“The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.” — The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam
ANOTHER year seems to have passed in a flash. But like last year, 2021 too was lived under the shadow of the pandemic. The shadows seemed not as long as they had been in 2020 for by the beginning of the year, the promised vaccines were here, giving hope that the life we once lived could once again become our present. And as 2020 had been the year of lockdowns, self-isolation, social-distancing, 2021 brought us jabs and booster shots and discussions about who got Pfizer where and what one could mix and match with the Chinese shots we had to initially settle for in our part of the world. Were the new words which became part of our vocabulary, cheerier than what we were forced to adopt in 2020?
But despite the vaccine miracle — and miracle it was for never before had vaccines been tried, tested and brought to the market this rapidly — the pandemic didn’t pass into oblivion. It had seemed at one stage that we would defeat the pandemic within a year or so with the quick vaccine roll-out compared to the two years the Spanish flu had lasted.
But this wasn’t to be, for while humankind may have conquered illness with medicine, it has not been able to defeat selfishness. So, vaccines were raced across the world and deployed at lightning speed but it was only so in the richest countries, where two doses were followed by a booster and then even a fourth. But in other parts, the virus continued rampaging. Delta has now been followed by Omicron, which may have emerged in Africa but its causes surely lay elsewhere. In a globalised world, the virus is proving no easier to put down than the Spanish flu 100 years ago, where the world didn’t race to find a vaccine and promise a fairy-tale ending. Mankind’s success can go only so far. Despite this, we should acknowledge that the roll-out has broken the link between infections and deaths.
However, two years is a long time, especially during a pandemic. It brings change viciously though quietly, as people are distracted by the loved ones lost and the fears of becoming part of the statistics. In these two years, even in our neck of the woods, some trends have been hastened by the pandemic. The move online seems to have been bucked while for some the conversation about working from home or more flexible hours has become a reality. In the West, change seems to have come faster and with more intensity, as did devastation caused by the virus.
Is this the first time big changes will take place without a major war and the destruction it brings?
We may be dealing with our own demons and economic chickens coming home to roost, but the economic battering the West took due to the pandemic is still manifesting itself. Those who have travelled to London or New York testify to the changes visible — businesses have shut down, long established retail brands have disappeared online or simply closed shop, unemployment has risen, and governments are struggling to put the economy back on track. There is little to indicate the recovery will be quick. That China seems to have emerged relatively unscathed has added urgency to the discussions of a changing world order and the Sino-American rivalry. But more importantly, as Adil Najam, academic and man for all seasons, points out, or rather asks, is this the first time major changes will take place without a major war and the destruction it brings?
But even outside of the great power rivalry (for those of us who prefer to view the world from this lens), 2021 brought big changes. In the Middle East, the Gulf States introduced reforms that left many of us gaping. Sweeping political and cultural changes — perhaps inevitable since the Arab Spring and the changes in the world oil market — were introduced especially towards the end of the year. The Middle East, after all, was the one part of the world left quite untouched by the changes which swept many parts after the Cold War ended. Boundaries changed (in the former USSR as well as in places such as Yugoslavia), as did regimes but the Middle East seemed to be frozen in time. A thaw had finally begun with the Arab Spring but even that left the Gulf untouched. Now, however, the Gulf also seems to be in flux but it’s yet to be determined how deep rooted and sustainable these reforms are. And unlike the Arab Spring, in the Gulf the changes are coming from the top.
At the same time, it reminds me of the end of the Cold War; one argument put forward for the changing boundaries in the 1990s was that this was simply the collapse of the Russian/USSR empire as the end of the Second World War had led to the collapse of the British empire and to the emergence of new states. Could the changes in the Middle East be linked to present shifts in the world order?
Nearer to home, this year brought the exit of the US from Afghanistan and some of what we witnessed is reminiscent of the 1990s when a superpower’s defeat also led to American distancing from the region — and Pakistan was left dealing with instability and sanctions. Back then, it was the Pressler amendment and this year was partly dominated by our struggles with FATF and IMF. And the global rivalry of China and the US has manifested itself in our debate about our economic problems and in matters such as the pace of CPEC in a way we have not experienced before. But then, we have not been in such troubled waters financially before either. Indeed, the world is changing rapidly, yet we continue to hope that the global balance of power will bring us another bail-out. But only Pakistan can bail out Pakistan.
The writer is a journalist.
Published in Dawn, December 28th, 2021