“Nothing is written”, concludes Fareed Zakaria’s new book ‘Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World’. As the Covid-19 pandemic tightened its noose on the world over the past year or so, the countries, instead of pooling resources and collectively fighting it, became more divided. The Trump administration said the ‘China virus’ was nothing Americans needed to fear, even as it repeatedly insinuated that the Middle Kingdom deliberately spread the virus to weaken Western countries. China, meanwhile, saw this as a cynical attempt to deflect attention from the Americans’ woeful handling of the pandemic.
As the virus spread, borders were closed even among the single-visa Schengen countries, the most integrated region on the planet. Everywhere, the suspicion of ‘germ-carrying’ foreigners heightened. When the Covid-19 virus was first detected in Nepal in January 2020, among the first demands in the country was that the open border with India be shut. All domestic and international flights were suspended later. Free flow of goods and people, the epitome of globalization, screeched to a halt.
Yet Zakaria says it’s impossible to reverse globalization and free movements of goods, people and ideas. Americans may want more goods to be produced locally to reduce their reliance on the Chinese. But, then, argues Zakaria, the manufacturing will shift from China not to Indiana but to India, another low-cost manufacturing option. Moreover, it’s also not so much a case of the Chinese taking away millions of American jobs as automation rendering them useless.
Zakaria also plays down the idea that autocracies are better at dealing with pandemics than democracies. If so, the likes of South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan would not have handled the Covid-19 pandemic better than China. It is not the ‘quality of the government’ that matters but its ‘quality’. Nepal’s own dreadful Covid-19 response owed largely to its dysfunctional government.
The other big lesson of the pandemic was that markets are not enough to solve our most pressing problems. Amid the pandemic, without government help, hundreds of millions of people would have been left to fend for themselves and inequality would have exploded. Again, we saw both incompetence and ill-will of the Nepali private sector that wanted to import PPEs into Nepal. Also, evidence suggests that had the government not made Covid jabs free, most Nepalis would have opted out of vaccination.
And oh, remember the daily Ministry of Health Covid-19 bulletins? A dour-faced person reading out hard numbers did not inspire much confidence in people. They were rather angry at the pedantic tone. This is why as important as it is for people to trust experts, if the message is to get through, it is also incumbent upon these experts not to treat non-experts with condensation.
The other great pandemic-time transformation in Nepal was the switch to the digital. During the pandemic even the middle-aged and elderly started using their mobiles to pay their phone and electricity bills. Without Covid-19, such digitization would have taken much longer. At the same time, the forced isolation and the anxiety and depression it induced made us realize our inherent social nature: connecting over Zoom, we discovered, pales in comparison to a face-to-face meeting.
Zakaria expects the liberal international order, which has “bettered the lives of more people than any previous system humans lived in”, to endure in the post-pandemic world. For there is no alternative. He thus ends on a positive note: “The soldiers who died during World War II gave up all a chance to build a better and more peaceful world. So, too, in our times, this ugly pandemic has created the possibility for change and reform”. Yes, nothing is written. If only we learn to heed sound advice.