As world weighs lives against economy in face of coronavirus crisis, possible scenarios for the future that awaits us

Samrat

Joining the Dots is a weekly column by author and journalist Samrat in which he connects events to ideas, often through analysis, but occasionally through satire

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The sci-fi imagination of year 2020 was of flying cars, humans colonising the moon, Mars, even Venus, teleportation, the works. As it turns out, even the terrestrial car, the type that runs on roads on land, is now mostly stationary everywhere, like the aeroplane €" and not because the oil ran out. There's a glut of oil supply, so much so that on Monday, a Bloomberg news report announced that the price for the futures contract on West Texas Intermediate crude had fallen to minus $37.63 a barrel, meaning sellers were actually paying buyers to get the stuff off their hands, because they had no more room to store it.

There were many Vision 2020 documents of all kinds over the past decades. Probably none of those visions included a world where we are all locked down in our homes and learning the virtues of doing our own bartan (dishes), jhadu (sweeping), pocha (mopping) and cooking. Truly, the visionaries were all looking in the wrong direction. Instead of imaginations of great technological and economic development, they should have been looking in the direction of "simple living, high thinking" as the vision for 2020. That too would have been incorrect, because only the simple living bit would be closer to reality, but at least it would be partly in the right direction.

The ideas of endless progress, development and economic growth had become so natural to us that we stopped thinking about what we meant by progress and development, or what it was for. We were aware of environmental costs but it became natural for all countries and societies to think that this was just an unavoidable part of the bargain. The present situation, in which it took all of two months for the whole world and most of its economy to grind to a halt, came out of the blue. As it turns out, life can and does go on without millions of people commuting to work every day, or spending 12-hour days in the workplace, mostly in the service of further growth.

This present condition of "pause" in the rush of the world will probably not last. Our world has been organised around the realities of a globalised economy. The cost of allowing it all to fall to ruin will sooner or later outweigh the risk of further spread of the coronavirus disease. Already we are seeing a gradual opening up in India, among other countries, and clashes in America between those who want an immediate opening up and those who argue that the cost in lives lost will be too high. If scientific studies indicate that the disease is less lethal than initially suspected, the argument in favour of a rapid opening up will quickly carry the day.

What kind of world will we then emerge into? Let's look at three possible scenarios. Obviously, all of these may be as incorrect as the Vision 2020 documents of the past. After all, any speculation about the future, including the next few paragraphs, is always fiction.

Scenario 1: Dystopia

The virus eventually reveals its virulence in the poorer countries which had avoided initial surges in infection as they attempt a return to normal too soon, on the basis of motivated studies that underplay the dangers. South Asia and Africa become disease hotspots. The desperation of economic ruin where people do not have food to eat clashes with the desperation of disease and lack of medical facilities. National emergencies are declared and democracy collapses. The military is called in but with increased exposure the disease spreads rapidly even in military barracks, making control difficult. Communal, ethnic and class tensions of various kinds add to the volatile mix. Crime increases. There are riots. The surveillance state is normalised everywhere.

Scenario 2: Wounded but walking

Despite an increase in numbers of COVID-19 cases, there is a gradual return to a new normal marked by work from home, and new ways of managing work and businesses with some semblance of social distancing. Some sectors of the economy, such as travel and tourism, continue to reel from the pandemic's blow, but most others gradually limp back to life after lockdowns are lifted. Agriculture and its allied businesses see growth, recovering from the initial damage due to disruption of supply chains, thus bringing relief to the rural economy. Politics continues to be divisive and driven by fake news but the hard realities of economic life and healthcare unavoidably impose themselves on the political agenda. The social fabric is tested but survives.

Scenario 3: A brand new day

The disease proves to be mild for all but a tiny fraction of the population. Medicines, and then a vaccine, are found, and rapidly produced and distributed globally through international collaborations. The world comes back to life like a parched land freshly washed by a thunderstorm as COVID-19 disappears as suddenly as it had appeared. All the pent-up demands of a year now pour into sectors like travel, tourism and hospitality as people rush out to do the things that they couldn't during the pandemic. The arrival of the future of work, like the Industrial Revolution 4.0, is hastened by the global lockdown, but the institution of office survives. Schools and universities buzz back to brick-and-mortar life with renewed vigour.

Which, if any, of these scenarios is most likely to materialise? It's hard to guess. But we do know that the matter is not entirely out of our hands. The scenario most likely to materialise will be the one we create collectively by our mindsets and actions. If we allow fear and selfishness to be our driving emotions, Scenario 1 will become more likely. Scenario 2 is the "business as usual" scenario. Scenario 3 is obviously the sunny one, which assumes that the disease is less deadly than initially feared, that we will find a vaccine, and most importantly, that we will share it.

What kind of world emerges after COVID-19 will depend on the virus, but perhaps even more, it will depend on human character, disposition and intelligence.

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