This is an opportunity to reset our priorities
In late January 2020, when I was drafting the introduction to our semi-professional sociological newsletter, I wrote: “The new year, 2020, marking the end of the second decade of the 21st century, began inauspiciously.
Political troubles and wars aside, forest fires in Australia, flooding in Indonesia, and a litany of disasters -- natural and man-made -- almost never-ending reminders that social change can be discontinuous and human and societal vulnerability remain a constant despite remarkable social and technological transformations.
Novel coronavirus appeared in the wake of the economic slowdown in China to 6.1% (still the fastest growing among the middle and upper-middle-income countries), which would have ramifications for the global economy in a highly inter-connected world.
As the Covid-19 crisis travelled to Europe and the US and as the international news media began to cover the pandemic 24/7, I wrote to my friends in a WhatsApp group peopled by mostly high-end computer professionals, and techies who share valuable information about the new things in the cyber world and things like Blockchain.
I asked a simple question: “How can Blockchain help fight coronavirus (the expression Covid-19 was yet to be in vogue)?” My question fell to deaf ears.
I am not hearing much about AI and the Internet of Things in the context of the Covid-19. I am sure the techies and the scientists are working hard to find an antidote to this menace in their labs, and I am also confident a vaccine and antidote will come sooner than later.
The basis of my optimism lies in the fact that the virus is more visibly causing havoc in the countries of the Global North which are also the locations of cutting-edge science.
Had this mean virus been confined to the Global South, the US media would be dominated by the 2020 presidential election and the European media by the soccer matches. And, of course, in the end, human ingenuity will beat the virus. The crown will go the scientists, not to the viruses (despite their name, corona, in Latin means crown).
So far, the only use of drones in the battle against Covid-19 that I have seen is when an Israeli man was using his drone to walk his dog as he remained confined to his home. Both the drone and the dog faithfully carried out the mission. Soon, drones will deliver pizzas and other groceries. And of course, police in China and Spain used drones outfitted with loudspeakers ordering people to return to home as they were not in compliance with a stay at home directives.
Yes, facial recognition technology and other privacy-invasive technologies are being used in tracing the contacts of the Covid-19 positives in China and elsewhere. But where are the robots incubating the Covid-19 patients, allowing the human doctors and nurses to stay out of harm’s way? Apparently, Tunisia deployed robots as police.
Pundits have been reflecting on the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic in reshaping the political economy of the world. The world, they say, will not be the same after the pandemic crisis is over. A debate erupted as to whether the pandemic is a global crisis or a crisis of globalization.
It is a global crisis insofar as the crisis has spread all over the globe. Those who think it is a crisis of globalization blame the integrated and connected nature of the world economy and frequent international air travel for the pandemic.
Superficially, it is true, but then at the time of the 1918 Spanish flu, which wiped out an estimated 50 million people worldwide, air travel was in its infancy and confined to a small number of privileged people, and globalization was rudimentary, yet the viciousness of the pandemic was no less biting even without globalization.
I would argue that globalization, viewed as the expansion and intensification of connectivity among societies and economies, might come to our rescue. The world needs a unified, thus global, effort in tackling this menace. The virologists in Melbourne are comparing notes with their colleagues in Pittsburgh and following what the scientists are doing in Germany.
It is through their competition and collaboration that new vaccines and antidotes will emerge. Beating the virus is not enough. That is only the first step.
Much discussion is taking place about the global economic recession as the direct outcome of the global pandemic. But maybe the world ought to rethink the pandemic as an opportunity, a disruption to get the world out of its stupor. Maybe it is time for a reset and a rethink of the priorities of the human society. In a press briefing, the New York governor once said that there is no Dow Jones Index for measuring the social crisis.
The world was at a breaking point for many, even before the pandemic. Spare a thought for the refugees and the other direct victims of endless war in the Middle East and elsewhere. The normalization of war and conflict and human miseries and the numbing of our moral sensibilities was nothing but a precursor to the present crisis. The only difference is that a large number of people in the world are now living the nightmare that they were just witnessing just the other day.
Yet, those tragedies and deaths are not over yet. The recent Covid-19 calamity is superimposed on the existing calamities for so many in the world.
As the pandemic unfolds, in reflection, we need to exercise some humility. It is not our smart technology alone that will deliver us from the pandemic and the follow-up economic crises. We need to moderate our arrogance in favour of humility, as we need to downplay our nationalistic fervour in favour of common humanity that is truly global.
Habibul Haque Khondker is a sociology professor at Zayed University, Abu Dhabi.