The economies of nation states across the world have taken a major hit from the Covid pandemic. But there have been some silent collateral benefits. As the world begins to rebuild itself post-Covid, it is important to look at these benefits and see how we can build on them.
It is a year since the first case of Covid was detected in India. The Indian Journal of Medical Research documents this in the blandest of terms: “We present here the first case of Covid-19 infection reported in Kerala, India. On January 27, 2020, a 20 yr. old female presented to the Emergency Department in General Hospital, Thrissur, Kerala, with a one-day history of dry cough and sore throat.”
Twenty-seven days earlier, at the dawn of the new decade, China had informed the WHO of a strain of pneumonia that had not been seen before. The Chinese authorities had reported a total of 44 patients infected in Wuhan, the capital of the Hubei province, and the industrial back-end for most of the world. It is believed that the virus struck in November and had gone undetected for critical weeks.
Genesis of a pandemic
By the time Wuhan locked down, on January 23, 2020, it is estimated that “59,912 air passengers, of which 834 (95% UI: 478 – 1349) had 2019-nCoV infection, travelled from Wuhan to 382 cities outside of mainland China during the two weeks prior to Wuhan’s lockdown.” Those passengers went on to infect others, and before the world knew it, it was in the grip of a pandemic. Nations locked down; economies came to a grinding halt. Entire sectors of economies began facing ruin. Overnight, millions of people became unemployed, and it is estimated that around 120 million people will be pushed into poverty worldwide. As economies limp back to a semblance of normalcy, it is time to glance back at the good that has come out of the pandemic and see how it can be built on.
At the top of the list is the outstanding level of scientific collaboration across borders. There has been a breaking down of silos within science and unprecedented levels of co-operation in the battle against an unseen enemy. Covid has changed the way in which nations and institutions approach science. Within India, the scientific establishment has been at the forefront of enabling collaborations between different labs, and different sets of researchers are working on the same problem from different angles. There is no reason why the world needs to revert to its earlier way of working. The need for scientists across the world collaborating to find solutions to common problems has been highlighted by the pandemic. And the efficiency with which they can collaborate has also been demonstrated. Research-funders, including governments of the world, need to look at accelerating this.
Drop in pollution
The second major benefit that has been seen is the drop in environmental pollution. As the world locked down and economic activity ceased, so did pollution. Pollution due to air travel almost disappeared. Across the world, we have all seen photographs of previously smog-filled scenes transforming to clear skies. Delhi, for example, achieved satisfactory and good air quality, in a period of three weeks. Now, as economies come out of lockdown, and try and revive – it will be important to see how we can reduce our carbon footprint. How can we ensure that carbon emissions are lowered so that children in our countries don’t grow up anaemic?
The third has been a relook at the institution of the state itself. After almost three decades of neo-conservative dogma dominating the world stage, that advocated the diminishing role of the state in society, realisation has finally struck that you cannot sideline the state and expect the market to deliver solutions to global problems. It is the state that has the authority and the expanse to be able to effect the level of control and co-ordination that is required at times of a global or national emergency. The role of the state in both the economy, and in society, is vital, and it needs to be empowered to deliver maximum benefits to the population.
Universal Basic Income
And, finally, an idea that has been on the margins for long has come to the forefront. The need for a conversation around the rollout and implementation of a Universal Basic Income. The pandemic has shown how fragile economies and livelihoods are. It shows how easy it is for individuals, families and communities to slip from employed to unemployed and from comfortable, to poor.
Nations had no choice but to implement a short-term universal basic income. The United States of America, for example, looked at transferring up to $2,000 per adult during the pandemic; Canada put a similar amount into the bank accounts of its citizens. Spain offered €1,000 to its poorest citizens. It needs to be seen how direct cash transfers become the norm. But the pandemic has shown us that it can be done.
While we build back, we need to build back better. And, building on the learnings from Covid would probably help us move towards a better tomorrow. So that when the next pandemic hits, we are better prepared.
The writer works at the intersection of digital content, technology and audiences. She is a columnist, visiting faculty and filmmaker.