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Articles, Commentaries, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly], Philosophy

How Much of a Crisis is Covid-19?

By OOI KEE BENG, Editorial, Penang Monthly, 2020.

THERE ARE MANY levels to a crisis. What is sometimes called a crisis is often merely a serious problem. Personally, I would prefer that the word be reserved for when the resolution of the difficult situation signals structural and irreversible change.

By definition, one cannot come out of a crisis and remain more or less the same as one was before. If you could, then your problem was not a crisis.

When we have a natural disaster like a flood or an earthquake, and life goes on the way it did before the event, then it was but a disaster and not a crisis. Cyclical events are not each in themselves a critical change.

Relatedly, we tend to think of an evolution as a process that is less radical in its effects than a revolution; and yet, etymologically, a revolution is but a turn of the wheel, a “re-turn”, as it were, like the day or the night. It is expected and is part of a necessary cycle (or “re-cycle”) of events. An evolution actually signifies real change while revolutions highlight immediate drama.

The earliest usage of the term “revolution” was to denote “travel around a central point”. It was politicised only in the English Civil War and later in the French Revolution to mean “systemic change”. Only at that point and in that sense does it come to signify “crisis” as defined above.

Cyclicity is Not Necessarily A Stable Phenomenon

In this light, the regular so-called crises of capitalism, though often and expected, are not expected to change the system itself. They are more like the monsoons, destructive but routine. No two recessions are the same, however, just as no two monsoons work the same damage. But when seen as serial phenomena, these cyclical changes do amount to essential change. “Revolutions” understood as the turning of a wheel, can and do reach a tipping point when the process causes a “Revolution” understood as essential change, signalling an evolution.

Just as each rising tide bites away a millimetre of land, a regular process over extended time brings an unnoticeable but, in the long run, dramatic change. At the human level, failed revolutions are often the harbinger of the successful one that is to come. Just as failed attempts to stop smoking are steps taken towards the point when the last cigarette packet is effectively and undramatically chucked away.

An evolution actually signifies real change while revolutions highlight immediate drama.

To be clear, then, cyclicity is not a stable phenomenon. Each turn leads towards the collapse of the system. It is this persistence that makes essential change inevitable; or put another way, real change takes time, a lot of time.

Now that the apparently simple concepts of crisis and change, and of revolution and evolution, have been problematised enough, let us consider a cyclical phenomenon closer to home which can help illustrate these processes.

Let’s take Malaysian politics, where elections have been consistently held, like the rising and ebbing of tides. Often, they are not worth mentioning, but every now and then, a dramatic change occurs. The May 13 riots of 1969 happened three days after the general elections that year, and precipitated changes that turned out to be systemic and sustained. That did not happen again until 2008. The series of elections stretching from 2008, 2013 and 2018 showed how the persistence of forces opposed to Barisan Nasional finally managed to cause what has looked like its collapse. The question still remains whether the change is one that is in essence or not. If it is not, then a crisis that brings essential and stable change is still pending in Malaysian politics.

Where the Covid-19 pandemic is concerned, it is an event that should have been expected, but was not. Given the discussion above, the question to ask is: “How much of a crisis is Covid-19 in the sense that we cannot survive it without undergoing essential changes to the global system of trade and travel, and of competition and consumption?”.

For environmentalists, Covid-19 appears to be the event in a cyclical series when things come to a head and that is the tipping point in mankind’s systematic and serial destruction of Mother Earth, after which business cannot carry on as usual.

Should it turn out that the world continues its business as usual, then Covid-19 is not a crisis. And the big one still awaits.


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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