Covid-19: The Post-Apocalypse

A couple hug in Jiangtan park after its re-opening on March 26, 2020 in Wuhan, Hubei province, China. With the permission of the local government, the park will reopen gradually. Local media have reported that authorities could lift the lockdown in early April. (Photo: Getty Images)

Even before the Covid-19 crisis is even close to being brought to an end, maybe it is just about time to think about the changes to the world it will leave us with.

Eventually we, at least those of us who haven’t succumbed to the disease or other complications from it, will emerge from the dark shelter of our homes and into the sunlight, blinking at the sudden brightness and the unfamiliar sensation of a breeze blowing against our skin, the sound of leaves rustling, or the chirping of the birds. The global moment of our various versions of incarceration have barely begun, but electronic media, print and online services are almost entirely consumed by bad news, dreadful predictions, and dire forecasts about the march of Covid-19 across the land and around the world.

But, now is actually the time we need to begin thinking about how Covid-19 will have changed our world — and us — by the time it has been beaten into submission. (Of course, if science and medicine are unsuccessful at that particular task, we, all of us, probably won’t be reading any such speculations. There won’t be time or inclinations for that. Instead, the survivors will be consumed by the need to pick through the rubble of burnt-out grocery stores, looking for any undamaged tins of baked beans and tuna fish that were left amid the destruction, like an episode of the old The Twilight Zone television shocker.)

Like any global event, this combined medical/public health/economic catastrophe is going to produce many outcomes in line with Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous formulation:

“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know.” But in our case, this time around, despite Rumsfeld’s warning, we will still take a stab at this, based on our experience with a world that continues to astonish us with its transformations and black swans, as well as our own fascination with the musings of so much speculative fiction.

So, let’s start with some easy ones. At a minimum, there are going to be dramatic effects on global commerce and economics. The great wave of globalisation over the past two decades, largely with China at its core, has been shaken to the core. Shuttering a significant segment of Chinese manufacturing for over a month or more, first with the shutdown of the city of Wuhan and the surrounding Hubei Province, and then with the knock-on impacts to other major industrial areas, has had serious effects on the rest of the world.

This was not simply because consumers and businesses could not access the production of Wuhan’s many factories, but also because so much global manufacturing now depends on supply chains that operate transnationally, with the inclusion of components and subcomponents from China, folded into production around the globe in thousands more industrial sites. Under these current patterns, an army of producers elsewhere have had to scramble furiously to find alternative sources of supplies so that they could continue their own production of practically anything. Moreover, the production of thousands and thousands of finished items such as medical protective gear including masks and shields has been significantly shifted to Chinese plants as well. The resulting shock of this combined public health and economic crisis will change this, despite the seeming inevitability of the current shape of it all.

All manner of companies will now be finding alternative sources of supply chain contracting around the globe — a real boost to countries seeking foreign investment, just as long as they can generate the governmental and economic climate for this important shift. But perhaps even more fundamentally, this crisis will generate a major manufacturing shift in localising production of all kinds of products through 3-D printing. This is the kind of effort that is already producing some items on the multinational space station and for a number of industrial producers on Earth. But the impetus from the above-mentioned pressure will, soon enough, make 3-D printing commercially viable for all kinds of products — even as it allows for a fine-grained individualisation of manufacturing in response to ever-changing consumer demands, all around the globe.

In fact, some rather clever folks are already 3-D printing ventilator valves — a crucial part of those medical ventilators needed in the current viral crisis. And this writer even has a 3-D copy of one of the famous fossil skulls from the Cradle of Humankind. On this replica, every detail, including the odd bits of sand grains still on the original here and there, are precisely articulated. The technology is only going to get much more sophisticated (and cheaper) in the next few years.

In education, too, major, even seismic shifts are coming at us quickly. Already, with schools and universities shut down around the world, instructors up and down the grade levels are experimenting with online teaching via applications like Zoom and WhatsApp. Libraries and art museums globally are making their virtual tours easily accessible and performing arts groups are making full productions available online in a variety of formats; and publishers.

Meanwhile, distributors are bringing a wealth of material available to teachers and students on a gratis basis. With the ongoing, enforced quarantining (or whatever one calls it), thousands and thousands of university students will be finishing their academic years via online instruction. One thing this crisis will do will be to open much wider the ability of students globally to participate in courses online, without the need to pay the astronomical fees the world’s top universities can now demand.

Educational entrepreneurs will be able to tailor degree and diploma programmes — as well as lifetime learning offerings — while drawing from a vast array of material from nearly everywhere. As instructors and entrepreneurs experiment effectively in building an easy interactiveness between students and instructors this way, the nature of the physical residence of students on a campus will increasingly begin to dissipate for mass education-hungry students. Some of this has already been happening, but this health crisis will create a great wave of new efforts this way.

Following the virtual collapse of the international air travel network, the utility and use of this interactiveness from education will increasingly flow towards the business and government spheres as well, given the significant cost-saving mechanisms they will become.

As soon as clever people begin putting together video conferencing systems that have more and more of the verisimilitude of real meetings, without the technological crankiness and tetchiness of a nuclear reactor, and without the extensive costs and bother of actual travel, the developers of really easy-to-use, cost-effective systems may become the next Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg combined. And using such a system will mean users will not have to remove their shoes, belt, watch, change, glasses, wallet, and cellphone while waiting for an embarrassing full body search by a bored airport security person ever again, unless they want to go somewhere really nice for a vacation.

Of course, this will also come with the increasing surveillance of people in public places and on use-in-common transportation systems. Expect more intrusive biometric scanning for potential diseases, right along with ever-more invasive security scanning by CCTV systems. This will lead to a rich, new area of litigation over intrusions into one’s privacy and deprivation of human rights, as we head into a world something like what writers and filmmakers conjured up in works such as Minority Report. Or a public space in various cities in China, perhaps.

The current health crisis and all this data, of course, will lead to growing pressures for much stronger international accountability for disease outbreak reporting by nations in the early stages of an outbreak, as well as much stronger networks between nations and their public health authorities, rather than the more leisurely consultative relationships now common. This too may lead to compromises with individual rights, especially if such surveillance gives support to ideas about locking down a whole city, a region, or even entire national populations until an epidemic can be brought under control.

The folks who think polio vaccines are a tool of the devil or are part of the plan that employs the New World Order’s black helicopter armies won’t like this, but after Covid-19, the global community, or at least enough of it, may be sufficiently shocked by what has happened to make it an international necessity of such monitoring anyway.

The effect on national economies by this latest virus is similarly going to be dramatic. The roller-coaster ride for stock markets globally (and their effects on savings, pensions, investments, and investor mental health) may well push governments to figure out more stringent regulations, tripwires and halts in trading. Given the impact and magnitude of the government bailouts now being instituted, there may well be pressures for greater government (ie, for the public) ownership of significant blocks of shares of businesses being aided in order to protect the peoples’ investments, thereby reversing a decades-long trend towards privatisation as the best formula for growth. 

But there will also be a broader debate about the appropriate role of governments in national economies. Some in America, for example, will now argue vociferously, such as presidential contender Bernie Sanders did, that the crisis has been proof that a mix of free market and public healthcare was simply unable to cope with the enormity of the crisis and only a national government’s unified response was the right way.

Others will argue, just as Joe Biden tried to do in a recent public candidates debate, that total government ownership of the medical sector, as in Italy, was a demonstration that such a system simply was unable to cope in the crisis. Instead, the flexibility of a public-private system offers better chances of coping in an emergency — but only if the government in charge is capable of rational behaviour and responds to the best information of the scientific and medical consensus, as the Trump administration manifestly was not.

In addition, the cost of care, and the implications for private insurance — its distribution, access to it, and so forth — instead of being seen as a largely settled issue that Obamacare was about as far as the political nexus would go — may become one of the major issues of this decade, especially as the country’s ageing population demands more and more health services, but rebels at the cost.

Yet another part of the global economic debate seems likely to increase in intensity — and that is whether an authoritarian system such as China’s (or to some degree, Singapore’s) is simply better capable and more agile in responding to such dire emergencies than the distributed power of the American federal system or the divisive politics in France or Great Britain. If so, the push for greater government control over societal decision-making may begin to lean towards the Chinese model once again, especially if there should be yet another such crisis arising from yet another novel disease, or from a major economic dislocation, or, perhaps, even a major manifestation of the global climate crisis’s momentum.

And so, three final thoughts. Given New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s leadership from the front in this current crisis and his total willingness to take on Donald Trump’s missteps and worse, what would happen if, in an act of unbelievable political magnanimity, Joe Biden announced that he wanted all of his pledged delegates to vote for Cuomo, and that the delegates did just that. And he won. Now that would be an American political game-changer, eh? 

This crisis is almost certainly going to have an impact on the world’s cultural and fashion spheres as well. We will undoubtedly see works about this crisis, in all manner of forms, ranging from contemporary reprises of some of the classics of plague literature, to the impetus for creative folks to find new ways to deliver their work, what with the closure of so many performing spaces and galleries around the world.

The disease may well give birth to a whole body of work that explores all the ramifications of such a disaster visited upon humanity, its ideas of philosophy, and about religion. Moreover, on a more quotidian note, just wait for fashion designers to work gloves and masks into their northern hemisphere fashion shows and clothing lines. You heard it here first. 

One other thought. This crisis, given the understanding there is a good chance an interspecies migration of the virus to humans came from pangolins — consumed as an exotic dinner speciality in central China — it has given a new lease on life for the preservation of the many species of these peaceful but endangered ant- and termite-eating creatures. Out of the disaster, then, at least one small victory for the earth’s environment. DM


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