COVID-19 is pushing governments to take unprecedented measures, which go as far as decreeing the total confinement of the population and the freezing of all non-essential activities.
Indeed, we live in an unprecedented and perplexing time, which is changing - as only the world wars of the 20th century did - our views of the world we live in. And that change can be good as it can be bad.
If we want to survive with hope, this may be our last chance to seriously rethink the unsustainable system in which we have settled so far.
Where do we come from?
The so-called 'great acceleration' that occurred since the end of the Second World War has been followed by a sudden stop, not a great slowdown as it was predicted in the 2008 crisis. It was the end of that infernal war that marked the beginning of what has come to be called the anthropocene era, which we have been living in for 75 years now.
When the information and communication technology revolution definitively seized the keys to humanity's “progress” in the 2000s, some began to be critical of unbridled globalization. Proposals for deglobalization then emerged: a decrease or at least a slow economy could be the answer in the face of the consequences of continuous growth as a sole objective. Which alternative there is to the unlimited exploitation of natural resources and the accelerated and disruptive increase in inequality? The answers were scarce.
Since then, the critical voices have been many. The growing awareness that a world in continuous acceleration was leading us to a great crunch has fueled important social movements, which aspire to a change in the economic and social model that put the care of people and the planet at its center.
But governments of any color have stuck to the existing model and have been unable to thoroughly reform the system to make it much more just and much less predatory and destructive of an ecosystem that is already sinking in a deep and irreversible crisis,.
Even after the financial crisis of 2008, when large G7 and G20 meetings were held and theatrically advocated for rethinking capitalism as a way that would avoid the repetition of an economic disaster of wide dimensions, things quickly returned to business as usual.
Calls for a great “re-founding” of capitalism were locked in a dark drawer. Only short-term solutions like reforms that would make the banking and financial system more robust, and some limits on indebtedness, were put in place.
Even after the financial crisis of 2008, when large G7 and G20 meetings were held and theatrically advocated for a change that would avoid the repetition of an economic disaster of wide dimensions, things quickly returned to business as usual.
But nobody dared to touch the scheme based on unlimited growth and immediate profit, fueled by the financial economy and short-term market speculation. We have seen these days to what extent stock markets, with the bearish positions and short sales, unscrupulously sink with the excuse of the pandemic and with no other purpose than to "bounce”: to continue making money no matter what else.
Until a few days ago, Donald Trump bragged about how Wall Street markets were stronger than ever, and how the American economy was at its best. All thanks to its policy of trade confrontation with China and its renewed protectionism, withdrawal of multilateralism, and widespread tax cuts, especially to companies and large fortunes, whose lobbyists in Washington have had champagne for breakfast since November 2016. Everyone was thinking big and foresaw a glorious reelection.
In his bewilderment at the unexpected factor of the pandemic, Trump even went as far as to assert on February 28 that the coronavirus alert was just another set-up by the Democrats (their new hoax, sic.). A farce to discredit him. That lasted until the virus imposed its stubborn reality and has forced him, like almost all affected governments, to adopt harsh containment measures, prior to those of total confinement. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson thinks he is smarter than any other European leader, only waiting to bactrack when reality will hit his fellow citizens very badly. And in Brazil, Bolsonaro shaking hands with almost 300 supporters in a rally last Sunday is just pathetic, if not dangerous.
Disruption and hope
We do not know to what extent our system will suffer and if this crisis will be deep enough to bring substantial changes.
At the moment, concerns about the consequences of economic stagnation are causing a change of focus, and it seems that the injection of liquidity and quantitative easing are the first emergency measures. This implies a relaxation of the limits of public indebtedness that were tightened by the 2008 crisis and which justified austerity policies, including major cuts in public health with devastating consequences for the most vulnerable sectors of the population.
Pre-existing levels of inequality are going to be a key factor in measuring the social consequences of expected sharp falls in GDP. Furthermore, in regions where the informal economy predominates, such as in Latin America, too many people will find themselves without any income if the streets are emptied, as it seems will be the case.
Todau¡y, ‘disruption’ is the name of the game. And it gives us a lot to think about. The economic and social reorganization caused by this new situation should represent an important opportunity to rethink various aspects of our daily life and of the values that drive our individual and collective aspirations.
The confinement that tens of millions of citizens are experiencing in Europe can be used to reflect and rethink our schemes, currently adapted to a quick and superficial reading of a reality that changes at full speed depending on work, news, events, sports, and depending on our leisure schedules based on the consumption of goods and services. Travel, travel, travel, that is the dream that nourishes our spirit. Travel to photograph ourselves happily, and to self-contemplate ourselves.
Perhaps it is a good time to recapture old ideas that emerged in the second half of the last century, when everything that is happening now was only just an improbable dystopia.
Take Gaia's hypothesis - developed by British chemist James Lovelock alongside microbiologist Lynn Margulis in the 1970s - that the planet is self-regulating through the interaction between living things and the inorganic environment on earth. Gaia's goal is to maintain a balance in the ecosystem that allows her to stay alive.
Beyond debatable scientific credibility, Gaia becomes a very handy philosophical metaphor. What Gaia's hypothesis could be telling us is that the current pandemic is nothing more than a defense mechanism for life on earth, a kind of antibody against an especially aggressive and toxic factor that predates the ecosystem: the human species in permanent demographic explosion.
The virus would be, in this daring hypothesis (since there have been other epidemics when our presence on the planet was much less predominant), a way of abruptly stopping the enormous pressure that our species exerts on the climate and natural disasters, which are increasingly frequent.
The virus stops fossil fuel emissions in its tracks, and a sudden drop in traffic at all levels (land, sea, air) immediately improves the quality of the air we breathe in cities, as no international treaty has managed to do. Important fall in consumption and confinement policy also lower the demand for many superfluous products and many unnecessary trips.
The virus also has the virtue of making us equal, even momentarily, rich and poor, powerful and humble: we can all be equally infected. Populism and nationalism, which have been rising since the 30s of the last century, show their clear limits: there are no national borders for the virus, nor does it distinguish between races or religions; it demands solidarity among all, with a focus on public services policies of a social nature, starting with universal healthcare.
The State, which has been the target of systematic attacks by neoliberalism since the 1980's, that looks to reduce it to its minimum expression, also makes perfect sense again, because it is the only institution that can guarantee us protection against the consequences of the pandemic, present and especially future.
The absolute hiatus forces us to reflect on time, which we have lost the measure of in our crazy daily race to get financial resources, only to ensure that we can continue running the next day. Suddenly, thanks to the virus, we share time with our partners and children, and we realize that in this hyperconnected world, we actually have very little communication with our immediate surroundings.
The conronavirus reveals to us that it is possible to work comfortably from home and how useless and costly daily commutes are, which add up to more than two hours lost in most of our metropolises. And we also discover that there is a forgotten analogue world: that of the books we tend to accumulate on the shelves, waiting only for an opportunity to be read. And also there is a chance to rediscover the art of quiet conversation.
Finally, by forcing us to maintain a “social distance”, the virus makes us value the sense of proximity with our fellow citizens, and the importance of hugs and kisses that are now forbidden to us.
The absolute hiatus forces us to reflect on time, which we have lost the measure of in our crazy daily race to get financial resources only to ensure that we can continue running the next day.
Today, when we can only show in the background the wall of our room or the dining room sofa, all our narcissism has exposed its futility, increased until now to infinity by social networks, where selfies rule.
The coronavirus brings with it the moment to think humbly about our fragility and the importance of solidarity and co-responsibility.
Were we exhausting the planet and now the planet wants to get rid of us? This is a too simple and unscientific way of thinking about what is happening to us, but one thing is certain: to win something from this pandemic, we have to deeply rethink the system that has brought us here.
Our species must take advantage of this virus to rethink itself and retune with the ecosystem of our mother Gaia. But if we insist on going back to business as usual as soon as the virus passes, we may not have another chance.