When the new dawn breaks, as it inevitably must, it will reveal a tired world. A world in which millions will be struggling to pick up the threads of their lives, in body and in spirit, surrounded by the debris of livelihoods and the devastation of disease. Many will have to live on without a loved one. Many more will find that in this one year, they have grown old and weak and tired or simply, irrelevant. Some people will never leave their village again. Others will never unlock that shop front. Yet others will find that they are no longer required by those who once employed them.
The pandemic has brutally brought us face to face with the eggshell fragility of our industrial and post-industrial lives. It has exposed the perverse nature of our priorities. It has hit us in the face with the uncaring vanity of our over-stretched lifestyles. It has shone the spotlight on the cracks that man has forced in his pact with nature, and given a dark warning of the kind of vengeance that nature can wreak.
The future, without making it sound too dire, remains unpredictable. The virus has not run its course. The news on the vaccine offers hope but not a full solution. For that, nations will have to go back to the drawing board, consciously or willy-nilly. Budgetary priorities, social security nets, energy and industrial policy, environmental regulations, consumption patterns all need serious reassessment. Denial of these imperatives is always an option, but then so is suicide.
The international landscape is in disarray, reflecting the disorder within. The withdrawal of the US from global leadership roles, the decline of globalisation, the arrogant rise of China and the emasculation of alliances and international organisations have brought us to a point when the centre no longer seems to hold. The pandemic has exacerbated these trends and added its complicating impact on global health, international trade and supply chains, migration, tourism, financial burdens and so on.
An immediate rescue effort does not seem forthcoming from the usual quarters. Biden’s good intentions are unlikely to translate immediately into a silver bullet. He has internal problems: a galloping pandemic with nearly 12 million cases and fatalities fast reaching the numbers lost in World War II needs handling. A tanking economy has put more than 20 million on unemployment benefits. That this should happen in the richest, most developed country in the world is bad enough; that it should have been worsened by misgovernance is damning. This, along with the deep racial divides in society and the flagrant disavowal of democratic traditions by a sitting President, have badly dented America’s credibility as the leader of the free world.
The biggest beneficiary of America’s withdrawal is China. It has steadily increased its grip on the international system, even as it sets up its own parallel systems. Four of the 15 specialised agencies of the UN are headed by Chinese international civil servants. The WHO is not one of them, but its all-too-obvious bias towards China shows that country’s reach even in other organisations. China has also subsumed the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals within the rubric of its Belt and Road Initiative. The system that was built on post World War II idealism, to secure peace and development around the globe, is now being cynically subverted to meet China’s illiberal objectives. China disregards rules when it wants, even as it forces, as recently the case with Australia, to make other play by its rules.
But this is not about taking sides, or grabbing opportunities. In these dark days, human beings – and nations – need a vision, a hope, a light. The idiom in which nations deal with each other needs softening: idealism needs to replace the usual gruel of realpolitik, generosity must overcome reciprocity. The pandemic must be turned into an opportunity to repair human discourse. It will take time before America can recover its credibility, or Europe overcome its self-obsession or China be able to project trust. It is for India to once again occupy the moral high ground: let us recall that India’s non-violent freedom struggle inspired several other freedom movements.
The immediate human concern that needs a different approach is health care. India, while taking care of its own people, should also think of others. We should not be satisfied with our ability to produce vaccines but spearhead the campaign for equitable access for all countries, beginning with our neighbours, thus building on the 15 million dollar pledge by the PM to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance; this alliance needs another 5 billion dollars, and 2 billion doses for equitable access to vaccines by 92 eligible economies. A non-commercial outlook by our pharmaceutical giants will be critical; dividends need not always be immediate or in money terms.
Climate change is the other looming global risk. A mass movement in India, led from the top – say to ban plastic, or protect forests, or reduce fossil fuels – can catch the world’s imagination and take us beyond Paris. Biden’s ambitious plan aims to take the US to net zero emissions by 2050. Climate change, as clear from the high-profile appointment of John Kerry, is going to be embedded in policies across the government. But internal headwinds, including a possible Republican senate, will not make Biden’s progress easy; India’s partnership, in the form of a mass movement of 1.3 billion people, will be valued. Biden plans to hold a summit meet on climate in his first 100 days, where India needs to unveil an imaginative climate vision, not to please Biden or anybody else, but out of genuine concern for humanity. A battered world, tired of transactional one-upmanship, will pay heed.