by Ahmed E. Souaiaia*
March 18, 2020
It might be pure conspiracy theorism to think that some evil person or entity has engineered and intentionally released the deadly COVID-19 that literally shutdown the world. However, it is not a theory that the state we are in is due to human behavior and a result of the current system that has dominated the globe. Regardless of the origins of the socially paralyzing virus, nature has taken over forcing people to pause and then restart life based on new set of rules. The speed and spread of the recovery will ultimately depend on the lessons learned and choices collectively made. It is important, therefore, that we all think deep and hard about the new values and systems that will govern our stewardship over the planet and our relationship with one another within and without national borders.
Just like the sunrise, death came from the east, and so was rebirth. Out of the east came the news of a deadly microscopic organism that kills human beings and kills them in a cruel way. At first, everyone else thought that their artificial geopolitical borders will protect them. Some may have even thought that their expansive and expensive physical walls with which they imprisoned themselves to protect against “aliens” will keep them safe. Isolationism and geographic containment did not work. The virus, manmade or not, created its own path and selected its battle fields in a matter of weeks. Only the most isolated, and generally, impoverished, ignored, and exploited communities were outside the reach of the virus—for now. This fact is the first new value of this global test: we are one.
Despite this cold truth describing the common fate of human beings who are fated to sharing life on this planet, some governments opted to think in isolation, in terms of political sovereignty, to stop the spread of illness and death. Such a strategy failed, and the failure loudly declared the second value and ordered people of earth: collaborate.
As the microscopic deadly traveler continued its journey, rich persons and countries thought that their material wealth, socioeconomic status, and powerful militaries will protect them. Nature, now in charge of the path and target-selection of the victims of the virus, rendered economic levers useless when workers, typically herded to labor centers like robots, were ordered to stay home. Economic institutions and service and production entities, which were the backbone of the affluent societies is silently resigned to the governments’ ordered widest labor strike in history. Some governments are paying workers to stay home without any return of goods or services. Nature is shouting outload the third value: wealth is worthless, wealth is useless.
Mistaken are those who believe that this is a temporary circumstance that will pass, and life will return to normal. Deeply flawed the idea that this crisis is an opportunity, a dip in the chart, that can be exploited by those who hoard cash to make more cash. Wrong are those who believe that the crisis we are in is a glitch in the system, it is a systems failure.
The fact that some governments are more worried about economic losses and less worried about the loss of human life indicates that the current system has made augmenting wealth a primary goal. To that end, natural resources have been exploited faster than they can replenish themselves and humans have been overworked that they’ve lost purpose. We are producing for what is WANTED (not what is needed) and what is wanted is as expansive as human greed. Companies are not rewarded for meeting demand but for growth beyond need. Free market forces are not just pricing goods and services based on demand, supply, and honest competition, but market forces are also deciding who lives and who dies with dignity. We are on a path to full exhaustion.
Using material wealth to solve all kinds of social problems will be proven short sighted and reckless this time. Amassing consumer and national debt is not a solution, it is a dereliction of duty. Individuals and nations that have hoarded resources and borrowed beyond their means should not be able to pass their responsibility of fixing the debt crisis to future generations; that cycle has been arrested by COVID-19. Living large with money they don’t have is selfish. This generation of rich individuals and nations must downsize and live within their means and within the sustainable limits of the human and natural resources. Accumulating debt is not sound public policy; it is dangerously irresponsible
The price of the path to increased wealth has been degrading to human beings, destructive to the environment, corrupting to social relations, and ultimately costly to the global economy. The race by individuals and individual nations for more has led to less in health and peace, to corrupting systems in all areas of life. If these radical events do not compel us to think in terms of radical changes in our value systems, we will hasten our collapse as a species.
We are told that wealth is good because wealth is needed to build the largest tools, facilities, institutions, weapons, and armies to defeat the biggest threat. Nature is reminding us that besides our ignorance, the biggest threat to us is smaller than anything we built in anticipation of the threat. Now, as it was the case in the past, it is the smallest of beings that brings down the giants, it is the microscopic that defeats the gigantic, it is the mosquitoes that has outlived the dinosaurs that may weaponize itself with COVID-19 to render social distancing a useless measure for limiting the spread of virus.
No one human or nation may have made and unleashed COVID-19. However, collectively all humans who advocate for the current world system of claiming and allocating resources have created the conditions that enabled this and other illnesses to mutate, cross-infect, and spread in ways rarely seen before. We should all recall that wealthy Europeans, seeking more resources beyond their continent, moved en mass to the Americas. With them, they brought viruses, bacteria, plants and animals that where not native to that land. The invasion resulted in an immediate genocide that wiped out 90 percent of the indigenous human inhabitants of the western hemisphere and subjected its natural resources to radical transformation the full extent of which is still unknown. Half a millennium later, wealthy persons and nations of the world are using their wealth to disturb natural habitats, transporting animals and plants out of their native environments, abusing and exploiting animals in pursuit of their exotic tastes of foods and pets, and intruding on indigenous life in every inch of the earth. So yes, COVID-19, like its predecessors, is human-caused. If you live in North America and bought your child a pet, a wild animal, that naturally lives in the jungles of Indonesia, you are part of this disorder. If you live in China and purchased game meat involving a living animal from the jungles of Brazil, you have contributed to the degradation of natural resources. In fact, if you live in North America in winter and ordered a summer fruit that was growing in the southern hemisphere, thousands of miles from your home, you are destroying the environment. We need to be mindful of the diversity of earth’s local ecosystems, respectful of indigenous livings, and use what we need not what we want and can buy.
This challenge is re-configuring the power structures of the world. Those who believe in the power of material wealth to overcome every challenge and to acquire all other forms of power will continue to damage our shared, precious world. Those who are angling to position themselves for monopolizing future vaccines, for riding the stock market curve to extreme profit, for augmenting wealth on the bodies of the dying will make this crisis a normal occurrence. Those who wish to reduce waste, respect the environment, honor indigenous communities, and live in harmony with nature must prevail for any hope for success in reversing this unsustainable trajectory.
This is the moment for a new value system to replace one built on human greed, Darwinian competition, pathological supremacy, cruel exploitation of natural and human resources, selfish hoarding of knowledge and means, and the absolute worship of material wealth. As earth reboots and life emerges out of the east, erasing the deadly trail of a traveling tiny killer, people emerging from self-isolation and mandatory quarantines must think hard about a new path to a more sustainable future. This was a systems failure; this is the moment for a new vision and new values.
* Prof. SOUAIAIA is a member of the faculty at the University of Iowa with joint appointment in International Studies, Religious Studies, and College of Law. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest, not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he might be affiliated.