By Fazlun Khalid
Against a backdrop of multiple conspiracy theories, the Coronavirus spreads inexorably. The matter is however reasonably straightforward if we take a moment to reflect. As the Qur’an asserts –
Corruption has appeared in both land and sea because of what people’s own hands have brought about so that they may taste something of what they have done so that hopefully they will turn back [Qur’an 30:41]
There cannot be much dissent as we proclaim that we are living in the midst of the “greatest civilisation ever contrived by man”. However, the price of “progress” has been achieved at the cost of a ravaged planet whose fragility and sensitivity becomes ever more apparent. Our imagined mastery of the Earth is proving to be illusory. The House of Cards we have built for ourselves is wobbling and it takes a microbe to level down the rich to the experiences of the poor.
On the plus side, the Corona Virus lockdown is stimulating neighbourliness; the sense of community grows stronger. The natural world is now taking a much-needed breather. Fish are returning to the canals of Venice and the rivers in India; wildlife explores empty urban spaces; we experience a huge reduction in carbon dioxide emissions; city dwellers breathe clean air once again.
We have been invaded not by an extra-terrestrial but by an earthly microbe, which scientists have known for years and has now fooled them in the manner it has crossed the species barrier. The enemy appears camouflaged as an entity now identified as COVID 19 and until now we have no defences against it. The massive global stockpile of bombs and bullets, intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons which the human race has in reserve to create its own armageddon is rendered utterly useless in the face of such an enemy. Necessary items such as face masks, protective gear and ventilators are in short supply.
Globalisation was not prepared for a global pandemic but here we are. And COVID 19 does underline the fact that we are living in a shared space with shared aspirations notwithstanding our differences. Developed countries are far more able to cope with the virus compared to those less well off thus mirroring the consequences of climate change: the Solomon Islands in the Pacific Ocean which could hardly be described as an industrial nation is giving itself up to the sea as a direct consequence of climate change caused by advanced industrial countries.
I received a newsletter in January from the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) drawing my attention to a video they were putting out concerning the “State of the World”. The introductory note asserted that “The world economy has barely had the time to recover from a string of shocks that began with the 2007 financial crisis, and we can already see another global slowdown looming large …”. It would seem that a mere microbe has short-circuited the process and a global economic slowdown is already upon us. Hopefully, this microbial invasion is only a pre-emptive strike giving us early warning of the things to come if we do not change our ways. A faint hope, given past experience.
Capitalism is once again under the microscope. The writer Naomi Klein is scathing about “Corona Capitalism”. And how are governments going to recover the largess they are now throwing at their people? I see increased taxation and austerity programs on the horizon. Joseph Stiglitz, Noble Laureate and one-time chief economic advisor to the World Bank espouses the cause of “progressive capitalism” in his book People, Power and Profits. But the toxic nature of the monetary system that propels capitalism and our civilisation seems to bypass even them.
The clue to this lies in the fears expressed by UNDESA regarding the replaying of the financial crisis created by the banks that nearly brought the global system down in 2008. This event let the cat out of the bag but nothing has changed and the dubious privilege of creating money out of thin air still rests with the banks. Traditionally this money was defined by economists as a commodity. Modern economists are now tending to define it as a social relationship or information projected as algorithms on computer screens. The plastic cards in our wallets bear testimony to this and if you add the launch of the 5G network and the proliferation of surveillance cameras we have arrived in Orwellian territory.
“The money that runs our civilization is a virus – one that eats into the fabric of the natural world every time we use it. This is how we are degrading the planet”.*
COVID 19 rides on the back of the big daddy of them all – the money virus.