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The Corona Virus could sober up the ‘development-intoxicated’

When China put Wuhan on a lockdown, the Western world cried out in horror, especially human rights outfits and those who believe China is THE evil empire. Folks back home or rather the local equivalents of such people, associating China with the current regime, took up the chorus.  

They’ve all gone on a self-imposed ‘lockdown’. The reason: well, it’s no longer a China-thing. No longer Made-in-China or, even if that’s where it was born and bred, it’s gone out to conquer the world. Today, ‘lockdown’ is ok. It’s part of the story. Part of dealing with things. Today, the top-down rewording of the social contract in the USA and Europe is not protested. 

The world has always known hypocrisy and humbuggery, so double standards is par for the course. This is not the moment to dwell on all that. This is a moment where ignorance and fear drive people to panic and ignorance and complacency make for rank stupidity. Both increase risk for one and all. 

Pandemics like terrorism are of a global order in a globalized world. The globalized nature demands a global response. However, in a world that is still made of nation states, the response has been and is likely to remain national in the main, especially given the prevalent paranoia what will flight-cancellations, shutting down of borders and stringent quarantine measures. 

There is of course a race to find a vaccination and claims are being made of imminent breakthroughs. The world however is slanted and medicine is an industry. Profits have bested humanity, individuality has triumphed over community, acquisition over sharing. We are yet to rise above all such impediments. Good if it happens, but it is better to err on the side of caution. 

This brings us to the ‘nation’. Sri Lanka is an island and yet, it can be argued that metaphorically we are not one and indeed that we’ve never been one. However, even though trade has been a part of our national story, it never really knocked out for good (or bad!) self-sufficiency or at least the arguments for it. 

At some point in such situations things quickly collapse to ‘essentials’. Food and medicine. This is why we’ve witnessed panic buying. We had such bursts during the war against terrorism. We saw it during the UNP-JVP bheeshanaya. The every-man-for-himself perception quick takes root until it is uprooted by the superior logic, ‘we live or die together.’ Indeed, the sooner we get there, the better, one might argue. 

The situation obviously can have a serious impact on the economy. Now there are dubious criteria agreed upon or forced down the metaphorical throats of countries such as ours or else grabbed greedily and swallowed by those drawn to the allure of rhetorical-sweetness and lacking the analytical tools to see the fallacy of the claims. Growth, for example. Levels of trade, for example. Pandemics tend to make a mockery of such things. The non-essentials lose their luster. People slowly realize that ‘show’ is nothing and that it is folly to strive for lifestyles that inspire awe or envy on the part of the gazer. 

This is good.

It can continue to be good only if we get serious about sustainable livelihoods simply because if we don’t have enough to eat we die, even if we’ve shed much if not all of the frills that feed ego or are used as part of the paraphernalia considered ‘essential’ to ‘rise’ above the crowd or rather put down much of ‘the crowd.’ 

In the heady ride to achieving the status of an upper middle income economy, we abandoned many things. We believed if we had money that could purchase whatever we wanted, that would be enough. Now, in a situation where much of the whatever-we-wanted is becoming fast unavailable and facing a threat of a sharp decline in real incomes, we are forced to think differently. 

Think differently. Consume differently.  And of course start thinking of alternative ways of being. Beginning at home. 

Just consider a lovely and expensive apartment in Colombo. Now think of a humble homestead in Galgamuwa, even in one of the driest pockets of the Dry Zone, for example Palugama, a village situated a kilometer or so away from the Anuradhapura Road. Think of supermarkets stripped to bare shelves and unable to fill them again. Ok, so this family in this apartment had hoarded whatever they could. There are limits to refrigerator space. There are limits to the quantity of dry rations one can fill all available floor space with. And the gas could run out too.  

Now, there are terrible days in terms of declining economy and drought. Though times for folks in places like Palugama. The villagers did not starve. They found ways of feeding families. Maybe it’s ingrained in our cultural DNA, but even in dense urban areas people grow something. There’s always enough space to have a few chillie plants or have a spinach vine. In the suburbs it’s obviously better.  All of a sudden ‘rural’ at least in the popular imagination of that term seems idyllic.  

Rural, however, has more ‘collective’ DNA than ‘urban’ when it comes to basics of survival. Sure, there are clubs, gatherings and circles in the city — they are not about basic survival but about cultural relevance for the most part. Now we can’t tear down our cities. People who can may re-migrate to villages. Not everyone can. 

We don’t when this thing will peak. We don’t know if this is going to be the last pandemic of our lives. We don’t know if the dark prophesies will come true. We don’t know whether, as a species, we will prove equal to the threat. 

We are not crystal gazers. 

We are human. We have histories. We have historical memory. We can learn from errors. We can dial down arrogance. We can rediscover humility. We might even stumble upon a thing called solidarity. 

‘It looks like there’s Corona even in petrol,’ a middle aged man having a cup of tea outside a small boutique in Wellawatte observed with a wry smile, a couple of days ago. Another added, ‘now people will think about growing something, anything.’ The first man had more to say: ‘It all started with J.R. [Jayewardene], but today I saw a post of FB about planting manioc.’ 

It was all in Sinhala. 

There’s a strain of nationalism that can prove vital at times such as this. In such times we become more aware of our surroundings. We stop, step back and reassess the things we’ve attached value to and rediscover the discarded. We rue. We are forced to find solutions at all levels, household, village, nation and beyond. 

Suddenly there is concern about deforestation. Suddenly the glitter of high rises and bustling cities don’t seem as sexy as they did before the Corona Virus came a-visiting. Suddenly we notice a neighbor. We rediscover the worth of the well. 

National boundaries did not contain the Corona Virus. They are not impervious to terrorism. They are, however, dealt with by nations, peoples and collectives. Those who are determined to fight will notice resources abandoned or laughed at before. They will see errors that were once celebrated as elements of progress. They will acquire a gaze capable of piercing a lie, discovering the hollowness of argument and the wisdom to think differently will gradually ascend. That which was called rational simply by ignoring key elements and discarding things which resist quantification or categorization will be questioned. Things like growth, progress and development will be reexamined. 

Edifices on weak foundations collapse. And where foundations have remained intact, new buildings will be constructed. Knowledge systems abandoned because someone insisted it’s a lie or that it’s not fancy enough will reassert relevance. And then, slowly perhaps, the world will get another chance at healing. 

We can do this. Together. 

This article was first published in the SUNDAY OBSERVER [March 15, 2020], but was carelessly and indeed erroneously titled ‘Corona Virus: Breakthrough Imminent.’ That was NOT something I claimed in the article. 

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