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Three reflections on the coronavirus

The coronavirus has upended the world.

A few tiny dudus that seem to have emerged from a market in China have taken over our daily discourse. One country (Italy) is in complete lockdown; many others will have to follow. Wherever you look, airports are empty; airplanes are grounded; hotels, malls, stadia and public squares are deserted.

Here in Africa we have not yet seen any severe impact; but that may only be because we are unable to conduct the testing of our people to any meaningful extent.

As we grapple with the best course of action, allow me to share three reflections. 

First, we should all have had a moment of sheer humility by now about what we truly are. Many of us imagine we are titans. We have wealth, we have power, we have influence. This virus reminds us we are nothing. In my book The Bigger Deal I wrote that we are all just specks on a speck. Just one of the teeming billions on a planet that is itself a speck in the known universe. That’s us. Flesh and blood, fragile and vulnerable, gone in a moment.

The coronavirus reminds us that no matter how digital our intentions, our reality will remain very analogue. For now, we live on this earth, side by side, in shared spaces. Our coughs transmit as much as our routers do; washing our hands remains an essential activity, even as we work on virtual realities and intangible experiences. 

A second reflection: we should have understood that our best-laid plans are also nothing. They are fictions we engage in in order to make sense of our lives. Some of us may have looked at the year to come in January and thought it would be quite a profitable one; by March we are possibly counting the losses. That’s how it goes.

It strikes me that exactly ten years ago I wrote on this page:

“It is very easy to make detailed plans in the comfort of the training room, or the conference hall, or the boardroom. It is another matter altogether to adhere to the plan in the throes of battle or during the mayhem of a market meltdown.”

And I concluded: 

“What matters is not whether you saw it coming, but whether you can deal with it when it does. The ability to stay calm is more important than the ability to foresee. Resilience of spirit is of more use than a voluminous document.”

A final thought: pandemics remind us that at the end, it has to be people first. Human beings, not human resources. I shake my head when I see some politicians and some businessfolk putting money first, even at times like this. Their first responses to the crisis are not to do with protecting lives, but protecting their numbers. They worry more about the short-term reactions of their stockmarkets than the long-term capacity of their health systems. They mourn more for their falling profit margins than their falling countryfolk.

Before you open your mouth to question why ‘extreme’ measures like travel bans and lockdowns are needed, catch yourself. What is worrying you the most? If it is the effect on your personal wealth and prospects, then you are not only a speck on a speck – you are a rather pathetic one. A crisis is the time when all the specks understand their interconnectedness and save each other. It is not a time to be brooding over individual accumulations and depletions.

The economic impact will undoubtedly be grim. The world will suffer a demand shock and a supply shock simultaneously. Many businesses will be deprived of customers; many will be deprived of crucial inputs. Many will go to the  wall. But humanity has lived through many such turbulences in its history; it will get through this one as well.

The best thing we can do right now is not just to take every precaution for our own kith and kin – our biology will ensure we do that. What we must also do is invoke a greater spirit in ourselves. As common inhabitants of this planet, we should support the measures that are right for our employees and customers, not just our investors; and right for the most vulnerable, not just the most able to survive. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb has pointed out: policymakers in an epidemic should prefer to be the ones blamed for over-reacting. Those under-reacting might not be around in order to be blamed.

This is what bigger deals look like – they are bigger than us. This is the time to strike one in your own sphere of influence. 

(Sunday Nation, 15 March 2020)

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