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Coronavirus may be the end of the world as we know it – and that may not be a bad thing

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David Reiersgord works in international higher education, specifically on curriculum development and academic management for US study abroad learners in South Africa. He lectures part-time and is interested in literature, history and politics.

Without a healthy planet, we wouldn’t have a functional world. The Covid-19 pandemic reminds us that the Earth we live on is different from the world we live in. It has interrupted systems that organise nations and societies, like global transportation. There’s also evidence Earth is benefitting from the global shutdown.

Between 2010 and 2020, the health of Earth was foregrounded like never before. From melting glaciers to record temperatures and heatwaves, the Paris Treaty, the proposed Green New Deal and Greta Thunberg’s activism, the environmental and ecological health of the planet became central to our lives. Despite this necessary attention, we seemed to forget about the world.

It’s true that without a healthy Earth we wouldn’t have a functional world. At the same time, the Covid-19 pandemic reminds us that the Earth we live on is different from the world we live in. It has interrupted systems that organise nations and societies, like global transportation. There’s also evidence Earth benefits as images show canals in Venice appearing cleaner and bluer and skies over major cities have become less polluted.

Although we have a tendency to use “Earth” and “world” interchangeably, it’s useful to think about the differences between them. On the one hand, “Earth” is singular and refers to the natural realm, the planet we live on and its varying environments and natural resources. On the other hand, “world” is plural and refers to the human-made realm, including structures and infrastructures like cities and supply chains, which order how and where people live.

There is only one Earth but there have been — and there are — many worlds. There was the prehistoric world, the ancient world and the colonial world. We live in the modern world. Moreover, there are different kinds of worlds. There are the Western and Eastern and so-called First and Third Worlds. There are the developing and developed worlds. Sometimes we meet certain people who remind us some people are living in their own worlds.

During this moment when the stability of the worlds we live within is threatened, we would be wise to think through the implications of distinguishing the important nuances between Earth and the worlds within it. We may live on the same planet but we live in different worlds.

Although there are multiple worlds, there are (or perhaps were) overlapping features that characterise them. Whether one lives in the northern or southern hemispheres, the west or the east or the so-called developing and developed worlds, we’re accustomed to interacting with other people. If one’s lucky enough to have a job, one is accustomed to working outside of the home. We’re accustomed to seeing our family and friends. We’re accustomed to physical contact. We’re accustomed to staying out late or choosing to not go out at all. We’re accustomed to being able to move about. We’re accustomed to choice.

Without the same latitude to choose, when practising social distancing guidelines and observing measures related to stay-at-home orders and lockdowns, many are contemplating “new” normals in new worlds. What kind of world compels people to choose between working and their health? What kind of a world will it be if we are unsure of returning to work, or nervous to hug, let alone see, friends and family?

When a world ends, there are people — especially politicians in governments — eager to form new ones. In the coming months and most likely years, we’ll likely see policies and programmes that build up and strengthen inadequate social safety nets that have become stagnant. In Minnesota, in the US, Representative Ilhan Omar proposed housing legislation that would temporarily suspend rent and mortgage payments during the Covid-19 pandemic, and provide a framework for tying federal funding to more flexible housing practises for landlords and lenders.

The economic downturn in South Africa and elsewhere around the world, stemming from lockdowns and stay-at-home measures, has illuminated how unprepared not just individuals but also communities, states and provinces and nations are for a major crisis.

The coronavirus has additionally given leaders the chance to strengthen their power. We may continue to see policies that limit freedoms we’ve taken for granted. For example, will testing and tracing techniques used to contain the coronavirus lead to expanded domestic surveillance projects? How might immigration debates be refuelled by fears and anxieties related to the Covid-19 pandemic?

The potential of a new world is a politician’s dream because the end of a world has the tendency of laying bare and exacerbating what was wrong with it. By distinguishing between our Earth and the worlds we live in we may be able to anticipate how specific measures may provide relief in the short term but limit us in the long term. We may also be able to reimagine how existing infrastructures and systems can be utilised to bridge the gaps between the diverse and unequal worlds we live in.

The Covid-19 pandemic presents us with an unprecedented challenge that probably means the end of whatever world we live in.

What will new worlds look like? What will their limits be? What will the extent of the particular adjustments to behaviour and broader changes to society be?

To formulate answers to these questions we should recognise the ways in which there are multiple worlds that are not experienced in the same way by different groups of people, in different countries on Earth. DM

David Reiersgord works in international higher education, specifically on curriculum development and academic management for US study abroad learners in South Africa. He lectures part-time and is interested in literature, history and politics.

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