And do not worry that life is turning upside down. How do you know that the side you are used to is better than the one to come?”
Persian poet Jalaleddin Mohamed Al-Rumi
It was the hour before a curfew was imposed in Cairo on the last day of the Eid Al-Fitr, following the holy month of Ramadan in May. We were in the Giza district of Mohandessin on our way home after a short vacation on the North Coast. There was a gloomy atmosphere of silence and darkness in the streets. The shop windows that usually draw crowds of shoppers at this time of the year were bathed in darkness, with only a few people gazing into them like ghosts.
The Nile Corniche in Zamalek, which normally hosts large crowds, was a no-man’s land, with felucca boats parked on one side and the moonlight reflecting on the silent water. A Persian Sufi proverb came into my mind telling me that “this too shall pass.”
Life has indeed been turned upside down since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic at the beginning of this year, with the virus by now having claimed millions of lives around the world. Life has almost literally come to a sudden halt in such an unexpected way that some have even questioned whether Mother Nature herself has brought such havoc.
“The world has been so unfair, and people have been so indifferent to other people’s suffering,” a physician friend told me.
But will this unfair world change after the epidemic has passed? Will it teach us lessons that can help us to live in a better, or at least less indifferent, world? Many commentators around the world have been trying to find answers to such questions.
The quarantines intended to halt the spread of the virus are over in many countries, but the virus itself has not gone. Nevertheless, people are perhaps now adapting to a “new normal” life. But has anything really changed in personal and global relations? Will governments now adopt new policies, particularly regarding the new economic realities? Will wars, terrorism, and Islamophobia ever stop?
The questions remain open, and commentators have been answering them in different ways. The only thing that we know for sure is that the pandemic has taken its toll on the global economy in a major way, and millions of jobs have been lost.
Since the outbreak began, some analysts have been predicting changes in the global order, including a new world order led by China, the decline of the United States, a rise in nationalism, and/or changes of regimes in countries depending on their handling of the crisis. Sceptics, however, still say that nothing will really change despite the ravages wrought by the pandemic, since so little has so far changed on the political scene.
Yet, the pandemic has impacted people personally and this is where its impact has been felt the most. Life under quarantine has perhaps changed people’s perceptions of life, personal relations, decisions and priorities. But again, it remains unknown which if any of these changes will be permanent.
“Any glance at history reveals that crises and disasters have continually set the stage for change, often for the better,” the UK journalist Peter C Baker wrote in an article entitled We Can’t Go Back to Normal: Life After Coronavirus that appeared in the London Guardian newspaper. “The global flu epidemic of 1918 helped create national health services in many European countries. The twinned crises of the Great Depression and World War II set the stage for the modern welfare state,” he wrote.
At the same time, in his book Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present, Frank M Snowden, a professor emeritus of history and the history of medicine at Yale University in the US, shows how disease outbreaks “have altered the societies they have spread through, affecting personal relationships, the work of artists and intellectuals, and the man-made and natural environments.”
“Epidemics are a category of disease that seems to hold up the mirror to human beings as to who we really are,” Snowden told the US magazine the New Yorker in an interview following the outbreak of the Covid-19 epidemic. “They show the moral relationships that we have toward each other as people, and we’re seeing that today,” he added.
One main lesson that Snowden found important was that “we need to realise that we’re all in this together, that what affects one person anywhere affects everyone everywhere, that we are therefore inevitably part of a species, and we need to think in that way rather than about divisions of race and ethnicity, economic status, and all the rest of it.”
But how far have such changes come about as a result of the pandemic?
THE WORLD ORDER
Although the Covid-19 coronavirus has not proved as catastrophic as the 14th-century plague in Europe or the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic that wreaked havoc in much of the world, the global lockdown that has taken place across entire countries as a result has opened up a Pandora’s Box of questions about how social and economic systems operate and how much change is now needed.
It has also opened up a debate about issues of social equality: although the disease hit the rich and poor indiscriminately, the less privileged suffered the worst in most cases since they had less access to healthcare services, the facilities needed for personal hygiene, and were the most affected by the global loss of jobs. But how far governments have responded to the pandemic and how their response might reshape the world remains an issue of debate.
US academic Adam Tooze writing in the US magazine Foreign Policy said that the pandemic “has exposed the weaknesses of the United States, the European Union, and China”.
For Daniel W Drezner, a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in the US, “what stands out over the past months has been that no great power has done this well at all.”
Ahmed Mahdi, a professor of political science at the British University in Egypt who is also a member of think tanks the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs and Chatham House in London, agrees.
“The obvious answer to this,” Mahdi explained, “is the defeat of Donald Trump in the 2020 US presidential elections was due to his mismanagement of the Covid-19 crisis, which led to the deaths of almost a quarter of a million Americans in 2020, and his preference for conspiracy theories over real science.”
“There are still governments that refuse to apply a shutdown and/or enforce health precautions despite the resurgence of Covid-19 in the autumn of 2020,” Mahdi told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Has there, however, been a change in the distribution of world power?
Drezner asked the same question in a recent survey and his conclusion was that “a full 54 per cent of scholars said the distribution of power would not fundamentally change” as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. “However, 31.7 per cent of respondents thought it would change,” he concluded.
US public figure Richard Haass, president of the country’s Council on Foreign Relations and the author of The World: A Brief Introduction, is among those who predict that “the world following the pandemic is unlikely to be radically different from the one that preceded it.”
“Covid-19 will not so much change the basic direction of world history as accelerate it,” Haass wrote in Foreign Affairs, insisting that “not every crisis is a turning point.”
“The pandemic and the response to it have revealed and reinforced the fundamental characteristics of geopolitics today,” Haass explained. “As a result, this crisis promises to be less of a turning point than a way station along the road that the world has been traveling for the past few decades.”
Mahdi agrees. “The principles of power politics and the zero-sum struggle between states have not changed, neither has the exploitation of the rich countries of the poor weaker countries,” he told the Weekly.
“Covid-19 did lead to an economic recession in great powers such as the United States, the European Union, Russia and China,” Mahdi said. “However, Covid-19, alone, will not lead to the decline of the United States.”
“The relative decline of the United States vis-à-vis China already started decades ago, but it will not mean the demise of the United States. The other great powers will get closer to the United States in terms of power,” Mahdi said. “But the United States will remain the number one military and economic power. The 20th century was an American century, and I expect that the 21st century, too, will be an American century, because thus far I do not see any major event that will lead to the demise of the United States,”
“Covid-19 is not enough for this to happen,” he added. Drezner’s survey similarly concludes that “the overall scholarly consensus on the coronavirus’ effects is rather strong.”
“The United States is not leading on this crisis, at a cost to the nation’s reputation,” it said. “Cooperation on the pandemic has been worse than what it was in 2008, and yet there is a bigger problem on the horizon where cooperation is even more dysfunctional. The world will get more protectionist. But in the end, the distribution of power is not likely to change much.”
Could governments adopt new policies more geared toward social equality and healthcare for all? Mahdi said that “if a government is rational and has a long-term vision, it should adopt better policies that would give priority to healthcare, social equality, and the combat against discrimination.
“But there have been past crises in human history in which governments did not show real learning from the lessons of the crisis,” Mahdi went on. “For example, following the Great Recession that occurred in the United States in 2008 and 2009, the US government did not take any real precautions to prevent such an economic crisis from happening again.”
“Let us hope that the health and lives of people will be taken more seriously this time round,” he said.
ARMED CONFLICTS, TERROR, MINORITIES
The coronavirus crisis does not seem to have made much difference to the world’s battling powers, however.
The UN’s repeated calls “to put armed conflict on lockdown” during the crisis, since “there should be only one fight in our world today: our shared battle against Covid-19,” seem to have fallen on deaf ears. The pandemic has failed to stop political battles and armed conflicts in many parts of the world, notably Libya, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, despite government measures to curb the spread of the pandemic in those areas.
Despite the UN’s ceasefire calls in the wake of the pandemic, armed conflicts have instead “forced more than 660,000 people round the world to flee their homes between March 23 and May 15, leaving people more exposed to Covid-19,” according to the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), a Norwegian NGO.
“At a time when health experts tell us to stay at home, men with guns are forcing hundreds of thousands out of their homes and into extreme vulnerability,” said NRC Secretary-General Jan Egeland. “This not only hurts those who are forced to flee; it seriously undermines our joint efforts to combat the virus.”
Refugees are exposed to higher risks of contracting the virus, which can be more deadly in the absence of proper healthcare. The UN warns that “many of the world’s 79.5 million displaced individuals — one per cent of humanity — lack access to clean water or soap, let alone healthcare.” Most refugees live in crowded camps with little chance for social distancing, and a whole family may have to share a single mask in the absence of resources.
Even those who are not living in tents are among the world’s most economically vulnerable. They have often been the first to lose their jobs, since they mostly work in the informal sector, which has been hit hard by the pandemic.
The Arab region is particularly vulnerable, and the UN has repeatedly warned that “in addition to the rising death toll and extremely heavy burden on healthcare systems, the Arab region is already suffering from the alarming loss of jobs due to Covid-19.”
The UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), whose membership comprises 18 Arab states, has predicted that more than 1.7 million jobs could be lost this year. “An additional 8.3 million people are at risk of falling into poverty in the Arab region, which could increase the number of undernourished people by about two million. 101.4 million people in the region are already classified as poor, and 52 million are undernourished,” it said.
This economic adversity, social scientists warn, could be a main reason that may give rise to terror threats during the pandemic. In an article entitled How the Coronavirus Increases Terrorism Threats in the Developing World, political scientists Nisha Bellinger and Kyle Kattelma argue that “across the developing world, the coronavirus is magnifying existing societal problems, worsening food and financial shortages that give rise to terrorist violence,” for example.
They state examples of how terrorist organisations such as Boko Haram, an organisation dedicated to the creation of an Islamic state in Nigeria, has been using the pandemic’s economic plight to actively “recruit unemployed young adults from families who live in poverty without sufficient food”.
Mahdi insists that Covid-19 will not end the hazards of armed conflicts, terrorism, and Islamophobia worldwide. “The power struggles, exploitation, and racism will not change,” he said. “They did not change after the Spanish Flu, and there is no reason to expect them to change now.”
Women have been among those most affected by the Covid-19 employment crisis and the quarantines imposed to curb the spread of the disease.
According to Lise Kingo, CEO and executive director at the UN Global Compact, “women were among the first to lose out during the economic shock of Covid-19.”
“When nations across the world implemented stay-at-home measures, the challenges faced by marginalised women became even more hidden away,” Kingo wrote in an article entitled After Covid-19? “Women continue to be shouldered with extra domestic burdens, often as informal caregivers at the frontline of infection,” she said.
Women also suffered increased risks of domestic violence during the quarantines, partly due to economic difficulties and partly owing to their being confined to the home. The UN has warned that cases of violence against women by their intimate partners have increased by 20 per cent during the pandemic lockdowns, and it has even labeled domestic abuse as “a shadow pandemic” alongside Covid-19.
In the meantime, the UN umbrella organisation for women’s issues UN Women has warned that “sexual harassment and other forms of violence against women have continued to occur on streets, in public spaces and online.”
“In some countries, resources and efforts have been diverted from violence against women response to immediate Covid-19 relief;” it said.
Activists have warned that the illegal practice of female genital mutilation (FGM), which involves the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia for non-medical reasons, has seen a spike under the coronavirus lockdowns and the halt of anti-FGM efforts.
A recent report by the UN Population and Children’s Funds UNFPA and UNICEF speculates that “there could be two million FGM cases over the next decade that could otherwise have been averted” due to “the disruptions caused by Covid-19,” since “the efforts of many prevention programmes have had to be halted.”
“If gender equality was but a distant vision before the pandemic, the plight of the world’s poor women can no longer be ignored,” Kingo said.
Children are equally at risk and also need immediate care. A UNICEF survey released to mark World Children’s Day warned that “almost all families stated that their children were negatively impacted by the pandemic.”
“Restrictions on movement and the closure of schools had a severe impact on children’s daily routines, their social interactions, and ultimately on their mental well-being,” said Ted Chaiban, UNICEF regional director for the Middle East and North Africa. “The longer the pandemic goes on, the deeper the impact on children will be.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly