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A virus that could change the world

Lockdowns and physical distancing — to contain the spread of COVID-19 — have ushered in a different way of life. Gone is the air travel and crowded city streets. The internet has become the preferred means of communication and the air is cleaner than many of us have ever experienced in our lifetimes. Chris Chatteris comments that the lifestyle that has been forced upon us calls for a paradigm shift, from the way we interact with the natural world to economic policies that could level playing field between rich and poor.

The list of lessons we are learning from the COVID-19 pandemic lengthens every day.

Firstly, whether we are rich or poor, we are reminded that we cannot insulate ourselves from our own biology. We are part of the living world and flight from it is not an option when it throws a pandemic at us. We are flesh and all flesh is grass and all grass is mortal.

Though connected to us, wild animals should be off our menu and their habitats should be respected and extended. The paradigm shift from dominating nature to being its stewards is hard to make for moderns, but this pandemic shows that the former approach is foolish and futile. If we abuse nature, it retaliates. Perhaps we’ve finally got it.

Discovering the true essentials

If we live in a city, we’ve now aware of the internal combustion engine’s infernality thanks to empty roads and as we listen to the blessed silence and taste the sweetness of clean air.  Planet earth seems to be taking a holiday from filthy air. The strangest statistic I’ve heard is that the virus in China saved 20 times more lives than it ended, thanks to the clean air resulting from the lockdown.

Apropos noise and pollution, aircraft are much worse for our health than we ever imagined. We have long known that they’re aluminium germ-tubes, but this time what they’ve transported so rapidly across the world has been much more dangerous and contagious than the usual bugs we pick up when flying. Jet junkies take note! What if the next pandemic is as contagious as this and as lethal as Ebola? I see little future for the airlines and a great one for Zoom.

Zoom meetings are surging. The internet is a godsend during lockdown. And there’s a palpable change in tone on social media which reminds us that the internet should be for connection, kindness and the common good and that it is no place for trolls, trivia and pornography and these things should be banished from it. The sensible celebrities have dropped out of sight; the stupid ones have dropped terrible bricks.

During this pandemic anyone who works for people at close quarters with them is courageouswe should be determined to reward them better.

In the very real, unglamorous world of our families we may have noticed that eating together at table is making a welcome comeback. Also, that if we can manage to live a ‘month of Sundays’, we can surely have a proper day of rest once a week in future. How about some real as opposed to spectator sport while we’re at it? No one has died because of the cancellation of the Olympics.

We are discovering who the real ‘essential workers’ are. Clearly medical workers are right up there, but so are the people who deliver lifegiving things from the real economy, such as food, water and electricity. During this pandemic anyone who works for people at close quarters with them is courageous. The receptionists, civil servants and checkout workers who have remained at their posts are all heroes and we should be determined to reward them better.

Here in South Africa many essential workers are not only courageously on the front line but they also face major problems due to the lockdown. For the well-off the lockdown is inconvenient but feasible, but for huge swathes of our society it is simply not possible to comply with the lockdown measures. People lack money to buy in bulk and the space to comfortably stay indoors for 21 days. If they have to work, they need to travel on crowded taxis, potentially catching and spreading the virus further.

Footing the bill for a more equal society

For this country, the broader truth is that if the lockdown is to succeed, the better off will have to pay to make it succeed, either through voluntary contributions to the President’s Solidarity Fund or through a compulsory coronavirus tax. In the long term this crisis has shown us that inequality is bad for everyone and we must become more equal, in the sense that we become better at sharing wealth.

This crisis has shown us that inequality is bad for everyone and we must become more equal.

On the global economic front, we may have noticed how ardent free marketeers have lined up for state aid for their businesses – Ayn Rand’s Atlas did not just shrug[1]; he flinched then freaked out and now he’s begging! So perhaps this pandemic will usher in the era of BIG, the basic income grant. When the likes of Donald Trump are promising so-called ‘helicopter money’ (giving money to citizens to stimulate spending), then you know that things are not as they were before. BIG is something that people could easily get used to so it might well survive beyond the end of the pandemic.

Faced with the choice of saving the lives of older citizens or rushing to get business up and running again, most countries and their leaders have chosen the former. Life trumps lucre, a heartening sign of hope for the future. Americans who were told that Obamacare was the work of the Devil may now understand that since such a system would have saved a lot of American lives, it was nothing of the sort. So there is such a thing as society it seems! Even Boris Johnson said so!

[1] Atlas Shrugged, a 1957 dystopian novel by Ayn Rand which envisions a United States where government coercion has placed huge burdens on private businesses through laws and regulations.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.