In 1949, Captain Edward A. Murphy famously remarked that, “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” Close to a century later, this has come to be known as Murphy’s Law. It is the tagline for many realists world over to crush elements of blind optimism. After all, why would you seek to create a utopia out of society, when it could it all go wrong in a split second?
In January 2020, with the breakout of the corona virus pandemic from Wuhan, China, Murphy’s ghost finally haunted the world in a grand manner. COVID-19 has crippled the world. Almost every country in the world has imposed a lockdown. Media outlets are covering it so extensively that it is beginning to sound like a broken record. Life as we know may have finally hit that flat line on the graph.
Was Murphy right? Weren’t the signs there? Did we learn nothing from the black plague, the Spanish flu, the SARS outbreak or the recurrent Ebola situations? Why are we shocked that it went wrong? Like the ghost of Christmas past in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, the virus has made the world reflect.
Isreal historian and professor, Yuval Noah Harari, writes in his book Homo Deus, “During the last century humankind became ever more vulnerable to epidemics, due to a combination of growing populations and better transport. A modern metropolis such as Tokyo or Kinshasa offers pathogens far richer hunting grounds than medieval Florence or 1520 Tenochtitlan, and the global transport network is today even more efficient than in 1918. A Spanish virus can make its way to Congo or Tahiti in less than twenty-four hours. We should therefore have expected to live in an epidemiological hell, with one deadly plague after another.” The last sentence is captivating. We should therefore have expected to live in an epidemiological hell, with one deadly plague after another. A whisper from the ghost of our past, perhaps? Homo Deus was published in 2015, five years before our current pandemic. Then why does it sound so much like the harbinger to our current situation that we should have listened to but didn’t?
In truth, it is and it isn’t. We have had so many signs. Plenty of books have been written up on pandemics and what would happen if they broke out on a mass scale like the one we are experiencing today. We have had many epidemics that should have served as a warning. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates even had a TED-talk on this very issue five years ago. We saw the orange light for so long that we should have been more prepared to put our foot on the pedal when the light went green. But we didn’t. And here we are. Our epidemiological hell.
On the flip side, how were we to expect something of this magnitude? Sure, Bill Gates or Elon Musk can stand up, take the World Economic Forum stage in Davos and warn us of the danger of a comet hitting the earth while pointing at the one that obliterated most of the dinosaurs many years ago and we would still be shell-shocked if it happened. Such instances are far from our imagination or have such low probability of happening that dedicating millions of dollars in research grants to deal with them when they aren’t happening seems a little selfish, especially if you have ever-present problems like famine and diseases like malaria to deal with. In fact, even in this crisis, the grim reaper with his scythe is more likely to kill a family living below the poverty line in sub-Saharan Africa due to malaria or famine, rather than coronavirus. So, on the one hand, we should blame ourselves. On the other, we should be able to forgive ourselves for not knowing the consequences of our inaction.
The ghost of our past now opens the curtains for the ghost of our present. This virus has been the biggest reality check the world has seen since the Second World War. Like the war, where some Italians eventually lost trust in their leader Benito Mussolini, some countries have found themselves losing trust in their populist leaders. After all, what is the use of a president if he cares more about his spray tan and golf than the lives of millions of citizens, many of whom voted for him? Like the war, we may head into a deep recession after this crisis. Like the war, global superpowers are showing major cracks in their façade, and they suddenly look, as one Twitter user put it, like third world countries “with a Gucci belt.” Like the war, the increasing numbers of deaths are not a shock anymore. They are just another statistic, meant to raise your eyebrows as you take your morning coffee.
Protests against the lockdown in the United States of America and the casual life-as-usual lifestyle in Sweden in the name of a right to liberty have given validation to third world countries, where human rights like these are simply strokes of ink in a book and nothing more, to be violated by those in power at their own will. I find it noteworthy to mention that these “developing countries” are handling the pandemic better than the “developed” ones. It is a rather interesting scenario to see Donald Trump berate White House journalists on one channel, and to find Yoweri Kaguta Museveni sipping tea and calmly addressing his Bazzukkulu on another, like a grandfather would before dinner time. At times, it feels like we are watching the world upside down.
So, now that the ghost of our future is knocking at our door, what should we expect when we let him in? Well, first and foremost, a better medical system is a priority. Protocols should be developed by all governments so that other situations like this can be dealt with swiftly and with as minimum deaths as possible. Doctors have to be paid a lot more than they currently are. Medical response teams should be adopted a lot more in developing countries and people should be encouraged to use ambulances and other quick medical response programmes, especially those in rural areas. Adequate funding should be allocated to the building of hospitals with bigger intensive care units and equipment. Developing countries should also be looking at providing extensive health care insurance to their citizens, as well as monetary reliefs in situations where citizens have to undergo inevitable health protocols like institutionalized quarantine.
In terms of our economy, protocols should also be developed by governments in case such a scenario rears its head once again.
Monetary reliefs to people rendered unemployed due to crises like these should be put on the table. Digital shopping currently experiencing a boom should be encouraged through investment incentives by the Government to local companies offering these services. The transport sector should also be revamped, with the fast-tracking of the Standard Gauge railway and other internal railway systems such that less cargo is transported by road. This will reduce on the use of cargo trucks, which have recently become notorious in importing the virus, while not upsetting the market forces of demand and supply by interfering in the supply chain.
Murphy’s Law has an addition. Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong—and usually at the worst time. Fortunately for us, this is not the worst time. On the contrary, it is probably the best time to be facing a pandemic. This is the fastest rate of growth and learning humanity in history. We just need to pay attention to the ghosts of our past and present a lot more, shake hands with the one of our future, and get to building better systems. The future of humanity depends on how we respond to this because, as Yuval Noah Harari points out, this isn’t the last time we may be in such a situation. We should be realists so that when it all goes wrong in a split-second once again, we can be a lot more prepared and laugh Murphy’s law in its face.