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It might seem counterintuitive to be thinking about what the world is going to look like after the current pandemic has passed, but it’s actually the ideal time.
That’s the firm belief of ethicist and Dalhousie University research professor Françoise Baylis.
“We are only starting to see a little bit of what that new world is going to look like when we come out of this. Because at some level we all know that this is going to come to an end in some way, shape or form,” Baylis said.
“At the end of it people will have died. People will be without job prospects. People will have seen their savings evaporate. People will have experienced conflict in terms of some of the issues around the behaviours of their neighbours, whether that’s hoarding or not following social distancing recommendations or what have you.”
Baylis believes we need to be thinking now about the choices we make in terms of handling the crisis, because policies created and decisions made today will shape what this new, post-pandemic world will look like.
“That new world is going to be different. We know from past crises of this nature that when we come out of it, things will change,” she said.
And change they do. There are many books, news and journal articles detailing how past epidemics and pandemics have resulted in sweeping social, cultural, economic, and political changes.
In a March 15, 2018 article published in the medical humanities journal ‘Hektoen International,’ Salvatore Mangione examines how several epidemics over a 1,000 year period changed history.
“They should all serve as a reminder that diseases can change history, whether they afflict people or leaders. This remains an important issue for the twenty-first century,” Mangione wrote.
“Still, if there is a silver lining to epidemics, it is that they are the great equalizer: the multibillionaire in the penthouse and the homeless in the street are both utterly powerless against bugs. And that is a refreshing thought.”
Although it’s impossible to predict possible outcomes, Baylis suggests we may end up with better social safety nets as a result of this pandemic. But we may also see the demise of a number of universities.
“At some point there will be all kinds of fallout that we can’t even yet anticipate, and I think that we’re not yet seeing conversations about what the future might look like as a way of informing how we should be managing things now,” she said.
“Because that’s what’s going to shape what the new world is going to look like. I think there’s some real opportunity here to do some creative, moral thinking about the world that we want to move into and how we’re going to think globally a little bit better than we do now.”
Baylis said the way the virus is moving throughout the world obviously means some people and nations will be impacted first and others last. Imagine, she asked, if those who were affected first and are now emerging from the other end of this crisis immediately offered help to those currently being impacted.
“That help is happening right now, at least from what I can see, mostly on the science side because scientists are putting information out there quickly and freely accessible in a way that they didn’t do before for all kinds of science problems,” she said.
“Where I’m not seeing the global response yet is more in the policy realm. It’s an interesting thing to think about. What does it mean to be wealthy and to be poor both at an individual level and then at a societal level and then at a country level and the huge disparities that we have tolerated.”
The emergence of COVID-19 as a global threat has shown that we are all equally vulnerable, but Baylis doesn’t believe we’ve yet embraced our need to pull together on a global scale.
“The decisions we make will affect the world that we’re creating and one of the things that I’m worried about is the ways in which the decision making I’m seeing is mostly within our borders,” she said.
“For example how many people were rushing to provide help to China? How many people now are rushing to provide help to Italy? And I’m not saying that they aren’t, but I’m saying what would it be like if a country that was relatively well set up was saying ‘I’ll lend a helping hand.’”
But how can we even begin to deal with this on a global level when people are struggling to cooperate on a community level? Baylis said there’s reasonable evidence to suggest the vast majority of Canadians want to follow the rules and that’s where we need to shift our focus.
“I’m wanting to believe that the majority of people want to do the right thing. I really do genuinely believe that. Do I think that there are some people that don’t? Yes…There will always be those people,” she said.
“The thing is not to empower them and to really focus on where are the majority.”
Baylis said she remains “deeply and principally” committed to the idea of solidarity, something she believes will get us through this crisis and the ones we’re sure to face in the future. To make the world a better place for all of us, we need to help jurisdictions where people are socially and economically vulnerable.
“It’s not just about COVID-19. There are lots of issues that matter to all of us in terms of our survival and there are only going to be more,” she explained.
“We have to think of ourselves as a human community and that means we have to have a commitment to solidarity and that’s been very hard for us.”
Baylis points to climate change, antibiotic resistance, and artificial intelligence as just a few examples of issues that impact all humanity. She said COVID-19 has highlighted the fact we’re in a shifting world and it has required quick and rapid global responses.
“This is just one more piece that’s either pushing or nudging, it’s forcing us to pay attention, and if we stay in our burrows and we choose to think that oh individual countries will solve this on their own, then we’re making a huge mistake,” she said.
“That point was starting to be raised in the climate debate. We all share the air, we all need clean water. It’s the same thing here. We all need to have a certain amount of security with respect to our health. If we can’t interact with each other we’ve got a global problem.”
Baylis is currently self-isolating in her home after returning from Vietnam. While there, she wrote about her direct experience of that country’s public health measures implemented to counteract the virus.
She said it highlights gaps that exist in terms of approaching this pandemic using a global approach.
“We’ll look back with 20-20 hindsight and think about how things might have been different if we’d had more or less trust at different times and how different places will have benefitted from the ways in which the virus is moving,” she said.
“Many people are already saying ‘Look, you had your warning and you didn’t heed it.’ You could say that of Canada.”
When Baylis first left Canada in early February, she was enroute to a WHO meeting in South Africa. She recalls how despite it being “business as usual” in Canada, when she landed in Cape Town her temperature was immediately taken.
“That was my first indication that ‘Wait a second. What’s happening?’ That was February 19,” she recalled.
The World Health Organization (WHO) only declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11.
When Baylis returned to Canada from Vietnam on March 19, she went through three different airports in Canada (Montreal, Toronto and Halifax) and said no one took her temperature.
That was in stark contrast with what was happening in Vietnam when she left. It was impossible to enter a coffee shop without using hand sanitizer provided for customers outside the doors. If you didn’t use it, she said someone would approach you and squeeze or spray the hand sanitizer in your hands.
That left her wondering if our current situation would be any different if temperatures had been checked at airports here a month ago. What if weeks ago people were being urged to fastidiously wash their hands, socially distance themselves, and use hand sanitizer in public? She thinks people might have better seen it coming.
“But from what I can tell in Canada, you’ve gone from everything looking normal to within a week you’re locked in your house pretty much. That’s my impression,” she said.
“I was getting accustomed to this because as I was travelling the world, I’m seeing what they’re doing and I’m thinking ‘Oh my gosh. This is really serious.’”
When we finally emerge from this crisis, Baylis said we must be attentive to the ways in which the world has changed. Her biggest concern is for youth. From simple things like how many have lost summer jobs that would have paid for their schooling in the fall to more complex issues like mental health.
“I think we need to have a focus on youth because while I recognize many people are going to be negatively impacted, our youth I think are going to be in a potentially very bad way,” she said.
“They were already coming into a scary world with concerns about climate and what kind of world they would have, and now you’re adding this to it.”
But she also sees hope and is buoyed by the positive stories of neighbours helping neighbours during this pandemic coupled with the efforts of front line workers and so many others.
“When we come out the other end there will be people who will have died and we need to think about that,” she said.
“But we also need to think about all the people who did something to make sure lots of people could live.”
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