Life after Covid-19

Life after Covid-19

Outbreak will redefine globalism, make us accountable, and make travel a richer experience, but in smaller numbers.

Shoppers walk through a tunnel designed to automatically spray sanitiser at the EmQuartier shopping mall in Bangkok. (Photo by Apichit Jinakul)
Shoppers walk through a tunnel designed to automatically spray sanitiser at the EmQuartier shopping mall in Bangkok. (Photo by Apichit Jinakul)

In a few months when the tumult caused by the coronavirus subsides to a level where people and governments have stopped panicking, and more clues emerge on how to stay safe or battle this scourge, there may be time to appreciate just how much the world has changed.

From an outpouring of global angst on social media to crackpot remedies and feel-good memes, the internet has crackled with the zeitgeist of our times -- abject terror -- its bandwidth devoured by the new crusaders clicking likes, and perhaps not very many actually doing anything about it.

One of the first things anyone can do, apart from continuing with safe social habits and enforced cleanliness, is to get working speedily in some productive sphere -- either your own or in borrowed garb if your industry has collapsed or the job has migrated.

National GDP everywhere needs rebuilding with effort and good cheer. Almost like the post-World War II world our parents built and bequeathed us, it will not come about through Facebook hilarity and Twitter outrage, though these platforms can all play a constructive role. A comeback on this scale requires hard work, sacrifice and perseverance; something the new generation will need to learn.

If anything, this invisible virus has brought the world together and shown how vulnerable our planet is. Suddenly something Greta Thunberg has gone hoarse shouting about is staring at us from our screens 24 hours a day.

The bug cares nothing for borders, passport, race, ethnicity, colour, age or wealth. It has been a great leveller of people and myths. There is a single planet. And it is time to mend it, from health and lifestyle, to addressing wasteful consumerism, divisive politics, supply chains and climate.

The mending happens with a changed worldview. While it is possible that the triumphal progress of globalism may come to a screeching halt with countries sealing borders and xenophobia rearing its head everywhere, it is more likely people and countries will realise they need each other to survive.

Travel is a powerful healing force as well as a disruptive agent. On the one hand it can offer hope for orphaned Cambodian amputees, and on the other it can devastate fragile tribal ecosystems through ignorant manners and a mistaken belief in the crusading might of the dollar and that all-important bucket-list selfie. No more trampling on people and their traditions. There is a need for sensible regulation to prevent overharvesting of tourism.

The world of tomorrow -- and it's right around the corner -- must be calmer, saner and more equitable. The anguish felt over the plight of frontline Wuhan doctors and Italian patients is a fraternal wake-up call. There is no us and them. And it has taken an existential threat to galvanise the world, discard old stereotypes and help shed some of its vacuous consumerism.

Despite the Wuhan coronavirus baiting and the "US germ warfare gone wrong" counterclaim, it is clear the world is too deeply enmeshed in globalism and global supply chains to pull out in an instant or even contemplate such action.

Loved or hated, China has created much of the world's recent prosperity, from brand-crazed shoppers in Hong Kong and luxury trippers in Bali to pharmaceutical supplies for much of the world from India to the US.

The iPhone is not manufactured in a single place, nor is a Boeing 787. Intricately embroidered dresses from Milan are often created from the sweat of nimble-fingered but underpaid children in Bangladesh or elsewhere. Parts for just about every must-have gadget, from solar panels to satellites, are universally sourced. We need each other as never before.

And that is the power of Covid-19 -- to unite the world as a single home. It will change the way people see travel. No more should tourism be practised as a locust industry that depletes local resources and turns fine art into tat as demand for tawdry gewgaws grows. No more can travel be a monoculture with hotels vying for just European guests or rich Japanese. Travel is for all.

When travellers of yore laboured across continents aboard a soot-spewing train, a cranky motorcar or a sedate ship, the experience was gracious -- a gentle incremental process, a growing relationship rather than a hurried one-night stand. People read up avidly on places and cultures and savoured the moment, the stories. It was immersive. It was the journey and not just the arrival.

The time has come to return to that enriching immersion in smaller numbers that do not overwhelm the destination, destroying the very things that drew us there in the first place.

The info-barrage on the Web, much of it wacky and designed for mass clicks, has reduced "education" to small sound bites, a snarky sentence in the Twittersphere, or a must-do Cappadocia Instagram pose. Amid all the primping and preening, lands and peoples have disappeared.

Lands and Peoples was in fact the title of a brilliant 1954 collection of handsomely bound volumes presenting the world with erudition and evocative photography. It sparked a profound curiosity and the travel bug in many.

It is time to rediscover this "lost chapter" with a vengeance. Do travel -- when it becomes safe to do so -- like it's the last meal on earth. Only then are you going to truly relish the diversity on offer as you appreciate another paradox: how much we have in common with everyone else.


Vijay Verghese is a Hong Kong-based journalist, columnist and the editor of AsianConversations.com and SmartTravelAsia.com


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