Lessons from the COVID year

BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz (The Philippine Star) - March 4, 2021 - 12:00am

I usually write reviews of books or authors and not just on one article. I make an exception today because the author is Yuval Noah Harari and the article occupies two whole pages in the weekend edition of the Financial Times.

The title is The COVID Year, and it addresses a fundamental yet profound question: “After a year of extraordinary scientific breakthroughs – and humbling political failures – what lessons can we learn for the future?”

Surprisingly, the lessons seem to be basically the same all over the world – in both developed and developing countries. An excerpt provides a broad insightful observation by the author:

“How can we summarize the COVID year from a broad historical perspective? Many people believe that the terrible toll coronavirus has taken demonstrates humanity’s helplessness in the face of nature’s might. In fact, 2020 has shown that humanity is far from helpless. Epidemics are no longer uncontrollable forces of nature. Science has turned them into a manageable science.

“Why then has there been so much death and suffering? Because of bad political decisions.”

The COVID-19 pandemic could have resulted in less infections and certainly less deaths. As early as December 2019, the existence of a potential new epidemic had already begun to be noted in the scientific world. By Jan. 10, 2020 scientists had already isolated the responsible virus and the information was already spreading online. Within a few months, scientists had also discovered the means of slowing down and stopping the spread of the infections. Doctors and scientists started informing the world the mantra of wearing a mask, social distancing and washing hands frequently.

The initial reaction from most politicians was that this pandemic would eventually go away on its own. Fortunately, many politicians eventually relented and started believing the existence of this pandemic. It should be noted that the countries that implemented the necessary steps to counteract the effects of the epidemic were those that suffered the least. Among these countries were New Zealand, Taiwan and Vietnam.

By the way, there was a side debate on whether democratic or authoritarian states were better at handling an epidemic of this magnitude. Based on the result so far, it was democracies led by women – Taiwan, New Zealand, Germany – that were able to address this health crisis and minimized the effects on their population.

Within a year, scientists have also been able to come up with several effective vaccines and pharmaceutical companies were already mass producing these vaccines.

Aside from these breakthroughs in biotechnology, the world economy was able to survive because of information technology. Businesses were able to continue operating even though its work force had to work from home because of the internet. Zoom meetings became part of standard operating procedures. The “cloud” allowed access to centralized systems from individual homes which made it much easier to allow work from the homes.

I think this is one area that Harari did not cover adequately. The development of information technology has been hastened because of this pandemic. Even after the pandemic is gone, I feel that the use of IT in work, education and recreation will continue to a large extent. After a year, many people have adjusted to this new environment and it will become part of people’s culture.

For example, even when face-to-face classes are allowed again, there will be a lot more on-line education than before. Open universities which are fully online will thrive and give more students access to quality education. The trend towards online retailing will increase as people have been introduced to this way of life even in developing countries.

Lockdowns and social restrictions made it feasible for the economy to continue functioning. Even if economies suffered, there was no evidence of a total collapse of an economy due to the pandemic.

In his article, Harari pointed out a significant fact that I also did not realize. It is not enough to harvest food; but, they must be transported sometimes thousands of miles. In previous centuries, global trade suffered because wagons and ships required a lot of manpower that were suddenly not available due to sickness. Lockdowns were not possible because trade had to be carried on no matter the cost in human health and lives. Harari points out:

“In 2020 global trade could go on functioning more or less smoothly because it involved very few humans. A largely automated present-day container ship can carry more tons than the merchant fleet of an entire early modern kingdom. In 1582, the English merchant fleet had a total carrying capacity of 68,000 tons and required about 16,000 sailors. The container ship OOCL Hongkong, christened in 2017, can carry some 200,000 tons while carrying a crew of only 22.”

Harari had another profound observation which we sometimes completely overlook. COVID highlighted the dependence of society on many low-paid professions like nurses, sanitation workers, truck drivers, cashiers and delivery people. He said:

“It is often said that every civilization is only three meals away from barbarism. In 2020, delivery people were the thin red line holding our civilization together. They became our lifelines to the physical world.”

Several countries like Taiwan and New Zealand have proven that even without vaccine, there are ways of minimizing the effects of a pandemic. The biggest problem is the lack of a global system that can monitor and prevent pandemics. No country will be entirely safe until every country is safe from COVID. If this pandemic is not eliminated this year, Harari says, “…it will neither be a natural calamity nor a punishment from God. It will be a human failure and – more precisely – a political failure.”

*      *      *

An invitation to writers of all ages: Young Writers’ Hangouts via Zoom on March 13 & 27, 2-3 p.m. The adult series begins on March 20 with Danton Remoto on “Autobiography as Fiction” 2-3:30 p.m.

Contact writethingsph@gmail.com. 0945.2273216

Email: elfrencruz@gmail.com

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