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From relative obscurity a few months ago, Covid-19 or the novel coronavirus has become the biggest global threat in the immediate future of humankind. Declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization, the coronavirus has infected more than 270,000 people and killed more than 11,000 to date (click here for latest estimate). In the space of weeks, Covid-19 is sweeping through many countries, first with a trickle of cases which then grow exponentially, quickly overwhelming medical services and intensive care units. Countries are transitioning from contact tracing to lockdowns and social distancing to slow down the viral transmission, or to “flatten the curve”.
Malaysia, where I am at, is implementing a nation-wide two-week movement restriction. Schools at all levels from kindergarten to university are closed, as are all business and governmental premises not providing essential services. Malaysians cannot travel overseas, and restrictions are placed on the entry of all tourists and foreign visitors. Right before the movement control order took place, people started to panic buy and highways and transportation hubs became severely congested as people tried to move before they couldn’t. As a result of closed schools and businesses, family members and roommates now have to spend time in close quarters, spending quality time together or driving each other up the wall.
Amidst the excitement of stocking up the pantry, compulsively checking news updates, and responding to never-ending instant messages, some thoughts keep surfacing in my mind. What will happen next, after this emergency period? What are the lasting changes, and what returns to “normal”? And, if business-as-usual is undesirable in the age of man-made climate change, what are the potential opportunities and threats that may arise from this historic challenge?
Crisis as opportunity
Thus begins my exploration. Plenty has been written on this, as experts from diverse disciplines offer their opinions amidst the rapidly shifting landscape. As new events occur by the hour, estimates and analyses adjust to the worsening scenarios. The crisis is not only a public health crisis, but also a financial one. We are seeing a worldwide credit crunch that will bankrupt many businesses and can possibly make the global financial crisis in 2008 look like “child’s play”. At the same time, we are seeing some signs that the Earth is starting to heal as a result of coronavirus lockdowns – for example, China has seen a reduction of 20-30% of PM2.5 particles in large parts of the country, and Venice is marvelling at the return of wildlife into its city.
These are interesting times we live in. Make no mistake, Covid-19 may be the biggest global crisis yet that many of us have ever faced, akin to war-times, and I am not making light of the situation. But the crisis is already here, exposing our structural weaknesses and shaking some of our institutions and long-held beliefs to the core. We did not ask for destruction, but now that it is here – this may be an opportunity never seen before to "build back better".
While environmentalists have preached for years to practise sustainable consumption and production and achieved little, coronavirus-related lockdowns have slowed economies down to a grinding halt. With instructions to close borders, stay home, and suspend non-essential production and service provision, we are effectively ordering millions to withdraw from economic life, albeit just for the short term. This may seem disruptive and anxiety-inducing to many (we have been told all our lives that how we consume defines who we are, after all), but looking at how our consumption is undermining the planet's ability to regenerate itself, this may not be a bad thing.
While degrowth can be defined as “a phase of planned and equitable economic contraction in the richest nations, eventually reaching a steady state that operates within Earth’s biophysical limits,” the powerful myth of limitless economic growth has never allowed us to get to that point. With inevitable contraction in the economy, this incident provides the biggest testing ground that we’ve ever seen for degrowth. Ideas that challenge the mainstream thinking of profit-above-all, such as those of the global social and solidarity economy movement, will get their chance to be implemented, because we simply have no choice but to turn to alternatives.
This may also be an opportunity to ask for a different way to measure progress. Currently, the main way to assess if a country is doing well is through the gross domestic product (GDP), which measures the total value of goods and services produced in a country within a specific time period. That number does not differentiate between “good” economic activities (money spent on education, health, etc.) and “bad” (criminal activity, deforestation, etc.); its derivative, the GDP per capita, also does not take into account income inequality between the haves and the have-nots. For the longest time, advocates of sustainable development have asked policy makers to focus on indicators that look at the quality of life, and not quantity. Now would be a good time to double up the efforts on that.
Given that a lot of businesses will tank and many people will lose their jobs, governments will need to choose and prioritise the economic sectors that they want to save. This is a volatile period when we can really make a difference for the long term, or dig ourselves deeper into the unsustainable hole that we are in. We should try our best to keep our (limited) public money from going into any polluting and unsustainable industry that enables the rich and greedy to keep being rich and greedy. If we have to choose, we can choose better to invest in what is important for us all. That would include public health, food and energy security, clean water, green technologies, education, social protection, and so on and so forth. The Sustainable Development Goals already have a decent list that we can follow.
While we’re on the topic of economic reorganisation, we can also see this happening at a lower level, when organisations (instead of countries) shift their resources around to adapt to the disruption. Going back to the NGO sector, the sector that I’m most familiar with, an interesting observation that I have seen from the ground is this: with the cancellation of events, many organisations are now reconfiguring their work (in the short term) to move away from regional and international conferences and towards research or other programmatic work that can be done locally or remotely. In other words, instead of flying people around the world to congregate in expensive events and meetings (somewhat of a funder’s favourite as it can be seen and neatly counted as an outcome of their money), money is now being channelled towards the causes themselves. I see this as a terrific boon, not only in terms of carbon savings, but also in terms of resource allocation to where it counts.
Building social safety nets and rethinking work
While millions are worried about their lives and jobs, the super-rich are escaping to their bunkers and holiday homes, and get access to coronavirus tests even amidst shortages. Social inequality is nothing new of course, we’ve known it for ages. But will the coronavirus crisis create enough outrage to actually provoke change? For instance, will platforms like Uber and Lyft take responsibility for their gig workers, to provide them with social protection and address the precariousness of their work?
The International Labour Organization (ILO), in its note on Covid-19’s impacts on work and recommended responses, estimates (with a high level of uncertainty) that there will be a substantial rise in unemployment of between 5.3 million to 24.7 million workers globally, and also widespread underemployment. Stepping outside of the coronavirus context, automation may lead to large-scale displacement of jobs anyway, so this is a problem that we would have to confront even without the catalyst of the virus.
Maybe it is time to see people as more than workers. Maybe with this way of thinking we can cut out the "middle man" and go straight to help the average person on the street, instead of relying on trickle-down economics, which does not work. We may explore and test ideas such as universal basic income, or universal basic services. Some may argue that work provides meaning to life, to which I respond, there is “work as dignity” and “work as exploitation”. We need to build decent work, more meaningful jobs, and distribute the jobs better. How about more jobs created in the green technology sector, or the organic farming industry? How about a work week with fewer hours, so that we can spread the jobs out to more people?
Building community resilience
While Covid-19 shows us the stark inequality that exists in our society, it has also revealed to us the underlying solidarity and altruism that we have in the societies that are hit, from balcony singing flashmobs to volunteers mobilising to reach out to the vulnerable. A study that I like to revisit from time to time is the one that shows that in the Fukushima incident in Japan, the biggest predictor of survival was social capital. From studying 130 cities, towns and villages in Tohoku, researchers found that communities with more social ties, interactions, and shared norms had the lowest mortality rates, not those who had better infrastructure or stock piles. "In many cases only 40 minutes separated the earthquake and the arrival of the tsunami. During that time, residents literally picked up and carried many elderly people out of vulnerable, low-lying areas," the researchers reported. "In high-trust neighborhoods, people knocked on doors of those who needed help and escorted them out of harm’s way."
This is something that we can definitely draw inspiration from. While the Covid-19 crisis requires us to practise "social distancing", it is fortunate that it happened in a networked age, where our social networks are supported by technology. At no time in history have we been able to learn so quickly from successes and failures in state responses, or connect so easily with our neighbours without actually seeing them physically.
Time to reflect
The crisis of the coronavirus is forcing us to reassess some of our assumptions about modern life, even for those of us who are concerned about the environment and the unsustainability of how we live. Did we need all that stuff, and did we buy it to distract ourselves from other problems? Are our jobs bullshit jobs, and should we try to find more meaningful work to spend our productive time? What are our values and priorities, and how do we uphold them in such difficult times?
In a world that was spinning faster and faster, stopping to reflect was a luxury that many of us could not afford. But suddenly, we’re forced to slam on the brakes. We can consider this a gift of time, to reflect. Indeed, it is a privilege to put such a frame on this disruptive period, since many are anxious about losing their income and struggling to provide for their family. However, for the more fortunate ones, some of whom may be reading this article, the disruption may just be the inability to leave their homes for a designated amount of time. If enough individuals can finally find time to think, maybe we might make better decisions collectively on how to live well and live better for our planet’s long-term survival.
We have to be vigilant
Naomi Klein, a prominent climate activist and long-time observer of global economics and politics, cautions us of the "disaster capitalism" that may follow the Covid-19 pandemic. History shows us that disasters have often been exploited by the elite class, who, taking advantage of the chaos provided by the disruption, have profiteered or put in place predatory policies that plunge the vulnerable into further destitution.
We are at a historic crossroads now, and the policy choices that we make will define our future. The opportunities are immense in this crisis, but so are the costs of losing sight of the fight. For this, I urge us to dream big and strategise on how to make the world better, and make this crisis worthwhile for all of us.
Image by Doug Scobie used under Creative Commons licence.