THE Covid-19 pandemic is much more than a passing horror. Official statistics, especially in developing countries, are largely meaningless. The pandemic will potentially kill millions around the world through waves of succeeding pandemics and the secondary effects on body and mind over years to come. Global warming, the greatest existential threat, indirectly influences the emergence of pandemics and renders “once in a century” natural disasters much more frequent.
Vijay Kolinjivadi, of the University of Antwerp, says both Covid-19 and climate emergencies “have their roots in the world’s current economic model — that of the pursuit of infinite economic growth at the expense of the environment”. According to him: “the insatiable greed of corporate capitalism for natural resources has forced humans to encroach on various natural habitats and expose themselves to yet unknown pathogens”. The biologist, Rob Wallace, in his book, Big Farms Make Big Flu, says: “this created the perfect environment for the mutation and emergence of new diseases”.
The arc of human presumption is bending towards human extinction.
Covid-19 and its succeeding pandemics are likely to occur with shorter and shorter intervals between them. This will fatally distract and disable states and societies from addressing the existential challenge of global warming. Likewise, irreversible global warming, which is on course to set in around 2030 — unless a global revolution of peace and cooperation intervenes — will similarly render states and societies incapable of addressing any serious challenge, including further waves of Covid-19 or other global pandemics.
Covid-19 and climate change may appear to have contrary impacts on the environment. The pandemic could lead to economic and industrial collapse, thereby drastically reducing carbon emissions, which would temporarily allow the global environment to slowly recover from its current trend towards irreversible disaster. Climate change, on the contrary, if not quickly and significantly checked, will compel humankind to cope with ever-increasing global warming and its several lethal consequences. Ordered human society will not survive much beyond the current century.
So, Covid-19 and ensuing pandemics on the one hand, and climate change and its direct and indirect lethal derivatives on the other, are actually working in tandem to soon destroy human civilisation. Unless, of course, we assume the current pandemic will be effectively contained over the next year or so; it will not be followed by secondary morbidity effects and succeeding waves of pandemics; the fortuitously improved environment caused by industrial collapse and dramatically decreased carbon emissions will be sustained during the economic recovery after Covid-19; and a global political epiphany will guide the world towards a comprehensive ‘green new deal’ which would transform national policies, including foreign policies. India-Pakistan relations, including a Kashmir settlement, will need to fit the paradigm. Possible?
These are ‘heroic assumptions’ for which one may pray and hope. But for the time being, there is insufficient factual basis to make them realistic expectations. This is because of (a) the nature of the overt and covert corporate/military dominance over governance in much of the world and (b) the corporate capitalist economic model that prioritises the interests of not even 0.01 per cent of the world’s population. In Pakistan, ruthless and unending high-level corruption is on daily display, including the current sugar and wheat scandal. This is a classic instance of elite governance through class warfare. In such circumstances, merely honest and well-intentioned leaders may at best bring about piecemeal improvements, but never the systemic structural change required for survival.
Since the departure of Pakistan’s founding father, no government — whether constitutional or unconstitutional, civilian or military, elected or unelected, predominantly religious or secular, rhetorically progressive or conservative, headed by competent or incompetent leadership — has been an exception to the elitist class warfare structure of Pakistani governance. The powers that be are prisoners of their own class interests. They are also morally challenged. They have neither the time or interest nor the courage of their stated convictions in order to listen, engage, learn and improve.
Noam Chomsky rightly observes that Corporate America supports both socialism and the welfare state, but only for itself, not for the people. The US government’s massive coronavirus relief package for the more vulnerable victims of the pandemic is in fact a multi-trillion dollar bailout for Corporate America. American working classes who comprise most of the victims of the pandemic are expected to be “rugged individualists” who need little or no help from the government. Corporate America and its minions around the world have systematically sought to dismantle, disable or limit public healthcare systems. Biden’s victory over Sanders is emblematic of the near impossibility of economic and political reform in the US.
Dependent elites in most countries, including Pakistan, follow similar paths, even when their leaders proclaim themselves socialists or supporters of the welfare state and champions of the poor. Bhutto’s cover was Islamic socialism. Today we refer to Medina. The pattern of budgetary allocations remains unchanged.
Accordingly, the underclass will die in proportionately larger numbers than the middle and upper classes from Covid-19. The people of Pakistan are not in this pandemic together. They are in it as unequally as they were before, and as they will be afterwards. Climate catastrophe, being far more insidious and overwhelming, will be more egalitarian in its human devastation. The only way out of this fatal morass is a comprehensive transformation of state and society.
This cannot come about within the structures that have governed Pakistan. Saving Pakistan will require the dismantling of such structures, which can only happen if there is a family of people-based movements both inside and beyond Pakistan. Otherwise, the world will end, in the words of T.S. Eliot, “not with a bang but a whimper”.
Antonio Gramsci stressed the need for civil society to be intellectually pessimistic, but with a will that is optimistic. Otherwise, as Thucydides would say: “the strong will continue to do what they can, and the weak shall continue to suffer what they must”. Until, at last, the curtain finally drops.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, India and China and head of UN missions in Iraq and Sudan.
Published in Dawn, April 11th, 2020