There are no natural disasters, only natural phenomena. We call some of them disasters because of their human consequences. Coronavirus is no exception. As a phenomenon it threatens us all in the same biological ways. But, as a disaster, it has hugely different impact, varying with people’s socioeconomic backgrounds and privileges.
Contrary to suggestions, Covid 19 is not a ‘great leveller’. Still, this crisis has a different feel to it as it has tempered our occupation with bread and circuses, at least for those who can afford to slow down. “Break with the familiar, the routine ways of seeing, hearing, feeling, [and] understanding things,” as Marcuse (1969) notes, can help in illuminating what is at stake.
Mind, when not occupied with immediate concerns, starts to reflect. It observes asymmetries, inconsistencies and fallacies that it otherwise did not. Signs of such reflection are peppered throughout the social and conventional media. Posts lament limitless weapons juxtaposed with shortages of protective gear for medics, question huge gaps between the highest and the lowest paid and ponder at the vulnerability of huge private companies. In short, at least some of those who can afford to are engaging in self-examination.
It is clear that we cannot continue with the same basis of public policy that has led us into human and economic unpreparedness in facing a global challenge. The coronavirus
crisis is not likely to be the last or the worst. A fundamental rethinking about what kind of societies we want, the role of states and markets, the purpose of economic activity, technology and education is urgently called for. There is a chance to create a better world but it will require collective effort, reflection and remembrance of lessons from this crisis. Here are eight lessons that I wish to remember and draw upon:
- The biological impact of the covid19 brings to the fore that beyond our ideological, class and gender differences, we share a human form which bleeds alike when pricked, heals by the same means. The material and social impact of the virus may vary but the biological vulnerability is the same. This shared embodied humanity calls out that every human being must have access to best quality healthcare as a fundamental human right.
- The unjustifiable disparity in wealth and income is now subject to greater scrutiny. The pay ratio between top earners (be it CEOs or footballers) and those getting the national living wage is unacceptably large at 386, in the UK. The virus has shown that when a society’s survival is at stake, the definition of key workers does not include superstars and hedge fund managers.
- Any doubts about the need for the state must now evaporate. The state cannot and should not replace private enterprise but the mantra of minimal state must be discarded. We need a renewed social contract between the state and citizens that guarantees not only freedoms but also provides equitable opportunities for their realisation.
- Time not used in economic activities of production and consumption is not time wasted. Working 70 hours a week to enrich the top 1% or to eke out a living based on a notion of highly consumptive lifestyle does not indicate a good quality of life. We need to redefine what is meant by ‘valuable’ use of time. Streams of posts and discussions reveal that people are finding in the slowdown an opportunity to engage with what makes life worth living – family, friends, poetry, music, nature, crafts, conversation, and reflection.
- All this means that economics must be brought back under the umbrella of moral philosophy. Adam Smith was not only an economist but also a moral philosopher. His economic ideas fit well within the framework of his moral philosophy. This close relation between economics and moral philosophy is rooted in an observation made by Hayek “that the objects of economic activity cannot be defined in objective terms but only with reference to a human purpose.” Moral philosophy creates the space for discussing these purposes. Our fetish with growth, defined in narrow GDP terms, has brought water into the boat. We must subordinate the idea of economic growth to the aim of human flourishing.
- If there is one winner in the coronavirus crisis, it is technology. Education, work, relationships and communication are becoming even more reliant on technology than the high level we were already experiencing. But, with this comes the clear danger of our thoughts becoming exposed to and manipulated by the owners of this means of production – the realm of ‘surveillance capitalism’, as Zuboff calls it. Just as Zeus seized power from Cronus, will the machines seize intelligence from us? Some will argue that it is already too late to ask these questions and the future will be a foreign country. Still, with an ‘Optimism of Will’ I believe that through consumer power and political will, we might still bring back the values of trust, the sovereignty of the individual and a commitment to privacy. Global connectivity has often put people into echo chambers. We need to do better by creating authentic exposure to the variety of perspectives and encouraging expansion of imagination and empathy. This, again, requires centring the moral and human question of the purpose of technology.
- The virus has not only reinforced the centrality of knowledge but also shown that truth matters. The battle against coronavirus hinges on scientific processes that value truth, evidence and objectivity. We know that information can be used as much for manipulation as for empowerment, so the capacity to distinguish between knowledge claims is essential for critiquing political discourses, deconstructing ideologies, assessing advertisements and solving problems. This is an educational question, not only in the sense of what goes on in schools and universities but also of public education through responsible journalism, critical media literacy and conversations on social media. There is a need for a renewed stress on the humanities and their capacity to foster critical thought. The fate of democracy and human rights ultimately depend upon a public capable of critiquing and sifting fake from genuine knowledge claims.
- Finally, the virus has brought to attention that underneath all our physical and cultural differences, there is shared humanity, ‘created of the self-same clay, members of one body’. The bells that are tolling call us to start thinking of human identity as something deeper than our national, cultural and religious identities. Identity is nurtured either in the service of a common cause or against a shared ‘Other’. Shared causes such as climate change have pointed the way to our human identity. Now we have an Other that is forcing us to think universally and recognise that we share a common fate against the forces of nature.
Dr Farid Panjwani is Director of the UCL Centre for the Study of Education in Muslim Contexts
Photo by debs-eye via Creative Commons