The World Around Us
October 20, 2020
Reflections on a World Already in the Making

VLADIMIR ILYICH ULYANOV, better known by his alias Vladimir Lenin, once said that “There are decades when nothing happens and weeks when decades happen.” In the context of 2020, at the risk of exaggerating, we can rephrase this statement and say that there are years when nothing happens and months when centuries happen. The challenges facing the world now are many and they are complex. However, each challenge is a sub-plot to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic which has disrupted the world as we knew it and is seemingly re-making the world as we may soon come to know it.

In his new book “Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World”, Fareed Zakaria, the American journalist, political scientist, author and one of the ‘top ten global thinkers of the last decade’ (Foreign Policy), writes about the future of a post-pandemic world. Zakaria foresees the political, social, technological and economic effects of the pandemic that might take years to evolve.

According to Zakaria, “This ugly pandemic has … opened up a path to a new world.” In Zakaria’s treatise on the post-pandemic future, these are some of the lessons we are likely to learn: the quality of government matters more than the quantity; markets are not enough; life is digital; and inequality will get worse.

With respect to government, Zakaria places a premium on good government. Good government or good governance is measured by the United Nations on the basis of the eight factors of Participation, Rule of Law, Transparency, Responsiveness, Consensus Oriented, Equity and Inclusiveness, Effectiveness and Efficiency, and Accountability. One additional measure that I would include here is good and effective execution of policies. Zakaria makes the case for “a competent, well-functioning, trusted state” as one of the lessons that the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us.

The invisible hand of the market is a metaphor often used to refer to the unseen forces that drive the free market. This approach contends that the market will find its balance without government interferences. However, one thing that years of economic depression and global turmoil has taught us is that the free market is a myth. Zakaria argues that the market is insufficient. According to Zakaria, COVID-19 appears to be accelerating the trend towards the idea that governments will need to accept a more active role in the economy. As the Financial Times argued earlier this year, this more active engagement on the part of governments will demand a social contract and radical reforms that benefit everyone, inclusive of basic income for workers and higher taxes on the wealthy.

The other point that Zakaria makes is that digital life is on the rise. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought into sharp focus the fact that there is a real digital divide between the richest and poorest countries, and between the rich and the poor within countries. While some countries and certain sectors of societies within countries have switched almost seamlessly to working and studying online, others have struggled. Yet, the future is digital. This suggests that countries and societies that fail to integrate into the global digital economy will be the ones left behind in a world that is increasingly shifting online.

The idea that inequality will worsen is both sobering and frightening and Zakaria makes it clear that one of the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic is that inequality will indeed get worse. Even prior to the pandemic, the world was a very unequal place and what the pandemic has done is expose the depth and breadth of this inequality. According to Oxfam International, the world’s 2,153 billionaires have more wealth than the 4.6 billion people who make up 60 percent of the planet’s population; the 22 richest men have more wealth that all the women in Africa; and the richest one percent have double the wealth of 6.9 billion people. The notion that inequality can get worse than this is deeply troubling. However, such an outcome is not inevitable because as conscious beings with the capacity for reason and compassion, we all have a collective responsibility to ensure that this outcome is averted.

Finally, we live in a world in which it is easy to become distracted and attention spans often last for as long as a hashtag is trending. However, the world in the making demands our attention as well as our minds to ensure that we shape a future that generations to come will thank us for.