To cite this article: Sturt-Schmidt, James (2020). When crisis becomes opportunity, The Millennial [Online], Available at: (this page URL).
The SARS-CoV-2 virus (commonly ‘novel Coronavirus’) has wreaked havoc on a global scale. Deaths are already in the tens of thousands, whole countries are on lockdown, schools are closed, jobs at risk, health services stretched thin, and the future uncertain. It is a global crisis. A rare phenomenon in that it has considerably shaken the the world’s richest nations, what we can consider the ‘West’, or the ‘first world’. Accustomed to our luxuries, our freedom, our ‘what-I-want, when-I-want-it’ individualistic, neoliberal capitalism. Our 24/7 supermarkets and our busy-bee lifestyles where we move, and pollute, for reasons that are already beginning to feel distant and insignificant. The meetings that could, after all, have been emails. The infinite growth to which we have, for far too long, given infinite importance.
Confined to our homes, many with well stocked fridges and cupboards, unlimited Wi-Fi, Netflix, central heating, gardens to enjoy the arrival of Spring. Birdsong. It’s a bitter-sweet experience, to realise just how fortunate we are, how privileged. And the realisation of how quickly this virus will claim lives in the developing world, where social distancing is itself a luxury that few can attain. Where access to health care was already difficult. Where food was already scarce, or inaccessible, for many. The crisis of the developing world is simply not comparable with what we are experiencing in Europe. I may use the same word, but I am not drawing comparisons. Now, I wish for us to explore, to indulge ourselves, in the crisis of the first world.
There’s definitely a cycle, a process, in this crisis. First, the distant news of a virus in China. Later, an echo, moving closer, reaching Italy. My brain, programmed to Eurocentrism, tells me that this news is more real, more relevant. So I listen, with a little more interest, before continuing with my day, too busy to give it more than a passing though. Weren’t we all? Then it was upon us, within the confines of the land we call a country, a nation. But still, it seems so far away. Far away from the bubble of safety, of privilege, the false sense of security, of invulnerability, to which we had become so accustomed. Most of us have not known war, famine, disease. But we complain nonetheless.
In the minds of many the virus was “just the flu” or, for others, a complete hoax. Fast forward: Brexit, a distant memory. Now, at around 5pm, we gather before the television to hear about our nation’s battle plan against the invisible enemy. But with the fragmentation of modern society, the diversification of how people source their information, and the prevalence of social media, the panic of the public is directed in every direction imaginable. Though mainly, as we’ve seen, towards the toilet paper aisle.
Fast forward again: the schools, closed. A new reality, where a strange cocktail of wartime-like nationalist sentiment and an attempt at a sort of makeshift social solidarity encourages us not to take up arms to fight our enemy, but rather to sit on the couch. Too much to ask, it seems, for many. Borders are closed, flights cancelled, economic growth put on hold. At the same time as we must stay apart, we are somehow brought closer together. If not by our common panic buying of toilet roll, then by the phrases that now form part of our daily vocabulary, like ‘stay at home’, ‘social distancing’, ‘isolation’ and ‘quarantine’. A shared experience across the globe. At the same time as borders are being more tightly policed, they feel less real than ever before. We are one in our susceptibility to this virus. Just another species, like any other, on this spinning rock we call home.
So here we are: at home, in crisis. And now, without wishing in any way to trivialise the situation, or to ignore the lives that have been – and will be – lost, I want to tell you that this is a great opportunity. Perhaps for you, and quite possibly for me, but most of all for humanity…
In the UK, this pandemic has somehow created a situation where the Conservative government is essentially implementing – albeit temporarily – a form of Universal Basic Income. Millions of people find themselves at home, temporarily liberated from the need to work, their basic necessities (food, shelter, security) met by the government. I don’t know about you, but I’ve contemplated many-a-time what I would do in a world where I had the freedom to do with my time as I please, with no need to sell my labour for money. And I’ve lost count of the times that I’ve contemplated “all the things I could do, if only I had the time”. And now, unexpectedly, I do. This ‘crisis’ is, in some ways, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experiment with the idea of an ‘ideal’ life. Is the grass really greener? Pressured by these reflections, and the knowledge that it will not last forever, I have found a thousand questions enter my mind. The one question that lies beneath them all? What can be learnt from this?
With ample free time (sorry, parents of young children), comes the opportunity for introspection. A moment to take check, to reflect. Sir Isaac Newton once said, “Truth is the offspring of silence and meditation”. Indeed, he said this after he himself was confined to his mother’s farm during the plague, during which time he ‘discovered’ gravity and invented calculus (no pressure). For many, this may be the best shot we ever have at discovering our own ‘truths’, to contemplate questions which may give us a greater sense of direction when we finally break through the other side of this pandemic – which we will. Questions like, ‘Where are we going with our lives?’, ‘Would we feel at peace to find ourselves, like so many, on our death bed during this crisis?’, ‘Have we prioritised what is important to us?’, ‘And on that matter, what is truly important?’. As we mourn the fallen, as the figures rise day by day, perhaps we allow ourselves to feel the omnipresence of our own mortality, which we so often obscure in the furthest corners of the mind, where it grows darker and more threatening. In 2005 Steve Jobs, aware of his pancreatic cancer diagnosis, told Stanford graduates:
Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.Steve Jobs, 2005
Not only could this crisis provide us with a greater sense of individual direction, but it raises innumerable questions about the direction we are taking as a society and as a species. With hundreds of countries in lockdown, nature has been given a chance to breathe. Wildlife has already begun to reclaim urban spaces, air pollution has plummeted in great Metropolises-turned-ghost-towns, and the world has become stiller even on the level of seismic disturbance. We could consider the thought, for a moment, that humanity is to the Earth what SARS-CoV-2 is to us. We multiply, we sicken our host, we turn the environment toxic for its other inhabitants and we extinguish life – in the billions. This virus can reveal to humanity just how toxic we are, how fragile we are, and how much we need to change. For the good of the planet, but also for ourselves. The pandemic is just a very small taster of the crises that will accompany climate destruction if we fail to act. At the same time, it is forcing us to consider options which may become essential in the journey to carbon neutrality (E.g. working from home, limiting all travel, sourcing food locally, creating a circular economy).
The data that many scientists are scrambling to collect may give us critical insight into how contemporary human behaviour affects our environment. At the same time, we are also seeing political and economic experiments being played out left, right and centre (pun intended). In the contemporary neoliberal economy, the government’s economic function is basically to create an environment where market forces can ‘do their thing’. The ultimate aim: infinite growth of a country’s GDP, despite the lack of evidence that this is a good signifier of happy, healthy citizens living meaningful lives. Due to this pandemic, we are seeing governments – to some extent, at least – intervening in economic processes in extraordinary ways in order to protect the health of its citizens. I actually find some hope in some of the measures that have been taken. It demonstrates that, given the right conditions of mutual danger in the face of a common threat (or enemy, as it has been called), along with collective panic and fear (catalysts for change), most citizens will allow their ‘social contract’ with the government to go as far as to control the operations of their companies, limit their individual freedom to roam, reduce their monthly income, and limit the commodities available to them. If there were a party promising to re-open businesses and give people back their freedom at this present moment, I doubt people would vote for them (though I may be completely wrong). I believe that, at least for the time being, the threat of the SARS-CoV-2 virus is sufficient for the public to accept these conditions.
Now, perhaps it goes without saying that this brings with it some reasons to be concerned. A ‘common enemy’ doesn’t always have to be a legitimate, tangible threat. We have seen time and time again how dictators and corrupt leaders can fabricate and exaggerate this sort of ‘threat’ to create the necessary conditions of collective panic for them to secure greater power (Hitler and the Reichstag fire, Trump and his wall, Leopoldo Galtieri and the Falklands War etc.). However, given that climate change is a real threat, then this situation shows that given the appropriate level of panic that it arguably should create, we do – as a society – have the potential to make drastic changes and accept personal sacrifices if it guarantees our survival. The difference, of course, is that this virus does not discriminate. The real, tangible consequences of climate change, however, will be felt in less-developed countries long before they pose an existential threat to European citizens. Perhaps the key is in how we view our global citizenship as a result of this pandemic… Will people come to see themselves more as global citizens, or will this cause our ‘circle of compassion’ to become ever-smaller?
These are just some of the many questions that I have considered over these last four weeks. The answers aren’t really important. At this stage, it is the very process of questioning the things we usually take for granted that has the potential to radically change society. It is no longer enough to accept the way society is, just because “that’s the way things are”. We need politicians, as well as every citizen, to truly question the status-quo if we are to even contemplate some of the drastic changes that will become necessary as we move forward. This crisis has undoubtedly shattered the paradigms of understanding that so many people have held for so many years. Boris Johnson’s life is currently in the hands of NHS nurses after he cheered the decision to block their pay rise back in 2017. Now if that doesn’t change Boris Johnson’s political views, maybe there isn’t any hope after all.
I’ll end this exploration of ideas here, though I will leave you some other questions. Should you wish to explore any of these, or if you would like to offer a potential answer, please leave a comment or get in touch.
- What should the priorities of government be? What is its role in modern society?
- How much importance should we give to the economy?
- How many deaths is an ‘acceptable’ number in this pandemic?
- What are the moral obligations of citizens in a pandemic?
- Is refusing to stay at home to prevent the spread of the virus as morally reprehensible as killing?
- How should doctors choose who deserves limited ventilators, if confronted with the decision?
- What are the moral obligations of health workers when required to work, to save lives, without the proper protective equipment? Would it be immoral for them to refuse to work? Could it be considered self defense?
- Should other key workers, like bus drivers and supermarket staff, have the same right to protective equipment as health workers?
- What should be the role of healthcare in society? Should it be given more importance than other institutions, for example education?
- Should we rethink the status we award different occupations? How can we define an occupation’s importance?
- Should we rethink our economic system? If so, how should we change it?
- Are hierarchies necessary for large, modern societies to function?
- What is the role of authority in government, and to what extend should authoritative power be used to protect citizens, even if they do not wish it?
- What constitutes a good leader, and what powers should they have?
- What purpose do the concepts of borders and nation states serve humanity?
- How can we understand the behaviour of panic? Is panic in this crisis justified? Is it rational?
- What are the reasons for the panic buying of toilet paper? (The question of a century)
- What role should the physical sciences play in society and in government? Should climate scientists have more influence than economists?
- Why have scientists’ warnings about pandemics (and climate change) had so little political impact before this crisis?
- Why do people believe in conspiracy theories? How do these theories gain traction? What can this tell us about ‘knowledge‘?
- How can this crisis enable us to face the climate crisis?
- Why does society find deaths from malaria, air pollution, heart disease, and violence against women more acceptable than deaths from SARS-CoV-2?
- What should be the role of the media in a pandemic?
- Is social media a positive or a negative factor in this crisis?
- Do the needs of those geographically closest to us take moral priority over the needs of those further away?