It’s been almost a year since COVID-19 stopped the world. The whole world has been affected, to a degree ranging from nothing to deeply tragic. In March 2020, a few weeks after the pandemic, I wrote a opinion piece for CNN in which I presented some ideas on the changes that could occur due to future challenges. Now that we’re in this mess, and with the growing hope of getting out of it in the coming months, it’s time to reconsider some of these ideas.
First, some facts.
This is the greatest existential threat of our generation. We did not face the tragedy of two world wars and, until now, we escaped the constant threat of a nuclear war. It is important to compare the tragedy we are going through now with the devastation of the Spanish Flu of 1918, with figures that seem almost incomprehensible. It is estimated that around 500 million people , some -third of the world population then, was infected by the virus. Of those, 50 million (10 percent) died worldwide, 675,000 of whom were in the United States. In current figures, this would mean that around 2.4 billion people would be infected and 240 million would die. At the time of this writing, some 109 million infections have been confirmed (surely an underestimate) and 2.4 million deaths . While the numbers are much better around the world this time around, this data doesn’t make us feel any better. We are approaching half a million deaths in the United States, another incomprehensible figure, approaching the number of American losses during the Spanish flu. Denial, lack of federal leadership, top-down silencing of scientific evidence and support, complacency, denial of science – these are all to blame.
Science is fundamental.
A global pandemic of this magnitude is, above all, a public health problem and the first line of defense is through science and public policy working together. The fact that we are comparatively better off than we were in 1918 speaks to the power of medicine to save lives – ventilators, antiviral drugs, better sanitation, better understanding of how this virus works. The numbers could have been much better if health policy measures had not become a political weapon and added to the current ideological divide with tragic consequences. The fact that we now have extremely effective vaccines, some of which use entirely new technologies, speaks again to the power of science to save lives. This is a time to celebrate science in the service of the common good of humanity.
We need to rethink who we are.
Earth has existed for 4.5 billion years; our species, Homo sapiens, has existed for about 200,000 years.
Credit: desdemona72 via Adobe Stock
The pandemic has exposed our perennial fragility as a species. Nature operates by rules that do not include compassion for the loss of life. We are not above nature. Technology may give us the impression that we can control the ways of the world, but we are still part of the process of natural selection, getting sick as mutant forms of this virus and others create new public health challenges. Natural selection is an endless battle for survival. We cannot trick you into stopping permanently, only at momentary stops. In fact, as the environment changes, new forms of life emerge and not all of them will be beneficial to us. The melting of the permafrost is causing diseases that affect our distant ancestors and against which we are defenseless. Rethinking who we are requires humility. Humility in the face of our limited resources, humility in the face of forces far more powerful than ourselves. We can dig deep holes and tunnels through mountains, cut down forests and cause the oceans to recede. But each of these actions has a profound environmental impact that costs us dearly. Rethinking who we are requires a rethinking of our relationship with the planet. Earth has existed for 4.5 billion years; our species, Homo sapiens, has existed for about 200,000 years. We just got here. The earth will go on without us. We can’t go on without him, despite space exploration. The future of our civilization project depends on our rethinking of our planetary role.
We are a human hive.
The pandemic has given us ample evidence of our codependency. We need each other at all levels; the lifeguards, the farmers and drivers, the supermarket workers who bring food to our tables. It is said that the stability of the society is nine meals. If we don’t eat for 3 days, society falls apart. And we need energy, supplies, banking systems, clear roads, clean cities, political stability, news, and fast internet. In a hive, all workers contribute to the survival of the hive as a whole, every job is important. We are a human hive and we must respect all work and ensure that all workers receive adequate compensation. Living with dignity is not a luxury, it is a right.
We must rethink the social structure and inequality.
The uneven numbers of the pandemic have exposed systemic racism and social injustice to levels that can no longer be tolerated or ignored by anyone, and certainly by those in power. From at least the origins of agrarian civilization, our ancestors divided into tribes to ensure social cohesion in the face of struggling economies. Defined primarily by religious beliefs and social exclusion, these tribal walls have been the marker of cultures throughout the world. We now have a different view of humanity’s place on this planet, our union exposed to us in a way that many do not like. A virus doesn’t care what you believe in, the color of your skin, or how much money you have in the bank. It will opportunistically attack and hijack your cellular material to reproduce. But the extent to which people can protect themselves against such attacks reveals social inequalities in a transparent way. If you share an apartment with eight people and you have to go to work every day, taking public transport to get there, you will enter the war zone without weapons or shelter.
We need to rethink how we work.
With fast Internet, it is very clear that many of the commuting to and from work, or frequent trips to distant places for meetings, are unnecessary, expensive and harmful to the environment. Huge expenses can be avoided with commercial real estate and funneled into higher workers’ compensation and better computing and connectivity equipment. The notion of a hub where people go to do business is rapidly becoming obsolete. The trips will be mainly for fun and adventure. However, for this to become the new normal, fast connectivity and the best equipment must be accessible to everyone, such as electricity and clean water (there is surely work to be done). Otherwise, we will create another tribal division (it is here already), between those who have quick access to information and resources and those who do not.
The Black Death of the 14th century helped usher in the Renaissance, a spectacular flowering of human creativity. The Spanish flu was followed by the roaring twenties, an era of explosive cultural dynamism that brought us jazz, Art Deco, and a renewal of our ability to celebrate life and be productive: automobiles, telephones, aviation, the film industry, appliances. , rapid industrial growth. What will our post-pandemic revolution be? The old ways are about to disappear; they are leaving. A new world order is emerging, the signs are everywhere. Not everyone is willing to see them or embark on this new adventure. But I hope that those who do will inspire many to follow them. All this loss has to turn and mark the beginning of a new page in human history.