What will we inherit from the coronavirus?

Image: Ellyeser Szturm

By Antônio Sales Rios Neto*

In order to effectively inaugurate the beginning of another model of civilization, it will be necessary for the leaders of all countries to become aware that international relations must be established on new and better levels of cooperation.

Global crises like the one we are experiencing now are generating sources of profound changes in our way of life. The world will not be the same after we pass the storm caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. With each major epidemic faced by humanity, history has shown us that essential changes occur in the political relations of nations, forcing the reorganization of the productive, economic, financial and institutional systems and, consequently, influencing the culture underlying these transformations. This was the case, for example, with the bubonic plague of the XNUMXth century (known as the Black Death), a disease caused by the bacillus Yersinia pestis, so overwhelming that it is estimated to have reduced the population of Europe by a third and the Chinese population by one to two thirds (presumed to have killed 75 to 200 million people in Eurasia). Historians suggest that its origin was Asian, specifically Chinese, as was the case with the coronavirus. Its arrival in Europe would be associated with trade from Asia through the Mediterranean Sea and Turkey.

As its main legacy, the Black Death contributed to radically question the political space of religion in Europe, the main center radiating the way of life of humanity in those times, thus accelerating the end of the Middle Ages (1200th to 1350th centuries), which lived under the aegis of theocentrism. At the time, the port of Bruges (a city that still preserves its medieval history and is located in the northwest of Belgium) was the first commercial center in the world outside of feudalism, operating from 1348 to 1350, at the beginning of what would become , in the future, capitalism. The Black Death was so overwhelming that, when it arrived in Europe in 1500, trade in Bruges succumbed (also associated with other factors), ceding the status of world trade center to Venice (XNUMX-XNUMX), which knew how to reinvent itself in the face of crises of the time. However, the greatest consequence of the plague was perhaps the fact that it contributed to the establishment of the police as the only effective trench in defense of people's lives in the old continent. To a large extent, the Modern State, the sciences and mercantile capitalism were born as consequences of the shock wave caused by this immense health tragedy. The ability of the Church's religious and political authority to save lives or give meaning to death was questioned. It was thus, as the historian Jacques Attali says, that, at that time, “the policeman replaced the priest” as “in the same way, at the end of the eighteenth century, the doctor replaced the police as the most effective bulwark against death”. From that time to the present day, we have gone from an authority based on faith to an authority based on respect for the use of force and, later on, to a more effective authority, that of obedience to the rule of law. We now have to avoid the dangerous tendency of submitting to market authority, a change that has been taking shape in recent decades.

The fact is that today we are experiencing a global health crisis with the potential to produce civilizational impacts similar to those of the Black Death, but with the serious aggravating factor that we now have another ongoing global crisis, the climate crisis, whose severity is, by far, much higher than that of the coronavirus pandemic, and attention (at least on the part of those who have no doubts about its existence) in its surroundings was momentarily suspended due to the urgency of the current scenario. As in the past, the world will emerge from this pandemic (the vaccine should be ready in 18 months, as stated by the Director General of the WHO on 11/2/2020) with many lessons learned and inevitable transformations. In these few months of living with the virus (identified in Wuhan, China, on 31/12/2019, and considered a global pandemic by the WHO on 11/3/2020), it is already possible to observe some signs of the likely effects on the two main forces that determine our way of life: the State and Capital. Everything indicates that the coronavirus will show us that, more than ever, freedom from politics and the market is the engine of history.

So far three main responses are being given by affected countries to contain the spread of the virus while a vaccine is not produced. Below, I describe each of these responses in increasing order of effectiveness and decreasing market interest, from the point of view of the various analyzes that I have followed.

1) “herd immunity” (herd immunization): as the name implies, this response understands that if all of humanity lets itself be contaminated by the virus, as soon as possible, we will quickly create global immunity. However, no one realizes that the 4,9% lethality rate of the virus (Source: John Hopkins University – https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html. Accessed on 31/03/2020.), in this case , would cause a devastating side effect to make humanity “stronger”, by acquiring immunity. Considering that the estimated population, now in 2020, is 7,79 billion people, we would have a holocaust that could exceed the 380 million human lives sacrificed to achieve this Darwinian immunization, an unacceptable humanitarian scourge that appears to have the sympathy of a portion of the most insensitive capitalists, who must be extremely uncomfortable with the meltdown of their assets caused by the economic crisis resulting from the pandemic. That is, for those who have a more radical economic view of the world, such catastrophic effects on humanity would be yet another inevitable externality (when decision-making does not consider the consequences for third parties affected by this decision) to justify not interrupting the movement do Capital, today with its mobility abruptly affected by the pandemic. The measure is completely rejected by health agents, from the director general of the WHO to that nursing assistant who is on the front line trying to save lives.

2) “social distancing”: this is the response that all of us have already experienced here in Brazil and throughout the West. Urgently recommended by the WHO and the vast majority of country leaders, the strategy of establishing social restrictions tries to flatten the contamination curve of the coronavirus, which has been spreading exponentially. The closing of borders, with all the economic consequences it entails, is also part of this package. The measure has proven to be the most effective in the current context of the Western world. Certainly, the degree of effectiveness must vary due to the cultural, economic, political and technological realities of each country. Despite this isolation effort, Europe has become the epicenter of the pandemic. Italy, the most affected country, as the contagion arrived about ten days before countries like Germany, the United States and Canada, seems to have been taken by surprise and did not have time to prepare and start social isolation earlier.

3) “big data” (digital surveillance): strategy used by Asian countries such as China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong. Digital surveillance is already part of everyday life and culture in these nations. People seem to feel safe being numbed by virtualization. Chinese communication and internet companies share their customers' sensitive data with state security and health services. Thus, the State, which has a culturally well-accepted authoritarian tradition, actively controls people without them feeling that their privacy has been invaded. Something that would not happen in the western world, which is much more refractory to the control of their lives. It was with these digital surveillance resources, such as big data analysis and mass communication through apps, that they obtained the best efficiency so far in combating the pandemic. Allied to this, the Asians also resorted to the use of high-efficiency masks and the preparation in record time of sanitary infrastructures to face the situation. Right at the beginning of the contagion, China managed to build, in Wuhan, in just 10 days, mobilizing 1.000 workers, the Huoshenshan hospital, with 3 beds, which went into operation on 2/2020/XNUMX. The fact is that Chinese and Koreans residing in Europe are returning to their countries in search of more security.

After the pandemic is over, digital surveillance promises to be the apple of the eye in the Western world, both for the State and for the market. The question is how this new digital police state will be appropriated by Western culture: to further reinforce the notion that development is something reduced to economic growth and technological development, where existence is reduced to the struggle for survival and the key to success is linked to the logic of competition (more selfishness and less altruism); or to overcome the current model of civilization, where development, according to researcher José de Souza Silva, “is conceived as a space for the encounter between society, nature and culture, a kind of Greek Agora – a public space where different actors with different values, interests and commitments debate and negotiate criteria/rules for the democratic management of the necessary transformations for the its development and the conflicts inherent to this type of process”. We urgently need a world in which the economy returns to its original meaning (the term comes from the Greek “oikos” meaning house and “nomos” meaning custom or law, that is, satisfying the needs of the house). Some scholars even suggest that the term economy would have been used in this sense from ancient Greece until the 1902th century, with the expression capitalism not even used by Marx, but introduced by the German sociologist and economist Werner Sombart in XNUMX, which would have directed the sense of the economy for the simple creation of wealth as an end in itself, disconnected from taking care of the house.

In order to effectively inaugurate the beginning of another model of civilization, some postures already put into practice in facing the pandemic must, soon after overcoming the crisis, be instituted. In this sense, it will be necessary, on the one hand, that the leaders of all countries, especially the members of the G7 (most advanced economies) and the G20 (finance ministers and heads of central banks of the 19 economies of the world plus the European Union ) become aware that international relations must be established on new and better levels of cooperation and sharing of powers and responsibilities. And, on the other hand, the viability of the conquest of new political spaces by intergovernmental organizations such as the UN, reaching the various bodies that make up its system (WHO, PAHO, UNESCO, UNICEF, ILO, UNDP, WTO, UNEP, IPCC, FAO, among others). For this, a new global governance with new parameters of action will be essential, since we are all citizens of the common Home, the mother Earth that welcomes us. These two approaches will be fundamental at that moment for us to be able to ensure a positive intervention in the changes that will come and thus create a civilization policy as defended by the French sociologist Edgar Morin. Also because the attention surrounding the climate crisis should be resumed immediately after the pandemic, which has already been demanding, for a long time, this new global governance.

I close this brief reflection by sharing the words of the South Korean philosopher and essayist Byung-Chul Han, taken from the article “The coronavirus of today and the world of tomorrow”, published by El País, on 22/3/2020. It is one of the best analyzes I have read about the situation caused by the pandemic and the possibilities it entails, which I recommend reading. Han is a professor at the University of Arts in Berlin and gained notoriety with his book “The Tiredness Society” (2017), in which he presents us with key ideas to understand the present time and act for a better future.    

“The virus will not defeat capitalism. The viral revolution will never happen. No virus is capable of making the revolution. The virus isolates and individualizes us. It does not generate any strong collective feeling. In a way, everyone is only concerned with their own survival. The solidarity that consists of maintaining mutual distances is not a solidarity that allows one to dream of a different, more peaceful, more just society. We cannot leave the revolution in the hands of the virus. We need to believe that after the virus will come a human revolution. It is WE, PEOPLE endowed with REASON, who need to radically rethink and curb destructive capitalism, and our unlimited and destructive mobility, to save ourselves, to save the climate and our beautiful planet.”

*Antonio Sales Rios Neto is a Civil Engineer and Organizational Consultant

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