Prof. S. K. Shah
“The things will not be the same after the Covid-19 pandemic is over”. That is a common cliché these days. Actually it is not really a cliché because it appears to be a fact. But it is a fact which is only too obvious. After all the things tomorrow will never be the same as they are today though they may appear to be alike. If you follow the course of evolution, the change is a continuous phenomenon. And be it biological or social evolution, it never proceeds in a retrograde direction. It is always prograde and the statement that history repeats is a myth.
Be in this universe or a minuscule part of it, the living world on this earth, the change is a universal activity going on all the time. What is different though is the rate of the change or, in simple language the time that it takes for the change to be perceptible to the human mind. Looking at it philosophically the time itself is a relative term which we calculate through the prism of human life span. Imagine what it would appear like if we look at it through the 21 day life span of a mosquito or five hundred years span of a tortoise.
While the change is going on continuously, normally it is very slow. As a result every day appears to be the same or similar. But if like Rip Van Winkle you would wake up after twenty years, you would find a totally different world around you. That is how the change becomes perceptible. Such a change may be slow but it is continuous with a limited acceleration. Over a century and three quarters ago, Charles Darwin came up with his famous theory which discusses the philosophy of Natural Selection according to which there is a continuous competition among organisms for survival, thereby bringing about the change in them. We can easily apply same principles for the social evolution of humankind which seems to follow a similar process. But, as mentioned above, the process is slow though it is continuous. It can be called as background social evolution.
In biological evolution while we see Darwinism operating all the time, certain major catastrophic events take place once in a while that bring about sudden changes in the living world. These catastrophic events do not take place too often but when they do they bring about major changes in a relatively very short span of time. In other words there are long periods of time when Darwinism operates and life appears to be changing at a slow pace till a major catastrophe changes the scenario altogether. Similar principles apply to social evolution of human life. In other words in the social evolution of humankind there are serious punctuation marks, some of them only as commas while there may be even an occasional semi-colon. The catastrophe can be brought about by various factors but we are not discussing the causes now.
The Covid-19 pandemic outbreak is one such punctuation mark. Let us hope that it is only a comma but it could as well be a semi-colon. That brings us to a very important question. What kind of catastrophe it is likely to cause resulting in what kind of major transformation? We have no means of predicting that. One thing is, however, clear. Covid-19 virus is likely to remain with us for quite some time with same or reduced intensity. Let us see what remarkable changes it has brought about so far. This should give us an inkling what is likely to follow.
We were passing through a phase of globalization. In fact it was often being said that the world was a global village. This was because the travel had become very easy and there was a general mobility of people across national boundaries. The intra-country and even inter-country migration was more a norm than an exception. There were no boundaries to trade, tourism, communication and transfer of information and knowledge even across countries with differing political systems and economic status. The internet had totally transformed the human activity on a global basis and it had opened avenues for a host of activities in a limited period of time. This was a far cry from the life a few decades earlier when there were hardly any means of knowing what was happening across the neighbouring countries what to speak of across the continents, except through the means of an odd newspaper or a radio.
Then suddenly all of this came to a standstill. With countries enforcing lockdown due to the pandemic of Covid-19 the travel was the first casualty. This was followed by social distancing as a result of which all social gatherings, general socializing, get-togethers, conferences, outdoor entertainment, marketing in malls and practically all social activity came to an end. People got locked down in their homes avoiding the risk of any interaction even with their friends and relatives. Most of the trade and economic activity came to a standstill. International trade, travel and tourism stopped totally except for the medical supplies that were needed in hospitals. Was this an end of globalization? It appeared so. But the real picture is entirely different.
Just before the attack of Covid-19 certain changes had come about rather rapidly in the social life of humankind. These concerned the communication networking through the means of mobile phones followed by smart phones and i-phones. The universal use of laptops had to a large extent replaced the classical computing and writing techniques. This was no doubt a far cry from the twentieth century days of the landline telephony with fixed, time consuming and unreliable communication which was the only means to get in touch with anyone living away. It was also a total departure from the means of information communication which was earlier dependent on an odd newspaper and radio alone. However, there was a schism in the society about the application of the new techniques which were rather developing too fast for a generation that had no access to such gadgetry in their younger days. While the new generation of young men and women took to these techniques like a fish taking to water, the older generation was hard put to adapt to these changes. There was also a natural resistance to the changes especially for a country like India where a bullock cart and jet aircraft could coexist with equal relevance and without any apparent contradiction.
While the new advances in networking and digitization were opening a whole range of possibilities, including easy methods of banking, investment and communication, there was also a boom in data generation and dispersal. Simultaneously there was a large part of populace throughout the world which still followed and loved the age old pattern of life. The dear old newspaper had to come in the morning even for those who had time enough to read the headlines only or even those families who hardly read anything out of it except looking for the entertainment or marketing avenues that were available in the town.
All this came to a standstill due to the Covid-19 that brought in its wake the lockdown. Everybody was confined to his house only. There were no morning walks or a gossip session, no visits to your friends or to entertainment avenues, no odd eating out for the families, no marketing or even window shopping in the malls, what to speak of gyms, spas, beauty parlours, or even barber shops. As for the means of communication, they all came to a standstill. There was no commercial transport and no permission for personal transport of any kind beyond any emergency. Even dear old newspaper did not arrive in the morning.
Was this an end of global communication or globalization which we had taken as the future mantra?
It appeared to be so. But that is only a mirage. The globalization that we knew seems to have changed. But we are connected to the world more than we were ever before in spite of the breakdown in international travel. We know exactly what kind of research is taking place on Covid-19 anywhere in the world, even from a place like China where it is generally not possible to know what is happening. We hold meetings and discussions through video-conferencing across the globe. Thomas Friedman of the New York Times reported that when lockdown was declared for New York, the newspaper stopped bringing out a hard copy for some time. The sale of the e-copy increased five times compared to that of the hard copy. Friedman wonders why New York Times should continue with the hard copy with all the environmental problems associated with the newsprint availability.
There are some unusual changes during the lockdown which have provided a pleasant surprise. This includes a cleaner air to breathe, a vastly improved environment with birds and animals around and a social consciousness that was unknown earlier. It is doubtful if these conditions will continue even after the lockdown. But there are other changes which may be the future order. The lockdown has opened up some new modes of operation which were unknown before the Covid-19 attack. These include a more hygienic lifestyle, working from home, a web or video-based medical consultation, remote controlled operations for production engineers and even applications of artificial intelligence and robotics, online teaching and education and a host of other game changers. This has brought in some new ideas about minimum effort and maximum output. It may even bring about some relocation of industries and change in the type of labour force application. These changes were bound to happen but they would have taken a lot of time, maybe a whole generation or more. That is what a punctuation mark in social evolution denotes.
It is true that there is an enormous percentage of the techno-phobic people throughout the world. It does not include only the older generation though they constitute by far the largest component. Left alone these people would have preferred to follow the age old tested processes of human activity without resorting to what they consider as bizarre methods through a cell phone or laptop. In fact that was the practice they were following before being hit by the corona virus. But now they do not have a choice since the so called age old methods are denied to them. Willy Nilly they have to learn the new techniques in spite of their abhorrence or even hesitation. As far as the older generation is concerned, the society may give them the dignity by calling them “senior citizens” because of its cultural norms, Covid-19 is under no obligation to do that. Covid-19 is not very kind to this generation and seems to be blunt enough to tell them, “look here, you have had your innings; why don’t you make way for people who know how to live in this world of new globalization.”
(The author is the retired Professor and Head of the Department of Geology, University of Jammu)
Prof. S. K. Shah