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2020: The Year That Changed the World As We Knew It

Annus horribilis is finally coming to an end. What began at Wuhan, China towards the end of 2019 and spread to engulf the world, is about to complete its anniversary. It has been twelve months of surprise, shock, panic, despair, deaths and devastation and a myriad other emotions as also, of stoic acceptance and hope.


After numerous attempts to curb the pandemic caused by SARS-CoV-2, tremendous research to understand the complex disease caused by the virus, administrative and governmental failure to fight the contagion and shots in the dark to find a cure, we end the year waiting for vaccines that have finally been announced, to save mankind from the scourge. An incidence of more than 75 million infections globally, and a death toll of more than 1.7 million and counting are sufficiently chilling figures.

It is time to look at the way humankind has been overwhelmed and the social fabric changed from the way we lived before 2020 dawned. Scholars, thinkers, sociologists, economists and scientists have written copiously about it over the last twelve months. I do not think there is any point repeating all of those theses about the collapse of economies, governance, social mores, healthcare delivery, geopolitics and social structures. They are all either behind us or we are still going through the experience. What I would like to do is look at the way our future is shaping up. That may help us anticipate what more to expect and when, if ever, will the world emerge from the ravages of this pandemic.

My first observation is that mobile phones have become smarter and perhaps even vicious in this period. That means mankind has become dumber in comparison. Forced into our homes during the lockdowns and thereafter, this device has become the crutch on which humans have limped through the pandemic. Meant initially for inter-human communication, a mobile phone has become much more than that. We have learnt to live online, learn online, access the rest of our world online, transact our businesses online, get entertained online and even get misinformed and duped online. Fake news and vicious campaigns have taken over the internet like never before. Half-baked and at times, utterly ridiculous solutions on how to prevent this virus from invading us have besieged us. As Mark Twain once famously remarked, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” We seem to spend a considerable amount of time checking the veracity of what we read online before truth reaches us. We have become slaves to this device and the dumbing down of human society has reached enormous proportions.


Internet, accessed on mobile phones, has given social media immeasurable power to influence human minds at all times, and usually with very ulterior motives. Transacting businesses online has also made us vulnerable to scams, frauds and getting cheated out of our money. While internet security experts have been toiling to make things safe online, the cheats and scamsters have been way ahead of them. Human greed has influenced and vitiated the internet immensely. Long before the age of the mobile phone, Albert Einstein, one of the most brilliant brains of the 20th century, is said to have predicted “I fear the day technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots.” The signs are all around us.

Next, my observations on the debilitating influence of the pandemic on education. The schools and colleges have been closed since the beginning of the pandemic. Education is being imparted through online classes. There is little by way of teacher-student interaction or peer interaction that usually generates new ideas, lateral thinking and greater insights. All day long, students and teachers alike stare at ‘smart screens’ in an attempt to learn. Appraisals have been compromised and I am not sure how effective has the new learning been.


The students of today are going to be professionals of tomorrow. With their incomplete learning and lack of hands on application of the lessons learnt, how successful are they going to be in running this world coming out of the ravages of this pandemic? Academic institutions are built over decades and centuries. Not all teachers can become proficient in their ability to impart knowledge on the internet. Not all students can commit their undivided attention to the lessons being taught. This one negative influence of the pandemic on education is going to cost us dear in the years to come.


I am also unhappy about a misnomer that has arisen in our battle against the virus, and has led to serious damage to the very fabric of human society. I refer to the term ‘social distancing’. To curb the transmission of the highly contagious virus, we have repeatedly been instructed to practice social distancing. Many of us have literally done that - socially distanced ourselves from our families, our friends and our fellow human beings! Perhaps all they needed to do was to call for ‘physical distancing’. That would have made us less indrawn and more communicative through other means.


As things stand, the virus has made us islands in the sea of humanity, curbed our instincts to reach out to those around us and severely restricted free exchange of our ideas, emotions, concerns and fears. Man is a social animal. The pandemic has reduced man to a mere animal. We neither share our joys nor sorrows with others anymore, because of ‘social distancing’. We live all alone, and we even die almost alone. And just till last year, your social standing was assessed by the number of mourners at your funeral! Having lost quite a few very intimate friends and close relatives to Covid-19, I am saddened that I could not even attend their funeral.


The next event that has changed in the world around us, or should we say that has been exaggerated many times over, is what the brilliant Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman calls generation of ‘human waste’. In his seminal work of 2003 called Wasted Lives: Modernity and Its Outcasts, Bauman has written about the production of ‘human waste’ – or more precisely, wasted lives, the ‘superfluous’ populations of migrants, refugees and other outcasts. We have been witness to the sudden and cruel reverse migration of unskilled and semi-skilled migrant labour from urban ghettos and industrial hubs to their poor hovels in the villages after a series of lockdowns. Many lost their means of livelihood, some of them forever.


Even the educated employed lost their jobs. Big industrials organizations and corporations retrenched many workers and learnt to work with fewer employees. Smaller organizations just collapsed and shut down. Many of these jobless workers have joined the ranks of ‘human waste’. I see them all around me. Some of them already existed below poverty line. Many millions living on the edge have been added to this population. While attempts are on to revive the economy, the continuation of the pandemic has not been kind to these wasted lives. In the new post- Covid modernity, people have learnt to live with less. Conspicuous consumerism has been badly mauled, and along with that the lives of many marginal people the world over.


Sociologists will continue to debate and discuss the way the world has changed after the pandemic, which is far from over. I am reminded of a story I read somewhere a long time ago. US Supreme Court Associate Justice William O. Douglas narrated this story to law students of University of Minnesota during an address. While riding in a cab in Washington D.C., Justice Douglas noticed the words, “What is past is prologue” chiseled in the front of the National Archives building. Knowing that the cab drivers in D.C. had a reputation for having an opinion on everything, he asked the cab driver what he thought those words meant. The cab driver hesitated for a second and replied, “I ain’t sure Guv’nor but I think it means we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”


We sure have a lot more coming up.

 

Author,

Lt Gen U K Sharma, AVSM (Retd)

Senior Nephrologist

Former Commandant, Army Hospital R & R


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COVID-19: The Story so far


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