It’s the first time ever that we in India will welcome the heat of summer! At the back of our mind is the hope that the heat of the sun will in fact kill the Corona virus or in the least, slow it down. Unfortunately, there is little evidence today to support this theory since Singapore and Thailand (two countries that have both heat and humidity) also have the virus. Still the hope is that that temperatures over 40 degrees (common in central and north India) will help.
Corona has got us scared and is getting us to wash our hands regularly and maintain social distancing at all times. Most governments have declared a lockdown bringing their economies to a standstill. The virus has impacted some 184 countries and the human race is itself at threat. History teaches us lessons on how over centuries of our existence we have combated threat or uncertainty. So, let us see if it offers us any clues for the present crisis we are facing.
In ancient times you depended upon others to provide security against the predators. Hunter gatherers had huge inter-dependency – someone had to take care of their flock when they went out hunting, so action was mostly based around their narrow settlements – village or clan. With the advent of the ‘bronze age’ year-round agriculture developed which spawned permanent ‘settlements’ usually near rivers making these communities now living in stone dwellings or thatched cottages more secure. The threat was now more from marauders than beasts and each province developed its own defence mechanism to handle the threat of invasion.
With the passing of a few millennia there were gradual improvements in roads, sanitation and transportation and an increase in population which resulted in villages transforming into towns and cities. This had a huge impact on our society- we moved away from being provincial where the village was the centre of our universe to a freer and socially varied environment. Next came the Industrial revolution that brought prosperity, now apart from churches, theatres, pubs etc there spawned several places for social gatherings. Though wars between regions continued, different kinds of battles began to be fought without swords and guns in the various playing fields across the countryside. Art and culture thrived under royal patronage. The arrival of the printing press made books affordable and the study of literature became popular and egalitarian. The big threat now was malnutrition and premature death from infectious diseases. Pandemics could play havoc but since mass transport was not in existence, it was largely confined to a region. Until the Middle Ages the threat to mankind for mass destruction emanated from the fury of nature – famine or floods, pandemics or marauders. The industrial revolution was the next big threat as farmers apprehended it would cause mass unemployment. However, rapid industrialisation which followed the invention of the steam boiler created prosperity and offered new opportunities for employment.Then electricity and automation impacted behaviour further as more leisure time became available – holidays, entertainment, tv viewing etc became popular. Following this, the Internet changed behaviour further as communication became instant – the world became interconnected and globalised with concomitant changes in our entertainment and travel patterns. In each case society adapted to technology in a different way. Behaviour was impacted but social interaction increased. How will Covid change this behaviour?
Before we attempt to answer that, let’s look at what the famous Israeli writer Yuval Noah Harari says in his seminal work ‘Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow’ – for centuries mankind faced the terrible and repetitive sequence of famine, plague and war. We thought this ended in the 20th Century after the great world wars were over and so were famines and pandemics, but maybe we thought too soon. We presumed that human behaviour now reigned supreme over nature and the world and we continued to produce and grow. And then came the virus and we were left wondering what had occurred?
Our response has mostly been to wish for a return to individual and social stability. We want business as usual to be resorted quickly. All governments across the globe are coming up with economic packages to do so. The issue is really whether business as usual can return?
As we hunker down in our homes today because of Covid-19 we are all seized of the fact that face to face meetings in the future are likely to be replaced by either teleconferencing or videoconferencing. The transformation from real life contact to online contact will gain wide acceptance in business, banking, education, courts, government matters and health care (other than matters involving surgical intervention). Reduced travel through remote working may have the unintended consequence of more leisure-time thereby improving the quality of life. Man is by nature a social animal and yearns for physical presence and the occasional clinking of glasses to make the atmosphere a bit more convivial – how we adapt to the next normal shall unfold as we humans find novel ways of combining the tactile with the virtual.
As Tom Friedman has correctly pointed out in the New York Times last week, this is not a ‘war’. Because war means humans fighting and winning over humans. Here all the security apparatus in the world is useless (as the US is finding out about its Homeland Security and mighty defence forces). Here you do not confront but adapt. That is the key. As history has taught us, mother nature doesn’t reward the strongest or brightest, but that species that best adapts.
History shows us that man has adapted fast to shocks – plague, Spanish flu and numerous technological changes. In fact, economies have responded in a V Curve after all previous epidemics – be they H1N1, Spanish Flu, Asian Flu, the plague etc, i.e. the economy tanks and then quickly recovers after the epidemic. One can only hope that the age-old maxim ‘This too shall pass’ becomes a reality soon and good old days are back. Except with a twist (again from history), that the Darwinian theory will also probably prevail – survival of the fittest,namely those that adapt to the change. So, post Corona we hope not just to see course correction but a true evolution.
By A. Didar Singh
The writer is former Union Secretary,Ministry of Overseas IndianAffairs, and ex-SecretaryGeneral, Federation of IndianChambers of Commerce andIndustry (FICCI).