/ 4 April 2020

Covid-19’s silver lining: A taste of a post-development world

Disinfection Of Public Transport In Yerevan, Armenia
A man in protective gear disinfects a bus. The disinfection consists of washing the exterior of a bus, dry sweeping and wet cleaning the inside and aerosol spraying. (Artur Harutyunyan Tass via Getty Images)


In one of his many books, Richard Dawkins, that famous populariser of a modern version of Darwinian evolutionary theory, observes that during his zoological studies at Oxford University his tutors continuously encouraged him to consider the philosophical implications of his findings. If zoology and philosophy are strange bedfellows, the same could presumably be said of medicine and philosophy. 

Taking Dawkins’s remark as our cue, what reflective gloss can we place on the Covid-19 pandemic that has swept the globe? This, as it so happens, is an interesting perspective, because we have been steered into a post-development world overnight. 

The prefix “post”, of course, implies a “radical break from” the idea which it qualifies. Post-development — which is by no means popular in developing economies of the Global South, including South Africa — is the notion of a mindset beyond business and making money. But over the past decade there has been a growing awareness among development scholars of the importance of stressing the concept of “enough” rather than “as much as possible at any cost”. Sometimes the adjective “feminist” is added to arguments that advance a post-development agenda, and rightly so.

Just as feminists have contended that women have been ravaged by exploitation, post-development feminist thinking suggests that our finite planet with its limited (re)sources has been subjected to this very same form of greedy exploitation. What is called for, instead, is caring. We should learn to treasure values such as happiness and emotional wellbeing for them to coexist with material prosperity.

The Americanised version of mean and selfish, unbridled capitalism — there are other, more palatable versions of capitalism — has delivered us into the hands of human-induced climate change (or “climate crime”, according to climate activists). Consumerism, which underpins unbridled capitalist development, has mushroomed to the extent that the environmental activist Arundhati Roy, the author of the Booker Prize-winning novel The God of Small Things, suggests that we require five Earths to cope with our current demand for resources.  

Globalisation, one of the pillars of consumerism, allowed the virus to spread around the world with lightning speed and has been curtailed by a demand to “flatten the curve” of new coronavirus infections. President Cyril Ramaphosa’s lockdown is bound to have disastrous effects on an economy already under severe strain from state capture, and South Africa’s economy is projected by some economists to shrink at least 6% in coming months. The lockdown might be a reprieve to save Ramaphosa from political recall, as some commentators suggest, but his order to place South Africa under quarantine is not without its critics. 

It had been contended, for example, that physical distancing, although reportedly effective in developed countries such as the United States, is not feasible in developing economies — such as South Africa, India, Zimbabwe and Nigeria — littered with informal settlements where people are forced to live on top of each other. Recently, The New York Times has reported that: “Social distancing means hunger for many in India, with a work force heavily dependent on manual labor. It would be an unheard of luxury for the ragpicker or street vendor who lives day to day.” 

In India, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi has ordered the lockdown of 1.3-billion people for 21 days, multitudes of informal workers (hawkers, water vendors, beggars, sex workers, and so on) and their dependents are already despairing over the possibility of imminent starvation. The same could be said for Zimbabwe and Nigeria. Low-wage workers in California in the US have also been pushing back. 

In Sweden, professors Paul Franks and Peter Nilsson, from the department of epidemiology at Lund University, have provided a summary of that government’s motivation for dismissing “overreaction” to the virus: “A long-term lockdown is also likely to have major economic implications that in the future may harm healthcare due to lack of resources. This may eventually cause even more deaths and suffering than the Covid-19 pandemic will bring in the near term.” 

If that is true of Sweden — a rich, developed country — how much more is that sentiment applicable to South Africa, a developing country struggling with poverty and unemployment amid negative economic growth? The well-nourished Swedes could arguably experiment with herd immunity, but it could wipe out under- and malnourished people in the informal settlements of the developing world. The development paradigm, however, has always been attractive to governments aiming to balance poverty and chronic unemployment with an unwillingness to address gross income and ownership inequality. The shutdown ordered in many countries around the globe, with the notable exception of Sweden, has ushered us into a post-development world overnight, but it is worth reflecting on its silver lining.

We have already seen how the trade in wildlife consumption has evaporated. Airlines (a major source of global warming) have been predicted to lose billions in revenue as both domestic and international travel has ground to a halt — a situation that has given our planet a well-deserved breather in the fight against climate crime. 

The coronavirus has achieved something in the blink of an eye that no amount of credible scientific evidence on the dangers of climate change could have hoped to have done: it has given us an unexpected taste of a post-development world. In this space right now, we have the opportunity to ponder the possibilities of caring (both for ourselves and the fragile planet we inhabit) and the value of minimalism (in which emotional wellbeing and happiness are prioritised over profit) in a post-development era. Perhaps, after all, medicine and philosophy have more in common than we care to admit. 

Dr Casper Lӧtter is a critical criminologist (from a trans-disciplinary philosophical perspective) affiliated to North West University (Potchefstroom) as researcher extraordinaire.