What we witnessed across the world over the last four decades is the unfolding of a process of unprecedented globalization of economic production, consumption of goods and services, human mobility and communication. The result was an interconnected and interdependent world system that created conditions highly conducive for the spread of the Covid-19 virus across the world within weeks. Today, there is hardly any country which is not affected by the pandemic. Since internationals mobility of people is the means of the rapid transmission of the virus across national borders, all countries have either closed national borders or severely restricted immigration and emigration. Airlines across the world have grounded most of their fleet. Since physical mobility of people across countries is reduced to a trickle, much of the interactions and exchanges among people take place through electronic means.
Economic globalization mentioned above has been accompanied by an equally significant change in the human geography of the world. This is the steady expansion of the urban population across the continents giving rise to many mega cities in all regions of the world, in particular, Asia and South America. Unlike urbanization in the already industrialized western countries, rapid urbanization in many developing countries has resulted in unprecedented rural urban migration leading to overcrowded mega cities with large poverty stricken slum populations there. A large majority of people living in these cities are part of the informal economy that does not ensure decent jobs, income security and social protection. Usually living in poor settlements, most of these people have no secure housing, clean water and safe sanitary facilities. These economic, social and environmental conditions have made many developing country cities highly vulnerable to public health hazards like the current Covid-19 pandemic. This is what we observe today in many large cities in South America and South Asia.
Excessive globalization made countries, particularly, large cities in these countries, heavily dependent on global flows of goods and services, financial capital, labor, tourists and cultural products for their sustenance. When public health restrictions such as travel bans and lockdowns were imposed to contain the spread of the virus, it is the large majority of urban dwellers dependent on informal economic activities who became extremely vulnerable.
Disruption of the global economy due to Covid-19 pandemic has already impacted on both developed as well as less developed economies around to world to varying degrees. The most severe impact is evident in countries that are heavily dependent on a few export commodities, tourism, export of labour and external financing of development projects. The economic situation is worse in countries that are heavily dependent on imports of essential commodities like industrial products and intermediate goods like technology products, equipment, industrial raw materials, energy, etc. As is already evident, Sri Lanka fits well into this picture.
The emergent, externally generated economic troubles coupled with lockdowns naturally lead to adverse social conditions. Loss of employment and livelihoods, disruption of services like transport, curtailment of mobility of people and reduced access to charities and welfare services, etc. have made life extremely difficult, if not intolerable, for low income families and those with no income.
Medical scientists have already warned that the Covid-19 pandemic is not going to fade away anytime soon. They hope that an effective vaccine,once developed and becomes widely available across the globe, will contain it, allowing people to engage in their usual economic and other activities. Yet, none can rule out the possibility of another global public health threat like Covid-19 emerging in the near or distant future. It is against this background that we need to figure out how the post -pandemic economic and social systems should be envisioned to make economic and social systems resilient and sustainable in the face of global threats.
As is well known, today, we are living in a world where there are not just threats to public health but a whole host of risks that the world community has to grapple with. Some of these risks are connected to the ways of life that most people around the world got used to over the last several decades. The three most important ones that need some elaboration here are climate change, pervasive environmental pollution and risks produced by the modern technology. These latter three are human induced and therefore, can be dealt with only through human interventions like planned changes in the way we live via evidence based public policies. Yet, this will not happen automatically. It is necessary to create public awareness based on scientific information and persuade concerned citizens everywhere to demand evidence based policies to arrest the negative trends.
The three big issues beside the Covid-19 pandemic are well known. Taking climate change first, scientists have shown the worsening trend over time clearly and, if not decisive measures are taken everywhere in the world arrest the trend, the world will face a catastrophic situation with its terrible well known consequences. As for the second human induced calamity we witness everywhere is the massive environmental damage done through diverse human actions related to development, consumption and the dumping of toxic and non- biodegradable waste into the environment over decades leading to piling up of massive amounts of synthetic and toxic material in the seas, pervasive air pollution, loss of biodiversity, etc. All this is the result of irresponsible consumption of everything and almost everywhere through a process of mindless, unsustainable economic growth in many parts of the world to enable the rich and the powerful to pursue a life of affluence with no regard for the welfare of the rest.
Turning to technology as a source of risks to people and societies, it is obvious that, as much as people marvel at the amazing possibilities of modern digital technology, the virtual world that it has created over the last several decades, modern technology is not a panacea for all the ills in human society. While recognizing its potential for helping societies to deal with many existential problems, we also need to recognize the obvious dangers involved. Just think about nightmare situations created by cyber crime and the inability of internet based tech giants to contain negative tendencies like spread of fake news, hate speech, etc. Also think about not so modern technologies like green revolution technology that has had a massive negative impact on the production of food and other crops and biodiversity. These and other issues need in depth discussion that cannot be done here.
Covid-19, as mentioned before is not going to quickly disappear from the world and societies that have been affected would have to deal with it for quite sometime to come. On a global level, it is quite clear that the world economy that existed at the time the pandemic emerged in China became highly vulnerable and, as result, countries that were intricately connected to it also became highly vulnerable. In other words, economies of many developing countries excessively dependent on external economic relations for development finance, employment, livelihoods, imports of investment goods, etc. were not resilient in the face of the pandemic. Moreover, countries characterized by significant income inequality, social disparities, weak public services and inadequate social security systems could not provide adequate mitigatory measures to cushion the weaker segments of society against the adverse social and economic effects of the pandemic.
Sri Lanka’s experience with the pandemic and continuing impact of the disruption of global economic relations on the country’s economy and society shows that it is unwise and unrealistic to expect an unproblematic return to pre-Covid-19 economic and social conditions even when the health risk is behind us. It is therefore necessary for us to explore sustainable and realistic pathways to development and public welfare taking into consideration the challenges posed by the present pandemic, possibilities of future pandemics, climate change and obviously unsustainable and unjust nature of the pre-Covid-19 unequal global economic and social order. While the progressive world leaders and global institutions such as those of the UN family need to play a critical constructive role to respond to these challenges, Sri Lanka as a country needs to find its own way to make the country’s economy and the social system resilient, sustainable, just and inclusive. This is the time to begin a wide ranging policy analysis on the lines outlined above in order to come up with realistic policy guidelines for the country.