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Don’t panic: The upsides of COVID-19

In this perilous time, there are still positives, among them social media and digital connectivity helping control panic and misinformation, and a renewed awareness of the value of community.
Read time 6min 50sec

Pandemics are not new. Many historians believe it was a succession of outbreaks that ultimately buckled the Roman Empire. Diseases were a root cause in the destruction of civilisations in the Americas. And in 1917, smallpox all but destroyed the Khoi-San tribes of South Africa.

But COVID-19 is without precedent. Though we can make comparisons to other outbreaks, there are too many new factors involved to create any real certainty. This is troubling, because humans abhor an information vacuum and we’ll start fitting in whatever matches the narrative in our heads. It has given rise to absurd rumours and crazy assumptions.

I’m usually a glass-half-empty type. I appreciate opportunity, but I can dwell on risk − maybe more than I should. That being said, I’ve been astounded at the narratives that optimists rely on. They are often total nonsense and fall into that trap of selecting a message that fits your desired outcome. For example, many optimistic people told me about the 10-second breath-holding test, which is bogus. None of them bothered to check this with a quick search − once it resounded with their natural optimism, they just assumed it’s true.

Yet as we find ourselves in a truly perilous situation, my pessimism seems to have toned down. I don’t like problems that don’t have answers, and there are many of those today. So I’d rather look for the positive and − I think − there are a few things to be reflective about in this strange time. Here are a few, in no particular order, and with various levels of certainty. I don’t know what will happen. Nobody really does. But this is some food for thought…

We have a real example of a global existential crisis

Globalism is not easy to understand and appreciate. Adam Smith spent a thousand pages explaining the concept to his 18th-century peers, and today most of us still don’t get it.

This is why we struggle to demonise plastic while adoring our smartphones, or complain about Chinese labour while feeling good about saving on a new shirt. This is why we can’t get to grips with global warming, whatever its causes.

Technology cannot replace the fundamentals of community, not even when it enhances them.

But COVID-19 brings the concept home, both in its good and bad. It’s a disaster that affects us all and exists because we are connected. It has also now taken away some of the things we took for granted about a global economy. This gives us a new framework from which to regard the world’s problems. Perhaps pollution in China or refugees from Syria will be seen in a new light.

Thank goodness for social media

Social media gets a bad rap, often for good reason. But we’ve become a little too complacent in blaming social media for all our modern ills, instead of looking at our own conduct.

Yet could you imagine if COVID-19 broke out 20 years ago? Information would have travelled much slower. Rumours would have been harder to defuse.

We don’t need social media to ignite panic and misinformation. People used to get burnt at the stake during epidemics. So let’s at least give social media its due: it’s helping us control panic and misinformation. Also give a nod to connectivity, which makes all of this possible.

Digital gets a real test

I’ve spent the past decade writing about and promoting digital transformation to the world. But so much of it is hubris, wishful thinking devised by salespeople and Silicon Valley’s insular culture.

We talk about changing the world, but we can barely move the needle on many of those promises. This is because there is no real sense of importance or urgency, but instead a land grab of efficiency that means little beyond bottom lines and masked behind talk of problem-oriented solutions. The details get lost, and the narrative never concludes.

People forget what was promised and promise new things. Well, the chips are now down. Remote working is enforced, and company cultures have to align with those. Factories have to retool quickly. Being connected is now imperative. Digital’s urgency is replacing its niceties.

To be honest, if it wasn’t for an epidemic, I don’t know if we’d have ever had such an opportunity.

Globalism is fragile

At times, the power of global reach, scale and specialisation seems unstoppable. In some ways, it is. But in other ways, we are being very careless.

A good example is how futurists pave over the fact that technology revolutions cause massive short-term unemployment and poverty. That’s fine in hindsight, apparently, but do we spare a thought for the starving widows of the 1700s? No, we’ve become glib and, now that another revolution is here, we double down.

But a global marketplace that raises all ships is a delicate thing, and offshoring production has inherent risks. Look no further to China’s dominance of medical equipment production. That was once seen as terrific, yet now we must question some of globalism’s wisdom. Not all of it, but this epidemic is a change to separate some dogma from fact.

A global marketplace is fantastic − I’m a big fan. But that baby has an ugly side, and we can’t keep pretending it’s an angel.

We fooled ourselves about communities

The power of the Internet was to connect people who’d otherwise never meet. This has been incredible − I believe it was central to the final victory for gay rights, destigmatising diseases such as AIDS and, most recently, creating the #MeToo movement.

But it also made us lazy. We don’t call, we mail. We don’t visit, we WhatsApp. We don’t ask questions, we spy on Facebook. None of these seemed like issues because the options of physical engagement still existed. Now not so much. It’s only been a week yet people are already complaining about the loneliness of working at home. Technology cannot replace the fundamentals of community, not even when it enhances them. Let’s not ignore that.

We’ve had it good for too long

One of my favourite authors is JG Ballard, whose childhood is captured in his memoir and the Steven Spielberg movie, Empire of the Sun. He spent time in a Japanese concentration camp, which influenced his view on life, writing in his memoir: “Anyone who has experienced a war at first-hand knows that it completely overturns every conventional idea of what makes up day-to-day reality. You never feel quite the same again. It’s like walking away from a plane crash; the world changes for you forever.”

We were due for something like that, but thank goodness it’s not a world war. COVID-19, though, is offering us the same lessons. The normality we take for granted and continually enhance is very fragile and can disappear overnight. Unthinkable? It was, but here we are...

What should you do with these musings? I can’t say. As I noted earlier, there are no answers. But we should be looking for the insight, lessons and potential of what the epidemic tells us about the world.

Good luck!

* James Francis is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in several local and international publications.

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