Putting Humpty Dumpty back together again

Gestures of mutual help across borders and expressions of empathy within borders are already showing that the human spirit can rise above its selfish instincts.
Sunday 05/04/2020
The deserted beach of La Marsa in Tunisia as the country enters a third week of lockdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus disease, April 1. (Reuters)
Different vistas. The deserted beach of La Marsa in Tunisia as the country enters a third week of lockdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus disease, April 1. (Reuters)

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to challenge the existing systems, many wonder how the world will or should look like after the current unprecedented crisis.

Putting Humpty Dumpty back together again will not, however, be easy or even advisable, considering that in the pre-coronavirus days, Humpty Dumpty was not in such a great shape to start with.

As evidenced by many of the shortcomings faced by humanity today, the old order’s priorities have been often out of sync with the pressing needs fleshed out by the current pandemic. A priority reset is probably in order.

While we spend most of our waking hours coping with our helplessness, we realise that for all its vaunted progress, scientific and technological advancement, humanity is still lagging behind where it counts the most.

For all their nuclear warheads, ballistic missiles, satellites, drones and stealth planes, developed nations of the world are at a loss trying to find a new pharmaceutical molecule that stops an invisible virus in its tracks.

Many today, not just the ecologically inclined, are wondering if we have been prudently taking care of our planet and its people. Others are questioning the whole socioeconomic model where healthcare and scientific and technological research were not as prioritised as economic profit or military superiority.

Desperation is leading governments to explore all available options to find a way out. In doing so, they are moving beyond red lines. When enlisting the help of Big Tech companies to track the movement of individuals through phone-location data and when armies are called into action in a medical emergency, you know you have entered uncharted waters.

But the emergency roads taken so far are not indicative of the ways of tomorrow. When governments are given broad mandates, nobody is really saying neo-authoritarian policies are here to stay.

Emergency powers will be eventually reversed. Governments will be at the driver’s seat but they are likely to be humbled, fatigued and scarred for life.  There is not going to be a licence for bullies and know-it-all autocrats.

Governments will be ultimately held to account on their ability to manage the crisis and to keep their citizens alive. It is in fact governments, not the NGOs, the professionals or the scientists, which will be sorely tested by the crisis. Political leaders everywhere know that.

In the Arab world, the pandemic has demonstrated more than ever the need for a self-sustaining effort in scientific, technological and medical development and research. The region has an adequate pool of competent men and women to do just that, if given enough resources and consideration. Many of its bright young people, including promising young medical doctors, have chosen the path of emigration driven more by lack of appreciation and professional prospects than by material motives. The Arab world cannot just continue coat-tailing the breakthroughs of the advanced world, which will be consumed for a while by its own concerns and shortcomings.

The need for self-sufficiency in food and agriculture also looms large in future priorities of the Arab world. So does the necessity of better inter-Arab cooperation in times of crises. But the isolationist reactions betrayed by Europe have shown that the Arab region’s shortcomings have not been the worst.

As the poor and the unemployed have a hard time making ends meet, the health crisis is likely to provoke more social turbulence in its wake. Popular uprisings since 2011 have already rung the alarm. Regimes may have been toppled, new elites empowered but lives rarely improved for the common man of the street. Current hardships are barely a reminder.

Whenever the pandemic is brought under control, people will be once again seeking to re-negotiate the social contract binding them to the state.

There are likely to be even more strident calls for a different model of society that better ensures the wellbeing of all and spares them need and disease.  The clamouring will unfortunately come at a time of mostly empty coffers and strife-ravaged systems that are unlikely to be able to deliver.  For the region’s neighbours north of the Mediterranean, there is reason to worry that the previous waves of illegal migration and extremist threats could pale compared with whatever new mutations that the post-coronavirus days would bring.

In the weeks and months ahead, developments will demonstrate whether human solidarity can rise above the reflexes of selfishness and barbarity or if it will turn into a Mad Max kind of movie. As in William Golding’s 1954 novel “Lord of the Flies,” even innocent children can fall into a state of savagery.

But gestures of mutual help across borders and expressions of empathy within borders are already showing that the human spirit can rise above its selfish instincts even in times of existential challenges.

Global solidarity will be key to salvation. But it will have to be true global solidarity, one that will help the region pull itself out of its current predicaments by its own bootstraps and not the pious narratives or the made-for-the UN kind of speeches.

As the world rediscovers itself and its basic realities, we stand to rediscover ourselves, too. Social distancing will push us to further look at ourselves and those we love in a different light.

If and when we wake up from the current nightmare, we could be well inspired to imagine other ways to live our lives.