Banking on a miracle – Mosharraf Zaidi

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The writer is an analyst and commentator.

“The latest infection cluster has raised awareness that, even during the stabilisation phase, similar situations can arise again anytime, anywhere, in an enclosed, crowded space. It’s not over until it’s over”.

Thus spoke President Moon Jae-in, the leader of South Korea – one of the nations most frequently cited as a model case for how to tackle Covid-19. The source of his comments? Another coronavirus outbreak, this time traced back to bars and clubs in Seoul. Just as it seemed South Korea had suffocated the spread, and thus begun to reopen its restaurants and other evening entertainment venues, over thirty new cases of local transmission were reported this last Sunday.

The coronavirus outbreak in Iran was deadlier and arrived sooner than in most countries, but a very strict effort to lock out the virus by restricting physical interaction between people – through closed businesses, schools and other places where people congregate – helped contain the outbreak. Through mid March and early April, Covid-19 was being seen as something Iran may be able to overcome, as infection rates and fatalities slowed. But on Sunday, bad news reared its ugly head once again.

On April 11, under enormous pressure to restore people’s ability to get to work and make a living again, Iran’s authorities began to ease the measures it had put in place to contain or suppress the virus. This Sunday, new spikes in fatalities in Tehran and other locations caused a serious revision of the situation. Kianoush Jahanpour of the Ministry of Health warned that “The situation should in no way be considered normal… this virus is still here and will remain with us”. Iran is fast approaching the seven thousand fatalities threshold.

None of this surprises epidemiologists or data analysts that have been poring over the manner in which Covid-19 spreads. Any place where people congregate is a place where, eventually, the disease will spread. This isn’t an attack on clubbing, or bar hopping, and it isn’t an attack on religious congregations, no matter what religion or sect. It is just basic science.

Of course, science is no longer science. Experts are no longer experts. There is always someone much smarter and better informed than even Einstein. Just check your uncle’s impassioned Facebook timeline, or the Twitter mentions of anyone with a following large enough to attract the attention of the modern-day genius. Epidemiology? Who needs a PhD, or two or three or four – when you can watch a YouTube video? And hey, what about gut feeling? Isn’t data just a fancy pants distraction from the importance of instinct – especially the instinct of someone whom you really trust? Like a political leader with a lifetime of lies behind and ahead of him, or her? No. We don’t need science, or data. We’ve got feelings.

Should we rubbish this anti-science and anti-data onslaught? That is what the smartest people in the room tend to do. The ones with the greatest stakes in science and data and reason. But let’s unpack who is in the room, and who is not.

In the room, we find experts (obviously). Some do have PhDs. Others have many years of experience. What did this golden era of this experience and expertise achieve? First, we must map out the era itself. It probably stretches about five decades, from sometime in the Sixties, to sometime around the replacement of traditional media with social media as the driver, conductor, pilot and mood swing of the global and local public discourse – this would be right around the 2008-2009 global financial crisis.

The 2008-2009 global financial crisis birthed much of what we see today in terms of populism and rage. It exposed three vital fictions that have validated the exclusionary and reductive politics of identity that dominates many parts of the industrialised and knowledge-based West.

The first lie that the financial crisis exposed was that if you work hard and pay your taxes, and suppress that angry (sometimes racist, often prejudicial) voice inside, you would grow old comfortably as you watched your children do better than you. Lie. Boomers and grandparents that worked union or union light jobs through their sixties watched their savings evaporate, their houses in foreclosure, and their children struggling to make ends meet despite working not one, but TWO jobs.

The second lie that the financial crisis exposed was of capitalism’s slippery nature. The cultural fiction of a rational risk-reward matrix in capitalism collapsed due to the 2008-2009 global financial crisis. Bankers enjoyed government bailouts to protect their obscene compensation packages – and the Wall Street bonuses that peaked in 2006, peaked again in 2018, less than a decade after the crisis. Meanwhile, all across the Western world, mom and pop shops disappeared as megastores owned by mega corporations ate them up like a rampaging Ms Pacman.

The third and most vital lie that the financial crisis exposed was the myth of post-identity and post-racial discourse. The Obama campaign’s outsized global influence fooled many of us into whimsical indulgences about the unstoppable power of pluralism. But whilst that campaign took shape, the financial crisis was jolting many media and political elites into a rearguard action: to cater to the shattered ego of the embittered Boomer. A million Steve Bannons were born during the 2008-2009 financial crisis.

The net outcome of this shift in discourse, combined with the enormous new voice that every embittered Boomer, and his or her children or close family members, now have access to is the racially-tinged, aggressive, take-no-prisoners politics of both the West and East.

Every conversation is now a war. Every issue is a battlefield. Why? Because the expert’s contempt for those outside the room is now being paid back, with interest. It turns out, being smarter doesn’t mean much if the ‘dumb’ guy has a killer Twitter feed. Covid-19 is the ultimate life and death issue. So this particular battle is just getting started. This fire will grow.

The pandemic will have three primary impacts, the first two of which are well known and constantly compared to each other as a trade-off. The first is public health, as in a lot of people will die. The second is economic and financial, as in a lot of poor people will get poorer, and a lot of rich people will complain. But there is a third impact that is playing out everywhere, and it is this impact that will shape the post Covid-19 political economy, globally and locally. This is the impact of the pandemic on how we speak to each other about the issues that matter.

As people cough to death on beds that do not qualify as safe, or clean, with doctors not equipped to protect themselves from infection, and with new patients not capable of understanding or executing the precautions they are being advised to take, what are the trending debates and topics in country, after country, after country, including this here: the Islamic Republic of Pakistan?

We are, like South Korea, Iran and many other countries, on a fast track to resume normal life, including our predilection for highly transmission-conducive social engagement. The outcome will only be different from South Korea and Iran if there are miracles in store. As a believer, I quite like the quantum of faith that it must take to make a bet on a miracle being bestowed upon this country.

As a human, blessed with the ability to utilise and govern my intellect however, (and as a function of that same faith’s invitation to place a premium on the intellect), it seems an unnecessary set of risks to take. Easing containment measures and reducing efforts at suppression will almost certainly cause a spike in infections and fatalities. May God bless us all with the miracle it will take to avoid that spike.