By Ooi Kee Beng, in The Edge Malaysia, 26 April 2020
There were forewarnings that something like the COVID-19 Pandemic would hit the world; and yet, it came as a big surprise to most governments. To those that did act early, it was still too little and too late in most cases.
The virus was able to spread so quickly and vastly thanks to the world being so fervently connected through high-speed mass travel and globe-spanning supply and trading chains, which had been increasing at an exponential rate over recent decades. Luckily for governments and citizens in general, the world has become so well connected by 2020 that information can be transmitted effectively across society that countries can imagine complete lockdowns, and people isolated in their apartments have various means to keep themselves entertained and connected socially, though apart.
TOOLS OF POWER UPGRADED
The countries that have been most capable in controlling the pandemic use exactly these ICT means to keep tabs on how the disease spread, and to contain it. On that front, COVID-19 accelerates something that was already on the way; which is that the mapping and tracking of the movements of individuals will soon be part of the policing methodology of the State—for security, medical and whatever other purposes deemed relevant. No doubt, much of the innovativeness is effectuated by non-state actors in places like Taiwan; but even then, the applications of this technology now becomes available to the authorities.
That is one lasting change to come out of COVID-19. The tools of power have been upgraded radically. This will require systems of checks and balances in any country to be beefed up if we are not to slide into a state of Perfect Totalitarianism.
For Malaysia, the Reformasi Movement that stumbled so badly just as the pandemic began to take root in the country will need to upgrade its personnel, broaden its support base and sharpen its strategic sense if it is to manage any lasting and profound systemic reform in the future. The stakes in the game have been raised astronomically, and there is added urgency in reaching a new narrative that can channel the energy of the country towards building an inclusive, secure and healthy society.
On the bright side, a health crisis that hits indiscriminately also puts into question the cultural differences and divisive concepts that have been the pillars supporting the Malaysian political profession. The virus does not suffer from the delusion of race or religion. Its anyone, of any gender, and it hits high and low. Hopefully, a reminder of common humanity is planted securely in our minds through this crisis. This sense of common humanity will hopefully transcend national borders and passports, for whatever has befallen countries most seriously hit by COVID-19 can easily happen here. There is no place for arrogance and pride; only for humility.
That is a vital lesson to absorb alongside our augmented anxiety over state power becoming uncontrollable. This applies to all societies in the world.
HEALTH BEFORE WEALTH
We may also expect a heightened focus on healthcare as an economic good that is as significant to the general wellbeing of a society as education is. Physical security goes beyond fighting crime; it clearly involves the overall wellbeing of all residents. The health condition of any person is also the concern of all others through the socio-political network we each live within. In that basic sense, a State’s essential goal is as much about “Health for all” as it is about “Wealth for all”.
Raised consciousness over the presence of deadly diseases in our midst may be assumed to change many aspects of our social behaviour post-COVID-19. Having a highly infectious toxic virus being passed around in the very air we breathe every second for another 12 to 18 months—the length of time it will take to develop a vaccine against COVID-19—cannot but reformat our behaviour, not only socially but in most of our economic and professional procedures.
Not caring about health safety measures during this pandemic and beyond is no longer a matter of individual choice or freedom. The virus does not threaten only you; it threatens people around you, through you. This will not only change how we act, but also how we approach our fellow men. We are now potentially dangerous to each other just by being present; and so, we have to exercise mutual care.
This is the bare-boned reality of social behavioural patterns that we have forgotten.
A SPECIES AMONG MANY OTHERS
The psychological—and philosophical—consequences of COVID-19 on us are enormous, and will take time for societies and governments to fathom.
We can consider these in light of the post-WWII period; when the United Nations Organisation was formed, when colonialism crumbled, when racialism became politically incorrect, when more and more nations were allowed to govern themselves, and the horrors of that war worldwide pushed us to find a formulation for our common humanity and gave us the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
We are at such a point in time again; when we are forced to think of ourselves as a species, and in fact, to institutionalise that fact even more thoroughly than before.
The added difference between 2020 and 1945 is that the pandemic should make us realise more deeply the fact we are merely a species among other species and how species relate to each other cannot continue to be haphazard, and that the environment that supports us and that we all share is fragile. The Environment has to be respected and cared for.
Our existence is a shared one—within the species and among species.
Dato’ Dr Ooi Kee Beng is the Executive Director of Penang Institute. His recent books include The Eurasian Core and its Edges: Dialogues with Wang Gungwu on the History of the World (ISEAS 2016). Homepage: wikibeng.com