Covid-19's conquest to spread, infect, and then to claim human lives around the world has sparked many discussions on its current and future trajectory and impacts. We have all been flooded with information. So far, however, the death toll is far less than what turned out in the recent history of causalities such as the wars in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iraq, and Syria, as well as the famines in Yemen and Africa. Yet the global pandemic continues to inflict panic and has paralysed much of the world.
Meanwhile, there has been enough castigation of the failure of the policymakers to curb the spread of the virus. Hiding the truth at the onset of the outbreak in Wuhan, ignoring the potential threat, and the unilateral decisions and action plans taken by each country without any visible coordination among global or even regional leaders—none has escaped criticism by the mainstream media.
The reality is that we don't yet have any drug or vaccine to cure the infection or prevent further spread of the virus. The only option that many countries are counting on is to remain locked down from within. More than 100 countries have restricted regular operations to cease any non-essential movement of the people. We have no definite answer for the countries that will remain under partial or complete lockdown and for how long the lockdown would last. Perhaps, that is until we are confident that we have successfully broken the chain of the deadly contagion.
We are sanguine about breaking this chain. However, will breaking the chain bring an end to the unprecedented challenge that the living have to muddle through?
Personally, I am frightened by the statement of US President Donald Trump about the possible greater loss of lives due to the economic crisis rather than the viral infection. I sense a similar forecast coming from many other global leaders, albeit in a different tone.
The focus now is on the economic and social consequences of the pandemic. Industries such as transportation, tourism, entertainment, hotels, and restaurants have already received the brunt of the corona heat. Perplexed employers and owners of SMEs are on the edge of the perilous cliff of their corporate venture. Shopping malls have ceased to operate, as rarely anyone today is fancying or willing to purchase daily commodities, garments, cosmetics, electronics, or stationaries. At the bottom of the pyramid, a grotesque number of low- and middle-income individuals are on the verge of losing their livelihood.
This "slowdown" or "standstill" will leave governments with a monumental deficit in tax-based revenues. In political or economic terminology, all these are signs of an inevitable recession. "That recession could be at least as bad as during the global financial crisis or worse," the Sputnik news agency quoted IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva as saying. In the middle of such a recession, despite the mammoth deficit, each government is expected to provide a matching economic stimulus package as "ventilators" for a gigantic number of SMEs who are racing for corporate ICU. Even if any government is able to provide such a package, how long will it work and how many will survive in the end?
In the education sector, from primary to tertiary level, classes and academic activities have come to a standstill. Teachers are struggling to adopt online teaching and assessment. Not all local or international students at home and abroad might have access to the internet in order to adapt to the transition. Numerous numbers of conferences and seminars have been cancelled while the research in laboratories is put on hold. Hundreds and thousands of research assistants and research projects have come to a halt. How soon will these academic activities—the key to moving forward—resume their regular venture?
No one has a definite answer to any of those questions. If anyone could come up with an answer, that would be no more than a calculated guess at this stage. It is because what we are going through and what is about to come have no historical precedent, and there are also worries about the digital-savvy generation that need to be tackled.
We opted to foster a generation with advanced knowledge and technology who are basically unaware of the skills and tools needed for basic livelihood. If the hundreds and thousands of businesses that are directly or indirectly dealing with tech-based products are closed, the tech-savvy generation will not only be jobless but also be clueless about any alternative avenues for their livelihood.
We are about to see the onset of a chain of reactions that will start with the loss of jobs, the scarcity of livelihood, malnourishment or even starvation. Will it then increase the political instability, corruption, and crime rate?
Stability, growth, peace, and harmony in any nation will be a far-fetched dream if Trump's prediction comes true. In fact, that prediction is not only applicable to the USA but also to the rest of the world. As IMF and World Bank in a joint statement acknowledged the potential impact—"the coronavirus outbreak is likely to have severe economic and social consequences for IDA [International Development Association] countries, home to a quarter of the world's population and two-thirds of the world's population living in extreme poverty." Pakistan, for example, has requested more than a billion dollars of aid from IMF to support corona-threatened industries. Yes, the Covid-19 pandemic will surely have global consequences. Let's hope that Trump's prediction on the possible numbers of death due to starvation and suicide will be wrong, like many of his other predictions.
The important question is: how to prevent the repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic on the political, economic and social realms on a global scale? Surely, world leaders are thinking about the challenges ahead. Will the global leadership offer a prudent and just solution to the crisis? This is yet to be seen. No doubt that the current world is desperately looking for leadership that will guide mankind to peace and stability on a global scale.
Dr Mohammad Tariqur Rahman is a professor at the University Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.