The answer is, not very, if it’s anything like the old one

The COVID-19 pandemic is like an X-ray into all the broken parts of our economy. We know what they are and have a grand opportunity to fix them, but it will take some visionary leadership, some exceptional courage, and an ample measure of imagination.

Although there has been much talk of a ‘new normal’, we’re not all talking about the same thing

In the aftermath of the firestorms that ravaged our country last summer, the likes of which we had never seen before, Prime Minister Scott Morrison spoke of a new normal. But not in the context of addressing climate change.

Likewise, in the depths of this pandemic, the PM is once again spruiking a new normal. But not one that addresses the social and economic frailties of our society.

What’s a new normal anyway?

And as if the old normal was leading us down the garden path to the good life — and thus something we all should aspire to. Surely we can’t be thinking of a shiny new normal but served up on the same old plate of painfully predictable politics?

Or as the political editor for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, Peter Hartcher, put it: “Relapsing to a pre-COVID agenda — a tinpot political agenda of focus-group-tested tax cuts and deregulation — would be a betrayal.”

A history lesson in the making, or is history just repeating itself?

The number of confirmed COVID cases worldwide approached 22 million this week. It has claimed nearly 800,000 lives so far. This number is predicted to swell significantly before a credible vaccine is discovered.

But history tells us of previous, more lethal pandemics. The Black Death, or bubonic plague — caused by the bacterium Yersinia pesti — killed 75 to 200 million people. It was by far the deadliest pandemic ever experienced, surpassing the Plague of Justinian in 541-543 AD that wiped out about half the world’s population at the time.

The Black Death arrived in Europe in October 1347. In only three years it had cut down as much as half the region’s population. It struck again in 1362, 1368, and 1381, and continued to periodically appear well into the 18th century — returning to Europe and the Middle East about every 10 to 20 years.

Of course the standard of healthcare and hygiene is far more advanced today than it was in 14th century Europe. Still, COVID, although not nearly as potent, could, like the Black Death, periodically resurface over the coming decades.

Is globalisation the culprit once again? 

COVID has moved freely along the corridors of international commerce, locking us down in our homes, precincts, states, and countries.

Shaking hands, kissing as a custom and of course, giving someone a hug, have become moments of awkwardness. No-doubt social-distancing is the hugger’s nemesis.

But considering the more tragic consequences incurred, how do we contact trace the origin and move to avoid a cycle of repeat waves. As far as we know, although not conclusive, COVID-19 originated in a live-animal wet market, possibly from infected bats, in Wuhan, China in late 2019.

Similarly, historians point to China as the origin of the Black Death — most probably the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.

And like COVID, the Black Death was a product of globalisation

Although, tourists have replaced the merchant traders of old, the global circulation of goods and people continues to grow exponentially.

Throughout the late middle ages, East-West trade prospered between the Italian city-states of Genoa and Venice and the great trading nations of the East — namely China, via a nascent Silk Road.

And perhaps coincidently, like our pre-COVID state of affairs, before the Black Death, jobs, wage growth, and living standards in Europe’s leading economies were all under immense pressure from worsening economic conditions. We might equate with this with the great global economic downturn of the modern era that began in 2007.

Forget a new normal — can we reshape the world?

Despite its ruthless annihilation of humankind, the Black Death sowed the seeds of a new era.

As the dust settled and people picked up the pieces of their broken lives, a Golden Age of art and science emerged — the Renaissance — in which Europe celebrated the wonders of humanity itself.

It seems that the Black Death gave people pause to mindfully contemplate the value of human life and human creativity. Its impact was so profound, it led to sweeping socioeconomic, cultural, and religious changes that altered the way people thought about the world and themselves.

COVID has inspired similar thoughts; thoughts of inclusiveness, resilience, and sustainability.

Could a crumbling global economy lead to another Golden Age?

Indian author Arundhati Roy put this in perspective in an essay for the Financial Times: throughout history, pandemics have forced humanity to break with the old world and imagine a new one. This pandemic is no different. “It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”

In some inexplicable way, the Black Death provided a respite from the mad scramble to avoid missing out in the socioeconomic stakes. What we now call FOM (fear of missing out). To some extent, COVID has done the same. A momentary hiatus from the universal competition for power and wealth.

Hope for a New Golden Age

Needless to say, the choices our political leaders make today will have far-reaching repercussions. A snapback to “business as usual” is untenable and ignores the scale of human suffering that has gathered pace over recent decades and been laid bare by the pandemic.

The Black Death, like COVID, did untold damage to human resolve. But somehow, someway, it led to the Renaissance, the greatest era of art, architecture, and literature in human history that shines just as brightly today.

Much like COVID, the Black Death had a humanising effect. Perhaps more than anything else, the poor treatment of our elderly, made more visceral by the pandemic, has brought to bear our shortcomings as a nation. As Mahatma Gandhi is credited with saying: “the measure of a civilisation is how it treats its weakest members.”

With this in mind, how about a renaissance of human dignity? Let’s foster a resurgence of human ingenuity in both the arts and sciences, and of human compassion and caring for the alienated and the impoverished, and the natural environment that gives us life.

A New Golden Age like the world has never seen!

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