Lockdown is a not a new invention. We share history with those who lived through the repeated tragedies of the plague and with the societies that suffered in the invisible hands of the Spanish flu a hundred years ago. What is different today are prosperity, the predictive tools and the much-improved ability to communicate governmental messages and have their restraints respected. As Finland has demonstrated, most of the world had the option to prepare much better for this sort of calamity, but almost all other countries decided against comprehensive prepping despite the stark warnings of SARS, MERS and Ebola. The current tragedy could probably not have been completely avoided, but it would have been contained significantly had we deployed our wealth wisely and exercised our options with more foresight.
Our upcoming book, ‘Essays on the Optional Society’, takes a close look at how society and individuals will be affected by the plethora of options we have and will gain in the future – options that are put in our lap because of the digital revolution, globalisation, and the rapid growth of wealth we experienced until the corona virus brought it to a halt, but hopefully not to an end.
A society full of options may appear an unambiguous good, but will, in fact, present dangers as well as opportunity. How we act in the current crisis is an illustration of both qualities.
Resilience is what we are looking for now and options are a key element. When one way of living and operating becomes impossible, others will open up. Yet options can be abused, can also lead to new appalling inequality, for instance, and that influences resilience.
This brings us back to the specifics of corona. The wriggle room that options give makes sure that we do not go hungry during lockdown, because we can quickly modify supply chains (look at the explosion of delivery services). But options are very unequally distributed, and it was heart wrenching to read about the American single mothers on hourly pay that had to go to work even when sick with corona. For them the options picture was: work or let the children starve! All the ‘great leveller’ talk proved empty. As always, the underprivileged become even less privileged when disaster strikes.
If we decide to build the optional society in a conscious fashion in order to make sure that its benefits will touch everybody, one important task will be to create resilience in such a fashion that a shift in tectonic plates will not automatically sacrifice society’s weakest. Future resilience dictates that everybody’s daily life be moved well away from the breadline – that a safety buffer be there for all.
The inequality in options exists not only within countries, but very much between countries and regions, as well. Ebola showed that, with proper leadership, rich countries could insulate themselves from a highly contagious virus. There was virtually no spill over. In West Africa however, Ebola was a terrible killer and one reason was that the region did not have the range of options available to rich countries. They did not have an army of doctors and nurses that could be re-deployed, they could not communicate health messages efficiently and effectively, there was no physical and human infrastructure that allowed proper quarantining, let alone a meaningful lockdown, supply chains were not easy to re-arrange. Options were there, but far too few.
The corona virus is making its way to Africa now and there is a horribly big risk that a continent starved of options will see disaster of an unimaginable scale. The rich world that is monopolising all debate is not addressing this issue at all although the delay function in the spread of the virus is giving time to protect these vulnerable populations. Just as we cannot let the single mother be too close to the abyss, it is a moral imperative not to leave Africa to sink or swim. Our options, and the wealth that options have created, must be deployed now to assist Africans. There is no time to waste!
The upshot of all this is that the optional society can become a libertarian wet dream with all the attendant inhumanity, or it can become a society of solidarity where options work for all. What we will do for Africa today is the harbinger of the way we will go tomorrow. To choose solidarity or barbarism is the ultimate option facing us!