In the space of just a few short weeks, disruption has become a central feature within many of our lives. With countless numbers of people around the world newly sick, stuck in isolation, avoiding social interaction, changing habits, working from home, perhaps now out of work altogether — unprecedented trials fall upon all of us.
In the face of such pandemic, hardship and disruption, the need for global leadership is now more prominent than ever. The rapidly evolving situation calls for leaders who stand to repudiate divisiveness, fear and panic — and inspire hope, courage and wherewithal in their place. That can offer reassurance, support and solidarity. Leaders who point their finger towards a destination outside the walls of crisis and take the first step in that direction. The global community yearns for a speech that reaches beyond the ears of people immediately affected by illness. Words not simply directed towards the citizens of this or that country. A statement that isn’t made with a calculated political motive in mind. When they take to the wooden podium and stare down the lens of the camera to address us, we need leaders that are speaking to us, to all of us, to the global collective, to every person alive today.
If this pandemic has taught us anything it is that we can no longer view our problems in isolation. We must recognise that personal actions add up to collective consequences and that collective decisions impact the trajectory of personal lives. Neither the problems we encounter in our daily lives nor those that occur on the level of the nation-state are absolved from the globalised nature of life in the year 2020. The problems that humankind faces today are interconnected, complex and rapidly evolving. They are abstract, hard to grasp, and often disconnected from our individual lived experience. To have any hope in solving them we must cooperate, set aside our differences, and be prepared to forsake some of the conveniences and comforts which we have come to take for granted.
In recent days and weeks, we have seen the fragility of many of these taken for granted aspects of life become exposed. Supermarkets are not natural. Schools won’t always be able to care for our kids. If something goes terribly wrong, people with little savings trapped in insecure work will be rendered destitute. These are products of our industrialised and capitalist society. A simultaneously wonderous and spiritless way of ordering human life. A civilisation undermined by fragility, inequality and disruption, but one that we each participate in and cannot imagine life without.
That it takes a pandemic such as this for people to acknowledge the complex web of interdependencies that enable the smooth functioning of modern life reveals much about the character of our society and ourselves. We have grown complacent by indulging our wants and desires, blind to the influence that consumer culture and social expectation has in dictating the very shape these wants and desires take. The impermanence and brittleness of the institutions, systems and structures we regard as normal and preordained have been obscured by the routine hum of mechanised industrial life, the attention demanded by our technologies, and the growing disjuncture between politics and reality.
This pandemic has highlighted our vulnerability and alerted us to the challenges posed by global interconnection. It has shown us that we cannot ignore problems presently perceived to be the sole concern of specific nation-states. It has exposed the limitations of self-interested and nationalist thinking. This virus was first the problem of China. Then quickly it became that of South Korea. Japan, Italy and Spain followed after that. Only now do we fully appreciate the global ramifications and consequences associated with our naïve wishfulness — that an emotionless, unconscious virus ought to abide by human constructs in the form of borders and competitive politics.
US President Ronald Regan once claimed that if aliens were to one day arrive on Earth intent on conquest, then it would be on this day that the world would finally unite. If it is a common enemy that our primate brain must conceive of in order for us to stand in solidarity with all humans who reside on this vulnerable planet — whether those living beside us in our personal neighbourhoods or distant countries — then we ought to indeed view COVID-19 through the lens of war and battle.
Make no mistake — this is an alien enemy. A virus that you cannot see and cannot sense, one that grows exponentially. A virus that hijacks your cells and compromises your immune system. Hiding in the very human carrier it seeks to destroy. Spreading via the interactions of its host.
Recognising our shared burden in this fight is the first step towards cultivating a unity of purpose. A unity of purpose that breeds the kind of determination necessary to overcome adversity in whatever shape or form it may come in; viral, psychological, political or economic. A collective iron will of the type summoned by Winston Churchill during the Blitz, that motivated the words of Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst in her fight for women’s rights, that which today finds expression upon the young faces of the School Climate Strike movement.
Do not take your cues from the hoarders, the panicked, or the self-interested flaunting the rules. Look to the front-line medical workers selflessly saving lives in spite of heightened personal fatigue and sickness. To the researchers trialling treatments. To the producers and manufacturers striving to ensure essentials are on the shelves when you reach for them. Take solace in the fact that thousands, if not millions of people are striving to solve this pandemic and mitigate the socio-economic impacts that are beginning to reverberate throughout our societies. Realise that we are in this together.
Predicating our actions solely on fear of the unknown has the effect of bringing calamity closer to realisation. If we all act now with a view in mind of how to guarantee our personal interests and protect ourselves in a perceived state of anarchy, we act only to bring that vision of the world closer to fruition.
Now is not the time to indulge in the egotistic, self-interested and competitive aspects of ourselves. It is the time to elevate the better angels of our nature. It is the time to practice empathy, compassion, patience and wherewithal. It is the time to reach out to friends and family and tell them that you are beside them. It is the time to smile at the stranger passing by. It is the time to sacrifice our individual convenience and comfort for the health and wellbeing of others. It is time for those with the financial capacity to do so to protect and shelter the down-and-out. For governments to defend and secure the interests of their populations regardless of economic pain and recession. Through conscious effort and resolve, fear and trepidation of the unknown can be transformed into unshakeable conviction and belief in the tenacity of human spirit.
And if you feel yourself trapped in darkness, beat-down or dejected — take solace in the fact that even during crisis and uncertainty, life goes on. The warm sensation of the sun at this very moment is being felt and appreciated by people everywhere. Individuals are meeting one another, falling in and out of love, learning and growing. Some are realising their dreams and ambitions; others are gritting their teeth through failure. Children are feeling the unconditional love of parents expressed in the form of tender embrace. For an unprecedented number of people alive today, the full spectrum of human experience is playing itself out to the tune of the universe. The highest of highs and the lowest of lows, felt in magnitudes unprecedented in human history. We can always remember and celebrate this fact. Even during such an uncertain time such as this. For this disease is not eternal. This battle cannot — it will not — last forever. And when a conclusion has been met and humankind is seen to prevail. Emerging more self-conscious, compassionate and united than before. We will peer out from behind the restrictive veil of our nation-states — and realise that together we are capable of overcoming anything.
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Alex Trauth-Goik is a PhD candidate at the University of Wollongong, Australia, whose research focuses on the development of surveillance systems in China and the US. He strives to offer fresh perspectives on foreign affairs, tech and China (coupled with the odd analysis of human nature).