Reflecting on the ‘interregnum’ ~ the uncertain interval between two regimes in ancient Rome ~ Antonio Gramsci wrote from a Fascist prison in 1929 ~ “The old world is dying and the new world struggles are yet to be born. Now is the time of monsters.” We are also in an interregnum ~ between an old familiar world that is dying and an uncertain world about to receive us.
And we are seeing the dance of death by a monster, only ten-thousandth of a millimetre in size, which has already killed 26,000 human beings and claimed 6 lakh victims within a span of little more than two months, with no respite yet in sight. It has brought the entire world to a grinding halt. Its ruthless march is making no distinction between rich and poor, white and black, Asians and Americans.
Along with its victims, it has sent the economies to the ICU, turned towns into ghost-towns, grounded airlines and transport systems, throttled life, scuttled businesses and sent the entire world into utter chaos under its vice-like stranglehold. It is as if Nature is exacting its revenge upon humanity for its greed, cruelty, and selfishness. It has disembodied our present and future and made the past lose perspective.
It is forcing us to adapt to new ways of living, working, interacting and forging relationships. It is likely that these changes will become permanent by and large if and when we recover from this crisis, the kind of which the world perhaps has never before. Even before the coronavirus, the world we were born into was changing perceptibly. In most countries, the ruling dispensation was unable to rule through consent, and old oligarchies and ideologies were being replaced by new ones.
While globalisation was giving way to renationalization, the existing global institutions were unable to forge a consensus on such issues as climate change, artificial intelligence or terrorism. The futurist Jamie Metzl, who compares the pandemic to something bigger than the 9/11 that has changed our world, thinks it would be, “a convergence of the worlds of science and biology and the world of geopolitics.”
Only a naïve or a diehard optimist would believe that things would be back to normal in a few weeks’ or months’ time and that our lives will resume as usual, as if nothing has happened in the interregnum. Life indeed has already changed a lot in ways that were unthinkable only a few weeks ago. We are in forced quarantine at our homes, scared out of our wits and fearful of touching another fellow human, something that has so far defined human relations.
In an uncertain and unpredictable future, the only thing that can possibly be predicted with some certainty is that the world will continue to remain in the grip of severe recession for months, maybe years, that millions of jobs will be lost and the fallout of the economic and social crisis beyond the capacities of most governments to handle will fuel tremendous social and political turmoil and topple regimes across the world. As Gideon Lichfield wrote in the MIT Technology Review, “Social distancing is here to stay for much more than a few weeks.
It will upend our way of life, in some ways forever.” Without social distancing, the virus spread won’t slow down and the curve cannot be “flattened”. Without flattening, healthcare systems will crumble as is happening in Italy and Spain now. A report early in March by the researchers at Imperial College, London recommended enforcing extreme social distancing protocols every time admissions to ICUs spike beyond a certain threshold and relax them when they fall below, to keep the pandemic in check and prevent overburdening of hospitals even in the USA or UK.
Their research shows that only the strictest distancing measures can prevent hundreds of thousands of deaths, for which social distancing and institutional closures have to be forced some twothirds of the time ~ two months on and one month off ~ until a vaccine becomes available. A vaccine takes minimum of 12 to 18 months, assuming that the virus does not mutate into a more virulent strain for which the odds at present don’t seem to be too high. Expanding ICU capacity does not mitigate the spread, and the pandemic will come back even if social distancing is imposed for five months at a time before relaxing.
Even in the most optimistic scenario, we have to remain shut at least half the time. As Lichfield writes, “This isn’t a temporary disruption. It’s the start of a completely different way of life.” The poorest and weakest would be the hardest hit from such disruptions. The crisis gives us the opportunity to bridge the yawning social inequities that make the poor so intensely vulnerable to such crises.
The social and economic effects of a long shut-in may be devastating and catastrophic and hence unsustainable, but we have no ‘exit strategy’ at this moment of lifting the restrictions and resuming our old life. A strategy the UK Government seemed to have adapted in the beginning was to let enough people develop immunity through infection so that the virus cannot cause massive outbreaks any longer ~ a concept known as ‘herd immunity’.
It is fraught with high risk, and the only viable alternative to the development of a vaccine is permanent behaviour changes adapted to repeated social distancing and lockdown protocols. A prolonged shutdown will force many difficult compromises affecting our socialisation which have hitherto formed the basis for our cooperation, collaboration, interdependence, and social coherence. Integral to our being, physical connectivity and reassurance of human touch are encoded into our DNAs by evolution.
It is organic to our existence; deprived of it, we will face emotional, social and psychological problems. We are not programmed to live solitary lives within confined spaces, and if this becomes the new normal, we will have to redefine and reengineer our lives and its processes, rediscover and find ways to be at peace with ourselves. In short, we have to learn to go into a retreat within ourselves. One thing is almost certain, much of our life and activities are going to be virtualised, with considerable decentralisation and hence more democratisation of society if we can manage the process well.
As activities, events and processes get decentralised through virtualisation, decision processes will tend to get democratised and based on consensus, leading also to political and economic decentralisation. Virtualisation may also bring global communities together and narrow down their differences. Online life, online education, work from home, ecommerce and e-entertainment are going to become the norm rather than exceptions in the post Covid-19 world. As financial services like banking, insurance and other businesses reckon the cost-saving and other advantages in work from home modes, they will re-engineer their systems and processes.
In a highly disruptive process, jobs will shift across sectors, with some like tourism, hospitality and entertainment, art and sports, education and training facing the full brunt of such creative destruction which will also force these industries to adapt and adjust to the new realities. Healthcare will get better focus and funding and will hopefully become better. Free and universal healthcare along with a universal basic income to shield against possible job losses may not remain a distant dream any longer in most countries.
Once online becomes the new normal for life, faster and affordable broadband may give quality internet access to everyone cutting across social strata, casting aside digital monopolies that have created the divide between digital haves and have-nots and advocated exceptionalism. The response the virus has provoked in most countries and the forces and trends that have already been set in motion are likely to redefine the way of life.
It would be welcome if it helps us redeem ourselves for the atrocities we have committed upon Nature by treating the concept of balance and harmony inherent in nature with utter contempt. As the forced lockdowns have gradually decongested the city roads, blue skies opened up in Beijing, Milan and other cities of the world. In Delhi, for the first time in years, particulate pollution dropped below the safe limits. In our country and in distant shores of the world, animals and birds are slowly emerging to reclaim their space hitherto appropriated by the self-seeking humans.
(To be concluded)
(The writer is a commentator. Opinions are personal)