No one knows how the post-pandemic world will look like. While many foresee diminished civil liberties and limits to our prosperity, I want to suggest a more optimistic possibility.
Author: Ricardo Ángel Barrientos, student of the Bachelor in Politics, Law and Economics
We knew the risk, we knew the exposure, we knew the impact, and we could therefore have deduced the benefits of spending even a small portion of current military budget in order to prevent, react and contain future pandemics. Yet we completely failed to prepare and hundreds of thousands of people will die as a result.
Criticizing our lack of preparation, however, is not my goal. It is clear that human beings are not rational, or at least not as rational as we believe ourselves to be, so we could not have been expected to prepare for a type of crisis that seems so otherworldly, so different to everything we had experienced before, so uncanny that even as the virus spread, many, myself included, failed to comprehend the magnitude that Covid-19 would have.
A comparative view of Covid-19
My goal is rather to offer hope, but first, I’ll offer perspective. In doing so, by no means am I attempting to claim that we overreacted to the pandemic; if anything, we were too slow to react. Instead, putting things into perspective allows us to realize what we could have improved upon before the pandemic arose, and what we can do differently after Covid-19 ceases to be of primary concern to us.
Whatever estimates we have about the death toll that will result from the pandemic are still uncertain, but the number might be in the hundreds of thousands, or even millions. Each of these deaths is a tragedy in itself, and I hope with all my heart that we don’t reach worst case estimates.
Allow me, anyhow, the unpleasant undertaking of putting things into perspective. Consider, for example, that over 5.4 million children, aged 1-5, died in 2017, many from preventable diseases. It is estimated that 800,000 people kill themselves every year, and 1.24 million die in road traffic accidents, many caused by driving under the influence of alcohol or being tired at the wheel. Over 300,000 die because of drowning, every year. With these figures, and this is key, I don’t want to lessen the importance that we give to the current pandemic; I acknowledge and support that our full efforts should be oriented into containing the spread of the virus. If anything, the pandemic does not replace these deaths, but produces additional deaths. They are merely used to provide perspective.
Despite their magnitude, the aforementioned death figures rarely come as a surprise – they remain almost unchanged year after year, apart from some significant improvements in nutrition and health. They are considered statistical and are seen as unavoidable. What if they weren’t?
One challenge among many
It is human and understandable to give a disproportionate weight to deaths and hospitalizations that arise because of the current pandemic. But we can do better than that. If there is anything that Covid-19 is doing is showing us the extraordinary power of cooperation and sacrifices. Having a common purpose allows us to radically change our lifestyles and achieve feats that were otherwise unthinkable. If we are able and willing to waive some privileges and comforts in the fight against Covid-19 so as to save lives, can we not do the same in order to tackle the “inherent” ills that plague society and cause many more deaths?
Recognizing that international cooperation has not been at its prime, I do believe that the recent events have given us, as a global community, a message of hope. Every time I hear applauses at 8:00 pm I understand that we can care for others, we can be grateful, we can work together to make this world a better place. My hope is that such attitudes don’t only occur in times of crisis, but also when we go back to “normal”. As we slowly return to our pre-pandemic ways of life, we might believe that the fight is over. This particular fight may be, but there are so many other fights that require our attention.
We live in a world of ridiculous contrasts. Beyond stark economic inequalities, 13% of adults are obese and one third of food production is wasted, while 11% of the population is undernourished. Also, in our era, many people feel like they lack a sense of purpose. 1 out of 7 people globally are estimated to suffer from mental health or substance abuse problems. High depression rates, drug consumption, suicides, loneliness, job dissatisfaction, you’ve heard it all before. Many of these people could find meaning in their lives by helping any or many of the hundreds of millions of people who need the help and aren’t getting it, who are thought of as just statistics. All in all, people are overeating and wasting while others are starving, people can’t find a purpose in their lives while others desperately need a helping hand.
I believe we, as a generation, have the power and duty to radically transform our societies and tackle the difficult challenges that the world faces. Students, by understanding the complexities of the world through different lenses, are prime to lead this transformation.
Our role as students, as a generation
I believe it does not have to be this way. I believe we, as PLE students, as a generation, have the power and the duty to radically transform our societies and tackle the difficult challenges that the world faces. We have to be smarter about how we perceive moral conundrums and how we allocate our time and resources. And PLE students, by understanding the complexities of the world through different lenses and evaluating challenges as objectively as possible, are prime to lead this transformation.
Imagine that we would care about global hunger just a fraction of what we care about Covid-19. To save lives, we would not have to radically change our lifestyles as we are doing right now. We would not even have to risk our financial and material wellbeing as many are presently doing because of their inability to work or conduct their businesses. Minor and informed changes can translate small sacrifices and improved cooperation into enormous positive impacts. The information as to how we can help effectively is already out there. The numbers are as clear as they are real, and people’s suffering is even more so. Our job, thus, is to reduce the threshold upon which people decide to make a difference. We have to inform, mobilize, and most importantly, lead by example.
We have to be smarter about how we perceive moral conundrums and how we allocate our time and resources.
Towards a smarter, more cooperative alternative
I am not proposing to change our political or economic systems. Simply, I am imagining a win-win situation. Helping those in need, if done so correctly, will be beneficial for all. Living through a global pandemic should help us understand this simple idea: encouraging development, in a similar vein to vaccination or herd immunity, provides strong positive externalities for all those involved.
If we don’t eat or buy food we don’t need, time and economic resources could be redirected to improve the lives of others. Moreover, the pandemic has brought to light how there are still vulnerable people, even in the wealthiest countries, who could very much benefit from additional food and care in general. By becoming aware of our behaviours and better allocating our efforts, we could, at least in theory, battle obesity and malnourishment simultaneously.
Changing the egoistic ways of social media and isolating social pressures of our day to day lives can lead to a change in the way we value our actions and efforts, moving people away from a “like” competition into meaningfully acting for the betterment society. This collaborative mentality will be direly needed once the economic repercussions of the pandemic settle in. As people become unable to open back their businesses, as tenants cannot pay their rent and owners cannot pay their mortgage and banks cannot pay their debts, the need for a voluntary and creative circular economy, in which we all play our part, is ever more pressing. By working together and redefining our priorities, we could, at least in theory, reduce mental health problems and help those in need simultaneously.
I know that it’s not so simple and I know that this sounds overly optimistic. I know that we cannot take food surpluses and give them to the ones who are the hungriest. And I know how difficult it is to motivate people and shift their attention towards less pompous goals. Change is laborious, but the pandemic we are living through gives us more than enough evidence to prove our resilience and capacity for action.
After Covid-19 ceases to be our greater concern, let us not forget that for many, going back to normal does not exist, or if it does, it is worse than whatever the pandemic has brought upon most of us. Let us not forget either how we were able to transform our lifestyles for a common cause. PLE students, and whoever else is able and willing, have the daunting task of reminding everyone that smart action is needed, is possible, and must happen.
Ricardo Ángel Barrientos is a third-year student of the Bachelor in Politics, Law and Economics and part of the Honors Program at IE University. He is president of the politics, law and economics society and editor of the LawAhead Hub in Madrid. He has experience working with the social investment firm GAWA capital, the risk management and risk assessment firm ASR S.A.S., and the fintech startup Quienmepresta.com.
Note: The views expressed by the author of this paper are completely personal and do not represent the position of any affiliated institution.