As the Corona Virus pandemic spreads across the world, I am in London, where the death counts have been troubling and worrying. If any event can be called a global black swan event in our collective lifetimes, this pandemic is it. Of course, there are some who debate that it is not the disease itself that is a black swan, but the global reaction to it. That though, is a subject for another day, one that can be debated more fully a year or two later, when the total fatalities of this disease are finally clear.
But one thing that is already clear, is that it is a time of enormous transformations at several levels, whether ecological, national, societal or individual.
Let’s start with the definition of a virus. It’s an organism that multiplies at an uncontrollable pace and is so acquisitive that it destroys the very thing that gives it sustenance. In many ways, that is probably how Mother Earth must see humanity. The extended lockdown across the globe has allowed the planet to breathe again, its skies are bluer, its rivers are cleaner, and its animals are not feeling cornered. It may be a bad time for humanity, but it’s a good time for the environment. Can humanity learn something from this? A sense of balance in what we desire, perhaps? So that we don’t behave like a virus infecting Mother Earth?
At a national level, governments across the world, authoritarian or democratic, are tracking citizens at an unprecedented level. Most people will accept this with the fair belief that there is no choice; it has to be done for everyone to be safe and healthy. Will this level of surveillance continue once the pandemic is over?
At the societal level, there will be two distinct directions. Either societies will rediscover their traditions, spirituality, and find strength in each other. There is already a questioning of the excess individualism of the last few decades which has resulted in increasing loneliness across much of the world. Or societies will embrace even greater individualism, echoing in some ways the Roaring Twenties, where hedonism, drugs and self-indulgence was a reaction to the twin tragedies of the Spanish Flu and the First World War. I think India will rediscover traditions and spirituality. Where the West will go, is still open to question.
At the individual level too, there will be a change, a move away from the economic model of the last century which had consumerism at its core. Its upside was the huge growth in economies, which allowed so many things we take for granted today; efflorescence of science and technology, an enormous number of people being pulled out of poverty, control over the far more devastating pandemics of the past, and a standard of living for middle classes befitting the royals of little over a century ago. But its downside was the devastation of nature and growing unhappiness despite material wealth. Will humanity find a balance between materialism and spirituality? One hopes so.
How will things play out for India? I feel that this pandemic, and its consequences, will do to our way of life as a whole what Y2K did to our IT industry; a paradigm shift. It’s easy to forget how Indians were seen before the Y2K projects across the world. There was the usual bigoted imagery of snake charmers and elephants. But post Y2K, Indians came to be seen as brainy and reliable, and India quickly became a back-office to the world.
I think the way we have managed this pandemic till now (and there is reason to believe we will continue in this vein) will cause another paradigm shift. Our governments have moved decisively. People have been reasonably disciplined about the quarantine; let’s be honest, with our limited State capacity, if too many people had refused to follow the lockdown, there was little the State could have done. Our politicians have simply requested, and most people have followed. It’s a remarkable quality in us that we Indians can be chaotic in normal times, but extraordinarily disciplined and focused in times of crisis. Many societies are exactly the opposite. And the results clearly show in our numbers; not just the Covid deaths, but even overall deaths due to unnatural causes have come down.
There are many things we can do better, of course. And those criticisms must be made, and listened to. But a large part of winning a long war is morale. And our morale should be high considering that we have done reasonably well till now.
I believe the extraordinary way Indians have managed themselves in lockdown at a mere request from the leadership comes from a deep attachment to our land. Our self-image may be that of the weak and meek, but, in fact, we are incredibly tough and gritty. This resilience, this steel in the spine, is evident in the way we have negotiated this crisis. Don’t forget we are among the very few ancient cultures that still survives despite so many invasions and attacks.
We will emerge stronger on the other side of this crisis. I believe that.