With prolonged lockdowns, the realisation has also dawned that life can go on without luxury cars, apartments, expensive dresses and watches etc
The world today is on the cusp. After the giant wheels of economic growth came to a grinding halt, Mother Nature is reclaiming her space. With no industrial pollution, the air and water are a lot cleaner today. With less people out in the open and less vehicular traffic, flights and trains, other species of the animal kingdom are once again moving about with gay abandon with minimal human interference. Forced indoors by a microbe that’s largely an outcome of wayward ways of the humans and currently creating havoc across countries, the overarching human society is finally retracting. After centuries of exploiting Mother Earth’s precious resources, humans have finally retreated inside – getting out occasionally only to buy stuff that is essential, and not to flaunt their socio-economic status.
With prolonged lockdowns by governments, the realisation has also dawned that life can even go on without luxury cars and apartments or costly dresses and watches, going to movies, visiting malls, eating out in restaurants, etc. But ironically, economic growth was thus far being driven and sustained by creating demands for stuffs that people actually did not require and with the money that they did not have. Now, all these could change forever as the society is being suddenly forced to rethink the way it has been behaving and conducting.
Sans any cure, people are being forced indoors and into doing stuff that can at best be described as counter-intuitive. Actually, faced with dealing with an invisible enemy, the entire human society is at crossroads today. It is yet undecided whether to continue doing what it has been since hunter-gatherer days once the crisis blows over or embark on a trajectory that’s totally counter-intuitive but could perhaps prevent recurrence of such a pandemic. Or the “new normal”, as they say.
Besides stressing on personal hygiene and with no immediate cure in sight, governments across the world have been quick to resort to measures that are counter-intuitive. People are now being asked to change the way they’ve been conducting themselves for thousands of years. Consider calls for “social distancing” or avoiding touching of faces or even shaking hands. Now, all these run counter to basic human nature. Physical touch is considered normal in any human relationship and while greeting each other, as much as touching face is – at least they both were until five months back. Asking people to stay indoors and “avoiding socialisation” by enforcing lockdowns is an activity that runs counter to what they have been practising since the hunter-gatherer days when they would go out in a body to hunt or gather food. Everyone is now encouraged to stay away from people. So children can’t go out into the open to play and adults can’t go around mingling with people though socialisation is intrinsic in the entire animal kingdom. But while washing hands frequently could come easy, being counter-intuitive perhaps won’t and could take a while before becoming “normal”.
The current situation has also forced many to take a relook at some age-old customs and traditions and rediscover their virtues after they all fell into disuse, especially the way people greet each other without physical contact. No wonder, many in West are suddenly finding merit in greeting each other with “Namaste”. Similarly, as human interactions subsided, digital interface suddenly found more takers – as classrooms, for board meetings, in exchanging official correspondences, for financial transactions, etc.
On the other hand, as closed communities and communities that live in relative isolation fared better in battling the pandemic, there could be a relook on the overall approach to “growth” and “development” too. Such communities handled the lockdowns and the resulting chaos far more effectively than the mainstream communities. For instance, village-level communities across Northeast India played a proactive role in enforcing lockdown by erecting barricades to keep “outsiders” at bay. Some village communities in Assam’s Dhemaji and Dima Hasao districts even constructed their own facility quarantines at a safe distance from their villages to house villagers returning from towns and cities. The same has been reported from other parts of the country as well. But those riding high on the wave of economic growth brought in by the liberalisation of early 1990s paid a heavy price. The centres of economic growth very soon turned into hotspots of the pandemic as they were teeming with people from virtually every corner of the country, thereby helping in easy transmission of the virus. And now, following the relaxation of lockdown norms, as migrant workers return to their villages in States like Bihar, West Bengal, UP, etc, which contribute a major chunk to the country’s floating migrant population, the threat of the virus travelling with them to their native places looms large.
Even on the global scale, countries that were considered more open and had always pushed for greater freedom in movement of goods and people suffered the most in comparison with those long considered less open like Bhutan, Cuba, Mongolia, North Korea, Vietnam, etc. Actually, economic mainstreaming has also helped in mainstreaming diseases that were once mostly confined to a particular locality or geography. The pandemic has shown that, like people and goods, diseases to respect no natural or man-made boundaries. Of course, after decades of pursuing the agenda of “growth” through “globalisation”, there’s no turning back the clock. But the pace at which these are pursued could perhaps slow down.
Similarly, the existing world order too could alter as nations that currently dominate the world stage could get busy battling their own internal challenges thrown up by the pandemic like massive unemployment, economic recession, etc. With huge layoffs across the globe (International Labour Organisation estimates a loss of 305 million full-time jobs and livelihood loss for another 1.6 billion workers in the informal sector), the entire world could well be headed for a major socio-political and economic crisis, if the current crisis persists, as governments will be too hard-pressed to rehabilitate and provide livelihood to billions. They will also need to re-prioritise their focus areas by investing more on public health and reigniting the engine of “growth” with limited public finance. So, a major cataclysmic change could well be underway the world over, something that no one had perhaps ever anticipated or visualised. Of course, it’s too early to describe how the world would eventually look like in about a year from now. Nonetheless, a major change could be in the offing, especially in the way that we all conduct ourselves as humans, at least till the time a cure is found.
(The writer is an independent journalist based in Guwahati. Views expressed are personal)