(First published on March 14, 2020)
Have you ever seen anything that threatens to destroy the fabric of every society and yet has the potential to build an airtight case for unconditional global cooperation? The global outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic threatens to accomplish both. Around the world, people are being told by the authorities not to shake hands, to avoid public gatherings, to wash their hands with the ferocity of a germophobe and the most difficult of them all — to stop touching their faces. While it has been suggested that a namaste or a Jinnah salute may help you avoid a handshake, these things are easier said than done. People simply do not function that way. I have found people offering a handshake more vigorously after the outbreak. Avoiding public gatherings is an even more difficult proposition. Schools, workplaces, markets, family functions — how many places can you avoid? You may try to avoid them, but they are in no mood to avoid you. As various notables and celebrities catch the virus panic keeps growing. Both denial and panic do not get you too far. Everyone dies one day and not everyone will die because of this disease. But as they say, prevention is better than cure, which in this case does not exist so far.
Since an army of experts around the world is doing its best to keep you abreast of the development and precious little is still known about the virus, I will not bore you with the known facts. What gets to me, however, is the emergence of cottage industries of expertise in our communities, on social media and in the WhatsApp groups. One caller in my show suggested that we should eat spicy food to kill the virus. Another gentleman suggested the exact opposite. They were not really chuffed when reminded that it is not our place to popularise such myths without scientific evidence or clinical trials. One thing that I do not contest is the usefulness of prayers. No matter what your faith is, remembering your Maker generally has a calming and humbling effect. So, there I do not argue against it. I just remind people of what the Prophet of Islam (peace be upon him) once said: Have faith in God but tie your camel. Take physical precautions and pray it helps.
As for the need for a global collective response, in this very space, I have incessantly argued that our petty international rivalries and conflicts obscure the challenges of the times we live in. We may allow the ghost of Huntington to still try to divide us into ill-conceived “civilisations” but by virtue of being made of fundamentally the same brick and mortar (read flesh and bones), we belong to a single civilisation. The colour of our skin, eyes and hair might be different and we may speak in different tongues, but the colour of our blood remains the same and so does our basic biochemistry. As mankind excels in the scientific discovery and technological advancement new demons are bound to be unleashed. From climate decay, genetic modification to artificial intelligence, there are many variables whose full impact we are still unable to compute. So, what do we do? Pick fights and kill each other or build a broader, global coalition and find ways to work in harmony? I favour the latter.
Let us face it. The age we are in is really very frightening. Everything once considered unique and proprietary about human existence is at risk now. Our homes, our bodies and our minds. In the West, the source of the most consequential policies, an unfortunate alliance of the religious right and corporate greed has led to a sad twist in our fate. Conservative pundits remind the people that this world is ephemeral and to enter the kingdom of heaven you should detest the pinkos and climate Nazis. Meanwhile, big businesses get away with murder in their neighbourhoods. The biggest misperception that causes climate denial owing to selfishness is that you can somehow harm planet Earth. You cannot. Mother Earth is like a self-repairing supercomputer. It knows how to heal itself. But when it does, unpredictable changes like ice ages come killing life on the planet. It has its own schedule. What you are doing is sealing your own fate, not of Earth.
Similarly, the ability to tamper with our base code, our genome can permanently alter the shape of human society. Today you discriminate against others because they have darker skin or a different skin tone than yours (oh, how shallow!). What happens when genetically modified designer human beings live among you subjecting you to the same prejudice? Scientists are already messing with the genes of other creatures. Consider the endless number of variables and think of what can go wrong. Similarly, our half-baked but relatively superior medical techniques may save many lives today but the genetic mutations in the microbes causing diseases due to this exposure are creating more virulent and enduring strains of diseases and superbugs. Astoundingly, even with such technological advancement mankind has not been able to find a cure for AIDS. Whenever we hear about a potential breakthrough it suddenly disappears from the public discourse. Perhaps, corporate greed is at play here too. Why invest in cheap one-time cures when you can sell expensive cocktails for your entire lives. This calls for accountability. An accountability process that is not at the cost of the inherent ingenuity of the capitalist model.
And then comes man’s last fortress — his mind. For long we have prided ourselves on being smarter than the creatures around us. But that fortress also is under attack. By the creation of its own device. Given that Artificial Intelligence (AI) functions primarily on the same principle of neural networks of our own mind, and it has no upper limit in expansion, we may find ourselves out of depth soon. Even if it doesn’t rise to the science fiction proportions it can easily take all our jobs. How does the civilisation remain civilised then? None of these challenges are a figment of anyone’s overactive imagination. These changes are taking place as you read these lines.
Concerns like these remind you of the efficacy of global consciousness, of collective security. Since the biggest bottlenecks in the way of such progress, the populist leaders with a reductionist worldview, refuse to change, they keep exposing themselves. Modi ends up destroying half of his capital when Trump is in town. Netanyahu’s refusal to bow out makes a mockery of his country’s political system. And the untimely oil war between Russia and Saudi Arabia brings global markets tumbling down. In such a situation you realise that today might be difficult but tomorrow promises great hope. The leaders of tomorrow need to invest in a leadership style that combines heart and mind.