MySay: Will coronavirus bring crucial epiphanies to redeem the human species?

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on June 29, 2020 - July 05, 2020.
MySay: Will coronavirus bring crucial epiphanies to redeem the human species?
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What makes the Covid-19 pandemic so very different from other present-day crises that we read about is that, not only does it affect every human being on Earth, it affects them in a painfully immediate and an exasperatingly tenacious fashion.

This is a problem none of us can buy ourselves out of, talk ourselves out of or, least of all, travel ourselves away from. Most disasters are events we read about, happening somewhere else and geographically contained. We may feel sad and sympathise with the victims; we may even donate part of our savings to help out. And then we move on. 

And then there are the pandemics. These have to be considered apart from the rest. We have in recent times had SARS, MERS and Ebola — each extremely dangerous, no doubt. But they have been contained. AIDS is, of course, the scary one, having killed 32 million people since it was first identified in the early 1980s.

While these diseases forced changes in behaviour somewhat, they did not affect the world’s economy as a whole. The closest we had come to it before 2020 was when SARS affected economies in East and Southeast Asia, from China to Hong Kong, to Taipei, Vietnam, Singapore and the Philippines (counting places that had more than 10 cases), and stretched across the Pacific to Canada and the US.

That time, the viral pandemic was contained. The total number of deaths did not go beyond 811 (for the period of Nov 1, 2002, to July 31, 2003). Most of them were in China (349), Hong Kong (299), Taiwan (73), Canada (44) and Singapore (33). Vietnam suffered five deaths and the US had none.

But the fact that the disease spread to penetrate both sides of the Pacific Ocean was a harbinger of worse things to come. Covid-19 is definitely one of these worse things. It spares no region.

Globalisation of diseases

Being highly infectious, and quite deadly for those with medical preconditions and who are aged, like the black plague of past centuries, this present pandemic has easily crept (“blown” may be the better word) into all offices, care centres, prisons and bedrooms.

It is like a bad itch that will not go away. Unlike a normal itch, however, this one can kill you, and pass from you to kill others closest to you. The only way to scratch this itch has been to lock ourselves away in the artificial caves we call home. But the danger continues to lurk outside.

Quite the nightmare scenario. When film studios can work again, we can expect films describing horrors to flood the market (at least the online market). Manuscripts on the subject are definitely being written as we speak. Being locked indoors for weeks on end is bound to have nudged many to become authors capitalising on the palpable present.

This is the stuff of stories grandparents will be telling their disbelieving grandchildren in the future.

Today, as I write this in the safety of Penang, an idyllic tropical island where one can easily forget the worries of the world, which has had but one death from Covid-19 so far and where the national lockdown is furthermore being gradually eased, the pandemic is reaching new heights across the globe.

We know that the virus can easily return to hit us hard. In any case, we will have to retreat in regulated haste to our caves again, and maybe again and again.

New normal needs new ethics

This frames the new normal everyone is talking about. How do we construct an economy that can handle this start-and-stop process? Digitalisation appears no longer a luxury but an urgent necessity.

Apart from that, hope still lies in an effective vaccine, especially now when medical researchers fear that recovered patients may not actually have gained immunity to the virus. This is shocking, to say the least. In the absence of a vaccine, this magic potion, common survival will require us to work together. Being divided as a society merely allows the virus to wreak more havoc.

Such an impactful pandemic reveals all the flaws in the global system that we have created over the years. Our disregard for Mother Nature, for the extraordinary inequality so-called development generates, for the wars in regions where states face collapse, and for the sufferings of people whose skin colour is unlike our own — all this must now be faced.

The itch is not on our skin, it is in our lungs, and we have to decontaminate our heads and our hearts of whatever has been pathologically dividing us, if we are to avoid losing our ability to breathe and to thrive as a species.


Datuk Dr Ooi Kee Beng is the executive director of Penang Institute. His latest book, just fresh off the press, is As Empires Fell: The Life and Times of Lee Hau-Shik, the First Finance Minister of Malaya (ISEAS Publishing, 2020).

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