A FEW months ago, it would have been impossible to imagine the world so still. Planes flew across the skies, men and women rose in the mornings and set out to work, children went to school and the world hummed along. All of that is fast becoming the jurisdiction of memory now. Human contact, anywhere and everywhere in the world, now carries the burden of contagion. Invisible enemies are the worst, blurring as they do the lines between truth and paranoia. Who has it and who can give it and who will get it are the subtext of every exchange.
In the midst of darkness, it is difficult to imagine light or a future. The future that will be will not resemble the past we have known. Author of Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari, puts it well in a recent essay. He writes, “Many short-term emergency measures will become a fixture of life. That is the nature of emergencies. They fast-forward historical processes. Decisions that in normal times could take years of deliberation are passed in a matter of hours. Immature and even dangerous technologies are pressed into service, because the risks of doing nothing are bigger.”
Harari’s words are thought-provoking and to some extent heartening. It feels good to consider the future, beyond the question of the sickened and the dead. That future, the long-term future brought close by transformations and decisions that are taking place now, will sound different, look different and feel different.
Take, for instance, the question of work: of where it is done and how it is done; how co-workers communicate, and how they are managed. As one business owner in Philadelphia wondered, why should I keep paying the exorbitant rent for my office space when all my employees are successfully working from home? For this to happen, the world’s employers will have to shift from a ‘presence’ to a ‘productivity’ model. The old style where you got paid largely on the basis of showing up on time and where productivity was a secondary consideration will likely die along with physical office spaces.
In the midst of darkness, it is difficult to imagine light or a future.
The capacity being built to work remotely using virtual networks will make physical offices relics from a time long gone and the idea of having to commute to work will be rendered similarly archaic. There will be positive consequences from this as energy will be saved when offices shut down. Instead, businesses will have to invest in ensuring that workers have access to adequate housing and communication facilities.
Women, who often face hostile and adverse work environments, could well have an edge in such a new world. Motherhood and sexism, both of which tend to take women out of the workforce, might have less of an impact on the work lives of women.
These are things that are imminent, but it feels odd to consider the worth of the world that is coming upon us when the constraints of a confined globe press so hard upon us.
The lockdown is forcing people to coexist in small spaces. Families with multi-generational households are likely to spread the virus among themselves if one falls sick. Even more likely is the tension in households where the men have emptied out in the mornings by going off to work, giving women some respite from their usually demanding presence.
Too many Pakistani men expect wives and mothers and sisters to wait upon them hand and foot and all the women saddled with this thankless job now have to work constantly. And that is the most positive scenario; as happens often during public holidays, more women are likely to face violence when their abusers (usually the men of the family) are constantly at home.
Those who live alone but rely on visits and interaction with friends and family members are also facing a long period of adjustment. To preserve life, these interactions must be sacrificed at least in the short term, leaving relationships transformed. The new isolation, which produces depression and even suicidal thoughts in some, will be just as heavy to bear as the virus and its associated risks of death. Some will be able to make adjustments, others will find their lives shortened by the new and shrunken world.
The hope to see a future awaiting us after Covid-19 is essential. Crises such as these invoke terror and panic and survivalist behaviour. They also provoke writers, artists, engineers and business leaders to innovate, create new ways of being, and transform the use of old tools to transcend the constraints imposed by a near moratorium on physical proximity.
For whom the requirement of physical presence has been onerous, halted and stymied by borders and passports, this may just be the breakthrough they need. If an accountant works from home, it does not matter whether that accountant is in Tibet or New York or Karachi. The already borderless virtual world will become even more important.
The coming days will be challenging. For humankind, there is nothing less macabre and unsettling than an invisible enemy whose contagion spreads in mysterious ways. The normal, already interrupted, will be reborn as something different and for those of us who will remember what had been before, it might be particularly difficult. We will remember the days when fear was not the ingredient of every embrace and handshake, the days when people collected together to work, talked and chatted and laughed (and even sneezed and coughed) on a regular basis. As we mourn that lost world, let us also begin to envision the transformed world of the future. That world is being born before our eyes.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, March 25th, 2020