Covid-19 has implications not only for health, well-being and prosperity but also for security and peace. The impact of the virus on war torn societies could be devastating, whether the scene is of massive physical destruction as in Syria, or the rampaging power of militias, jihadi groups and criminal gangs as in parts of the Sahel and Horn of Africa. Ramping up the humanitarian response, even though the big humanitarian headquarters are themselves part of the general lockdown, is one necessity.
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The UN Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire is a second one – though whether the call will be heeded, heaven knows. Beyond that the Covid-19 virus has revealed a worrying and widespread lack of social and political resilience.
The suppression of information, leaders going into denial, policies changing from one day to the next, the urge to blame the outsider – it has not been an impressive display of resilience. And that is not to speak about the decline in global trade as the world economy heads for a recession that will be worse, by many accounts, than what followed the financial crash of 2008.
A vision of catastrophe
Robert Harris could be forgiven for feeling quietly pleased with himself just now. In his novel published just last year, The Second Sleep, he posits a post-apocalypse world of narrow horizons and cramped economic activity. The action of the novel takes place several hundred years after the apocalyptic moment. The leaders of the society that took shape after the disaster have buried as much knowledge as they could – not just about what happened and why but about the contours of the world that was. They have created a small-minded, tightly disciplined, aggressively policed system of politico-religious authority. They condemn as blasphemers, heretics and worse those who are even the slightest bit interested in that huge social failure whose most blasphemous symbol is an apple with a chunk eaten out of it.
The book’s central character is a diffident, superstitious priest who slips slowly into partial knowledge about it all. He comes across a letter written centuries before, in 2022, in fact, which seems to be shortly before it all went disastrously wrong, a letter that outlines six possible catastrophic scenarios: climate change, nuclear war, a super-volcano, an asteroid strike, massive cyber failure, and a pandemic. One of them, we suppose, or maybe a melange of some of them, came to pass. The letter writers, making the case for why these scenarios matter, state, “We regard our society as having reached a level of sophistication that renders it uniquely vulnerable to total collapse.”
And a vision of resilience
My thoughts on Covid-19 are not as dark as that. I believe we can develop greater resilience. But we need to understand how very deep that need is and how much must change if modern societies can be ready to cope with any of the six challenges that Harris’s fictional epistolers of the 2020s identify.
A novelist has no responsibility to lighten the darkness of his vision with a happy ending. Governments and their leaders, on the other hand, and the political and social institutions of the day, including research centres as well as NGOs, private business and the rest of us, do have a responsibility not to fall into that dark vision. They – we – have to look for a way out. We have to find it. We have to act on it.
There is an old adage in the disaster risk community: recovery from disaster happens because it must; prevention and preparation don’t happen because they don’t have to. Covid-19 gives us a chance to understand just how inadequate that is. And as we look to the future and come out of lockdown and other restrictions, we have to act.
Postscript, added 27 March: Sign of some grounds for optimism: an armed separatist group in Cameroon has announced a two-week ceasefire to allow Covid-19 testing.