The virus presents us with an unprecedented opportunity, and obligation, to reconfigure how we live. The joke will be on us for not taking it.
Individuals can be remarkably resourceful. In his 2008 novel, ‘City of Thieves’, David Benioff’s protagonist is tasked with finding a dozen eggs for a leading communist party apparatchik amidst the hellish four-year Siege of Leningrad, during which much of the city’s population perishes from hunger. Though he finds the eggs, he nearly dies in the attempt.
One needn’t, of course, turn to literature for extraordinary acts of self-preservation: Covid-19 is giving us thousands of examples by the day.
A friend in Ireland who runs a small coffee-roasting company is building a second polytunnel to double his vegetable production. Though cafés can no longer buy his beans, the take-outs still need his lettuce, cabbages, and carrots. Sensing danger, a friend in Manhattan flew his mother out from Mumbai in late February and took her upstate in late March. From their cabin on the river, he, his partner, brother, and sister-in-law will work remotely until the mayhem recedes.
Everywhere you look, individuals are adapting faster than organisations at adjusting to life under Covid-19. Socially, economically, and even emotionally. The world over, estranged parents are bonding with children over Facetime, while exes thought forever lost send each other sweet pangolin emojis. After a decade labouring away in lecture halls and library stacks, my sister defended her PhD dissertation via Skype.
Though telecommuters are a privileged minority growing scarcer by the day, governments have a thing or two to learn from their most mobile citizens. To cope in the post-Covid landscape, states must mimic the privileged few. What they need is a new cosmopolitanism.
Citizen of everywhere
The new cosmopolitanism is agile, creative, and quick to respond to challenges. It relies on friends in far places and forges new ones close at hand. It gives where it can—noblesse, forget not, oblige—but is never ashamed to ask for help. The world’s two greatest powers should be the first to admit how much they need it.
Balancing a long memory with a healthy appreciation of the absurd, the new cosmopolitanism must also let bygones be bygones.
In foreign affairs, this means cancelling debt, removing all healthcare-related sanctions against Iran, and waiving patents on breakthrough medicines. Domestically, it means moving the homeless into hotels, turning dorms into hospitals, and enacting a 90-day rent moratorium across communities torn asunder by unemployment.
Are these impossible demands? Two months ago, undoubtedly. Today? They may be enough to just break even.
War, as Randolph Bourne wrote, is the health of the state. But it’s also a litmus test of existential fitness. Now that we’re up against a biological time bomb without borders, our leaders must see for the forest for the trees.
Admitting the terrible truth that ‘nobody’s free until everybody’s free,’ countries must send much needed material to those in need, such as Turkey has done for Italy and Spain, China is doing for the United States, and everyone left standing will soon have to do for India.
Apart from vastly ramping up production efforts, medical breakthroughs must also become a public international good.
Just as the Americans built the atomic bomb with German and Italian brainpower, attempts to defeat Covid-19 must be shared. For starters, any drug’s patent protection should be made contingent on its global accessibility at purchasing power parity before the US Food and Drug Administration or World Trade Organization gives it the green light.
After all, for every butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon, there is an overworked Polish or Pakistani epidemiologist laboring in a Swiss or German lab to save Manila and Minneapolis from perdition. If we are to make it to the Tokyo Summer Olympics with any semblance of civilization intact, the fruits of their labor must be shared.
A new provincialism
While the rest of us pontificate in our pyjamas, we must also prepare for the second salvo of our collective salvation: the dawn of a new provincialism. For the fact is this: life as we knew it before March 2020 is over.
Even when the virus recedes, gone are the days of boundless international travel and hyper-globalised supply chains, when everything from underwear to toothpaste had to travel 12,000km to reach your bathroom cabinet. Though knowledge and communications remain as global than ever, they will likely be the exception. In most other regards, we’ll have to adapt to the new provincialism.
To begin with, this means making do with less. Less travel, less consumption, less variety, and less disposable income. Down, says the optimist, with the tyranny of choice!
In addition to outright restrictions, we are also on the verge of a vast decentralisation. From entertainment to administration, many facets of life will be provincialised. The EU, for example, will likely see many of its functions devolved to the nation-state, while larger countries revert to a variety of regional solutions. The US National Football League, thank Covid, will no longer play in London each autumn.
As sites of unbridled contagion, the world’s megacities will also see their stock fall, while that of provincial cities rises: first in healthcare and rapid response infrastructure, but later in commerce, entertainment, food processing, research and development, education, and even (renewable) energy. Motors of greater sustainability, mid-sized cities will inch closer to their place in the sun, the shine of Bogotá, Bangkok, and Mumbai gradually offset by Bucaramanga, Bandung, and Bahawalpur.
The empire of empathy
What could possibly hold the crumbling edifice of our ‘international community’ together? As prisons throw open their doors, Americans stockpile weapons, unemployment reaches all-time highs, and millions of bickering couples remain confined to small apartments, a Hobbesian free-for-all seems more likely than spontaneous outpourings of brotherly love.
But given the stakes — the viability of social life on earth —we should probably give it a shot. How to keep the goddess Kali at bay? By expanding the empire of empathy.
On an individual level, this means attempting to correct our own faults — lest our roommates suffocate us in our sleep — and forgiving those of others. At the international political level, it means replacing geopolitical posturing with coordinated attempts to stop the virus. For at least the next year, diplomacy must be elevated to streamlining global public health initiatives.
For the fact is this. Though rivalries and fisticuffs are so much fun, we must set them aside for a time to serve a higher master. In addition to laying down our own flags, be they personal, professional, political, or proprietary, we must fight under a new banner, extending, against all odds, the empire of empathy as far as her natural boundaries will go.
Should we fail to, the days to come may prove more solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and long than even the month of March.