Getting our priorities right in the post-pandemic world

Published: 09:05 AM, 12 Feb, 2022
Getting our priorities right in the post-pandemic world
Caption: Passengers enter an underground railway station, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Stockholm, Sweden, Jan. 7, 2021.
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The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted us all. How we live, work, study, do business and interact — almost everything seems to have changed. With millions of lives lost, it has left behind painful memories, but also tales of heroism. The pandemic has also ripped our world apart, exposing the fragility and resilience of social structures and political systems, while amplifying the preexisting fissures in the geopolitical and socioeconomic conditions.

From the individual and societal levels through to the national and international spheres, the pandemic has compelled us to rethink our thoughts and actions in meaningful ways. The choices we now make in tackling the challenges and exploiting the opportunities produced by this unprecedented crisis will shape the world for decades to come.

The good news is that omicron, the currently dominant variant of COVID-19, is more contagious but less deadly than its predecessors. The emerging consensus among health experts is that a greater global vaccination drive and community immunity will, over time, transform it into a virus similar to influenza that can be controlled with annual vaccine jabs.

It is only a matter of time before the World Health Organization declares COVID-19 to be endemic. But its social and economic effects are likely to continue, reinforcing the need to get our priorities right in the post-pandemic world.

What this means at the individual and societal levels is greater public consciousness about the hazards of life in a world where our insatiable lust for power and resources has put the very survival of the human race at stake. Urban living, in particular, reflects an indomitable spree of unhealthy consumerism amid rising population pressures and eroding civic amenities. Therefore, unless we are willing to reshape our lifestyles in the face of real threats to the global ecosystem and biodiversity, doomsday may not be that far away.

Of course, all governments must render due public services during acute health emergencies like this. But citizens are also expected to empathize with each other and adapt to the new normal in such critical times. In many cases, they have not, with some openly defying COVID-19 restrictions or being in denial mode. A heightened sense of social responsibility has also been in short supply: We were quick to embrace digital behavior through remote working and learning, telemedicine and e-commerce, but were slow to meet our civic obligations in terms of healing the inequalities across ages, genders, ethnicities and geographies.

Closely linked with civic responsibility is the issue of public trust in the state. The fact that some countries responded to the pandemic and its socioeconomic effects with great efficiency, while many others failed miserably in tackling this great task, compels us to rethink the role of government and the nature of the political system.

China versus the US and Europe offers an apt case study. China was the first country to be impacted by COVID-19, but it achieved enormous success in combating the virus. Compare Beijing’s pandemic response with those of the democratic US and Europe and the differences become clear. Consider, for example, their current per capita death tallies: Despite being home to more than 1.4 billion people, China has suffered fewer than 5,000 deaths, while the US and Europe have together lost more than 2.5 million lives from a combined population of about 1 billion.

Moreover, the Chinese economy has recovered relatively quickly. Its gross domestic product growth rate last year was almost double that of the US and Europe. The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2022 estimates that, by 2024, developing economies (excluding China) will have fallen 5.5 percent below their pre-pandemic expected GDP growth, while advanced economies will have surpassed theirs by 0.9 percent.

China also has not suffered from social and political instabilities, while the US and Europe have experienced unprecedented upheavals during the pandemic. The scale of political polarization in the US was highlighted by the infamous insurrection at the Capitol last January. Across Europe, state failures to manage the health crisis and its socioeconomic effects have consolidated ultranationalist populism along with its illiberal practices. Isolated success stories of small democracies like Taiwan and South Korea also pale in comparison to credible state responses from China, the Arabian Gulf and city states like Singapore. Even much of the Asia-Pacific, Latin America and Africa have fared better.

The only lesson we can draw here is that it is ultimately the quality of the government and the leadership that determines how efficient a state is in delivering public services and consequently winning the trust of the people. Western democracies have largely failed in terms of providing long-term solutions to preexisting problems that are accentuated by unpredictable challenges. This calls for serious introspection over why democracies often do not deliver responsible governance. Do they need to emulate more efficient state models of governance and politics, such as China’s meritocratic system, which is rooted in Confucian values?

Finally, the world itself needs to chart a new course in the post-pandemic era. This can happen only if we embrace multilateralism in its truest form. Just think of how beautiful the planet looks from space and then see what a great mess we, Homo sapiens, have created here in the pursuit of Darwinian ambitions: Producing weapons of mass destruction, waging wars of catastrophic proportions and even playing with the natural balance that has sustained our ecosystem and biodiversity since time immemorial.

In recent decades, globalization has allowed us to connect with each other in ways never seen before and to solve myriad common issues. However, a deadly virus has derailed this process by exacerbating economic inequalities, social deprivations and geopolitical tensions. In the face of global supply chain disruptions, inflationary spirals, protectionist policies and other monstrous manifestations of crony capitalism, the divergent national paths to economic recovery threaten to rip the world further apart in the near future.

Our failure to muster the required international solidarity and cooperation to combat a common threat to humanity is both ironic and tragic. But it is never too late. The UN Sustainable Development Goals, which form the cornerstone of global developmental governance, remain our best hope for achieving holistic human progress across time and space. The 17 SDGs promise to end poverty and deprivation, reduce inequality, improve health and education outcomes, and spur economic growth by 2030 — all while tackling climate change and preserving ecosystems and biodiversity. COVID-19 may mean we miss this deadline, but it has certainly reinforced the need for collective action to build greener economies that deliver inclusive economic growth, prosperity and safety for all.–Courtesy Arab News

Ishtiaq Ahmad is a former journalist who has been vice-chancellor of Sargodha University in Pakistan and Quaid-e-Azam Fellow at the University of Oxford.

Ishtiaq Ahmad

Ishtiaq Ahmad is a former journalist, who subsequently served as the vice chancellor of Sargodha University in Pakistan and as the Quaid-e-Azam Fellow at the University of Oxford.