What Covid-19 is showing the world

Results of a zero-sum democracy: Trump and Bolsonaro are risking lives to score political points. When politicians are incentivised to always think about beating opponents, we will always have half the country fighting the other half. — Bloomberg/Reuters

THEY say the only true constant is change.

While we work on flattening the curve, let’s also look at staying ahead of the curve. This second curve is all about understanding how the world is changing in deep and important ways.

The Covid-19 crisis has revealed a lot about some inherent flaws and weaknesses about how we’ve done things in the past; it may also serve as a catalyst for profound change.

For today, I’ll do a brief survey of issues in politics and economics that suggest the need for significant evolution.

Covid-19 is showing how democracy as we know it is in far too many cases failing to produce the kinds of leaders the world needs.

Brazilian professor of international relations Oliver Stuenkel dubbed a group of world leaders who refuse to take Covid-19 seriously as the Ostrich Alliance. One of these leaders is right wing Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, who has gone so far as to bizarrely join antilockdown protests (giving speeches while coughing profusely) against social distancing measures put in place by regional governments.

Bolsonaro has often been compared with US President Donald Trump, whose approach to Covid-19 has been even more alarming. The latest unbearable gaffe by Trump includes ramblings about curing Covid-19 by using ultraviolet rays and disinfectants on humans. His suggestions would literally either kill you or give you cancer.

Both Trump and Bolsonaro are, by most reckonings, democratically elected leaders.

Closer to home, we’ve had to deal with ministers who suggested that warm water can cure Covid-19, who have been spraying disinfectant uselessly on roads, and who seem to think that generating crowds during ministerial visits is perfectly fine. There has also been considerable bickering about the distribution of food aid, where once again the animosity between government and opposition politicians results in delays and accusations of unfair distribution of aid.

Long story short, the oppositional and polarising nature of most democracies today seem to produce leaders and a political climate that have proven extremely unconducive to fighting Covid-19 as a united people.

The way we have built our electoral or representative democracy seems in many cases to incentivise the rise of politicians who put their self-interest above the public interest. Trump knows that a lockdown will cripple the American economy which would almost guarantee his defeat in the November elections. This obsession with his own political survival accounts for his slow and in-denial response to Covid-19, which is literally putting the lives of millions of Americans at risk.

Here too, we have politicians who seem to be thinking of their own political careers instead of the public interest. If we continue practising a zero-sum democracy, where politicians are always incentivised to think about how to score the most political points at the expense of their opponents, we will always have roughly half the country fighting the other half. This is the antithesis of the “whole of society” approach needed to effectively fight Covid-19.

This is bad enough in peacetime, but it is so, so much worse amidst a crisis. What we really need is a democracy that is founded not on fighting and competing with one another but on finding the best ways to collaborate and build consensus.

Covid-19 is also laying bare some of the more glaring problems the world is facing with income inequality.

There have been reports around the world of celebrity billionaires who have laid off staff amidst the Covid-19 crisis. They include the likes of Gordon Ramsay, Richard Branson and Victoria Beckham.What was so difficult was to reconcile the personal fortunes of these individuals with the very vulnerable economic conditions of their employees.

Imagine what having your income completely cut off just as you enter what for many could be the scariest long-term period of their lives. Some of us here don’t have to imagine it.

When people are forced to endure such life altering economic hardship, two questions are often asked: First, what did I do to deserve this indignity? Second, what did others do to deserve such unfathomable amounts of wealth and the right to unilaterally inflict this type of economic and personal suffering on me and my family?

Covid-19 has given us the opportunity firsthand to see what it is that is precious and truly necessary in this life, and who it is exactly that we rely on to ensure our most basic survival.

This question reminded me of the price differential between a diamond and a bottle of water, and the difference in its value if you were stuck in the desert.

How would we suffer if the Ramsays, Bransons or Beckhams of the world decided to isolate themselves on an island, perhaps never to return? How would we suffer if the people removing garbage from our neighbourhood suddenly all caught Covid-19 and were no longer able to work?

I am certainly not saying “eat the rich”, or asking billionaires to drive themselves to the point of destitution to help the rest of us. But their ability to simply fire as many people as they want at their whim and fancy amidst a global crisis should surely have us asking some questions about the kind of world we seem to have tacitly agreed to live in. Is this the world that we want to go back to?

Deep, systemic overhauls are almost inherently difficult to do. There are so, so many rich and powerful people with a vested interest in keeping the system exactly the way it is. If every crisis is an opportunity, however, and if the bigger the crisis, the bigger the opportunity, then now is exactly the right time to reflect on what this pandemic is showing us about how the world works.

It is also exactly the right time to start working towards a newer, better world when we emerge from this crisis.

Nathaniel Tan and friends hope to start a web series on ‘Exploring Malaysia 2.0’; details on Twitter @NatAsasi for those who are interested. He is most grateful in this world for the love of his life, Debbie – as of this weekend, wife of five amazing years.
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pandemic , democracy , politics , economy


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