By XN Iraki |
June 28th 2020 at 09:00:00 GMT +0300
In his famous poem, ‘The Hollow Men’ written in 1925, TS Elliot ends with: “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but with a whimper”.
We can replace the word ‘world’ with ‘Covid-19’.
Covid-19 got us with a bang; there was no time to prepare, even in developed countries. Curiously, in Kenya, we waited for it like summer rain, annoyed that the government had taken long to report the first case.
We now have daily briefings on the number of new cases, recoveries and deaths. I doubt there were such briefings during World War II. The briefings have buttressed the seriousness of the disease and galvanised the whole country and State machinery to confront the virus, which so far has no cure or vaccine.
We can debate the appropriateness of the measures taken another day.
Four months later, amid lockdowns, the initial fear over Covid-19 has faded, and we have slowly got used to it. It is one of the greatest gifts of humankind – the ability to adjust to both good and bad times.
That flexibility has allowed us to subdue the earth and focus our attention on outer space. That flexibility may hold the key to the Covid-19 end game: getting used to it. Visitors to slums are often ‘shocked’ at the way citizens live, but they get used to it. America got back to normal after September 11, just as we did after Westgate and other dark episodes.
Enough digression. What is the end game for Covid-19? Will it end with a bang or a whimper? It will end with a whimper, and here is why.
The publicity behind Covid-19 will wear off, just like it did with HIV and Aids. Even without a cure, the stigma and fear around HIV has faded. And if we finally get a cure or vaccine for it, it might not be as momentous as it would have been 30 years ago.
Two, other issues will mute the fear of Covid-19. They could include climate change and politics, which in Kenya has already replaced Covid-19 in the headlines. The all-out politics, with fangs exposed even as Covid-19 numbers rise, has exposed another side of politicians we underestimated or overlooked: their readiness to take advantage of any crisis.
Economic realities will further mute the fear of Covid-19. Noted how we have come out of hibernation into our daily routine after only a few months?
If there is no cure, the pandemic will burn itself out like others before it, and end without any drama, with a whimper.
Unfortunately, the Covid-19 damage is done. Fear may have led us to irrational decisions. It is still an open question whether we should have closed economies or not. The truth will emerge when the pandemic runs its course.
So, what will Covid-19 leave in its wake? In the worst-case scenario, an exhausted population, just like the world wars. The deaths will shock the world, and our faith in religion and science.
Nationalism will rise as countries protect their economic jewels from being bought by other countries. Will USA or EU allow China to buy their failing companies?
We hope what is happening at the Tanzania border is an isolated case. Viruses do not respect borders. Countries should be coming together not drifting apart with such a crisis, despite their different approaches to Covid-19 and ideologies.
It is possible that cottage industries will enjoy a celebrated revival with the borders closed. Jobs once looked down on like farming could enjoy newly enhanced status. Other ‘endless’ jobs like cutting hair, baby minding and security services might gain new respect.
The synergy created by international co-operation from research to the location of industries where returns are highest could reduce. The number of ground-breaking innovations that target the global market could fall.
Luckily, Covid-19 could spawn innovations beyond vaccines, masks, ventilators and face shields - just as trying to land on the moon spawned innovations like water purification, breathing masks and cordless devices.
Outsourcing will reduce but not die; there will always be regions with a comparative advantage.
Lots of economic models will have to be redone or retired. The return of big government muting the invisible hand of the market could drag economies further down. Threatened by joblessness as economies decline, authoritarianism could rise. Governments may use this crisis to push through unpopular initiatives to entrench their power. They know fear makes us irrational and easy to sway.
The welfare system will finally come ashore. We expect more funds in future for the vulnerable members of society, from the elderly to the unemployed. Capitalism in Kenya will finally have a human face.
The bright side is that responsible governments will seize the Covid-19 moment to come up with new laws that would better help us prepare for future pandemics and economic crises.
We could ask some hard questions. Which countries will be the new economic powers after Covid-19? Will capitalism be the same in western countries like USA? Will money, as we know it, come to an end? Why print money when mobile and other electronic money can work? Could property ownership beyond your home become rare, with space in cyberspace or the cloud becoming costly?
Will many countries revise constitutions to deal with a post-Covid-19 era? Who will lose power? Who will gain it? How about media and free speech. Are they under threat? Will disaster preparedness and responsibility become hot election issues in the future?
At the personal level, we shall learn to save for a rainy day, which could help in catalysing economic growth that is likely to have a more human face and be more attentive to climatic change and other global issues.
Will new rules on social distancing change our behaviour beyond keeping us safe? How will children behave as adults after social distancing? Will this go beyond classrooms to how we design houses and offices?
We could even be outlandish – will the coronavirus and other pathogens making our lives difficult catalyse search for a safer planet?
New Yorkers left the city after Covid-19 came ashore. Some Kenyans left Nairobi for the countryside. Shall we in future leave earth? Could we one day boast about relatives in another planet, not another country?
Finally, if we get cure or vaccine, it will surprise us how soon we shall get back to normal. Remember the fear over the millennium bug, HIV and terrorist attacks? The new normal we are romanticising is not too new. We shall always be human.