The COVID-19 pandemic will change the way to live and work once the crisis has passed. Most importantly it will make us question our modes of consumption and question the market forces that drive peoples choices. But as the author points out, the choice is a class issue, for the millions’, there is no choice, living on the margins of existence. It compels us to look at the post corona world as a better world to live in.
A predictable pandemic for which the world was unprepared
While governments have their hands full trying to sanitize villages, organise protective gear and hospital beds, it might give those of us under the lockdown time to ponder the future of the world after such an unprecedented event. Even developed nations have been caught unprepared despite early warnings from SARS, H1N1 and EBOLA, not to mention the earlier bubonic plague and Spanish flu.
COVID-19’s initial spread, not along the fault lines of poverty but quite the opposite, has finally made some people sit up. The fact that the WHO has labelled Cholera ‘The Forgotten Pandemic’—claiming that we are still in the midst of its 7th wave that started in 1961 and continues to claim up to 143,000 human lives every year—should give us enough indication that we have always considered epidemics as something to be recovered from, rather than opportunities for reflection and transformation.
Will the world stop each time a pandemic hits?
The realization that pandemics are here to stay, is slowly sinking in. If all other exigencies had to be put off until the pandemic was dealt with, what of subsequent strains of the virus, a resurgence of infection in those who have recovered, and expected seasonality of this or some other flu? Would the world stop every time an epidemic hit us?
In all probability, we may see the COVID infection in circulation for a couple of years across the globe until a vaccine is developed and administered to everyone. With the graph of the market’s plunge a mirror image to the curve of rising deaths, economists such as Mariana Mazzucato are pointing to essential flaws in a capitalist society.
Capitalism across the globe is facing a triple crisis: one created by the pandemic amidst pre-existing global financial instability, against the backdrop of a massive climate crisis.
With the business-as-usual perspective of governments responding to the trigger rather than the vulnerability of the problem, large stimulus packages are being cobbled together towards failing economies and to keep the engine of capitalism running. The world will soon be flooded with undirected liquidity that will, in a repeat of the 2008 financial crisis, get ill-spent if one does not channel this through a vision for a world after COVID-19.
Unintended benefits of the lockdown
The pandemic has at least confronted one of the problems head-on. It has shown within weeks how the environment can be healed. Indian cities breathed clean air after decades with an AQI matching that of Iceland during days following rain showers amidst the lockdown.
The rivers are flowing free from the industrial froth and thousands of Olive Ridley turtles, after a gap of seven years, are day-time nesting on the beaches of Odisha. Are we willing to relinquish the luxury of clean air for the luxury of malls and cinemas now that we have experienced it? Can we afford to lose this valuable insight in a scramble to restore our economies when one is sure that the impending climate crisis will make this pandemic look like a cakewalk in years to come?
It may be unrealistic to imagine that we can keep mining activity and industry closed forever, but can there at least be a re-evaluation of our lifestyles now that a consumptive cycle has been broken by the lockdown? In light of the pandemic, international travel for tourism and work, migration of labour from villages to cities, and daily travel to work need to be reimagined. For instance, can we do away with international travel for work? Can we imagine creating better workflows within professions and businesses to pre-empt and minimise travel?
Work-from-Home, Telemedicine, Virtual Events and Remote Learning are already new buzzwords that are making more and more sense today than ever before. Driving and Aviation contribute to 72% and 11% of all travel-related carbon emissions. If we can even cut this by half, we would have reduced a whopping 10% of all global emissions.
By growing locally, buying locally, and acting locally we can further reduce emissions from freight by rail and water. This means altering food habits to eat fresh, eat out less, and managing household and neighbourhood waste locally. This is not new information but an opportunity that presents itself now, and that must be seized, rethink legislation vis-à-vis climate change and “intermittent” lockdowns.
The idea of Social Distancing across the 1st, 2nd or 12th wave of the pandemic will get moulded by and within cultures in unique ways. With it will come a review of societal and cultural habits by people themselves.
Dr Anthony Fauci, the US physician and immunologist, has gone on record recently saying, “we may never shake hands again”, something Indians had done traditionally till western habits became popular.
At an institutional level, there must also be a review of national standards: of the capacity of vehicles and buildings, of the width of stairways, footpaths, classrooms, of air-conditioning and ventilation systems etc.
But also, the reassessment of certain types of buildings that put people in perilous proximity: cinema halls, stadia and religious congregation halls. The tracking of infection emanating from a stadium of 50,000 spectators, for example, will be an absolute nightmare.
Livelihoods most affected
One will see a drastic reduction in the construction industry. As has been seen on previous occasions of economic slowdowns, governments and corporations direct resources towards more ‘urgent’ needs and private individuals put off plans for the construction of that second home.
Migrant labour supporting the construction industry—faced with bleaker possibilities of finding work in cities compounded by the inconvenience of intermittent lockdowns —may return to agriculture and food production.
Governments must focus to revitalise the agricultural sector which will not only aid the problem of migration to cities but will guide food production towards a new culture of eating fresh. Entrepreneurial activity in this sector could follow trends of eating healthy with plant-based options to replace grain, plant-based meat substitutes, or functional foods that help bolster the immune system such as fibre-rich inulin flour from Chicory root or probiotics from Spirulina.
The ILO’s COVID monitor describes the present times as the “most severe crisis since the Second World War” with employment losses rising rapidly throughout the world. However, in India “with a share of almost 90% of people working in the informal economy, about 400 million workers in the informal economy are at risk of falling deeper into poverty during the crisis.
Besides various stimuli packages, PM-KISAN payments, MGNREGS wage increments, etc. work must be generated for our people. The psychological impact of not being productive could be as serious for our youth as starvation. An article by the American journal The Atlantic directs great concern towards the Millennials, those reaching adulthood in the early 21st century, who have witnessed a once-in-a-lifetime downturn for the second time in their lives (the first one in 2007–2009 that India remained more or less insulated against).
At a time when they have massive education and other debts, they have low paying jobs or no work with no chance of having the kind of security that their parents or grandparents had. The same is true for the youth of this country, who may live hand to mouth for much of their productive years.
Capitalism, the economy of “ unpaid costs” of labour
It seems that the pandemic might be the last straw for Capitalism. More than 60% of the world’s population that is working in some sort of impoverished informal sector will have faced the loss of job security, while 50% of the world’s wealth continues to be held by 42 billionaires. In India, the top 10% of Indians hold 77% of the nation’s wealth.
As per a report by OXFAM International, India has been producing 70 new millionaires every day since 2018. With the knowledge that without basic needs, shelter, and healthcare made available to everyone, the country may not survive the next pandemic attack, it is time for the top 10% to support philanthropic initiatives in their own larger interest. As the environmental economist, K. William Kapp said, “capitalism must be regarded as an economy of unpaid costs”. Such unpaid costs are the exploitation of workers labour-power, the depletion of natural resources, and the degradation of the environment. It is perhaps time for those of us who have enjoyed the benefits of ‘surplus’ value to give back.
The city and housing
Even today, urban designers and planners will still vote for a well-designed city built around public transport arteries and equitably distributed healthcare facilities as the solution to turn to, post epidemic. Unfortunately, much of what aids this idea of a city in a developing country are throngs of migrant labour and contract workers who reside in slums and squatter settlements.
The idea of the virus ripping through the JJ colonies of Delhi or the slums of Dharavi is overwhelming. People, who have so far remained peripheral to the imagination of the city, must now be given due attention. Informal and semi-informal settlements may not feature in the designs of ‘world-class’ cities, but the truth is that out of the total population in the NCT of Delhi, about three-fourths are living in sub-standard housing.
Lack of basic amenities like sanitation, water supply and garbage and solid waste disposal compound overcrowded and ill-ventilated dwellings. Speaking about the COVID-19 pandemic, Edward Snowden recently said, “There is nothing more foreseeable as a public health crisis in a world where we are just living on top of each other in crowded and polluted cities, than a pandemic. And every academic, every researcher who’s looked at this knew this was coming.”
Part of the reason for such settlements within cities is the unaffordable cost of real estate within the city and the universal tendency of the government and private developers alike to monetize land parcels in the heart of the city. The squatter settlements, JJ colonies and resettlement colonies find space in the outskirts of cities from where people spend up to 50% of their earnings on public transportation.
If the current pandemic has taught us anything, it is that no one is safe until the last one of us is safe.
We cannot afford to create city models that endanger the lives and livelihoods of the majority of our people. Cities must be reimagined with well-designed social housing in the heart of the city alongside public transit corridors on rental or lease models.
The exodus from the city to country
Cities have always been thought of as one of the ways by which the rural poor can lift themselves out of poverty. The exodus of people from Delhi to their villages has proved the contrary. They may find the stability of regular earnings in the city. However, if that stability is disrupted, then it is only their rural habitats that can provide them with true security.
This must be investigated and remedied if cities need to continue to be generators of wealth and security for everyone. Our defence budget of 4.1 Trillion Rupees against the external threat of invasion must be redistributed to first combat an internal structural implosion of societies during times of crises. India, one of the largest spenders on defence, has been amassing missiles and armaments when clearly, as this pandemic has shown, the next war will not be fought with traditional firepower.
The willful surrender of civil liberty
In the past, pandemics have brought great political shifts and economic upheavals in their wake that demarcated entire historical eras. This has usually spelt greater power and control for the State as notions of economic and medical security were inextricably linked to industrialization and urbanization—activities that could not be undertaken without the State’s patronage.
During each of the previous pandemics, governments grew stronger as steps are taken to curb the disease permitted them a culture of authority that could neither be resisted during the crisis nor rescinded after it had passed. This strength of resolve and authority will be needed from all governments going forward to combat the virus but to also lay the foundations for a new world that will have to face other such pandemics in years to come. Like in times of war the first thing to take a hit are people’s civil liberties. Like in times of war, we are heading into the unknown. It must be expected that freedom of speech and the press would be taken away despite constitutional provisions.
Tracking the infection (and us) through mobile applications, drone surveillance as well as monitoring of hotspots, are issues that would have riled the most naive of us during times of peace. Unfortunately, these are not times of peace and most of us will wilfully surrender such liberties at present. However, no assurances by governments that the data collected will not be shared by corporations or used for any other purpose, can be taken at face value. We must safeguard our liberties as much as possible and hope that our elected leaders have been chosen well by the citizenry to protect the rights of the people of this country.
Let us not assume for a moment that the end is anywhere in sight or that the epicentre which has moved from China to Europe to the US will not move to other locations such as countries in South America, Africa or Asia that may not be able to afford an extended lockdown. It may be too early to expect the world will rearrange itself on the deaths of a few million people. But it is too late to imagine that the world will be left intact by this pandemic. It is time for each of us to reflect on the choices we have made so far and the choices that will be put to us in the near future.
In our personal and professional lives, profound changes are imminent. We may have a small chance of directing our paths if we are alert and aware. We must not merely recover from this crisis. We must evolve from it.
Sudipto Ghosh is a practising architect based in New Delhi. He also teaches a workshop called ‘City Futures’ to students of the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi’s Master of Urban Design program.