Is Covid-19 A Renaissance Moment For Mankind?
Medical workers at a coronavirus mobile test site in Jakarta, Indonesia, on May 6, 2020. (Photo: AP/PTI)

Is Covid-19 A Renaissance Moment For Mankind?

BloombergQuintOpinion

As we transitioned from Lockdown-II to Lockdown-III in India, we move to a gradual and inevitable opening up of the economy and the more challenging aspect of controlling the pandemic in a relatively uncontrolled environment. This would call for more innovative approaches and continued cooperative conduct on part of citizens.

Covid-19 is an unprecedented, multidimensional calamity: physical, social, psychological, and economic. Its uncontrollable spread and the management response of governments across the world have been without parallel.

Never before in recent memory has the system imposed on itself a voluntary lockdown of this scale and duration. The lockdown has compounded the nature of the adverse consequences on people as well as economies.

The pandemic has already killed more than 270,000 people worldwide and crippled the global economy. The one thing that we cannot afford to do is to romanticise the lockdown. The lockdown is a grim reality, an administrative necessity, and a sensible strategy of avoiding an unmanageable health epidemic. The containment approach would show its beneficial results when data is finally analysed.

Meanwhile, no one needs to be carried away by the newfound love for birds and fascination with blue skies and the enormous opportunity to spend time with loved ones. These are required at all times and we have only ourselves to blame if we didn’t have what we desire. We can’t look at the skies and hope that they remain blue while we are busy ensuring that they don’t.

Let us not delude ourselves that once normalcy returns the skies will be as blue, that birds will keep chirping in our backyards, that the moon will be as bright in our cityscape, and that we will start building a new world. We should, but we might not.

Humankind adapts as well to compulsions as to comforts; generally a slave of circumstances. It was used to the world as it was before Covid-19, has temporarily adapted itself to the lockdown situation, and will again be inured to the world when ‘normalcy’ returns. Normalcy for most might mean life as it was before Covid-19. Let’s hope it is not.

The Way Forward, In Five Lessons

As we start repairing the economy, it would be useful to further strengthen all elements of Covid-19-related infrastructure. While augmenting testing capacities, it would be vital to ensure that it is optimally utilised. The availability of facilities with full details should be placed in the public domain. The colour-coded approach should further be sharpened to isolate smaller areas rather than districts so that resources are deployed where they are most required. For example, Mumbai and Delhi alone have more than 35 percent of the active positive cases. These regions, districts, cities or colonies have to come under selective and severe surveillance with a separate war room monitoring all measures strictly. The system cannot afford to fritter away the gains of the lockdown.

Even as steps are taken to bring the economy back on rails and to build a conducive environment for recovering lost jobs and erosion of wealth, it would be important to draw lessons from the ongoing crises to guide us for the future.

The foremost lesson of this lockdown is to learn to do more with less and that life cannot be lived in compartments. An individual cannot lead a life of indulgence and moderation in installments.

A society cannot decide to be acquisitive for a few years and then switch to abstinence.

Let us ask ourselves whether limitless consumerism by those who can afford, and imitative aspiration by those who can’t, is the only way to progress. Should there be a race to buy only because we have the power to purchase? The value of kifaayat will have to be reintroduced in the way we live.

The second question that needs to be asked is whether purchasing power should be so disproportionately concentrated in a few? The widening gulf between those that have been left behind and those reaping a whirlwind in the current model of economic growth is clearly not sustainable. The world has to move together, the resourceful and the deprived. Too much load at the back would overturn the cart. Let the fruits of prosperity be more evenly spread as we move to a future of lower GDP growth rates. The good old dictum that “poverty anywhere is a threat to prosperity everywhere” holds true all the time, however hackneyed it might sound.

The third lesson is to reorder the priority of public spending. The biggest bang for the buck lies in providing for achieving decent standards of public health and spending on the right type of education at the school level. We do need individuals who can excel in all fields and spheres but we also need masses who can find dignified employment. They are the bulwark of any economy.

No engine, however powerful it might be, can pull wagons with broken wheels.

Public expenditure for long seems to be trapped in a mesh of its own making. Bold decisions are required to pull it out.

The fourth lesson for the world is to learn greater cooperation and collaboration in critical fields like health and environment among others. Regional or bilateral cooperation for furthering only mutual economic gains might not suffice if we have to deal with issues that have trans-border implications and impact. Issues like climate change or collaboration for promoting technologies for sustainable development have been hitherto driven by narrow self-interest and have only produced stagnation. Leaders of the world have to sit together and see beyond their self-serving perspectives if pandemics and catastrophes of global magnitude are to be avoided.

Paradoxical as it might sound, the fifth lesson is for nations to reorient their economies towards greater self-reliance so that economic growth and survival of its population are not inextricably intertwined with other nations. This approach does not run counter to the need for the greater global effort required in certain areas. Nations will have to create structures and promote sectors so that the majority of the local population is able to participate in the national economy. A competitive manufacturing sector has to play a significant role in this. The mainstream has to become wide, as wide as it can, because narrowing it may give it greater velocity but is likely to cause more erosion.

Priorities Beyond Profit

It is laudable that the system has handled an emergency of this dimension and complexity, but the question that we need to ask is whether it should take a disaster to demonstrate the efficiency of a system. Its efficacy should lie in how effectively and well it handles the routine.

Most answers to the future lie in the speed with which scientific research and technology assist the new normal. Science will find antidotes but we need to work together to universalise the outcome of our efforts. Technology collaborations among academic institutions, industry, and governments, not solely driven by commercial consideration, is the only viable way forward. For this to happen we need a more humane global leadership as many answers lie in the way politics reinvents itself to lead the world into a modified future.

World leaders in the twentieth century responded to many global crises by creating multilateral platforms for working together. Many of them are being unfortunately dismantled or atrophied due to competitive myopia and obsessive self-preservation. The world needs leaders who can reinvent them, steady the ship in this storm and then steer it to a collectively determined destination. It is the urgency and needs of public interest, and not the force and impulse of capital alone that will have to drive public policy. If technology is appropriated for the advantage of the affluent and if politics is waylaid into the insidious by-lanes of the past, we may only inherit our immediate past and the Covid-19 lessons would remain like the untreated virus.

Ashok Lavasa is a former Union Finance Secretary, and presently an Election Commissioner of India. Views are personal.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.

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