During and in the aftermath of catastrophes, crises and wars, the collective way of the life of citizens is impacted hugely. In today’s interconnected world, Covid-19 is not just a health, an economic or a humanitarian crisis. It’s also a crisis of civilisation. Civilisations evolve as a result of a collective response to historical events and changes in human ecology, and despite differences, have some elements universal in nature. During the last few decades, globalisation and unprecedented advancements in communication and technology have further increased the commonalities of human civilisation.
The ongoing pandemic has the potential to weaken the foundation and the very fabric of our civilisation. This may alter not only the way we live and work but also deeply impact our interpersonal relationships, our core values and the nature of state and governance.
Even as I write this, I am haunted by horrific images of dismembered fingers clutching the last morsels of rotis, belonging to 16 migrant labourers who laid down to rest on train tracks during their long walk home, only to be run down by a train, in Aurangabad. They were among a few of the millions of men, women and children who are walking on the roads, desperate to return to their villages without any means of available transport. I also can’t forget 16-year-old Cheng, a resident of Hubei, China. Living with an extreme form of cerebral palsy, Yan Cheng died all alone when his father was taken away after contracting Covid-19.
Similarly, hundreds of child labourers were found abandoned inside dangerous gold mines in South Africa whose employers ran away to safety. In India too, my organisation along with the authorities, continues to rescue and help child labourers who were locked up and left to die. Neighbourhood after neighbourhood of immigrant daily wage earners in large cities of India, Brazil, Nigeria, Thailand and many other places are being left abandoned, resulting in demographic imbalances.
On the other hand, people who are safe but forced to stay indoors are scared and grappling with a multitude of mental issues such as depression and anxiety. There is ample evidence of an increase in domestic discord and violence. There is also a horrific rise in online child sexual abuse and child pornography. It’s worrisome to see our children facing many psycho-social problems such as anger, anxiety, loneliness, loss of motivation and focus. Phone and television screens are not a substitute for meaningful social interactions and physical activity.
These are some indications of a crisis of civilisation but there are other crucial factors at work. Collectivism is the foundation of any civilisation. Collective thoughts, experiences, actions, beliefs, perceptions and traditions contribute to building a civilisation. Efforts for sustenance and survival, a quest for freedom, a pursuit of knowledge of the unknown, a search for happiness and a desire to create and innovate are also among the key propellers of a civilisation. These manifest themselves in the creation of language, art, sculpture, habitat and help define citizenry and governance. Therefore, civilisations are not built through knowledge, wisdom and intelligence only, but are also a result of a wealth of shared human emotions. The state response to fighting the pandemic, reviving the economy and protecting law and order are all fine. However, equally important is the emotional response while dealing with the most vulnerable.
Why are millions of migrant workers feeling so helpless and fearful that they are literally running away from the cities to the perceived safety of their homes? Is it only the fear of Covid-19? I believe they have lost faith in the civilised world of the city they entrusted with their livelihood, including employers and the state.
The pandemic has exposed and deepened, perhaps the ever-existing emotional disparities between the makers of the infrastructure of our civilisation and its elite custodians. Further, this highlights the differences of perception and the grave cognitive dissonance. Also, there has been blatant social discrimination and visible divisions based on religion, caste, gender and race even among the relief efforts to combat Covid-19. There are many potential dangers and threats to our civilisation.
First, in this crisis, existing massive income inequalities, based on an economic system focused on profit-making and wealth creation, will be exacerbated. This will further marginalise and deprive the vulnerable sections of society, pushing them to chronic poverty, hunger and deprivation.
The ever-increasing dependence on modern technology which will reduce more and more workers as liabilities. This will not only dramatically result in massive lay-offs but in increased demand and worth of highly specialised and productive human resources. Obviously, this small class will emerge as the new Brahmins, out-casting a larger ‘unproductive’ section, i.e. the elderly, uneducated, disabled and others.
This could further lead to an upsurge in extremism, escalation of tensions between different sections of society, violence and crimes affecting our way of life. Advanced security measures, robust vigilance and policing will become the new normal. This may also lead to discrimination and profiling of criminals on the basis of religion, caste and colour and divide us further.
Secondly, divisive politics based on populism, hate-mongering, individualism, protectionism and hyper-nationalism has already damaged the foundations of inclusion and collectivism. The existing leadership of different countries may become even more powerful now. Certain decisions taken by leaders for public interest and security may end infringing the rights and freedom of individuals and citizens resulting in further neglect of the disadvantaged. Paradoxically, massive political instability, chaos and even anarchy may also surface in countries with indecisive leadership.
After the industrial revolution, our civilisation has evolved significantly. The struggle for democracy, liberty, protection of human rights and efforts towards inclusive development have all been steps in the right direction. Given the current state of affairs, we may end up undermining these efforts and fail to protect democracy, human rights and social justice for all. This will contribute to a crisis for our civilisation.
Thirdly, the nexus between the state and corporates is so deep that those in power view everything through an economic lens. The conditions created by Covid-19 is enabling them to view labour and industrial reforms with the profit-making maxim under the garb of legal amendments. This essentially means that the workers lose their collective bargaining power. The easiest way to do this would be to force them inside the unregulated and unorganised sectors by replacing formal production processes and deregulated supply chains. This will also be done to attract foreign investors.
We must not forget that the role of the working class through the course of history was not only industrial production and rendering services through selling their manual and mental labour, but they have since contributed immensely in establishing and strengthening democracy, freedom and gender equity. The post-Covid-19 world may destroy this hard-earned progress made over many centuries and further contribute to the crisis of civilisation.
Fourthly, the principles and norms of morality and ethics of any civilisation are carved out over a long time period. They are not necessarily applicable everywhere and at all times. However, some core values act as the moral compass through the course of civilisation. We have already been experiencing a moral deficit for quite some time. Now, the combined forces of media, technology and markets construct and establish moralist figures for their own vested political and economic interests. These forces may emerge stronger and further weaken universal moral values that help sustain human civilisation.
Fifthly, the post Covid-19 world is bound to become unimaginably digital and virtual. During the lockdown, hundreds of millions of people across countries are forced to work from home while their children have to take online classes. This will become the new normal for most of us, abandoning places of socialisation and human interaction. Relationships forged through social media are largely superficial and can never replace the depth of human connections.
Furthermore, Artificial Intelligence, the Internet of Things and yet-to-be-invented technology will control education, health, government and businesses, leaving teachers, doctors, priests and mentors increasingly irrelevant. Physical interactions as well as sharing feelings of excitement, love, joy, anger, frustration and grief with our loved ones are vital to human existence and the shaping of a society. This situation may cause serious damage to our civilisation.
However, challenges and uncertainties also pave the way for innovative solutions. The current scenario is no different and can certainly be turned into an opportunity for strengthening our civilisation.
I have a four-tier approach in mind that can help us deal with the above challenges. My thought is based on four elements — Compassion, Gratitude, Responsibility and Tolerance. I am proposing nothing new here. All these elements are already present and are rooted as basic human values across cultures and religions. The attainment of liberty, dignity, justice, equality, sustainability and peace should be the key goal of our civilisation. These are not merely ideals and principles but are achievable realities.
I keep emphasising that unless we feel others’ pain and suffering as our own and make endeavours to alleviate them, a truly civilised society cannot be created. This is Compassion. This compassion should be the backbone of our political, economic, religious and social lives. To save our planet, this compassion should be extended to animals, birds, trees, rivers, oceans, mountains and deserts too. This is why I strongly advocate the globalisation of compassion.
Secondly, we should adopt Gratitude in interpersonal relationships, industrial management, governance and administration. It is inherent in all of us and will be uncovered if we are true to ourselves and our surroundings. From the moment we are born to using food, water, clothing, housing, education, health, entertainment, security and all other facilities; there is someone’s contribution in every wake of life. Business leaders in their boardrooms and politicians in parliament should feel grateful for the hard work and sacrifices of many others in contributing to their wealth and power. I strongly feel that building a supply chain of gratitude is essential for cultivating mutual respect, love and harmony in all facets of life.
The third element is creation of an Internet of Responsibility. Since, our problems and solutions are interconnected, we must practice living with shared responsibility. The spirit of globalisation has already been under attack for quite some time. The fast emergence and acceptance of neo-nationalistic politics, violent extremism and anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiments, monopolies of few countries and companies on advanced scientific knowledge and technology and events such as Brexit are some such indications. Looking at current trends, not only WHO and other multilateral agencies, even the United Nations may face serious financial and political challenges.
If public life, the cut-throat competition in acquiring desired jobs or earning money and tearing apart the familial and societal fabric will be exacerbated in a post- Covid-19 era. Therefore, equally important is to reinvigorate the sense of mutual responsibility. If we can create an internet of things, an interconnected and inter-propelling world of invisible virtual realities, why can’t we craft an Internet of Responsibilities?
The Fourth element is creating a Universe of Tolerance. Intolerance has been the most common reason for clashes within civilisations. On the other hand, tolerance has nurtured co-existence among diversities and differences. During wars, pandemics or other catastrophes, there is a certain rise in feelings of empathy, charity, relief and help but they hardly sustain once the crisis is over. Then, the world of citizenry and states start shrinking in ever smaller circles of nationalities, colours, races and identities of religions, giving rise once again to deep-seated intolerance. The existing disrespect for other faiths, cultural and linguistic plurality, ideological differences and political dissent is likely to grow. In spite of different celestial objects exerting various electro-magnetic and other forces upon each other, our universe exists because they are able to find a state of balance and harmony. We must build a Universe of Tolerance to save our civilisation.
In Indian mythology, the creator of the world — Lord Brahma — is said to have four faces. These are symbolic of creation, protection and progress in all the four directions. We can interpret them as Globalisation of Compassion, Supply Chain of Gratitude, Internet of Responsibility and Universe of Tolerance. There is no substitute to a shared future of humankind. How we shape it is up to us.
The author is a Nobel Peace Laureate. Views expressed are his own
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines