Human civilisation will need to invent a new understanding of what it means to be human.
Coronavirus has turned the global market into the global hospital. It has presented every single human being with the same threat at the same time, a virus for which there is no cure or vaccine.
It is hunting you and it is hunting me. As its prey, the best defence we have is to remain indoors as much as possible. Going outside carries a risk to ourselves and thousands of others. The economists of the past, as well as the political theorists, never imagined a world where standing less than two metres apart from another person could be so deadly. And while past philosophies imagined a shared human “world soul”, never before has our impact on it as individuals been so clear. Today, we all share the same blood, and it’s Covid-19’s hunting ground.
But humans have been prey before, for most of our history on Earth. Our ancestors escaped the jaws of predators that sought to consume us, and they escaped by sticking together.
“This will end with humanity victorious over yet another virus, there’s no question about that. The question is how much and how fast we will take the measures necessary to minimise the damage that this thing can do. In time, we will have therapeutics, we will have vaccines, we’re in a race against that,’’ Dr Bruce Aylward, a senior adviser to the director-general of the World Health Organization, told Time Magazine.
“And it’s going to take great cooperation and patience from the general population to play their part because at the end of the day it’s going to be the general population that stops this thing and slows it down enough to get it under control.”
That will not be an easy or cheap process, and if we want to restart the global economy, we need to have a global response. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres put it in stark terms on Tuesday, pleading with rich nations for help.
"We are only as strong as the weakest health system in our interconnected world," Guterres wrote.
"We must create the conditions and mobilise the resources necessary to ensure that developing countries have equal opportunities to respond to this crisis ... anything short of this commitment would lead to a pandemic of apocalyptic proportions affecting us all."
Guterres said trillions of dollars would be necessary to shore up not just the economies, but even the basic food supply, for developing countries. He recommended removing tariffs and impediments to trade. The purpose of international trade, in theory, at least, is to build a web of shared interest around the world that makes catastrophic warfare less likely, and racism less prevalent. Those values will face an enormous test, and will either survive or disintegrate under the march of a new, merciless brand of corona-branded authoritarianism. That is especially true if we cannot distribute Covid-19 vaccines to the billions of people who will need them, billions of total strangers.
Today, so many strangers ask so much of us, and we ask so much of strangers. Together, we stand at a precipice in human history. We can either come out on the other side of it a wiser, more caring, knowledgeable species, or we can enter a period of prolonged, indefinite decline into a dark age full of shuttered schools, bigger prisons and hungrier children.
We can come out of the Silicon Age Collapse with a global civilisation that respects the rights of everyone, or we can revert to a world of rapacious empires that respects the rights of no one. If the global economy is ever going to restart, it will need something approaching a global government to restart it. It’s up to us whether it is a world we want to live in.
How did we get here?
A pandemic like Covid-19 was inevitable, with millions of people moving across the planet as never before in human history. We should think of Covid-19 as a natural disaster the entire planet is facing all at once. The establishment of a new diplomatic order, arranged around a new kind of political philosophy, is necessary to both sustain ourselves during the pandemic and rebuild after it passes.
The world will need to invent new international public health systems that can reduce the risk of another pandemic, and help save lives in the current one. The sooner we as a species start thinking about how to do this, the better. To do it successfully, we will have to invent a new philosophy of what it means to be human. Just as in the aftermaths of previous incidents of mass death, social disarray and economic collapse, as in the wake of World War II, human civilisation will need to invent a new understanding of what it means to be human.
Worldwide, tens or even hundreds of millions of people could die, in multiple waves of pandemic outbreak, over the next 18 months, or longer. No one knows. Economic activity will only crawl back into place slowly, and unevenly, as supply chains of the global market fray indefinitely due to an unwelcome invader. In 2020, it’s coronavirus. In the 12th Century BCE, it was the Bronze Age Collapse.
Lessons from 3,000 years ago can help us figure out how to make it through the end of the world as we know it. At the height of the Bronze Age, which lasted from from around 3,000 BCE to 1,200 BCE, highly complex and centralised civilizations developed across the Eastern Mediterranean and Aegean. But over a period of just 100 years, a series of calamities toppled them one by one. It would take hundreds of years before the region regained knowledge of writing.
Then, a series of disasters, including a widespread drought in the Mediterranean basin and the subsequent arrivals of marauding and mysterious “Sea People”. Records of where the sea people came from are scarce, but they may have come from the Western Mediterranean, and turned to raiding and plunder amid a widespread drought that also hit the complex Bronze Age civilisations as well.
One Los Angeles-based historian, Chris Mitchell, says that coronavirus might not be enough on its own to doom global civilisation, but it will make it more vulnerable to other shocks. He’s one of more than 100 million Americans living under lockdown in the US.
“The High Bronze Age societies were highly centralised, perhaps more than any others until well after Jesus. The king or the pharaoh's bureaucrats would determine what, where and when you were to plant stuff. That is why the collapse makes me so anxious about our modern society.
So much of how we manage to survive depends on governing authorities and their underlings working in semi-perfect concert with a million other factors, to make sure cities are fed,” Mitchell said. “If you disrupt that, over a long period of time, and from a number of different angels, we have a collapse.”
We can say we are right now living through the Silicon Age Collapse. Silicon, the primary component in microchips, was not able to save us from this crisis. In the same way, Bronze-based technology could not save the ancients from systems-collapse. The Minoans, for instance, abandoned writing altogether. With life itself becoming harder, there was little reason to learn or teach the skill.
Mitchell said that complex civilisation restarted itself around models that grew out of the post-Bronze Age period. City states remained, but empires fell. New empires emerged, hundreds of years later, out of those city states. Athens, Sparta and Ionia would go on to rediscover complexity, trade and the exchange of ideas, some borrowing the Phoenician alphabet as their own.
So what’s in store for us, after the Silicon Age Collapse? It’s impossible to know.
In the immediate term, we should remember that we share the same blood. That means that an infection anywhere is a threat to humanity everywhere. In order to rebuild the global economy, we may need to institute a form of global government that bolsters the public health systems of hard-hit places, including developing countries and developed countries. Americans may soon need to rely on medical aid from overseas, although they have no idea how to ask for it.
An international public health system will need to have its own charter of rights for the infected and the quarantined, who may come from different countries but share the same human vulnerability to Covid-19. Capitals need to prepare for the unprecedented paradigm shift in diplomacy and rearrangement of borders, travel, trade and commerce.
To do it right, we should not treat any human, anywhere, as expendable. Like every predator that has ever hunted us, that’s what the virus wants.