No one could have imagined the behemoth of neoliberal capitalism – the god and engine of modern life – brought to its knees literally within a mere blink in Time. Life as we knew as ‘normal’ will never be that. Too much has been exposed, rendered uncertain as the illusory bulwarks of modernity crumble beneath the glaring spotlight of a tiny virus. Powerful governments have been rendered incapable of caring for their citizenry, of providing, in some cases, even the most basic of safety nets. And the revered market economy, imbued with near supramental powers to ‘self-correct’ our global economy, has shattered like glass with over $6 trillion of value wiped out in the sell-off of panicked investors.
Like the smoke and mirrors of roadside magicians, the economic system that dominates our lives has revealed itself to be an illusion. Few, if any, are exhorting it, as the inexorable march of COVID-19 storms the bastions of even the wealthiest societies at all levels.
Why now? why has this crisis, rather than any of the preceding crises that have left millions dead or homeless in their wake, destroyed infrastructure, put national economies back by decades, ground our most tenacious institutions of profit to a halt? There are many theories (including those of the Illuminati finally making their moves), but what has struck me from the moment names like Tom Hanks and Sophie Trudeau emerged as having contracted COVID-19, quickly followed by a litany of political figures (including the cavalier Boris Johnson, now hospitalized), is that neither wealth nor power can protect or exempt the rich and famous this time. Fear of death by an invisible ‘foe’, combined with a sense of impotency to defend ourselves (as yet), stalks the globe. In the secular west where fear of our mortality is acute, and death is hidden and avoided, this is especially true.
As we are quartered in our homes around the globe, we find ourselves buffeted by dawning realities that are extreme in their contradictions. The underbellies of our societies are painfully on show. The ‘invisible’ population, that blends into ‘normal’ across the global north and south, is being rendered visible for who they are as human beings, and the deplorable conditions many live under, including the insecurity of the gig economy. Despite being together in our confinement, we are, in reality, not on a level playing field. Whilst many can work from home, the lockdowns are imposing the greatest cost on those already on the lower end of the economic scale.
Similarly, on display are our government’s priorities, their ineptitudes and, as in the case of India, seeming vast disconnection with its own population. A poorly managed lockdown with 4 hours notice, plunged 80% of India’s daily wage earners into desperation, revealing a profound lack of trust in their own government to ensure their survival. As a result, the world witnessed a vast, wrenching exodus from urban centres, as families and labourers embarked on dangerous journeys – heading ‘home’ on foot to villages, in some cases 1000s of kilometres away. Massive crowds of migrant workers choking roads, immediately defeated the call for social distancing, and presented a potential humanitarian catastrophe.
In developed nations, the world watched aghast as supermarkets were cleaned out by hoarders descending like locusts; and the US, unable to supply its people with basic safety equipment – ventilators, medical clothing, and protective masks — looked abroad for help. Meanwhile its health services – (a giant profit-making industry), a deficit in unemployment benefits, and dismantled civil emergency infrastructure, showed this economic juggernaut to be struggling as numbers of uninsured gig workers climb daily, along with those dismissed from small businesses, hanging precariously. For the most heavily armed nation in the world, this ‘war’ won’t be won with military weapons. Nevertheless, there has been a frightening spike in gun sales within the US since COVID-19 landed on its shores.
If there was any doubt about how the 1% became the 1%, these last few weeks have been equally revealing. According to a Forbes report, only some, from the global ranks of billionaires, are stepping up and sharing part of their vast fortunes, to help the situation. Of those who are contributing, it is generally a woefully small percentage of their accumulated wealth (Sheryl Sandberg $1 million). There have been, and are, exceptions to this, where huge donations are being given to emergency funds such as in India; or, as in Italy and France, where luxury industries like Georgio Armani have transitioned their manufacturing plants to making medical protective overalls, and a French perfumery, hand sanitizer. Others have disgraced themselves with policies aimed at minimizing profit loss at the cost of their workers. These have evoked a backlash. (Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos are two prominent names). All is on display. Hidden bank accounts, secretive tax havens, deep pockets, and shell companies, can no longer shield truths stripped bare almost overnight.
Renaissance of Our Humanity
On the other side, never have we come together as a global population to honour those who serve and service our societies. Social media is brimming with touching images, videos from around the world reflecting love, care and humour spilling across boundaries of class, race, and age. People emerging onto their balconies to applaud medical workers, carers, supermarket staff, refuse removers, and cleaners, is not ‘normal’. Humanity’s heart is undeniably being awakened. Those displaced, or already deprived of food and shelter, are having their basic needs met by freshly formed armies of volunteers. In India, in a small village on the Karnataka coast, fishermen are self-organizing the fair distribution of their dwindling catch, local villagers are improvising versions of a barter system, so all are ensured of food. In Italy and across Europe, baskets filled with fresh food are being lowered from home kitchens, high above narrow streets, to feed hungry homeless people. Mutual–aid networks are mushrooming. Deprived of our distractions, our busy lives are on hold. We are being forced to slow down; and our gaze is rising beyond our personal concerns, taking in afresh our ‘lost’ community. This pandemic, of which no one is spared, is re-awakening our communitarian gene, especially in places it’s been dormant – where privilege and comfort have blunted our awareness of others.
In traditional cultures it is different. Where food is grown on small family plots, and fishing a daily communal task, interdependence is deeply engraved in the cultural DNA; and the Intelligence of care is in plain sight. Here sharing, not hoarding, is natural. An image of Indian farmers, whose produce got delayed in the stringent first ten days of the lockdown, distributing tons of tomatoes, greens, and other perishable vegetables to their local neighbours, stands in stark contrast to a recent twitter image of thousands of litres of milk being dumped in the US, to ‘stabilise’ the market.
During this civilizational pause, will we look beneath the surface of our cultural differences, to the deeper principles that underlie our various cultures? In the west it is becoming clearer to those it might not have been before, that our policies are rooted in a worldview based on separation and compartmentalisation. Our human interchanges are too often transactional. Our problem solving tends to focus on dominating and eliminating symptoms eg our ‘fight against’ crime, terrorism, disease etc. At this moment our allopathic system of health is a point in question. Some see the prolific use of immune destroying drugs (our immune system being our strongest natural defence against illness), as pertinent in the stark contrast in numbers of those afflicted by COVID-19 in developed countries, and those in countries/cultures that still rely primarily on traditional systems of medicine. All traditional medicine aims to strengthen the immune system. This, along with the consumption of less processed foods, and a natural communitarianism is literally food for thought. Will our highly profitable industrial health complex in the USA, especially, even allow this type of enquiry?
Contradictions, Upended Assumptions
With our attention sharpened by the drama playing out around us, the extremity of the contradictions we live amidst is coming into focus; contradictions generally blurred into a tolerable ‘normalcy’.
As each day rolls into the next, haunting images of death, of forced migrations and unemployment sit side by side not only those of renewed humanity, but also nature reclaiming spaces: wild goats roaming freely through the empty streets of a Welsh village; majestic condors flying unafraid above the city of Santiago, fish returning to the canals of Venice, and massive turtle nestings on beaches deserted by tourists, in India. We watch as dangerous pollution levels plummet over vast swathes of industrial terrain and congested cities, and the majestic Himalayas, free of polluting haze, are visible to the plains people of India. With the skies almost emptied of airplanes, cars off the roads, people confined behind walls, nature is delighting in reclaimed spaces, and delighting us. Our modernist ‘rights’ as consumers are being tested.
How will we reconcile all this with our future once our forced retreat comes to an end?
It seems we human beings are now compelled into a deep self-reflection of which Nature, in her stunning resilience, is our mirror. As many are aware, the effects of this pandemic are a mere foretaste of the climate crisis looming in our near future. Will we take the precious, stark lessons we are learning, forward?
On a global level, narratives long accepted by the public are being upended. Countries and cultures typically demonized and sanctioned, particularly by the US, are stepping forward to fill gaps unseen or ignored by our discombobulated governments. Russia is giving aid to the US, and Italy. China has erected a COVID -19 hospital in Pakistan. Chinese Americans are making masks and raising money for medical equipment in the US, in the face of the “Corona” racism directed at them. Jack Ma, (billionaire founder of Alibaba), has donated 1 million masks to the US, along with medical supplies and equipment to 54 countries in Africa. China responded to Serbia’s call for help after it was declined by its EU partners, due to fears of depleting their own stocks. Images of Cuba allowing the stricken British cruise liner, Braemar, to dock, and its British passengers to disembark and fly back to the UK; meanwhile treating those passengers ill with the virus did not go unnoticed. The world also took note as Cuban medics unhesitatingly attended corona-ravaged Italy. Once again, with its history of sending medical experts to assist at global catastrophes, especially in low income countries, Cuba is responding to requests from Nicaragua, Venezuela, Jamaica, Andorra and Suriname. Some attach political motives to these global acts of solidarity; that may be so in some cases. But meanwhile the wealthiest nations, particularly the UK and USA, struggle to support their own citizens, let alone support others. The UK government has had to rely on the generosity of its public to support a woefully under resourced NHS – 600,000 volunteered. Both Britain and its special partner, the US, were slow to divert manufacturing – to drop their capitalist priorities.
When we emerge from the glaring light of this pandemic, no doubt global alliances will shift; based not only on power but on humanitarian responses given, or withheld, during this time. Individually and collectively, our images of ourselves and our nations – the realities and assumptions that we took for granted – are being shaken.
Let Us Not Forget
Painful as this is, as Arunadhati Roy recently wrote in the FT “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”
This shake up is so deep, so far-reaching and transparent in its multiple layers of exposure, that we have a real opportunity. Even the FT editorial board wrote a piece underscoring the necessity of a post-pandemic redesign of our financial and economic architecture.
“Radical reforms — reversing the prevailing policy direction of the last four decades — will need to be put on the table. Governments will have to accept a more active role in the economy. They must see public services as investments rather than liabilities, and look for ways to make labour markets less insecure. Redistribution will again be on the agenda; the privileges of the elderly and wealthy in question. Policies until recently considered eccentric, such as basic income and wealth taxes, will have to be in the mix.” FT April 05, 2020
But for this to happen and for new economic models waiting in the wings to be implemented, will take us notforgetting. Our humanitarian gene has been awakened many times before, even in the last two decades with 9/11, devastating hurricanes, tsunamis, and more recently biblical fires. Our predisposition to care for each other lies just beneath the surface, but as history shows, this just as easily submerges once the crisis is over, and our personal pre-occupations return. Can we elevate the solidarity being released to our fellow humans, to thinking deeply about the world and our inter-relationships? Can we prevent the comfort and freedom many of us enjoy with our routine of work, visits to the gym, bars, restaurants, holidays, from luring us back into the mirage of ‘normal.’ The 2008 financial crash equally revealed the fragility and rapacity of neoliberal market economics and our financial institutions, but as we know, after massive bailouts with taxpayer dollars, this returned with gale-force energy, and appetite for profit.
Beneath the Surface
If we didn’t know before, COVID -19 is opening our eyes beyond ourselves, our own societies and nations. As many have pointed out, ways forward require deeper solutions – changes to our fragmented approach, relinquishment of a libertarian orthodoxy that no longer works in an inter-related world. In our secular individualistic culture in the west, questioning our underlying belief in separation – our dominate/subordinate manner of ‘dealing’ with problems, our addiction to eliminating symptoms versus understanding the root conditions of social dysfunction and disease, is surely required? There are many innovative thinkers offering paradigmatic changes to how we think about governance, food, health, global relations. Similarly, there are existing traditions that already embody many of these ‘new’ principles. There is a lot we can learn from each other.
However, one of the biggest challenges for those of us in the west, is our tendency towards western centrism and ideologizing. Even our best intentions are often lacking context. Climate change activism is essential and plays a huge role in going forward, but this too can suffer from narrow context-less thinking. The example of the controversial Canning Town train stoppage last October in London, during the XR campaign, where frustrated working class people attacked (well intentioned) climate protesters attempting to prevent an (electric) train service, that hundreds relied on to get to work, is a stark reminder.
Similarly, questions of how do we support eco tourism industries in developing countries whose fragile economies, conservation policies, and jobs depend on eco tourists? Costa Rica, Botswana, and the Massai people of Kenya are a few examples of countries for whom the outright stopping of international flights will destroy these, in some cases, fledgling green economies that we all, and the planet, benefit from.
Whilst visiting family in Costa Rica last year, a local Tico guide, passionate and proud of his country, told us that CR had given back 25% of its land to the regrowth of its forests. This, he explained, meant that CR had given up income from lucrative logging, farming and mono crops in exchange for Costa Ricans becoming the custodians of their national treasure – the stunning rainforests of central America; also a vibrant part of the planet’s lung system. “ To do this “ Marcos explained, “ means we rely on you and your support for this”. Like many others Marcos is proud of his country’s extraordinary green status amongst world economies. But he and his family, the entire CR economy, depend on people largely flying to get there. Similarly, in Botswana, my niece, a conservation scientist working with local farmers on resolving human/elephant conflict, also speaks of how eco tourism creates jobs that turn poachers into guides and conservationists. The Maasai Nashulai conservancy project is currently on the brink of catastrophe due to the corona virus lockdown, and cessation of its eco tourism.
These, and similar questions, have left me with questions regarding my own involvement in the climate movement and its connection to other cultures. These demand a deeper awareness of our connectedness, more nuanced complex thinking, versus blunt measures, no matter how well intentioned or ideologically ‘green’. We have an urgent mandate to reduce our CO2 footprint, and reverse relentless unsustainable growth, which COVID-19 is enforcing; but once it passes, as many are saying, we have to find ways that are integrative. That demand deeper questions.
Together, if Ever
Replacing our broken economic system is essential. There are numerous circular de-growth economic models out there, waiting to be adopted. Education is critical; and however we do this, we have to make this transition together. Education, and participation in creating those new ways of being and doing are going to be needed once this enforced pause is over. Examples, such as XR‘s Citizen Assemblies provide potential models.
For those of us in the global north, accustomed to certainty, to our way of doing things, we cannot go back from the knowledge, and implications, of the shattered reality we are facing. This could be a moment of civilizational re-learning, one that emerges out of uncertainty, and allows the unknown that has descended on us, to work on us, so that we can re-create with the rest of the world, not from our own enclosed (privileged) space.
If anything, COVID-19 is forcing a humility, a reckoning, and the embrace of our forgotten humanity in this civilizational hiatus. In such a frightening and disruptive time, this is a gift. There is no ‘normal’ to go back to.