Albert Camus’ novel The Plague starts with rats dying, followed by a tsunami of human deaths. The leaders are reluctant to acknowledge the epidemic initially but are soon forced to take the situation seriously. With martial law imposed, no one is allowed to enter or leave the city. Being unable to communicate with or see loved ones weighs heavily on everyone – for some, more than the threat of death itself. Law and order quickly break down. As the plague continues to ravage the town, funerals turn into rush jobs with no ceremony or emotion. The first “serum”, a kind of vaccine, turns out to be a failure. Eventually, a better version allows the quarantine to be lifted.
Doesn’t this story sound familiar? A very similar scenario is playing itself out right now. Camus described how human beings respond to and live with a completely absurd death sentence – death being part of the cycle of life. Perhaps was he also trying to show how little it takes for a society to fall apart?
In 1947 (the publication date of Camus’ novel), we got a potent reminder of the unpredictability of life, as well as concern for how humanity was evolving. But attention wasn’t paid. The 2011 movie Contagion, directed by Steven Soderberg, provided a more modern warning about the precariousness of the human condition. Many of its scenes hit very close to home. The movie tracks the arrival of a fictional virus that ends up killing millions of people worldwide. The outbreak sends officials from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organisation scrambling to figure out the origins of the virus, how it spreads and how to find a cure. And just like our current crisis, it takes much teetering before anyone realises the gravity of the situation. The film includes the economic struggles of ordinary people.
Let us consider this:-
It is April 2023, and you are excited to have tickets to watch your favourite IPL team. Sport has newly emerged from months of being played behind closed doors. Outside the stadium, security guards’ handsets register Covid-19 immunity certificates encoded on your smartphones; fans without the app face additional checks. The family pass through body temperature sensors, check their face masks and enter the stadium. The view is unimpeded — seats all around them have been blocked from sale — but the half-empty stands mean the atmosphere lacks the old electricity.
This story may prove overly gloomy or not gloomy enough. Even as countries tentatively start to emerge from the Covid-19 lockdown, it is clear that life will not spring back to how it was pre-crisis until everyone is vaccinated. Organisations and individuals must adapt to another “new normal”.
Monumental efforts will still be needed to avoid, or lessen, a second or probably third or fourth wave of infection. Cycles of relaxing and reimposing shutdowns will follow. Testing and tracing those who contact the virus will be crucial. Some pleasures and freedoms the lockdown have taken away will still be denied.
Countries that have built up mass testing and tracking capabilities will emerge fastest. Test and symptom data need to be linked to apps that register those falling ill and alert people who have been near them. Creating workable apps is tricky, but countries such as Singapore, South Korea and India (Aarogya Setu) have done so. Technologies should be shared.
Within countries, some sectors will emerge faster than others. Essential and outdoor work such as construction may come first; bars and nightclubs last. Many white-collar employees whose jobs can be done at home will stay there, perhaps for months. Depending on how government weigh the risks, some children will be back at school, and others will remain at home.
Those shifting to the workplace will find a changed environment: staff working shifts or in rotating week in, week-at-home team to allow adequate distancing. Staggered start and finish times will attempt to lessen rush-hour crushes on fetid subway trains.
The new social mores of the lockdown will persist. Handshakes are still out. If not officially compulsory, masks may be fashionable. Many interactions, from business meetings to dating, will stay online. Airports, planes and trains will be sparsely populated.
One positive aspect of the coronavirus pandemic is that a massive drop in air pollution and CO2 levels have been recorded in cities worldwide, as workers stay home and transport levels are drastically reduced.
However, while these current changes are hugely positive for climate change, it is unlikely they will last once the pandemic is over.
We are seeing governments – who have usually placed the burden of earning and employment on the people – almost becoming welfare states; a striking example is that of the United States government offering stimulus packages and relief. The economic top 1% of the world are donating billions of dollars to charity and coming up with novel methods to ensure that their employees are as secure as possible. This is in stark contrast to the usual way of the world, where substantial pay disparities (among other reasons) help some people rise to multi-billionaire status in the first place.
It will be a shame if, after all this, the best we can do is go back to how things were. Our systems had cracks, we knew, but the pandemic has proven just how quickly they can crumble. And while an overnight shift to sustainability or an overall shutdown of production is not practical (or needed), the lockdown has given us the time to think about how we would want to resume our lives.
Once we are ready to rebuild the world, we will have a choice to make: do we build back the systems as they were, full of inequalities and unsustainable practices, or do we make the tougher choice and come up with more robust, sustainable, equitable and better systems – for a better world?