Covid-19: Uniting and Dividing Us

There is a Chinese curse that supposedly says, “May you live in interesting times.” Whether we like it or not, we now live in interesting times. Regardless of the duration, or the costs we might need to bear, we will overcome this crisis like we have overcome others in the past. When we come out on the other side and take off our masks, our social behavior will be permanently altered. Will we do what we did after World War II, pull together, and build a global community, or will we be torn apart and drift towards another Cold War ?

We cannot welcome disaster, but we can value the responses, both practical and psychological.

Rebecca Solnit in How to Survive a Disaster

Coming Together

Facing a common enemy has sparked a communal spirit within us. Social distancing has, ironically, encouraged us to turn outward, care for our neighbors, and reconnect with our friends and families. By way of an example, I am doing something I haven’t done for years: calling my friends and family more often and having long, meaningful, and engaging conversations. Having everybody in the world going through similar experiences has inspired many of us to help out in our respective communities. There is an unprecedented outpouring of help and support from online community groups for people in high-risk categories and those in need. As the lockdowns spread across the world, it brought along the practice of collectively stepping out and applauding health-care workers. It’s an act that is part defiance, part support, and part celebration – we are all in this together. We feel helpless, but we are still here!

The collective cheering ritual started in Wuhan and spread across the globe in the virus’s wake.

This solidarity goes beyond a personal level. Doctors across the world are sharing their knowledge, treatments, and procedures. Researchers are collaborating on a global scale to create vaccines and improve virus detection. Industries across the globe are volunteering skillsets for research, as well as retooling their machines to make personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilators. It has even compelled tech giants Apple and Google to team up and create a contact tracking system.

Doctors exchanging research notes on twitter


The threat that is unifying us is also threatening to reverse the globalization trend toward Cold War levels. As the virus spread, it brought about competition due to the limited supply of existing ventilators and PPE. Several U.S. states were in conflict with the federal government regarding access to ventilators from the Strategic National Stockpile, in addition to bidding against each another to acquire the much-needed PPE and medical equipment. The friction between U.S. states/local municipalities and the federal government was most evident in the case of New York and SF. Would the states ever depend on the central government ? Should they?

On a global scale, problems in regard to acquisitions surfaced with news of nations stealing masks from each other. The pandemic exposed and even widened the divisions in the EU. This was evident during the early days of the epidemic in March when Italy got hit the hardest, and other EU nations refused to offer medical help and supplies. As the lockdown takes a financial toll on Italy and Spain, economically stable northern countries disagree on sharing the burden, causing the worst crisis since the EU’s inception. The tensions and the resulting distrust will likely surpass the damage caused by the virus.

It’s a reciprocal interest that Europe meets this challenge. Otherwise, we must abandon the European dream and say, everyone is on their own. Either we all meet this challenge, or the tribunal of history will judge us.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte In an interview with Bild newspaper

Even after some semblance of normalcy has returned, travel restrictions are likely to continue. Travel across countries, something we had taken for granted, will never be the same. Borders that inhibit not only the entrance but exit as well have returned to a level beyond what the most ardent nationalist ever advocated. National sovereignty is being advocated as the best defense to an international threat

These contradictory trends are not new. They are an extension of the struggle between global solidarity and nationalism, now accelerated by the pandemic. As we continue to struggle, we are creating a new reality that will define us. We are not just observers; we are building history and performing together in this new and strange reality.

Photo by Filip Filkovic Philatz on Unsplash

Stay safe; stay well.

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Vivek Kumar leads the Deep Learning team at Dolby laboratories, creating state-of-the-art Audio and Speech technologies, and developing AI strategy. He has led the development of Dolby’s core codecs ( Dolby Digital Plus & Dolby TrueHD ) and created technologies for Dolby Atmos. He also invests and advises early-stage ventures, focusing on hard tech companies.

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