COVID-19 is the name scientists chose to give to a disease that has been terrorizing the entire human civilization for the past couple of months. This menacing disease comes from a virus that knows no border, there are no lines that it cannot cross. It infects the rich and the poor alike. So far its triumphant march has been unmatched by any other virus in recent history. Thousands upon thousands of people are infected, many of whom are dead. Scientists all over the world are working tirelessly to save us from its grip and the rest of us are hanging on the thread struck by panic. People are sitting in their homes all over the world while the global economy is melting. As of this writing the entire northern europe is effectively in lockdown. Trade is frozen in many parts of the world and the Earth is noticeably quiet. While staying inside my home I had quite a lot of time to think about the way in which this virus taught us about civilization. This piece of writing attempts to manifest some of those thoughts into words.
Authoritarians can’t save us
While we have many reasons to hate authoritarians namely that they suppress people’s voices and use power to their own benefit, the recent COVID-19 outbreak adds another reason to that list which is the fact that they might end up killing us all.
Textbook authoritarians use many tools at their disposal. Like limiting access to information, access to communication, espionage, propaganda, brute force etc. While all of these work fine when it comes to suppressing people but they fail miserably when it comes to viruses.
This is exactly what we have seen in countries like China and Iran. When the virus first broke out in Wuhan on 31st of December authorities of China decided to suppress the news from public ears for twenty days. On January 20th the news of a reported coronavirus case was first published in the Chinese national daily. After that, the Chinese government went hellbent on suppressing news about the outbreak, spreading false propaganda, lying about the number of infected and so on. Basically they did everything that a textbook authoritarian regime would do except taking proper public health measures. In the meantime the mighty virus spread from Wuhan to the rest of the world.
The reiteration of this routine can also be observed in Iran, where the government outright denied any outbreak and insisted that public gathering must not be prohibited. They did everything in their capacity to appear strong and impervious to this virus up until the point where they could not anymore. Their society started to break apart. I am sure all of these sound familiar to the reader.
Why are authoritarian governments so blatantly incapable of handling a virus outbreak? For what it's worth they are the ones who should have been the most effective. Because they are the ones who know best how to coerce people's action.
The answer is in the philosophical foundation of authoritarian regimes as well as in the functional foundations. Most authoritarians thrive in their power on the notion that they know what's best for the people. They claim that they are the ones who know what the people need and from whom they should be protected. They appear to be the saviour in human form. They also insist that any notion of democracy would destroy this protection that the people enjoy.
When a virus or crisis erupts the authoritarians appear to be vulnerable. They fear that the public might notice that their premier is not doing anything to save their lives. They might decide to elect a new leader. This apparent vulnerability prevents authoritarian regimes from acting in the people's best interest. They rather covet and save their own seats.
Now the way these authoritarian governments function is a problem on its own. Their go to solution to every problem is to use brute force and manipulation. Their institutions can’t function independently nor do most of the people sitting in these institutions have decision making power. Decision making power is reserved for the few elites and they use this power arbitrarily to strengthen their grip on the state. Now these might work against the people but they absolutely don’t work against viruses. Since a tiny virus has the potential to kill millions of people we might want to think again if we should really tolerate authoritarian regimes if our goal is to keep human civilization alive.
Markets are not our gods
It is held sacred in liberal democracies that the free market is the best way to sustain human society. It is also believed that the consumer knows best and if each of us worked in our best interest somehow we will all be better off. These all sound good in theory but the philosophy upon which this is based on is critical to analyze. Free market only works when we have a profound belief in the human rational and stability of the present and the future. This is how without necessarily knowing each other millions of people cooperate among themselves and create value from thin air. Markets become interdependent by making people interdependent. But this all breaks apart when a virus erupts because people lose their belief in the system. They panic and withdraw from the cooperation aka the market with everything they have got. This creates absolute lawlessness and severe inefficiency. As a result we see hoarding, soaring prices and often violence in the streets.
The place where it really hurts is our support system. If we consider food, medicine, security our support system then we can see that our support system is intrinsically related to the market. And when the market falls, we fall with it. Without food and medicine the most vulnerable people suffer the most. Currently we don’t have much answer for that.
So the days of taking the market for granted are over. At least the one with the invisible hand on it. Because the virus can make the hand literally invisible and non existant.
Individualism is breaking
Before the industrial revolution community bonding was strong among people. In that period the state and the market did not act as a parenting apparatus. People relied on their local community for many kinds of support and cooperation. When markets grew bigger and better communities started to break up. People became individuals. It was convenient for them to sustain this way because the market took care of all of their needs. This way people learnt how only to care about themselves. They learn to believe that self satisfaction is the ultimate good. This is the reason why people tend to hoard because they fear no one else will be there for them except the market. it is what leads them to be reckless about community hygiene because in their minds only their own safety matters. But corona virus forces us to face the bitter truth that the market and individualism cannot guide us anymore into the future. We need a new foundation for our future societies where people will act not only for their own benefit but also for their communal welfare. And they will do so knowingly, not by some invisible hand miracle.
The road to future
It's astonishing to see how horribly unprepared the industrialized world was against the coronavirus. Part of the reason why it is the case is because the grandeur of modern civilization compels us to take things for granted. In our minds we never thought that a virus could do this to us. This pandemic proved that we are not the invincible creatures we thought we are. For future generations, this needs to change. It must be taught from an early age that nothing can be taken for granted. We can not only take civilization for granted but also we must act consciously. We must always think about how our actions affect us and society in general. Current education system doesn't promote these ideals institutionally. That needs to be changed.
We also need to take a conscious look into how to reshape our political and economical systems because the current system is failing us in many ways. Contemporary political and economical systems have no answer for climate change - a problem that has the potential to destroy an entire civilization. And now a single virus has proved to be victorious over our contemporary socio-political systems.
I don’t know how long till this pandemic is over. But as long as it is here, it will take as many lives as it can. Lives that could have been saved if we were structurally prepared. As all things pass this shall too. But after the storm is over we must rise from the ashes like the phoenix we are.
Send your articles to: