality underpinning all human activity. The outbreak of COVID-19 makes palpable the rationale of a world that attempts to blend a material reality of fierce interdependence with ethical, political and socio-economic systems that expect people to fend for themselves – leaving us even more defenseless as a species.
Three factors emerge from this stampede towards individual safety. Firstly, the prevailing system of socio-economic stratification means relatively few people have the power and financial resources to disengage and withdraw completely. For those who are neither affluent, nor in receipt of a regular salary, the choice between epidemiological caution and financial survival is stark yet unavoidable.
Secondly, as long as such ethical and political separation keeps driving us back into an unrelenting cycle of desire and consumption, our material interdependence exposes all of us to the same risk.
It is not impossible to envisage the steps needed to contain a pandemic such as this: A slowdown and even a stoppage of all unnecessary work; a return to frugality; massive injections of public funding for income support, including the possibility of a temporary universal wage; a moratorium on debt; finding emergency accommodation for the homeless; and widespread free treatment for everyone infected by the virus.
This scenario of camaraderie and harmony demands that we reinvent those systems that are failing us, by re-evaluating our priorities – changing the focus of business and government from corporate profits to community wellbeing. This heresy is not altogether out of the frame. Politicians in Wales, New Zealand, Scotland and Iceland have concluded as much and are now intent on developing all government policy within that axiom.
Thirdly, responses need to be coordinated universally. It is clear from the range of diverse nation-state reactions to the current crisis, as well as other crises threatening our species, that we are out-of-step with each other. Rather than displaying a resilience to shifts in human needs, our systems remain finely-calibrated for competition and geared to making profits. By applying context-specific relief the lack of global coordination has been cruelly exposed. This, in turn, threatens human unity.
At a time when we are being instructed to stay away from each other, we need each other even more. Not just some of us. All of us. The whole world needs clean energy, nutritious food, potable water, a decent education, readily-available healthcare and, let us state this quite openly and without shame, armies prepared to put down their weapons and wage peace. We need all of this much more than we need to hurry around doing deals, fighting wars, and exchanging money.
Ultimately we need to decide whether we are here to get wealthy or to help each other live better lives. If we opt for the former, the inevitable trajectory will be overburdened healthcare systems, severe economic downturns, extreme weather events, escalating conflict, and countless deaths.
If the latter, then a total restructuring of power is on the cards. That would certainly change much of what we do and how we do it. For that reason alone we expect resistance from some quarters. It is highly probable, for example, oligarchs will seize the opportunity to advance already established authoritarian agendas. But other transformative changes are possible.
Success in arresting the rate of infections – resulting from speedy responses, new technological solutions, and the restriction of public movement – while stepping in to provide help to nations that cannot get assistance from elsewhere, like Italy and Serbia, could mean China will move faster into the leadership of a multipolar world with a moral compass that is in glaring contrast to that in the depleted empires of the 20th century. This in spite of an upsurge in hysterical anti-Chinese sentiment and propaganda out of the US.
In upcoming weeks and months we will see a return to what looks like normal. Postponed events will go ahead. Lockdowns will be lifted. Travellers will return to airports as grounded fleets take to the air once again. But we will also have taken this time to reorder our priorities. Perhaps we will become less reliant on getting somewhere at a particular time. Divisions of race, religion, ethnicity, or economic status, may recede into the background. Becoming less frantic means we are more inclined to spend time playing with the kids, taking a nap, reading a book, or writing a poem.
We will also have discovered that some jobs are unnecessary, while others are actually harmful. And we will have to decide what to do about that.
A momentous moral drama is being played out. More than likely we will come through the ordeal changed, having rediscovered our common humanity, more engaged and emotionally connected with our fellow humans than ever before. If that is the case we will think and feel very differently about what it means to be human.
In the words of Kitty O’Meara….
And the people stayed home. And read books, and listened, and rested, and exercised, and made art, and played games, and learned new ways of being, and were still. And listened more deeply. Some meditated, some prayed, some danced. Some met their shadows. And the people began to think differently. And the people healed. And, in the absence of people living in ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways, the earth began to heal.And when the danger passed, and the people joined together again, they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images, and created new ways to live and heal the Earth fully, as they had been healed.