Living with (and life after) COVID-19

An article by Tharaka Balasuriya

COVID-19 will drastically change the manner in which we live, work, communicate and interact. The degree of change induced in society will be beyond the impact of the virus. As of yet, there is no definite scientific conclusion as to when the pandemic is expected to end, although most mathematical models seem to indicate that it will survive beyond the end of the current year. Therefore, it is very difficult to assess what challenges would be most profound in a post COVID-19 environment. I have identified three challenges, not necessarily in any particular order, which we may eventually encounter. I feel that if we can face these challenges together as a society, our odds of success will greatly be in our favor.

Psychological and emotional challenges

The loss of a loved one is never easy. But in a pandemic where hundreds if not thousands of bodies may be cremated without even a dignified goodbye, tremendous emotional and psychological scars will be created, that we will have to cope with. Dr. Moukaddam, Associate Professor at Baylor College of Medicine, points out that pandemics can lead to higher levels of panic and stress amongst individuals. There can also be other undesirable societal behaviors such as stigma towards the infected, as well as xenophobia, which we have witnessed both locally and internationally. As soon as the COVID-19 outbreak was identified, there has been an outburst of anti-Chinese posts on social media. In addition to that, the outbreak of the virus in Sri Lanka has resulted in unwarranted religious sentiments being stirred up by some Muslim politicians, and anti-Muslim rhetoric has been dished out by some Sinhalese politicians too.

Furthermore, there has also been an increase in domestic violence during the lockdown, which has been observed both locally and internationally. Savithri Wijesekara, Executive Director of Women In Need (WIN) points out that, between March 16 and April 1, WIN received approximately 250 calls of which 60% were related to domestic violence. Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, was also quick to call for a “ceasefire” in the increase of domestic violence. Marianne Hester, a Bristol University sociologist who studies abusive relationships points out that domestic violence goes up whenever families spend more time together, such as the Christmas and summer vacations.

In other countries, we have had to witness under-resourced doctors having to make the difficult decision of which patient gets priority in treatment, thereby essentially deciding who gets to live and who’s left to die. In the United States, President Trump has already warned that the death toll could be anywhere between 100,000 to 240,000. However, the undertone to his message seems to be that life has to get back to normal as soon as possible. N. R. Narayana Murthy, founder of the Indian IT giant Infosys, has echoed similar sentiments stating that India could see more deaths from hunger than from the pandemic, if the lockdown is continued for an extended period of time. 

During the yesteryears, it is said that in harsh winters Eskimos used to leave behind their sick and old, in order to move forward while ensuring protection and survival of the remaining tribe. Luckily, we would not have to make such a decision as we are now beginning to understand more about the nature of this virus. With drugs like Remdesivir reducing the recovery time, and estrogen supposedly reducing the impact of the virus, maybe we are seeing a light at the end of the tunnel. Therefore, it is essential that Sri Lanka also strikes the right balance in keeping COVID-19 patients to a manageable level, whilst restarting the shutdown economy with due precautions. This seems like the most reasonable step to take as countries such as Spain, Italy and Germany, which have had and still continue to have a higher impact from COVID-19 than Sri Lanka, are also gradually moving towards this direction.

All is not doom and gloom as adversity also brings out the best in humanity. There have been an unprecedented number of inspiring reports on human cooperation, generosity and self-sacrifice -particularly by the medics who tirelessly try to overturn this situation. A positive aftermath of COVID-19 could be a shift from a more consumerist society to a more self-sufficient locality. In the short term, I have no doubt that attempts will be made to find local solutions to problems such as food security. However in the long term, as sociologist Thorstein Veblem explains, conspicuous consumption remains a function of our greed and our need to differentiate, and unless we change, it is unlikely that our consumption habits will change to create a lasting impact.   

Political Challenges

In a recent article by Foreign Policy Journal, twelve illustrious global thinkers were asked to give their views on how they expect the world to look like after the Coronavirus pandemic. Their line of thinking seems to suggest that we can expect a more closed society with reinforcements towards nationalism and a more centralized form of government. Stephen M. Walt, Professor of International Relations at Harvard University, says that “governments will adopt emergency measures to manage the crisis and many will be loath to relinquish these new powers when the crisis is over.” Robin Niblett, Director and Chief Executive of Chatham House (Royal Institute of International Affairs) claims that it is the end of the early 21st century’s mutually beneficial globalization.

Kishore Mahbubani, a Distinguished Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute, feels that the direction of globalization would not change but it would be more China-centric. Shannon K. O’Neil, a Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) says that due to rising Chinese labor costs and advances in robotics, automation, and 3D printing, multistep, multicountry supply chains will be relooked at in a localized manner. It is fair to conclude that most political analysts seem to think that there will be a seismic effect throughout the political spectrum, with more countries looking inwards and towards the East.

However, I feel it is important to note that the problems of today were created by the perceived solutions of yesterday. These problems are multinational and multidimensional. Therefore, solutions cannot just be localized. For example, global warming cannot be solved locally. Furthermore, some of the problems that we face now are existentialist in nature. If climate change cannot be controlled now, we, as a species, will cease to exist in the future. As such it is important that we get our priorities straight and make our solutions viable.

We can no longer say that children are the future and promise more expenditure on education and health, if everything else we do harms the sustainability of the planet. If COVID-19, climate change or any other challenge threatens our existence then we need to deal with those first. And in doing so we must not forget the moral values which have been inculcated into our social fabric.

Testing times can lead to higher degrees of tribalism and even alternate interpretations of one’s faith. In this context I am perplexed to see social media posts calling for the establishment of authoritarian/military regimes. Furthermore, I am confused by opportunistic politicians calling for the reconvening of a dissolved parliament. Whilst these politicians build a narrative about democracy, it is clear that their ulterior intentions are to destabilize the country. They are aware that a recalling of the parliament would lead to a minority government which they are eventually likely to conspire to topple, as per their liking.   

The need of the hour remains to combat COVID-19, and I believe that we can do it within the provisions of our constitution and through the government apparatus that’s already in place. Any future constitutional changes will have to incorporate more centralized mechanisms to combat disasters, be it COVID-19, or any other natural catastrophic disaster. The current situation also validates why the proposed constitution of the Yahapalana regime, based on extensive power devolution, will not work under such testing circumstances. Therefore, any future constitutional changes should not only reflect ethnic aspirations but also the practicalities of governance, as well as the basics relating to a more efficient discharge of administrative functions.

Economic Challenges

Renowned economist Nouriel Roubin points out that the impact to the global economy from COVID-19 has been both faster and more severe than the 2008 Global Financial Crisis (GFC) and the Great Depression. In those two previous episodes, he says “markets collapsed by 50% or more, credit markets froze up, massive bankruptcies followed, unemployment rates soared above 10%, and GDP contracted at an annualized rate of 10% or more. But all of this took around three years to play out. In the current crisis, similarly dire macroeconomic and financial outcomes have materialized in three weeks.” Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz expects unemployment to reach 20% or 30% in the United States. He also brings to light the deficiencies of the neoliberal model by pointing out that in a market economy there shouldn’t be a shortage of masks when we have such incredible demand. Paul Krugman endorses a similar view by comparing the present state of the global economy to a medically induced coma.

In Sri Lanka too, the economic effects of COVID-19 is likely to be devastating. Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange earners, worker remittances, garment exports, tourism and value-added agricultural products will all see depressed demand. Foreign direct investments, significant portion of which were Chinese-induced, will likely experience reductions too.

These eventualities are likely to create huge pressure on balance of payments and the rupee. As borrowing costs increase further in the backdrop from a lack of liquidity, Sri Lanka would have no option but to look at assistance from “friendly” nations. This assistance too will come with us having to compromise little of our sovereignty to satisfy the geopolitical aspirations of powerful nations. In order to prevent developing countries falling into failed states, an international debt moratorium would be useful.

However, all will still not be lost. Import restrictions will mean people will adopt more home-grown solutions. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention. We can already see many innovative concepts coming out from e-commerce. Technological companies will do better once recovery starts. Concepts such as “work from home” will probably become the norm in future. Localized food security will also be a major concern in future. And to this effect we have already seen encouraging signs of people engaging in agriculture and home gardening. 

Although we are yet to determine whether the economic downturn would be a “V” or “U” curve (or even a possible “L”  curve – recession followed by stagnation), I do feel that Sri Lanka’s recovery would be relatively faster than that of western countries which are more dependent on intricate financial markets. A significant 23% of our labor force is engaged in agriculture. Additionally, China is already showing signs of recovery which means soon our supply lines could be in operation. Furthermore, Middle Eastern countries have not been greatly affected by the virus thus somewhat buffering our labor remittance. As we have seen after the Easter attacks, tourism too can bounce back in a relatively short period of time.

It is estimated that more than 5 million people in Sri Lanka are daily wage earners. So, the top priority should be ensuring their subsistence. With the gradual decline of death rates in Western Europe, countries like Austria and Denmark are already considering reducing lockdown restrictions. Slowly but steadily, we would have to get our factories running and our supply chains functioning. If not, the death toll from the economic consequences could be far more than that from the Coronavirus. 

Conclusion

COVID-19 will have devastating consequences socially, politically and economically on our societies. The best-case scenario is that the virus will disappear as quickly as it appeared, or we will find an antidote. It is expected that an antidote would take a year and a half at minimum, to formulate. If the virus takes a long time to disappear, we would have no option but to learn to live with it. We would have to continue the social distancing policy and somehow develop an exit strategy whereby we can integrate industry by industry, or sector by sector, back into the economy. The issue with this strategy remains that with integration the virus can once again resurface. We have seen similar viruses mutilating and reappearing at a later stage. We have seen the deaths per day in Western European countries reducing mainly because of social distancing. Therefore, in order to defeat this virus, we will all have a part to play; be it small, that part we play can be vital.

This is also a good time to reflect on policies for the future, and I hope in this regard, subjects such as sustainability, climate change, global warming and population growth will be brought to the forefront. We have ignored the wisdom of scientists and biologists such as Paul Ehrlich for so long, partly because we were in denial and partly because their predictions have been inaccurate. And now, we see that inaccuracies in predictions do not mean a that problem at large does not exist. So now, we need to act. And when we do, let us remember the fitting ending to Albert Camus’s novel La Peste, in which, while a town celebrates the end of a terrible plague, Camus says of the chief protagonist, “Rieux knew that this chronicle could not be a story of definitive victory. It could only be the record of what had to be done and what, no doubt, would have to be done again, against this terror.”