Over the past weeks, the COVID situation has escalated rapidly for us, as it has for most of the world. From a picnic in a park (packed with laughter filled clustered birthday parties in the nice spring sun) to all schools closed, mandatory stay at home, restaurants…all non-essential services… closing – yesterday seems so long ago today. And this waking up and realizing that there is nowhere to go is slowly seeming like what we always have been doing.
COVID Impact – is it known? No, it can’t be yet, but…
The impact these days will have – fiscally and culturally – will not be completely comprehensible until years pass. But some realizations; both good and bad, from missing life’s taken for granted interactions to realizing there are simpler pleasures to cherish, are immediate. From louder birdsongs to forced family game times, from not missing traffic to realizing how much real-life interactions matter even in the age of social media. Most importantly, being reminded of the fortunate fact that if we are having these realizations, we are the haves. The have nots have to walk miles to be in homes they can be quarantined in. In an age of competing nationalisms, even an international crisis provoked demarcation strategies, but the global poor are united in their plights. From slums in Ecuador where COVID dead bodies are left on the streets to the disproportionately affected poorer segments in NYC, from the walking migrants of India to effect of Iran sanctions – COVID reminds us, contrary to the poetic thought we’d like to believe in, that diseases do discriminate.
Now, we as a race, forget. But troubled times are the best ones for reflection and hope is the hardest to curb virus. Personal and societal realizations that the COVID situation offers a chance for us to be cognizant of are therefore worth writing down. If retained in human memory, these could guide towards a different humankind both at national and international levels, at least for the next decade. Below are my primary groupings of such COVID reflections worth some thought.
1. The unexpected can still happen, and it can happen on a global scale
This was the biggest personal realization that I had as I mulled over the COVID escalation. Even in these know it all jaded days of information overload and technological superiority, global catastrophes are possible. I kept thinking (and am probably still thinking) that there’s no way this can happen today. They (we) will figure a way around this – lifestyles can’t be interrupted in this manner and economies can’t stall. I was wrong. This is mostly because the world today is globalized, but not equipped to handle a global crisis as a unit. A disease emerging in China is China’s problem – until it traverses our borders. And Italy can warn us – but we will mostly think for ourselves. There’s no ‘United Nations’ for any practical purpose, even within a nation.
2. We have largely been living a hoarding lifestyle
Minimalism – we need to familiarize ourselves with it. Just looking at how much stuff we buy (I run a household now in the US, and often in Bangalore. I speak for lifestyles in both nations and can vouch with reasonable confidence that this is the case in most places for households with purchasing power).
From toilet paper to milk – the shortage of supplies short term can be blamed on panic or profit mindsets, but there is no denying that no matter who we are, if we can afford to – we buy more than we need. This has permanently skewed our comprehension to be able to accurately estimate how much we really need. How much is a week’s supply? What are essentials? We all saw the ‘sweets’ arguments from shoppers in Kolkata, where shoppers believed desserts and delicacies to be essentials and line up during lockdown to buy the same. This might seem like an exaggerated antic easy to mark as an exception, but it is not. If asked to gather items or services are that truly essential vs. good to have, we all with struggle with both what those are and how much is enough. This is what keeps our economies running – but this is also what reduces our risk tolerance. If need be, humans can live on very less. Worth remembering, even for those who don’t have to right now.
3. We are neither selfish nor selfless
We are both in the same body. Our choice is moment by moment, and yes, there is no reward for making a selfless choice – especially when times are tough and survival instincts kick in. But we, as humans are uniquely capable of making that choice, nevertheless. We are the private hospitals refusing patients with symptoms and affluent families refusing to pay our maids. We are also the ones sewing masks, distributing food and water on streets, and posting happy thoughts to cheer our front-line workers. The benefit of making the latter choice is not a fluffy love that will fill up our hearts and disappear later. There is a real societal wellbeing that will be fostered, slowly but surely. Like herd immunity but for social support. We all might need handouts – the handouts might be needed from corporations and governments alike. We might all need to be rescued – by personnel we have never noticed. So, no matter what our political affiliations are, building a societal moral cloth through actions will supplement us when handouts are delayed or debated.
4. We live in panic
Mostly because we don’t know what bad is. We, as a wider global population, haven’t lived through war-zones. We scare easily. There are brilliant posts on why that is not helpful for fighting a pandemic socially, so I will touch on the economic side of it. Note: I am not advocating for utopia in face of a disaster. I am making a case for factually aware neutrality biased on the side of hope.
There is a lot of discussion on whether the measures around the COVID crises overreactions are, or under. But irrespective of whether we support risk-taking or want lockdowns – we are inherently nervous about the economy. We play defense – not offense – when it comes to our investments and policies and therefore, companies put hiring freeze in preemptively and we pull out of stock markets in anticipation of doom. In my discussions around the COVID situation most experts I spoke with predicted a bust. A start of global recession and shrinkage of demands that would be hard to come out of even as early as February. Only one suggested that this will lead to a boom. The pent-up demands, the cancelled travelled plans, the cautious hiring and investments, the suffocated expansion plans – will lead to unprecedented growth he said. I wish there were more like him in numbers. Why? Because that mindset would flatten the other curve – the steeply falling economic one – quite a bit.
5. Tech is significant, can save the world, and there’s no need to foster fear around tech trends
From Zoom calls we moved to Zoom birthday parties and happy hours (I participated in a Zoom scavenger hunt play-date for my only child who was having ‘I want to meet someone meltdowns’ and joined old friends for a Zoom catch up with drinks. Both worked great). Whether we care about social interactions or are craving to be back on the economic track, we are learning to live online more (which is a statement that would be shunned with ‘oh god that’s terrible’ pre-COVID days). We are working from home and being productive doing so. We are relying on machines for chores. Yeah, all of these can be bad things. But there’s tremendous opportunity this forced situation demonstrated for us – breaking down barriers we would use as excuse in past. If I want, today I can teach women in Africa via video conferencing and support children in Indian villages by connecting them to kids here for joint STEM workshops. Will that be as much fun as being able to do something in person and therefore limiting our reach and potential to just where we have immediate access to? Yes. COVID showed us that it can be. Programs can have wider reach; companies can have impact sourced workforces…the possibilities are endless… And the cost savings and efficiency gains from trips saved, commutes reduced, and so on can be invested in growth.
Now, am I nervous that we will go too far? Humankind will forsake human interactions, companies will use this an excuse to not invest in events, etc. etc.? No. COVID also showed us that there is no substitute for hanging out together. We miss it terribly and need lockdown orders to stay at home. So, my fears of iPad creating a loner kid who doesn’t care for human company have been dissipated forever, thanks to COVID.
A world thinking for and as the human race, not nations; humans living responsibly, fulfilling needs not greed-s; societies cultivating safety nets; economies designed for stability not just growth with buffer policies…the COVID reflections are far from complete, but worth reflecting on as we race towards almost seventy-five thousand dead world-wide as of date.