What Are We Facing?
It started in China and ended up engulfing the rest of the world in what feels like the blink of an eye. On 31 December 2019, China notified the World Health Organisation of the detection of a “pneumonia with unknown cause”, later classified as the novel Corona virus. It caught most of us off-guard and ill-prepared. In the first quarter of 2020, the Corona virus changed our world and our lives – probably forever.
The COVID-19 pandemic locked most of the world into isolation. In South Africa, one of the world’s most unequal societies, people’s lived realities of lockdown are determined by their social class. Some of those more affluent and lucky enough not to face immediate retrenchment or job losses took time out to reflect on the meaning and purpose of life or complained about not being able to walk their dogs or being able to surf. At the same time, residents of townships and informal settlements are requested to self-isolate in shacks and backyard dwellings that are unfit for human habitation under the best of circumstances. Some of them reportedly queue in supermarket lines for up to 10 hours. Protests and looting broke out in mid-April over hunger, which is a more immediate threat to millions of impoverished households than potential contagion with the Corona virus. We are now at a point where COVID-19 could double the number of people on the brink of starvation globally.
Faced with these unprecedented circumstances it is easy to get sidetracked by the immediate emergency at hand and lose track of the bigger picture. What, exactly, are we dealing with?
“What is this thing that has happened to us? It’s a virus, yes. In and of itself it holds no moral brief. But it is definitely more than a virus. Some believe it’s God’s way of bringing us to our senses.”
– Arundhati Roy
As a starting point, it would be helpful to acknowledge that the novel Corona virus and the disease it causes, COVID-19 is only a symptom, not the cause of the multiple crises we are currently facing. In fact, so many civilization-threatening predicaments are fast-converging that a new term has emerged: the “Meta-Crisis” — the sum of our ecological, economic, social, cultural, and political emergencies. As Daniel Schmachtenberger says: “Everything that is happening now was going to happen, even though there were many path dependencies. It could have been a grid collapse or a different virus, an avalanche of climate refugees – any of those could have triggered the systemic cascade we are experiencing now. But that it was going to happen was inevitable.” We have come to a point where we can no longer take for granted the continuation of complex life on Earth. “The Event” that global elites have been fearfully preparing for, is here.
Even though ordinary life before the pandemic was already a catastrophe of desperation and exclusion for too many human beings, an environmental and climate catastrophe, an obscenity of inequality, as Rebecca Solnit points out, the virus seems to be exacerbating and amplifying realities that were always there. Roy: “The virus, in very much the same way as it entered human bodies and amplified existing illnesses, entered countries and societies and amplified their structural infirmities and illnesses. It has amplified injustice, sectarianism, racism, casteism and above all class inequality”.
With authoritarianism on the rise in countries like Poland, Hungary and El Salvador and a tenuous balance of power between the securocrats and constitutionalists in South Africa, the current crisis poses a threat to global democracy and global peace and we might in fact be losing both of them, according to Francis Fukuyama.
Human rights and freedom of expression are also under threat. China used the crisis to pass anti-sedition laws, dealing the protest movement in Hong Kong a “killer blow” and in India the police went on a witch hunt, as soon as lockdown started, against peaceful Muslim students and protesters, charging them with sedition and jailing them under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) – a draconian law that makes it nearly impossible for the accused to get bail, at a time when the courts are hardly functioning because of Covid-19 restrictions.
Under the guise of “Never Let A Good Crisis Go To Waste”, Big Tech is transforming the way our lives will look. As Naomi Klein points out: “The future that is being rushed into being treats our physical isolation not as a painful necessity to save lives, but as a living laboratory for a permanent – and highly profitable – no-touch future. It’s a future in which our every move, our every word, our every relationship is trackable, traceable and data-mineable by unprecedented collaborations between government and tech giants.” Arundhati Roy, in a similar vein: “Pre-corona, if we were sleepwalking into the Surveillance State, now we are panic-running into the arms of a super-surveillance state in which we are being asked to give up everything—our privacy and our dignity, our independence—and allow ourselves to be controlled and micromanaged. Even after the lockdowns are lifted, unless we move fast, we will be incarcerated forever.”
Despite the gloomy, perhaps even dystopian future we are facing, some positives are also emerging as a result of the current crisis. It is for example redrawing the global map with surprising (and not so surprising) new areas of incompetence but also competence in crisis. Success stories call into questions old notions such as “developed” and “developing” countries. Places such as Vietnam, Kerala (India), Cuba and a host of African countries are fighting and containing the virus seemingly successfully – even though they are not getting much attention from Western media.
In South Africa, and undoubtedly in numerous other countries, so-called Community Action Networks are popping up – communities that aim to encourage and inspire people from all walks of life to self-organise, to take local action, and to develop ways to share resources. Some governments are also stepping up. Ireland nationalised its hospitals for the duration of the Corona virus. The city of Amsterdam will reportedly use the “doughnut model” to mend it’s post-virus economy. The model, devised by Raworth, functions as a guide to what it means for countries, cities and people to thrive in balance with the planet. Spain is reportedly moving to implement a permanent basic income as a measure to help workers and families battered by the coronavirus pandemic. And in Portugal tens of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers have been “regularised” and given full rights for the duration of the Corona crisis.
What does this mean for global development?
Micha Narberhaus, director of Smart CSOs Lab, writes soberingly that it is remarkable how quickly many activists have declared that the world post-coronavirus is going to be fundamentally different to the one we had before. Narberhaus: “They don’t seem to account for the high risk of massive unemployment, social unrest and human misery that a transition to a de-growth economy poses. We don’t even know yet what will happen over the next few months and how bad things will get.” Accroding to Narberhaus, the discussion would benefit from much more honesty and transparency about these uncertainties.
Daniel Schmachtenberger points out that many of us have a sense that the old is dying, but the new is yet to be born. The one thing we can be sure of, is that the coming months and years will be more turbulent, out of control and less convenient than what most of us – excluding immigrants, the precariat and minorities (or marginalized majorities) – are used to.
This raises numerous questions for those working in the development and social justice sector and in monitoring and evaluation more specifically. As Arbie Baguios from Aid Reimagined points out, “aid is at a critical juncture. The coronavirus pandemic is just the latest in a series of crises that have tested the logic behind our interventions; questioned our management abilities; and interrogated whether our values are truly just and transformative”.
Over a series of blog posts that I will pusblish over the next few days, I will address the following questions:
- How do we adapt our planning and decision making processes to respond to this crisis?
- What data collection techniques are best suited now?
- How do we learn from our response to this crisis so that we are better prepared to deal with future shocks?
- How can organisations start preparing for the post-lockdown world?
- What is the role of NGOs now?
Please stay tuned!