A new discourse, or business as usual?
What better time to contemplate a post-pandemic world than when spinning frantically within that very disaster? After all, if there is one lesson the Black Swan phenomena teaches us, albeit in hindsight, it is this: Take heed of the signs of the times, and prepare for tomorrow. Like every cataclysmic phenomenon before this, the Covid-19 pandemic has brought the world to its knees and left it with extreme, devastating consequences. But was it unpredictable or unforeseen? Certainly not.
History shows us that every such occurrence has been preceded by tell-tale signs of impending catastrophe. Humanity either wouldn’t, or couldn’t, read the signs. Neither did it hear the alarm bells nor connect the dots to avert, prepare for, or mitigate the disaster.
One of many such warnings was given in 2016, in the report of the Commission on a Global Health Risk Framework for the Future, The Neglected Dimension of Global Security: A Framework to Counter Infectious Disease Crises. It stated: “The potential losses in terms of human lives and livelihoods are immense. The economic costs alone can be catastrophic. By our calculation, the annualized expected loss from potential pandemics is more than $60 billion …”
More recently, in 2019, the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board published the report A World At Risk, warning humanity that, “there is a very real threat of a rapidly moving, highly lethal pandemic of a respiratory pathogen killing 50 to 80 million people and wiping out nearly 5% of the world’s economy … The world is at risk. But, collectively, we already have the tools to save ourselves and our economies.”
We cannot claim that we had not been warned. But let us not dwell here on why human hubris gets to the point that we do not take heed when we should. Let us focus on where we go from here. History and science, together with Darwinian survivalism to learn and adapt, it appears, are the best guide for our pathway forward.
What we have learnt from pandemics so far is that each post-pandemic scenario has followed a pattern where every facet of human intervention -- markets, modes of consumption, migration, social behaviour, language, and the course of human history, are never the same as what they were before the pandemic.
We have further learned that while every pandemic leaves enormous challenges in its wake, it also ushers in opportunities that may not have existed before. There is therefore every reason to anticipate that a post-Covid-19 world will look, feel, and behave very differently from what has gone before.
Consequently, given the tools that we have at hand, including our heightened communication and technology-driven existence, we have no alternative but to take steps well in advance to prepare for what comes next. How well we conceptualize those challenges and exploit those opportunities depends on how well and how far in advance we prepare for a post-Covid-19 world.
In a big picture sketch, one clear pattern that has already emerged from this ongoing pandemic is that it has, on the one hand, revealed the underbelly of a “me-first,” xenophobic, racist, and zero-sum nationalism displayed by a number of countries, from Hungary to India, and from Brazil to the United States.
On the other hand, thankfully, there is now the promise of spaces opening up towards multi-lateralism and greater international cooperation. To borrow a phrase from Federica Mogherini, a former EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, when discussing the flaws in behaviour patterns of nations and the political pandering of leaders that Covid-19 has exposed, “solidarity is the new selfish.”
A Frostian dilemma
Indeed, humanity as a whole now faces a Frostian dilemma as it stands at a fork in the road. Which of the two diverging roads do we take to fashion our post-pandemic world order: The well-trodden, “business as usual” path, or the one less travelled by? If we are to emerge from this pandemic into a brave new world, then why not encourage and support states, governments, institutions, multi-national corporations, and the frameworks and structures through which our systems function, to take the second option -- even if it means re-imagining their very foundational and existential basis?
How brave and how confident would a state need to be to have social justice as the axis upon which it revolves? What would it take for a state to give the rule of law, warts and all, a real shot to ensure open and transparent governance in government? To ensure justice as the basis for legislation? To ensure independence, merit, impartiality, and high principles as the basis for judicial functioning? What would a state that celebrates rather than shuns an empowered citizenry look like?
Answering these questions will be the basis to prepare for a new kind of society and existence.
Arundhati Roy, in her recent essay, The Pandemic is a Portal, posits a fascinating way to look at the pandemic as an opportunity for humans to break with their past and imagine the world anew. She encourages us to see it as a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.
We are beckoned to make a choice: “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.”
Whichever country imagines and prepares for a new world right now, in the thick of the pandemic, has a head-start above the rest. Time will tell who was best prepared and how so. So let us now come closer to home and assess where things stand, at a more granular level.
In South Asia, a post-pandemic framework will certainly call for accountability on many fronts. Perhaps more than most of its South Asian neighbours, India, given its exclusionary politics around the anti-Muslim citizenship law and its Trump-feteing against the backdrop of protests, sit-ins, and police shootings, will have to answer more categorically on its preparation and mitigation strategies -- not only on the national front, but also in terms of its leadership on a regional response to the pandemic.
As Prime Minister Modi tweeted: “Our coming together will lead to effective outcomes,” ahead of a video conference of SAARC leaders to discuss, “…a roadmap to fight the challenge of Covid-19 Novel Coronavirus," hopefully it would not be too illogical to expect that SAARC will not succumb to the failure of the imagination and limit itself only to the management of the pandemic, but that it will expand the collective regional possibilities that only a post-pandemic world order can bring.
Yes, these possibilities may certainly take the form of softer borders and bolstered trade and commerce. But what about rights, social justice, and the rule of law? We can certainly hope that rights-based champions will emerge from within the region to bring burning yet long side-stepped issues to the centre of governance -- from structural and systemic inequalities, to poverty, gender-based violence, mal-development, mal-governance, democracy deficits, climate and internal displacements, cross border migration, trafficking, and a South Asian Court of Human Rights, among others.
For Bangladesh, we already have some clear markers of where the challenges will lie. Data in the public domain point out that the main pillars of Bangladesh’s economy: Agriculture, foreign remittances, and apparel industries, have already taken a hit. A large swathe of the Bangladeshi population is directly affected by each of these sectors. The near even stride that economic and infrastructural development indicators of Bangladesh achieved in recent times, may have also suffered a significant roll back.
It is of course too early to make definitive assessments, apart from broad projections, on just how big a blow the country’s economic growth and development has suffered and what it will mean for getting back on track to graduate to a middle income status by its 50th birthday. But this also gives this ever-resilient nation -- built on the four pillars of socialism, nationalism, democracy, and secularism -- the fortitude to start afresh without being shackled to economic growth as the primary metric for crafting a brave new future for ourselves.
Whereas economic losses can invariably be addressed through econometrics, what is by far most difficult to estimate is the human costs -- the million invisible gaps, intangible injustices, unmeasured losses, and unarticulated hardships emerging from the social, gender, livelihood, and justice indicators that inevitably result from the more documented damages. How aware are we of these fallouts and what steps could be taken to address them?
When faced with choices in, for example, revised budgetary allocations, will these “soft” sectors be left out or bypassed? Any one of these indicators could have a myriad ripple effect on other sectors. If we only take the case of the gendered burden of the pandemic, we see its undeniable impact on education, health, migration, and labour sectors, among others.
Other than these “home grown” internal issues, there are external issues that demand equal attention, such as the considerable plight of the Rohingya refugees within our borders. If, in a post-pandemic scenario, the donor landscape changes drastically or states become more insular, expending their international aid envelopes more stringently -- how would Bangladesh manage the resulting colossal and multi-layered shocks?
Rather than leaving it for time to tell how Bangladesh as a state will respond in a post-crisis scenario, or speculating how regressively or progressively its businesses and corporations will behave, a clear and decisive roadmap can already be drawn up so as to have a robust, well prepared exit and success strategy. This strategy needs to be supplemented by a social justice audit, to ensure that the intangible human costs are also factored into calculations.
A national task force on post-pandemic management, for example, could be set up to assess damages, and where needed, go back to the drawing board to creatively design a recovery and realization framework. Traditional safety net responses may not be enough. Rather, this will be a fantastic opportunity to take a justice-centric approach to development as the nation starts afresh in its 50th year journey.
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide an important and ready-made global framework for all countries to reset their national post-pandemic strategic agendas. For Bangladesh, this will mean, among other things, taking a hard look at how it frames its upcoming 8th Five Year Plan (2020-2025), and how it adjusts its Perspective Plan (2010-2021) and Bangladesh Delta Plan 2100.
This will be a golden opportunity to back up good intentions with decisive evidenced-based actions for taking a “whole of society” and “leave no one behind” approach. This will also provide all stakeholders -- government, non-government, and private sectors, civil society, women, minorities, children, the marginalized, the poor, the differently abled, the traditionally invisible, the voiceless and the choiceless -- to finally have a seat the table where a post-pandemic national blueprint is drawn up.
This blueprint, in the hands of a resilient Bangladesh which has already shown the world some of the best examples of human triumph over adversity -- be it in spectacular feats in reduction of poverty or maternal and child mortality, or gender mainstreaming, door-step services to the poor, the oral rehydration solution feat or community mobilization -- may be the game changer for the rest of the world to follow.
Dr Faustina Pereira is a Human Rights Lawyer and affiliated with the Centre for Peace and Justice, Brac University. The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of Brac University.