For too long, the world has lived on false hopes and a shaky equilibrium. The pandemic’s rapid disintegration of global malpractices exposed the artifice of a system that was waiting precisely for such a monumental moment. Two months earlier, it would have been impossible to predict that a country of the wealth and know-how of the United States would be reeling with the sort of images generally associated with Africa and Asia. Harder still, to see clear blue skies across China’s industrial North, and sparkling surfaces over India’s sacred rivers. Pollution levels throughout the world had never been lower. What would be the impact on oceans and forests was only a hope for the long term. Before the world started returning to the old normal, wild animals had emerged out of their sedentary man-made habitats, and some - like the monkeys in Laos - were seen roaming around locked-down cities. As more humans died, doomed species of insects and birds revived in a suddenly more welcoming and noiseless world. Only the grand vacuum of human absence made this temporary ecological balance possible.
Without doubt, the pandemic was clearing a path for a different sort of life. The picture already emerging indicates the tell-tale misdeeds of our global past: open markets, free trade, incessant mobility, endless supply chains, excessive consumption, hyper-connectivity etc.
But are we ready for serious change?
The most obvious is the collapse of the institutional structure of the city after the pandemic. Governance has suddenly become critical for maintaining public services, health and law and order. All else – colleges, offices, schools, shopping malls, recreation, even clinics have receded into virtual environments. Our incessant and aimless wanderings in the city have been replaced by on-line services. Will it be fun to dine in a virtual restaurant? Or play virtual cricket?
What then will happen to material growth? Will we now accept the limits of development? The top down model of American progress has led few countries into promoting their own local ideas. The success of small states like Luxemburg, Bhutan, even Costa Rica - is in part due to their pursuit of individual paths as much as size, and reliance on aspirations like ecological stability and happiness. Are there other economic models of progress without GDP growth, models where people can have a share of public wealth?
Will countries now close borders and their markets? Because essential commodities, like sugar, corn, rice or wheat form part of international supply chains and are sourced from various countries. Many places have abandoned traditional farm practices and created long term dependence on global monopolies. Surely, if cold storage apples from Washington state don’t make their way to Dubai, seasonal local produce will be consumed. Can we think local, eat local?
Finally, there is the inevitable decimation of the tourism industry. There is no denying that travel had contributed to enlarging the environmental footprint and endangering the planet. Could this be the end of air travel between continents, excessive train movement between cities, and metro systems between far-flung city neighbourhoods – something that will keep the citizens rooted and involved in local pursuits? If so, then the future predicts a more humane and insular protectionism, where cities will be closed, and neighbourhoods more physically connected and self-sufficient.
As governments face the difficult dilemma of either enforcing longer lockdowns or keeping economies afloat, perhaps the more daring ones will not need to think twice; they will allow their failing systems to collapse. Observe from any perspective – the affluent, the poor, the working class, the migrant – before the pandemic, urban life in India had deprived most people of a decent standard of living. Every city was a showcase of inequities: glass malls and slum tenements, brimming pools and dry hand-pumps, obesity and starvation, private wealth and public squalor. Now, as things begin to open, the differences are all the more glaring. Any attempt to resurrect our former lives will only undermine our desire to create an altogether different future.
Doubtless political leaders will cling desperately to a known reality – however deplorable and unjust. In order to maintain their position, they will convince us that the pandemic is but a minor aberration, and the global economic and political order is the only way to avoid chaos. But, these are lame justifications. While some swathes of India are still in lockdown and others tentatively opening up, perhaps it is time for Indian politicians, bureaucrats, policy makers and the NITI Ayogs to also go into quarantine for a rigorous rethink: Can we return to our former lives, or is this a chance to change track for something better?