After a year of living face to face with SARS-CoV-2, it is high time to recognize the relationship existentially and give credit where credit is due. The coronavirus is confronting our species with questions and challenges that we never have consciously dealt with. For starters, humankind has not really inquired in the past if a virus had equal existential standing to us or might be superior to us in any way. We furthermore neglected to discuss if such an organism must be respected as a being with inherent inhuman qualities, dignity, rights and feelings.
This quagmire about a virus’s dignity arises in tandem with the bigger existential questions about viral intelligence, cognition, and existential validity when comparing the individual coronavirus to the average human or the collective coronavirus population on planet earth – notably, of the coronavirus population we know neither the exact number nor the approximate strength – to that of humanity as a whole.
This means we have to address the question if this virus might actually be superior to the human species not only by its short-term success but also in evolutionary validity and intelligence. Are we, who for the longest time have viewed ourselves as the smartest species, prepared to acknowledge that this humble virus has outwitted us?
This evaluation of the smartest species by the way is not about who can cause more havoc on planet earth or do more to impact its ability to sustain life. Notwithstanding that humankind may be the most invasive species on the planet, the jury is still a long way from determining if we are, in terms of irreversible impacts, the most destructive types ever to walk, crawl, flutter, slither, bounce around or somehow move on earth. But if we are not existentially more successful than the virus, it is time to relinquish the claim of being the only civilization-building and smartphone constructing species, and step back from the illusion that we ever were number one because of our perceived genetic greatness.
For someone or something coming out of obscurity – it may never be solved whether this virus has its direct ancestral ties to those purported Asian bats or to carnivorous geneticists sitting in secret labs – SARS-CoV-2 has not only survived the ignominy of being named by human scientists according to the strange aesthetics that characterize intellectual human convention in this age but also thrived.
There are some hard numbers that speak to the virus’s success – the obvious one being that SARS-CoV-2 in 2020 has infected a documented headcount of 100 million humans (of which 70 million infections have been completed under a total 97 percent plus recovery rate). In return, we are totally in the dark as to how many viruses we have infected. Further thinking in terms of satire – and shockingly for those humans who consider themselves the best of the best, meaning all local politicians, journalists, intellectuals, and other crowd pleasers – it has taken less than one year for the little critter to take over the global conversation.
In this sense, the pandemic has delivered the final evidence of our existential insufficiency. Even the staunchest defender of reason as the winning attribute of the human being has to acknowledge it: we do not uniquely stand out as the top species in terms of collective intelligence or cognitive capacity. In the category of species intelligence, the galactic race for the 2021 Nobel prize (I use the anthropocentric term for lack of a better synonym of the cosmic maker’s reward for the most irritating creations) is already run, and the virus has won.
The effectiveness of viral nudging
Moreover, we humans have to admit that the coronavirus has changed our lives in myriad ways, including in the war we waged against it. The virus, on the other hand, has apparently been thriving and mutating to its heart’s delight but at the same time has not killed so many of us that it is in danger of running out of victims. The message: not killing its host bodies to any larger percentages (as most of us wrongly expected) has become the first demonstration of how smart this virus really is.
Furthermore, from the two competing organisms’ social survival perspective, the 2020 count of global infections (never mind how accurate the tallying has been) obliges us also to recognize that the virus has changed human behavior incomparably more than the other way around. (It is even dubitable if human behavior played a causal role in the virus’s mutation process).
Virus-induced human behavior changes by contrast are unmistakable. On the level of everyday occupations and distractions, people have stopped indulging in almost everything previously considered part of a fun life: they are no longer traveling, socializing, going to sports games and movies, or shooting off fireworks as much as they did before 2020. Indeed, the very definition of what constitutes the key factor in the capitalist human existence – that we all live to work and deserve to feel miserable if we don’t have a job – has been put in question.
On a higher plane of social and emotional involvement, the viral nudge to human behavior change is even more existential. This is despite the fact that excess mortality related to the coronavirus has been assessed as noticeable only in an age group (septuagenarians and older) that accounted, less than half a century ago, for a much smaller part of humanity than today and despite the relative statistical insignificance of the total Covid-19 mortality in comparison to the global population from the perspective of humankind’s survival (the global population at end of 2020 was higher than a year earlier, and in the opinion of the United Nations (UN) there is no sign that the long trend of increase in the global population will flatten or reverse until very late in the 21st century). These statistical facts notwithstanding, the experience with the rise in Covid-19 fatalities has shed harsh light on the finality of death, and by illuminating death, also on the preciousness of life at any age as well as on eventual infirmity that precludes productive economic activity.
Without taking away from the prospectively beneficial change impulses to contemporary human behavior that could arise from a lasting post-pandemic appreciation of human dignity, social appreciation of the aged, and awareness of life’s important aspects in the population strata that are psychologically co-shaped by the experience of the pandemic, it has on the other hand to be acknowledged that countless peoples’ lives have been thrown over the last nine or ten months into an illogical economic and social rhythm of lockdown and infection, whereby increased infections translate into politically determined economic lockdowns. Medical outcomes of lockdowns, which are being regularly declared as successes by the politico-medical cabals, are with the same regular irregularity followed by the counter tides of existential depression and economic misery that the same lockdown-enforcing politicians and medical experts fail to address adequately in social or economic terms.
At the end of January, the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) press briefing on the world economic outlook update at the beginning of 2021, for example, gave an estimate that projected global growth for 2021 at 5.5 percent, partly attributing this slightly improved prediction to fiscal measures in rich countries. However, at the same time the IMF predicted that in 150 of the world’s economies, per capita incomes in 2021 will be realized “that are below their 2019 levels” – with implications for the life experiences and opportunities of the affected millions that are very far from being adequately assessed.
Noting that “there is a great deal of uncertainty” about the fund’s world economic forecasts, IMF chief economist Gita Gopinath as late as January 2021 could only confirm “that the crisis in 2020 still remains the worst peacetime global contraction since the Great Depression” along with a projected cumulative loss in global output of USD 22 trillion over the 2020 to 2025 period.
Other IMF observations at the end of January added for good measure that the level of average public debt worldwide, fueled by USD 14 trillion in global fiscal support by end of 2020, approached 98 percent of GDP by end of last year, a 14 percentage point expansion over what had been predicted for the same point in time before the pandemic entered the picture. Again, the impact of the new and old debt mountains on the social reality of the next several generations appears to be shrouded in foggy but predictably life-altering uncertainties.
What all this means in terms of economic outlooks on macro and micro levels – is simply that the people of the world can be no surer than their academic luminaries and economic augurs about how their lives will have to change individually or collectively from the lasting economic disruptions in the post-pandemic world on company, social group, sub-national, national, regional corporate, or wider levels.
One thing that is clear from the human economy perspective is that global risk perceptions have been fundamentally altered in the course of the past 12 months and are still being reshaped. Thus, the outlook of the 2021 risk report by the World Economic Forum (WEF) reflects the changed perceptions of economic leaders and policy decision makers by describing the report’s thrust as the convergence of societal fractures, from rising unemployment and youth disillusionment to pandemic risks and geopolitical fragmentation, with climate and environmental risk factors as existential threats to humanity.
In short, the WEF latest risk report’s implication of the 2020 geo-economic experiences with a contagion of pandemics and recessions is that, while long-term external and environmental risks are overlapping with short-term societal fractures, societal cohesion is more important than ever for future risk trajectories.
This increasingly clear big picture is not satisfactorily integrated with the short-term perspectives that the governments of G7 countries or multilateral agencies are able to present at this juncture of pandemic-related economic uncertainty in early 2021. Unfortunately, the evidence that harsh lockdown measures are more beneficial for reducing mortality rates, or more precisely either excess mortality among populations at large or excess mortality in economically active population groups, is so far absent. As example, a story by the editor of the Mises Wire (Mises Institute), focusing on the efficacy of lockdowns with focus on the Western hemisphere, noted last month that “the overall trend of infection and death appears to be remarkably similar across many jurisdictions regardless of what non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) [such as lockdowns] are implemented by policy makers.”
Recent think tank studies, such as one published in by the Sydney-based Covey Institute which ranked countries in terms of their effective ability to limit impacts of the coronavirus or Covid-19, are suggesting that the responses of the past year have had greater or lesser effectiveness in terms of reducing mortality and case numbers, but also indicate that despite great variations in pandemic responses, there is no uniform distance between countries. Different factors such as political organization or economic development level do in no way translate into foolproof methods of success in dealing with the coronavirus.
Additionally, current narratives such as the study by Covey do not actually reveal either the causal connection or even the correlation between harsh measures and long-term positive health outcomes. This uncertainty is blatant even without pointing out that those new surveys and behavioral studies are still failing in assessing quality-of-life repercussions or predicting medium-and long-term negative outcomes of lockdowns and economic weakening in most countries as far as mental health, longevity, poverty alleviation, social justice, and creation of job opportunities are concerned.
Rhetoric, from the global to the local level since March of last year, has been talking haplessly about the need for an economically functional society to be built on human health but, repetitions and slogans notwithstanding, this politically tainted global rhetoric is insufficient to politically or scientifically explain either the lockdown logic or the real medical and socioeconomic implications of varying lockdown implementations. The IMF, the UN and World Health Organization, and hosts of institutions and governments have been vacillating between pro-lockdown speeches on the importance of human health and warnings about the economic repercussions of those lockdowns and disruptions of global trade. All they have proven is the existence of uncertainty and entrenched glaring contradictions with regard to health and economy.
However, what seems truly unfortunate is how this rhetoric mutates while on its path down from top-tier multilateral institutions and developed countries and becomes tainted with increasing populism, ideological trash, and expressions of autocratic state behaviors. In the context of Lebanon’s patriarchal attitude of administrative powers, the ignoring of measured arguments and honest expert discussions along with long-standing deficiency in honestly conducting democratic public debates has recently reached extremely painful and disrespectful peaks of poor governmental communication.
Summing up the state of global pandemic affairs by the first month of 2021, medical science does not supply enough hard data and rationales for either hard or soft approaches in fighting the pandemic holistically and behaviorally; nor do either economic studies or medical research provide a full image of the human costs and benefits of lockdowns in their medical and social contexts versus their macro-social and economic risks and repercussions. All that remains to be repeated is that economies around the world have entered cycles of pandemic stop-and-go, with incalculable impacts of those cycles on human lives, physical well-being, happiness, and mental health.
But in turn, we don’t even know up to this day if all our lockdowns and quarantines have caused a single specimen of SARS-CoV-2 to stop interacting with singing, speaking, and breathing humans. From what we can deduct by having been the global laboratory specimen in experimental political and medical coronavirus responses by a handful of self-appointed virus czars and their economic serfs, all that has been achieved through one year of epic competition between the virus and mankind is that, from the virus’s perspective, there seems to be a practically inexhaustible supply of future hosts (approximately 80 times more humans could have been infected than are documented to have been exposed to it in the first year of market presence). But what is even more impressive: the viral reality of being talked about universally, of being a bug that controls human behavior politically, economically, and socially without having even a political platform, or a PR consultant.
Learning more from the virus
We can learn from the virus a great number of lessons. First among them is perhaps that human wisdom is no less elusive and fears are today no less irrational and no more existentially resilient today than they were four or five centuries ago. Our fears rule us much more than we cozily embedded intellectuals have noticed in the past 60 to 70 years that had been characterized by receding hunger and increased life expectancy.
The second lesson is medical: For humans, the competition with the virus will in the long and medium term be medically rewarding, with the urgent adversity of the virus boosting medical innovation far beyond what would have been possible even a year ago. Winning the Nobel prize of medicine (at some point) will be a shoo-in for the immunologists that create vaccines against the coronavirus. In the longer run, the new research into vaccines will be beneficial because it will faster open the vaccination doors against many types of cancers and infectious diseases.
The third and highly challenging lesson of dealing with the pandemic is economic. From the perspective of having attempted to build an economic science since well over a century of studies, observations, models, and theories, we have to concede that in economic life, there is still more between heaven and earth than our b-school wisdom lets us realize…
Our constructs and models – dubbed mistakenly as economic science – are only as good as the variables they incorporate. With much of the story of economic responses to the coronavirus appearing destined for the textbooks highlighting human foolishness, a long period of better research and understanding should pass before anyone should be deservedly awarded a pandemic-impact-related Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. But over this time, fundamental rethinks of economic safety and well-being – rethinks perhaps best historically comparable to the way in which the shock of the Great Depression reshaped its host country of the United States and how improvement of the developed world’s economic reality had been attempted through the Bretton Woods system – are going to be inevitable.
A large fourth set of virus lessons relates to human systems or societal organization and to valid principles of leadership or the lack thereof. The point zero of these SARS-CoV-2 aided realizations is that the ability to dominate the global conversation in this age of social media communications is no indicator of brains or value. Point one, if a political figure wants to guide their polity through an unprecedented crisis, whether war, famine, monetary dissolution, or other destruction of certainty, this political figure needs to have a strong basic trust in people. Point two, sudden crises will not be soluble by the old recipes and previous certainties or propaganda spiels. Point three, the systemic ability to deal with a crisis cannot be predicted on the basis of ideology and governance theorems. Point four, any crisis to be met in a democratic context requires tireless extra effort at achieving solutions by truly democratic and respectful opinion and decision making processes, however uncomfortable the democratic disagreements that they may involve. No democracy, however old and well instituted, will be sustainable if it fails to embrace the common good from diverse perspectives. Point five, any politician or leader in a crisis such as this pandemic – irrespective of coming from democratic, oligarchic, autocratic, or dynastic background – needs more than a ruling position. They should better be equipped with past achievements that build a bond of common determination between the polity and the leader.