Turning Crisis into Opportunity

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The crisis is an opportunity to free humanity from the model that creates and sustains poverty. ― Muhammad Yunus

The unprecedented COVID19 pandemic has changed our world entirely and in every respect. It has shattered our perceptions of reality that we took for granted, and has caused terrible misery all around the world, not sparing any country, or any segment. It has left very few of us totally untouched, or unchanged.

Understanding and recovering from this immense “force majeure” requires creative thinking coupled with courage. Recently Muhammad Yunus – the Bangladeshi Nobel Laureate (whom I admire very much), wrote a very inspiring and thought-provoking essay on how we should consider this as an opportunity to create a totally different kind of new world, without the drawbacks and negativities that existed prior to COVID19.

The most heartrending and memorable scenes of the pandemic in India are those from the hospitals and of the migrant workers. We saw that they were suddenly abandoned by employers and landlords, and also not provided for properly by the respective governments either due to bad planning and oversight, or corruption by intermediaries. Apart from being merely moved and paying lip service to them, can we think of concrete ways to reorder and reimagine the post-COVID world, to make India a better country for the poor, and for all of us?

Amidst the current gloom and doom due to job losses, sinking economies, deaths, rising mental health crises, etc. it might seem incredulous to believe that we can look at this as an opportunity to reform!! However, I concur with Dr. Muhammad Yunus and believe that we can do it, and should definitely try! Let’s trust the eminent economist who brought millions out of poverty (by founding the Grameen Bank and pioneering the concept of microfinance) with his innovative thinking! 🙂

The best way to start is by first examining whether the pre-COVID19 world was a perfect one and whether its direction was promising and healthy. After some reflection, I do not believe that it was an optimal world: there was growing poverty, increasing inequality between the rich and poor, wars, terrorism, destructive climate change, rising pollution etc. Therefore, it’s time for new ideas and new ways of thinking. We do not want to return to the same old vicious world with all its problems.

I have been brainstorming and came up with some ideas and would like to share them with you all. I would love to hear your opinions/counter-arguments.  I have mainly 6 points:

1.   Sustainability: The first point that I would like to address is one that I’m very passionate about – the environment. There is a dire need to immediately address climate change and global warming. Every day, we hear from scientists and environmentalists about how we are irreversibly destroying the environment via unsustainable practices. We are foolishly destroying the very planet that we are living on!! The current pandemic, and the recent cyclones Amphan and Nisarga in India, are grim reminders of the destruction that we are heaping on ourselves. Global warming is predicted to give rise to more frequent and harsh calamities like severe cyclones, famines, and droughts in the future.

One of the positive by-products of the worldwide lockdown was reduced pollution that resulted in clearer skies and lower temperatures! So, we should think of this as an opportunity to turn over a new leaf and make the environment a top priority by going green. 😊 Let’s adopt new policies that give utmost importance to sustainability, and penalize actions that destroy the environment. We have no time to waste…

Repeatedly, environmentalists have stressed that buying local produce and local goods is much healthier both for the environment and for us, because we do not need to transport them over long distances by burning vast amounts of fossil fuels. Relying on local products will reduce pollution, as well as mitigate the threats posed by global warming. It will also transfer some power from multinational corporations to smaller local enterprises and farms, thus reducing inequality.

We observe many politicians and industrialists paying only lip service to climate change and going green, while they do nothing to support the cause. So, as citizens and consumers, by being vocal for local, we can force them to take environmental issues more seriously.

2.   Combat growing inequality: The consistent argument for globalization has been the economies of scale and lower prices, but at what cost? In the last two decades, the world over, we have seen the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, and inequality rising exponentially! Is this what we really want – wealth and power concentrated in a few hands and countries? Shouldn’t we give preference to labor-intensive local industries that generate large scale employment? And be willing to pay a little more for products, for the sake of the poor, and the environment? It’s time to convert our recently generated empathy for the migrant poor into concrete action, by preferring local goods that generate mass employment. Think beyond the prices….

3.   Combat consumerism: Globalisation and economies of scale have given rise to mindless consumerism. Is it really necessary to upgrade our mobile phones and electronic goods every year, at the expense of the environment? Imagine the amount of e-waste that we are generating! The pandemic has once again reminded us of the things that really matter: health and well being, sustainability, clean air and water, kindness and empathy. We can instead spend more on non-polluting local handicrafts, and handlooms etc. that are environmentally friendly, and provide mass local employment.

4.   Internal Security: India has been especially unlucky when it comes to neighbors and defense matters. Unlike European nations, or the US, or Canada, which do not have to worry about being attacked or terrorized at their borders, we have to constantly expend our energy and resources to address this issue. We have to keep increasing our defense expenditure to buy arms and weapons to protect ourselves. While doing this, we are simultaneously, and foolishly, making our enemies more powerful by importing most of our products from them!!

How is this justified? We should support our soldiers by importing only from friendly democratic countries that do not threaten us militarily, apart from going local. Why are we allowing ourselves to be colonized all over again, in a different manner?

I believe that there are no universal truths in economics or geopolitics. We need to evolve with the times and innovate our approaches to problems accordingly. A few decades ago, it was favorable for us to open-up, while right now, it might be favorable to turn partially protectionist. In any case, the process of globalization has not been entirely fair to all. Some countries still set up trade barriers and tariffs for certain goods, and other countries manipulate their currencies. The pandemic has also revealed the great risk of over-dependence on other countries. We need to think specifically from an Indian perspective, focus on cost-benefits, and our internal security.

We have a very successful example from our history. Gandhiji’s Swadeshi movement was immensely successful as an economic strategy, and it helped us gain independence from the British. It also gave rise to a healthy nationalism that united the country against an oppressive and exploitative power. Time to learn some lessons from the Father of our Nation, by adapting some of his solutions to modern times.

Maybe we could trade only with countries that are democracies and avoid those which threaten us. Recently, I came across a very informative and inspiring video by the Ladakhi educator and engineer -Sonam Wangchuk, who advocated that we should boycott Chinese products since China threatens us and supports terrorism against India. Awesome and innovative thinking!! Let’s avoid wars and use our power as consumers instead.  We, especially the middle class and the wealthy, need to have some values and not look only for lower prices, or profits.

5.   Develop Independent Thinking: When you reflect long enough, it’s quite obvious that what is good for European countries, is not necessarily good for India. Each country has its own unique requirements, problems, and challenges. Many democracies in Europe like Germany and Italy, are okay with doing business with China because it does not threaten their internal security! They are doing what is good for their own interests and their own people. But, we cannot blindly follow suit when our realities are different.

We have a huge internal market, an exploding and now unemployed labor force, and worrisome border tensions. Given that China and Pakistan are in collusion and work together against us, we need to think independently and should not be bullied into conformity.

6.   Digitalization Challenges: Growing digitalization combined with globalization has given enormous power to technology companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube etc. in an unprecedented manner. They have access to massive amounts of data on each citizen and possess an unhealthy information advantage over their consumers. Many of their policies are not transparent and are based on proprietary algorithms. We should be worried about this for several reasons because it threatens independent thinking, encourages biases, and might lead to a form of neo-colonialism. Recently, Youtube was found to be autodeleting all comments that were critical of a particular country, and Twitter selectively fact-checked certain tweets. While I have no problem with the particular correction which was well-informed, it brings up the subject of “distributive justice versus procedural justice” (perceived fairness of outcomes versus perceived fairness of decision processes). Shouldn’t there be more uniformity and transparency expected from social media platforms that wield enormous influence over consumers and citizens, and their thinking and decisions?

To sum up, I think we could do the following:

1.   Encourage local production and be prepared to pay a little more for local goods if it helps our environment and internal security.

2.   Mindless consumerism should be discouraged because it pollutes our air, water, and land. Do we really need to upgrade our phones and computers every year? This results in so much e-waste. We could cut down unnecessary mining and deforestation, long-distance transportation and ground and water pollution. Instead, spend more on ethnic handicrafts and handlooms that don’t pollute and provide sustenance to the poor. Preserve our arts and heritage. 🙂

3.   Buying local reduces the need for more oil. We have seen so many destructive wars being fought over oil – eg. Iraq war.

4.   Trade only with friendly democratic nations that share our values, and encourage democratic values.

5.   Go beyond paying mere lip service to our migrant workers, lets support policies that ensure more jobs and prosperity for them.

6.   Learn to think from an India-centric point of view, instead of following only Western viewpoints. We are the largest democracy in the world, with 1300 million citizens, it’s time we showed some “thought leadership”.

7.   Coming to nationalism and patriotism, we have been led to believe that they are bad for us, but, is that true? It was certainly bad for Germany and some European countries – for different reasons. But, in contrast, nationalism has been good for India because a rise in nationalism led to the fight for Independence, and resulted in an independent India!! So, we need to think independently for ourselves – not merely adopt views that emanate from the West.

8.   Let us reduce our dependence on countries that give us bad headaches. 😉

Let’s stop being a nation that merely outrages at problems, and let’s look for solutions. Hope you agree, would love to hear your thoughts and counter-arguments……….

 

 

 

 

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