A glimpse into post COVID-19 world | Daily News


 

Pandemics: Past, Present and future:

A glimpse into post COVID-19 world

The world we return to will be very different from the one we left behind. The future is unknown and unpredictable. This is why thinking of Post Covid-19 World fills people with such fear. The last few months have been unsettling. People are absolutely terrified. It is a pandemic that has claimed the lives of 232 570 people in the last five months. If all goes well, then maybe a vaccine will be available in 12- 18 months. So, we are looking at a Post Covid 19 world in around a year from now. What kind of an alien world will this be? Will it be vastly different from the world before December 2019? The Daily News speaks to Director of the Regional Center for Strategic Studies (RCSS), Prof. Gamini Keerawella on what we are looking at here when we talk about a Post Covid-19 scenario.

Prof. Keerawella points out that the undeniable fact is that the true proportions of the threat posed by COVID-19 pandemic to social and economic life and to human behavior and to the global order is yet to be discovered.

“There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic is definitely the most decisive challenge that humankind has confronted since the end of the Cold War. The speed in which the COVID-19 pandemic has engulfed the world is unprecedented and has brought havoc to every aspect of peoples’ social, economic and political lives since it first made its appearance in Wuhan City, Hubei Province China almost five months ago,” said Prof. Keerawella.

This tiny simple virus which has no regard for human life has brought life to a standstill in almost every city in the world. Prof. Keerawella laments that with the arrival of COVID-19 pandemic, the factories are quiet, the ports are idle, the roads are bare and the sky is empty. The pandemic has filled hospitals with patients while public spaces are desolate. How do we deal with this crisis and emerge from it? What will be the nature of a Post Covid 19 world? How do we face this challenge? How do we come to term with change?

In a way, COVID-19 is not a bolt out of the blue! It is not at all an unexpected calamity! There were many early warning signs. The epidemics such as H1N1, SARS, Ebola and Zika appeared in the last decade, giving clear indications as to what to come next.

Miserably unprepared

Prof. Keerawella added that we did not grasp the signals, and as a result, we are miserably unprepared to face the challenge. What makes the COVID-19 pandemic different from the earlier epidemics is the rate at which it has spread, its high lethality and its pervasiveness. When the world faced the Ebola epidemic in 2015, Bill Gates declared that the next epidemic could be more devastating than Ebola. Delivering TED Talk in 2015 titled ‘The Next Outbreak? We’re Not Ready’, Bill Gates stated “If anything kills over 10 million people in the next few decades, it’s most likely to be a highly infectious virus rather than a war”. In five years’ his prediction came true.

“The world is still struggling to arrest the pandemic. Yet, devastation caused by the pandemic is overwhelming. There are reports that the second cycle is underway in East Asia! We are not sure how many cycles would occur before we discover a vaccine against the CORONA-19. However, it is clear that we will not be able to return to the pre-CORONA 19 world any more. In his article to The Wall Street Journal titled ‘The Coronavirus will Forever Alter the World Order’, Henry Kissinger vividly summaries the present situation: ‘the world will never be the same after the coronavirus pandemic and the failure to resolve the crisis could set the world on fire’.”

Modern human civilization will be confronted by changes that are so unprecedented and so profound. However, it must be remembered that change in history is not always a turning point. The word ‘Turning Point’ is one of the loosely used terms in historiography. In the true sense of the word, the historical turning point is a paradigm shift. Historical turning points do not take place due to a single factor or a single cause. It is a combination of multiple factors and causes as well as a conjuncture of historical forces and conditions.

Historical juncture

“The Corona-19 pandemic broke out at a critical historical juncture where the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) was beginning to be in motion.

The technologies associated with 4IR were about to make a profound impact on the way people lived, worked, did business and communicated with each other. The long-term social and economic impact of the CORONA-19 pandemic must be viewed against the back drop of the emerging technologies of Robotics, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Virtual Reality, Internet of Things (IoT) and Machine-to-Machine Communication (M2M). In this historical juncture, the CORONA-19 pandemic has the potential to be a historical turning point and a catalyst for a paradigm shift,” pointed out Prof. Keerawella.

Re-emerging

Prof. Keerawella is optimistic. His view of a Post Covid 19 scenario is one where humanity can adjust. He stresses that the world has confronted similar or faced far graver challenges such as the Black Death pandemic in the past. Sooner or later humankind was able to overcome these challenges. The human capacity to bounce back and ensure survival is extraordinary. We faced a similar crisis but the world did not come to an end. He is confident that we will be able to come out of this crisis. “As history reveals, catastrophes such as wars and pandemics have catalyzed social, economic and political change. The people, businesses, and institutions have been remarkably quick to discover innovations to reemerge once again. Catastrophes have forced people to rethink and make necessary changes to the way in which they live, to the modes through which the goods and services are produced and distributed. It also impacts the institutions through which collective decisions are made and implemented. In the final analysis, wars and pandemics worked as propellants for social, economic and political change, though they bring enormous pain and destruction to those who bear the brunt of it”

Vulnerable economy

Prof. Keerawella warns us that Sri Lanka is particularly vulnerable to the Covid-19 pandemic because of the structural weaknesses of its economy and its location on the periphery of the global system.

As a result, the country is destined to pay a huge price even if the COVID-19 pandemic is successfully arrested within a shorter period. Considering the high dependency of the Sri Lankan economy on external factors and forces, the impact of the COVID-19 fallout on Sri Lanka would not only be short-term but also, more seriously, medium and long term. The Corona pandemic has further deepened the economic crisis with which Sri Lanka has been struggling for years.

The breakdown of world supply chains, shrinking of the global market, decline of air travel, constraints on international trade will severely affect Sri Lanka innumerous ways. With these highly external-dependent and fragile economic foundations, how can Sri Lanka face the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic? The main strength that Sri Lanka could count on would be its strong human resources base.

Four-fold crisis

“The challenge before Sri Lanka in the present context is how to handle a four-fold crisis associated with the COVID-19 pandemic: health, economic, social and constitutional. The immediate challenge is how to address health emergencies and stop the spread of the pandemic. The main strength of the government in this regard is the existence of a well-entrenched public health-care system supported by highly qualified health-care professionals in Sri Lanka. The government has successfully mobilized the military to trace infected persons and their close associates and get them to quarantine centers. The quick actions taken by the government have been successful in confining the CORONA pandemic to only 13 clusters and preventing community transmission. Sri Lanka cannot be complacent with initial success. As long as the pandemic still remains outside of Sri Lanka, the problem will persist. Furthermore, as discovered by a group of Chinese doctors, there may be a second and third wave of the pandemic. Therefore, we need to be prepared for such an eventuality,”.

Prof. Keerawella stated that the economic fallout of the pandemic in Sri Lanka is far more serious. The question is how to get the public transport system fully functional and state offices back to normal without delay while not compromising the health safeguards. This remains a formidable challenge. Its impact on tourism and the garment industry is profound and it will take some time to get-back to the pre-pandemic levels.

Timely requests

“When existing foreign exchange earning avenues are becoming lean, the burden of repayment of external debt would become a formidable challenge and unbearable burden. During his last visit to India, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa requested Indian Prime Minister Modi to grant a moratorium on all loan repayments to India for three years. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa also requested international financial organizations to provide debt deferment facilities to developing nations such as Sri Lanka, which are adversely affected by the crisis. I think these requests are very timely and hope that there will be a good response,” said Prof. Keerawella.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted many systemic shortcomings of the development models that we have been following assiduously. The economic fall out of the pandemic has offered Sri Lanka a good opportunity to revisit the neo-liberal economic strategies pursued by the regimes in power since 1977 irrespective of their political color. Long -term strategies for economic recovery involve the promotion and protection of indigenous industries and national agriculture. After long years of stagnation of external-oriented plantation economies following the Great Depression and the Second World War, Raul Prebisch presented economic strategies for Latin American countries known as ECLA model based on import substitution and export diversification. The COVID-19 pandemic compels us to think of steps to be taken in the direction of reducing external economic dependency.

Historical precedents

“There are many historical precedents of epidemics causing destruction to humanity. However, until the modern era, their impact was more or less limited only to the adjacent areas of the epidemic epicenters. Some epidemics have been buried in history without making a lasting imprint on human development. Depending on the historical context, some epidemics became the agents of change in their respective societies,” said Prof. Keerawella.He points out that in many instances in the past, epidemics coincided with armed conflicts and wars. When you take Greek Civilization, during the Peloponnesian war between Athens and Sparta, a devastating epidemic broke out around 430 BC. The Greek historian Thucydides gives us a vivid picture of the ‘Plague of Athens’. The devastation caused by the epidemic to the city-state was so severe that its death toll was over 100,000.

Prof. Keerawella also points to Medieval Europe, where a bubonic plague known as the ‘Plague of Justinian’ ravaged the Byzantine Empire in 541-542 CE. It was considered one of the deadliest pandemics in history. The pandemic made its first appearance at the time when the Byzantine Emperor Justinian was trying to consolidate his empire by mobilizing his military against the Vandals at Carthage and the Goths in Italy. The trade and war facilitated the plague throughout the empire and it affected nearly half of the population in Europe. There were 5000 deaths a day in the capital city of Constantinople during the peak of the pandemic. As historical sources reveal, dead bodies littered the streets and troops were ordered to assist in the disposal of the dead. Once the graveyards were filled, trenches were dug to handle the overflow. Dead bodies were placed on boats and dumped into the Sea. It is estimated that 20-40 percent of the inhabitants of the city perished from the plague. Nearly one-fourth of the population, 25-50 million people, died in the rest of the empire. Its impact on trade, agriculture and politics of the Byzantine Empire was enormous, but it did not mark a turning point in Medieval European history.

Black Death Plague

“After the Plague of Justinian, what comes to my mind is the Black Death Plague. It devastated Europe from 1347 to 1352 CE and was perhaps the most significant in human history in terms of its far-reaching historical consequences, which killed an estimated 25-30 million people, 50-60 percent of the population of Europe. The Black Death pandemic first appeared in Central Asia and spread to Europe through trade routes- caravans and ships. Within a very short time frame, it devastated the entire Europe. In certain parts of Europe, the tragedy was swift. To cite an example, just within a few months, 60 percent of Florence’s population died from the plague,” explained Prof. Keerawella.

In view of widespread, profound, and long-lasting economic, social, and political consequences of the Black Death pandemic, some tend to view it as a harbinger of the Modern historical age. It is true that the sudden reduction of the population of Europe had a huge impact on its social and economic life. The reduction of the population reduced the competition for land and resources. The shortage of farmers contributed to dissolve agrarian feudal relations which resulted in demands to end serfdom in some parts of Europe. The general welfare and prosperity of the peasantry also progressed. The lands of those who perished in the pandemic were acquired by the land-owning aristocrats as well as some peasants increasing their landholdings.

The political authority of the Holy Roman Empire was reduced further leaving room for a new form of political authority to emerge. The social, economic and political consequences of these changes were profound. What really happened was that the Black Death pandemic accentuated the socio- economic contradictions that were evolving in the feudal set up for a period of time.

Epidemics in pre-modern Sri Lanka

“There were also a number of epidemics in pre-modern Sri Lanka. The pandemics reported in Chronicles during the reigns of King Walagamba and King Sirisangabo can be cited as examples. The suffering during the epidemic was severe but, after the epidemics were over, the country rejuvenated and emerged strongly. After these pandemics, people paid more attention to food security by building more tanks and irrigation systems. C.W. Nicholas argued that the collapse of Rajarata Civilization was due to a Malaria epidemic in the Dry Zone area in the 13th century. The collapse of the Rajarata Civilization was certainly a turning point in Sri Lankan history. But, later scholars such as Indrakeerthi Siriweera, Senarath Paranavithana and Rhoads Murphey have debunked the views expressed by C.W. Nicholas and argued that the collapse of Rajarata civilization and the drift to the South-West was caused by another set of historical dynamics and not the Malaria epidemic. Indeed, Malaria, known as the jungle,fever engulfed the dry zone only after the Rajarata area was abandoned.”

In the 20th Century, after the end of the First World War, the Spanish flu pandemic infected an estimated 500 million people worldwide, about one-third of the global population, killing an estimated 20 million.

“World history is replete with many episodes of pandemics that have caused so much destruction to humanity. However, they also acted as agents of social change. The present COVID-19 epidemic will also lead to many changes and some of them can be very painful. Nevertheless, let us not forget that humanity has an incredible capacity to bounce back,” summed up Prof. Keerawella.


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