The Bright Side of Coronavirus
As Monty Python taught us, always look on the bright side of life -- so here is a look at 16 ways this pandemic may change the way we look at the world.
By Carin Ism and Julien Leyre /
Crisis. A situation where danger and opportunity intersect. In the last several weeks, we've heard and learned a lot about the danger and suffering caused by Covid-19. But opportunities are here too, and not only for soap producers and bitcoin holders.
This is not to downplay the gravity of the situation, but rather go back to the root of the word crisis, and its original meaning of "choice." This brutal challenge to our existing systems may open new windows of opportunity for long-awaited change.
Here's a list of 16 positive changes to the collective mindset this era of emergency may bring.
1. A new appreciation for the benefits of self-sufficiency.
From aquaponics to vertical urban gardens, plant-based diets, and desktop 3D printers, this situation will make many of us see the benefits of relying on locally sourced food and goods -- instead of products demanding long and distant supply chains. These practices have been widely advocated for from a sustainability point of view, but this kind of self-sufficiency is ultimately about power. About how independence brings you to a position where, instead of just crossing your fingers and hoping government leaders will do a good enough job protecting you, you can maintain some influence over your own destiny and that of your loved ones.
2. Faster adoption of solar panels.
As yet, no region has experienced a power outage due to the systemic consequences of this pandemic. It would, however, be naive to think that it will not happen in certain places. Whether you end up personally affected currently depends on the border lottery -- where you happened to be born and where you happened to be stranded during the outbreak. Solar panels mark the move away from a more or less centralized system supplying the juicy electricity we all love. The benefit of decentralized systems is, simply put, that they don't have central points of failure. Again, solar panels have been sold as a morally superior option, a way to do the right thing for the planet -- but the Covid times will reveal how much they can also be a matter of personal agency.
3. Fast-tracked innovation and adoption of drone technology.
Our species now has the technology to deliver all sorts of products to the doors of any self- or forcefully quarantined person. So far, drones have largely been known as a way to deliver violence and conduct surveillance. But as with any technology, they function like muscles, helping us realize our desires, constructive or destructive. In the case of Covid, this could mean automating many systems at scale, delivery drones and disinfecting robots marking a mere humble beginning. There are already examples of NGOs using drones to carry medicines to remote locations with impressive precision. Now that the ability to get goods without human touch is a more appealing value proposition than ever, mainstream adoption could be driven forward by an immense increase in drone delivery demand.
4. Universal basic income.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Bertrand Russell, Milton Friedman, and many others agreed that a civilized society ought to provide its citizens with money for basic needs to ensure no one ever has to live in a state of indecent desperation.
Automation has made this topic steaming hot, with US presidential hopeful Andrew Yang running on the policy, before suspending his campaign. During the current (or impending) lockdown, many jobs will, and have already, vanished overnight. Stock market losses reflect a concern for just how big a change in consumption this could bring.
In light of this, Hong Kong already approved a kind of emergency UBI, giving each citizen 10,000 Hong Kong dollars (about $1,290). Proposals to grant a monthly cash transfer to all citizens over the course of the pandemic have been supported by liberals and conservatives alike in many other states too. Learnings from these experiments, others already underway, and those very likely to follow, will yield considerable new knowledge and help complete the picture Rutger Bregman skillfully depicted on previous UBI experiments in his book Utopia for Realists (2017).
5. A healthy wake up call to never blindly trust a leader.
Citizens of the world right now have a front-row seat to watch how differently leaders around the world are handling the very same disease. Once the dust settles and figures can be studied, we'll be able to see what worked and what didn't. But more than that, we'll have a strong example of how arbitrary the choices that leaders make can be. People have already died because a certain leader took the wrong approach at the wrong time. This doesn't have to mean citizens no longer trust anyone. Rather, we should demand that more than success at the polls or holding an office be treated as sufficient authority in questions where there is science to consider.
6. Learning and loving to do the least.
What do we need? Jenny Odell's How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (2019) ignited a lot of excitement last year. It questioned how many of the activities we're involved in every day actually benefit us. Doing less has its perks, for the climate and the environment as a whole, as well as for our stress levels and peace of mind. Covid-19 will, at least for a time, bring an extreme decrease in productivity. This will also give us a new baseline to compare with our "normal" lives. When we find ourselves forced to stop for a while, what will we end up really missing -- and what won't we miss at all? Hitting the pause button will give us an opportunity to take stock of what really deserves the glory in our glorification of being "busy."
7. Wider adoption of decentralized internet protocols.
Quarantine can be an introvert's dream -- until the internet stops working. Hopefully, this won't happen. But if we were running decentralized internet protocols, we could move from hoping to knowing. The internet was built to be resilient in times of crisis. Over time, however, a small number of companies have come to own a large number of the servers directing traffic. This undercuts the internet's celebrated design feature of decentralization. Amazon Web Services, for example, operates a whopping third of the servers running the cloud. The Interplanetary File System (IPFS) is a new protocol we could adopt to make the internet properly peer-to-peer again -- meaning, it might give us an internet more equipped for a crisis.
8. A post-post-truth world.
And just like that, accuracy mattered. As we face a range of possible scenarios, from the mild to the frankly catastrophic, we can feel it collectively now: We want to know the facts. How much should we fear a sneeze? A handshake? Is everything under control, or should we stock up on food and water at home? We want to know. Not guess, but know. And even though doubt in science has grown ever greater in recent years, you don't see hordes of people turning down the thought of a vaccine now.
9. Telepresence bonanza.
Social distancing is luckily happening in a time when we already love to be social far, far away from one another. The meetings that could have been emails have quickly turned into emails. For the rest, there's telepresence, video conferencing, and even digital avatars and virtual stages. The longer the quarantine, the more we'll see whatever brings us our loved ones and colleagues in high definition as the best thing since stock crackers. That summits and concerts are finding digital iterations is all great news for a world that's been relying on air travel far more than carbon budgets allow. In terms of aviation, what is a state of emergency now, great telepresence services could help make far more normal after the virus.
10. Corona-boom babies.
Blackouts and snow-ins result in baby bumps: this has been commonly observed. Is it that when you're stuck at home, sex is the next best option? Or is it that in times of despair, the prospect of bringing a new life into the world is a bulwark against the sense of impending doom? Whatever it is, you might look forward to some lustful pleasures during the quarantine. And if you don't feel like this is the right time for you to conceive the next generation, you might consider stocking up on contraceptives while (or if) you can. Suggested names of this generation to come: Quaranteens or Coronials.
11. Paying our heroes with more than just applause.
The true value of the labor that keeps society -- and our sanity -- afloat, is now being keenly felt. People homeschooling their children are expressing new appreciation for teachers' day-to-day. Garbage collectors and delivery people are receiving proper thank-yous for usually thankless services. And the health care providers risking their own health for the sake of others are now receiving a measure of gratitude. We're learning what's essential. Now, instead of paying the heroes of this crisis with nothing but applause, could this sudden appreciation instead take a monetary form and translate into better pay for our most crucial professions?
12. All the great books, movies, jokes, and memes to come.
And just like that, you did get the time to finish your novel. The same is true for a myriad of artists, currently in lockdown, many of them likely creating their most inspired pieces yet. Shakespeare famously wrote King Lear during his time in quarantine. From the existential motives of serious filmmakers to the escapist hedonism and meme extraordinaires -- a pandemic, in all its brutality, can be quite the muse.
13. Updated emergency protocols.
As bad as Covid-19 is, those of us in the global catastrophic risk community know there are far worse scenarios, and we can get far better at preparing and de-risking our lives. Books like Feeding Everyone No Matter What (2014) by David Denkenberger has never before gotten the attention they deserve. We could use this situation to change that, making us wiser and more resilient in the face of vaster issues. Proposals like Denkenberger's to develop large-scale storage, underground mushroom farms, or even bacteria-based foods to survive a potential nuclear winter or supervolcanic eruption no longer seem as eccentric as they once did. Rather, they seem wise and considered, as the words "hope for the best, plan for the worst" are beginning to more widely resonate.
14. Longevity reimagined.
The status and suffering of the elderly is generally scarcely covered. Before this pandemic, 100,000 people died from illnesses directly related to the underlying condition of an aged body -- every single day. As Covid-19 is disproportionately affecting the older part of the population and medical professionals are making calls based on age, this issue ought to see serious momentum. Intergenerational solidarity could become more of a thing as we come to fully realize that an able-bodied condition is ever so temporary. Healthspan -- and lifespan -- extension is a problem we might more seriously use our collective talent to combat, as we give more weight to the argument often put forward by those in the field that aging ought to be classified as a disease.
15. An understanding of what is possible through collective belief.
Particularly when it comes to debt. The Federal Reserve is offering $1.5 trillion in short-term loans (and a whole lot more is on the way) to stabilize the market due to Covid-19. In a world where fiat currencies are only backed by belief, a lot can be done once there is sufficient support. By comparison, the total amount of student loan debt in the US is $1.6 trillion. If you want to study a concept during all your in-house downtime, maybe look up "debt jubilee." Or, if you're looking for a longer read, there's David Graeber's Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011). A lot of time in your house means a lot of time to learn and organize for change with people who share your beliefs and could amplify them. Whether in relation to debt, or something else.
16. A shared enemy.
In the '90s, some thinkers focused on globalization argued that our shared global village was turning into a "McWorld," with consumer culture as its common denominator. Arguably, there is something far more wholesome all humans have in common: We all want a safe tomorrow. In Covid-19, we've found a common enemy, attacking people regardless of their appearance or passport.
This takes us back to that original meaning of crisis: the present situation offers a choice. Either we try to piece the world back together as it was before this catastrophic occurrence, or we can use this shared event as the founding moment of a unifying global narrative. One acknowledging that underneath our badges of belonging we are all vulnerable bodies, very much dependent on each other and on systems of governance.
We've been aware of our global interconnectedness for some time, every second TED talk makes reference to it. But we've never felt it as much as we do now. We've already witnessed the lack of global coordination to control the spread of the virus early on. We are now witnessing how the government of each state is turning this shared global event into so many singular, nationally defined experiences.
All this tells the tale of a world that has become interlinked, yet holds on to a governance model pretending we're not. This can change. We can tell another story. One that demands global risks receive a global response and proclaims that certain issues are so important they stand above all partisanship. A virus can spread quickly and change us profoundly. So can an idea. Stuck, alone in our houses, there has never been a better time to come together.
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