By Ooi Kee Beng, for The Edge Malaysia, 28 June 2020.
WHAT MAKES THE Covid-19 pandemic so very different from other present-day crises that we read about is that, not only does it affect every human being on Earth, it affects them in a painfully immediate and an exasperatingly tenacious fashion.
This is not a problem any of us can buy ourselves out of, talk ourselves out of, or least of all, travel ourselves away from. Most disasters are events we read about, happening somewhere else, and geographically contained. We may feel dejected and sympathize with the victims, we may even donate some part of our savings to help out. And then we move on. Each of them don’t last very long, be it a typhoon, an earthquake, or even a nuclear accident (so far, in any case).
And then there are the pandemics. These have to be considered apart from the rest. We have in recent times had SARS, MERS and Ebola—each extremely dangerous, no doubt. But they have contained. AIDS, is of course, the scary one, having killed 32 million people since it was first identified in 1988.
But while these forced changes in behaviour somewhat, they did not affect the world’s economy as a whole. The closest we had come before 2020, was when SARS affected economies in East and Southeast Asia, from China to Hong Kong, to Taipei, Vietnam, Singapore and the Philippines (counting places that had more than 10 cases), and stretched across the Pacific to Canada and the United States.
That time, the viral pandemic was contained. The total number of deaths did not go beyond 811 (for the period 1 November 2002 to 31 July 2003). Most of these were in China (349), Hong Kong (299), Taiwan (73), Canada (44) and Singapore (33). Vietnam suffered 5 deaths and the United States had none.
But the fact that the disease spread to penetrate both sides of the Pacific Ocean was a harbinger of worse things to come. Covid-19 is definitely one of these worse things. It spares no region.
The globalisation of diseases
Being highly infectious, and quite deadly for those with medical preconditions and who are aged, like the black plague of past centuries, this present pandemic has easily crept (blown may be the better word) into all offices, care centres, prisons and bedrooms.
It’s like a bad itch that won’t go away. But unlike a normal itch, this one can kill you, and pass from you to kill others closest to you. The only way we can scratch this itch has been to lock ourselves away in the artificial caves we call home. But the danger continues to lurk outside.
Quite the nightmare scenario. When film studios can work again, we can expect a flood of films describing horrors to flood the market (at least the online market). Manuscripts on the subject are definitely being written as we speak. Being locked indoors for weeks on end is bound to have nudged many to become authors capitalising on the palpable present.
This is the stuff of stories grandparents will be telling their disbelieving grandchildren in the future.
Today, as I write this in the safety of Penang, an idyllic tropical island where one can easily forget the worries of the world, which had had but one death from Covid-19 so far, and where the national lockdown is furthermore being gradually eased, the pandemic is reaching new heights across the globe.
We know that the virus can easily return to hit us hard—and to haunt those who escape again a second time. In any case, we will have to retreat in regulated haste into our caves again, and maybe again and again.
The new normal needs new ethics
This frames the new normal everyone is talking about. How do we construct an economy that can handle this start-and-stop process? How? Digitalisation appears no longer a luxury but an urgent necessity.
Apart from that, the hope still lies with the creation of an effective vaccine, especially now when medical researchers fearing that recovered patients may not actually have gained immunity to the virus. This is shocking, to say the least. But in the absence of vaccine, this magic potion, common survival will require us to work together. Being divided as a society merely allows the virus to work more havoc.
Such an impactful pandemic reveals all the flaws in the global system that we have created over the years. Our disregard for Mother Nature, for the extraordinary inequality so-called development generates, for the wars in regions where states face collapse, and for the sufferings of people whose skin colour is unlike our own; all this must now be faced.
The itch is not on our skin, it is in our lungs; and we have to decontaminate our heads and our hearts of whatever has been pathologically dividing us, if we are to avoid losing our ability to breathe and to thrive as a species.
Dato’ Dr Ooi Kee Beng is the Executive Director of Penang Institute. His latest book, just fresh from the press, is As Empires Fell. The Life and Times of Lee Hau-Shik, the First Finance Minister of Malaya (ISEAS Publishing, 2020). Homepage: wikibeng.com.