The Day That Changed The World

Published March 19th, 2020 - 03:48 GMT
(AFP File Photo)
(AFP File Photo)
Highlights
Many people are terrified: By the virus itself, but also by the unprecedented effect it has had on our societies — a global lockdown the likes of which the world has never seen before, even in wartime

On Dec. 31, 2019, China reported a concerning number of cases of pneumonia to the World Health Organization. One week later, on Jan. 7, the new coronavirus was identified.

We do not know precisely how or when the virus infected its first human host, but for the purpose of this article let us posit that our world changed on Jan. 7. In the early 1950s, in my university days, I took a course on the Soviet Union and one of our assigned readings was the book “Ten Days That Shook the World,” by American journalist John Reed, who witnessed the Bolshevik Revolution first-hand. His idea was that those 10 days transformed the world in ways we would only come to realize far later. I believe that the identification of the coronavirus causing COVID-19 will have similarly broad implications.

This time, the world will be transformed not by an ideology, a global war or the spread of a mass religious phenomenon.

There are no battles taking place on our streets, there is no self-declared prophet or novel revolutionary idea circulating. What we have is a small virus that does not even withstand soap, invisibly infecting hundreds of thousands of people across the entire globe and forcing us all to drastically change our ways; shutting down countries, societies and large sectors of the economy. Many people are terrified: By the virus itself, but also by the unprecedented effect it has had on our societies — a global lockdown the likes of which the world has never seen before, even in wartime.

While medical experts try to reassure us by saying that most bearers of the virus will only experience very mild symptoms, the invisible virus has nonetheless brought us and multiple world-class health systems to their knees.

As we face this unprecedented situation, we are understandably looking for some answers and explanations. Sadly, they fall into the same category as the answer to why we have seen an unprecedented number of high-intensity hurricanes, wildfires, flooding and heatwaves over the past year and decade. The reason, to put it simply, is us. Epidemiologists have long warned of increasing numbers of deadly viruses crossing over from animals to humans, infecting and killing large numbers of people. To name only the best-known virus outbreaks of past decades, there is Marburg, Ebola, bird flu, West Nile, SARS and MERS. Part of the explanation is that, as we destroy more natural habitats, more animals — particularly animals like rats and bats, which are known to regularly transmit viruses to humans — are brought into close contact with humans, just as increasing numbers of hungry city-dwellers get their food from so-called wet markets like the one in Wuhan, enabling similar contact. Following rising awareness of the climate catastrophe, this latest coronavirus must also serve as a wake-up call.

With a few Asian exceptions, such as Taiwan or Singapore, governments around the world were largely unprepared for this virus, yet epidemiologists have warned us of far more deadly new viruses that could infect millions equally as fast. The coronavirus spread across the globe before we could put our pants, let alone our facemasks, on. We did not have time to convene meaningful meetings of the UN Security Council to address the global crisis.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, whose country currently holds the G20 chair, is calling on the group to rapidly address the medical and economic aspects of the coronavirus. In time, we will all have to take this virus, its consequences, and its implications for our societies and our future as seriously as we would any other threat to international peace and security. Here is a virus that touches all mankind, without regard to nationality, class or race, which exploits the weaknesses of our modern societies and our problematic relationship with the environment in order to exist and to spread. We have a great deal of cogitating to do on many aspects of this virus, on our societies, our global economy and our entire way of life. There will be a clear before and after, likely in unison with our overdue environmental awakening.

The thorough reflections to come are already being suggested by topics the virus has recently raised. A Stanford professor, for example, highlighted how the reduction in economic activity in China, and hence in pollution, over the past two months has likely saved the lives of almost 80,000 people — that is more than 20 times the number of Chinese to have died because of the virus.

What should we be more worried about: The virus or the far more numerous deaths related to air quality due to fossil fuels and our focus on ever-expanding growth? As we consider that question, we butt up against another one, which is that, as large sectors of our economies grind to a halt due to the confinement measures to slow the spread of the virus, at what point will our precautions do disproportionate damage to our economy? It is common knowledge that economic crises and downturns lead to deaths due to unemployment, poverty, lack of health care and deteriorating sanitation. It is estimated that there were 500,000 more cancer deaths worldwide as a result of the 2008 financial crisis, for example. At what point would deaths resulting from an economic downturn outpace virus deaths? These are just two interrogations that serve to demonstrate the complexity and the urgency of looking at our way of life and our societies more holistically to adopt lasting changes.

At the very least, we must begin by acknowledging that, despite our scientific and technological progress, we are far removed from possessing all the answers. We must admit our failures and realize that our human fates are tied to humanity as a whole, to how we choose to structure our societies, and our relationship to the rest of the living planet. Looking around the planet today, one could say it is the animals who are keeping us in cages.

As people across the planet isolate themselves in their homes, birds continue to fly and fish continue to swim with no concern whatsoever for the invisible virus; serving to remind humankind that most of the planet is better off without us. Greta Thunberg must have much food for thought at the moment and I am counting on her to help us envision the future we really want for our children.

We heard this week that the Trump administration is trying to pass up to $1 trillion in economic stimulus to stave off a coronavirus-induced recession. The cost will likely grow far beyond that figure, with estimates indicating the economy will shrink at an annual rate of 5 to 10 percent this coming quarter. The 9/11 attacks cost the US $6 trillion in wars alone, while the 2008 financial crisis gobbled up several trillion dollars in economic stimulus, rescue packages and the buy-up of government debt.

The cost of the coronavirus crisis may yet exceed that. Instead of ponying up all this money now, perhaps we should prepare better for next time by redirecting large chunks of our military budgets toward health, research, education and restructuring our economy and societies to prevent viral and economic diseases from taking such an immense toll on us. Ultimately, though, the message must be one of humanity, of universal values and common sense, of a future that we choose together rather than simply endure.

What should we be more worried about: The virus or the far more numerous deaths related to air quality due to fossil fuels and our focus on ever-expanding growth? As we consider that question, we butt up against another one, which is that, as large sectors of our economies grind to a halt due to the confinement measures to slow the spread of the virus, at what point will our precautions do disproportionate damage to our economy? It is common knowledge that economic crises and downturns lead to deaths due to unemployment, poverty, lack of health care and deteriorating sanitation. It is estimated that there were 500,000 more cancer deaths worldwide as a result of the 2008 financial crisis, for example. At what point would deaths resulting from an economic downturn outpace virus deaths? These are just two interrogations that serve to demonstrate the complexity and the urgency of looking at our way of life and our societies more holistically to adopt lasting changes.

At the very least, we must begin by acknowledging that, despite our scientific and technological progress, we are far removed from possessing all the answers. We must admit our failures and realize that our human fates are tied to humanity as a whole, to how we choose to structure our societies, and our relationship to the rest of the living planet. Looking around the planet today, one could say it is the animals who are keeping us in cages.

As people across the planet isolate themselves in their homes, birds continue to fly and fish continue to swim with no concern whatsoever for the invisible virus; serving to remind humankind that most of the planet is better off without us. Greta Thunberg must have much food for thought at the moment and I am counting on her to help us envision the future we really want for our children.

We heard this week that the Trump administration is trying to pass up to $1 trillion in economic stimulus to stave off a coronavirus-induced recession. The cost will likely grow far beyond that figure, with estimates indicating the economy will shrink at an annual rate of 5 to 10 percent this coming quarter. The 9/11 attacks cost the US $6 trillion in wars alone, while the 2008 financial crisis gobbled up several trillion dollars in economic stimulus, rescue packages and the buy-up of government debt.

The cost of the coronavirus crisis may yet exceed that. Instead of ponying up all this money now, perhaps we should prepare better for next time by redirecting large chunks of our military budgets toward health, research, education and restructuring our economy and societies to prevent viral and economic diseases from taking such an immense toll on us. Ultimately, though, the message must be one of humanity, of universal values and common sense, of a future that we choose together rather than simply endure.

Hassan bin Youssef Yassin worked closely with Saudi petroleum ministers Abdullah Tariki and Ahmed Zaki Yamani from 1959 to 1967. He headed the Saudi Information Office in Washington from 1972 to 1981, and served with the Arab League observer delegation to the UN from 1981 to 1983.


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