Globalisation and our hyper-connectedness have come back to bite with a vengeance like nothing ever seen before. People in a village in China eat an infected animal (that is current thinking on the origin of covid-19), and in a matter of months the world sits on the precipice. The magnitude of global travel means diseases spread faster than ever, and if they are new (or new to humankind), we cannot respond quickly enough. Global supply chains mean so many of the goods we buy have components made somewhere else. The closure of just one factory in China that makes one essential part used by many others has huge ripple effects.
This is the downside of globalisation and universalism (which for the purposes of this discussion is sufficiently connected). We see now that global freedom of movement for all and a borderless society carries huge risks.
Our response has been a sharp turn in the opposite direction: closure of national borders, physical and social isolation. The current strategy is about containment, consistent with the CDC’s advice regarding “flattening the curve“. It won’t reduce the number of people that will ultimately be infected, rather it will ensure that public health systems can respond and not be overwhelmed.
But so far, the effect – economic and social – of containment measures have been a plague worse than covid-19. Global markets have crashed, revealing their underlying fragility, as no-one can even quantify the economic impact of the disease. Retail panic buying has been a self-reinforcing vicious cycle and has brought out the worst in us. People have forgotten common decency, as well as the important fact that while we will need more hand sanitiser than usual, we do not need more toilet paper. Many are living with the adage “every person for them self”.
In responding this way, we have fought extreme globalisim with extreme isolationism. The common factor is our push toward the extremes. It seems that in addition to covid-19, the world is suffering from another serious malaise that I will name extremavirus-21c – the viral spread of extremism and polarisation that has characterised the 21st century.
Judaism demands that we straddle the line between universalism and particularism. On the one hand, we believe all humans are equal before God, and that Jews must be a light unto the nation and repair a broken world. On the other hand, we are the chosen people with a special relationship with God, and thousands of years of tradition which has helped us survive as a people. God has given us a challenge – one especially relevant in the world today: to blend these opposites and find a comfortable middle ground.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has discussed this theme extensively, from a perspective of moral philosophy. On these pages, Yossi Klein Halevi has articulated a political approach, with Bibi and Bernie as the two extremes. My view on this same theme falls more within the realm of social theory.
The extremavirus-21c is not “novel”. Its germination is in the digital world of social media that connects so many more of us in new ways, but not always in better ways. Our engagement with the world through social media has given rise to a number of symptoms. We have developed an obsession with the here and now, driven in part by always being connected to technology and to newsfeeds. We have gone from engaging with a small number of close friends to engaging with thousands of social media connections, some of whom we barely know. We blindly follow the content that algorithms suggest we might like, which drives echo chambers that polarise opinion and draw people further apart. Yuval Harari has expressed concern about how these recommendation engines undermine human agency, and holds fear for the future.
In the terminology of Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, our Circle of Concern has grown ever wider, but our Circle of Influence has remained roughly the same. Driven by hyper-connectedness, we worry for what is global and universal, but for the vast majority of people, our day-to-day influence are local and particular.
Is there an antidote to extremavirus-21c? Of course. Fortunately, it doesn’t require extensive research or clinical trials as the power to overcome it is within each of us. It isn’t as simple as an injection or a tablet. It depends on us asserting our human agency and choosing to direct our energy and attention to where it counts. To temper our concern about what happens all over the world with the use of our resources to help directly those closest to us. To make positive assumptions about others, especially those we don’t know. To question statements that we may disagree with, rather than instinctively attacking both the statement and the person who made the statement. To learn more about the context of others before rushing to judge them.
Extreme universalism and extreme particularism don’t cause or even lead to medical diseases like coronavirus. Indeed, it takes global cooperation to share knowledge and develop a vaccine as quickly as possible. However, extreme behaviour does impact our ability to deal with pandemics and their consequences.
If we can overcome extremavirus-21c, then that will surely improve our ability – as both individuals and communities – to be stronger internally and more robust in our response to covid-19 and other such threats.