I have watched the last three weeks unfold with a sense of an ending and a suspicion of a new beginning. It started when I visited my broker in early March, and was presented with this rosy picture of my retirement plan which I had hoped to activate over the next couple of years. Apparently, I was going to be comfortably off until the age of 90 without being a financial burden on my family, or so the charts and graphs of his presentation projected. Back in my car, I looked at the fancy folder and shook my head. Something was not right. I was a Saturday’s Child after all, supposed to work hard for his living, as my mum had always instilled in me. A cushy retirement? That sounded more like one of my fiction novels.
The rot started after I returned to my travel agency office from the broker’s appointment that afternoon. The news came in over the internet: Canadians were being abruptly requested not to travel internationally; Ontario declared an emergency; the stock market experienced a death spiral before sinking to the lower depths; the Saudis fought with the Russians, and the oil price plunged, taking our Loonie with it. The fix was in as far as my retirement plan was concerned. I raised an eyebrow at my long-dead mother’s urn where her ashes reposed, “You were right, Mum, I’m going to work until I die.”
Several things started to happen: People began giving each other a wide berth and (finally) washing their hands. The Handshake was out, I was told, but the Wuhan Tap and the Elbow Bump were in. In other parts of the world, travellers were struggling to return home in disappearing planes, trains and automobiles, and then going into self-isolation if they were lucky to get back; cruise ships still at sea were trying to find a safe port; consumers were suddenly buying toilet paper, and screams to “flatten the curve” were on everyone’s lips. Trillions of dollars in investment portfolios evaporated as invisibly as the virus that was creeping everywhere.
Governments came to the fore by initially denying the emergency —Trump even called it a “hoax.” Then, in an embarrassed about-face, they started shutting borders, pouring money into drying coffers, and offering social assistance on an unprecedented scale, making one wonder why they had been reluctant for so long. Things once unimaginable started coming to pass. Would a universal basic income, now forced upon us with so many layoffs, become a reality? Would Americans finally lay down their guns which are useless in fighting this enemy and embrace public Medicare? Healthcare workers, grocery store employees and truck drivers are replacing Superman, Wonder Woman and other freaks as the New Super Heroes. And most importantly, people are being kind to each other, realizing that chasing the dream of wealth is a mirage, like my glossy retirement report. We are back where we started, when the stock market commenced its unstoppable ride into the stratosphere over Trump-a-nomics.
“This shit ain’t over yet,” the saying goes, and we haven’t quite flattened the curve, as the number of infected cases of Covid-19 continues to rise in the western democracies, and all over the world, except, surprisingly and questionably, in China, where it all began. This alarming rise of infections and deaths in the west and the smugness of China has raised a raft of conspiracy theories, and writers are in their garrets furiously trying to write that breakout novel about the pandemic that might resurrect their now non-existent retirement pensions. How’s this one for a possible plot (it’s getting dated by the hour, I warn you): America tries to soften China’s stance on trade by planting a germ in Wuhan, the Chinese retaliate and send a squad of their infected agents through Seattle in a cruise ship to infect America – tit for tat between political egos, and the world reels with the effects. See, I have my conspiracy theory too – what’s yours? Any variations on the theme are welcome to while away our idle hours at home while we practice responsible social distancing.
I went for a long walk that evening after my retirement plan evaporated. The air was clean and crisp (not many vehicles on the road), the skies were blue (no air pollution). The world was still a nice place, a cleaner place, and taking a much-needed breather from our frenetic pace to grow for growth’s sake. Perhaps a new world economic order will emerge from the ruins of this one, heralding a kinder, saner period of global evolution. This has happened after pandemics and global armed conflicts throughout history. In fact, I have often advocated that we needed another world war to shock people into recovering their humanity. Drastic? I know. But GREED needs a jarring blast to be dislodged from our DNA. And we seem to have suddenly arrived at this (better?) place, thanks to an invisible enemy more insidious than Hitler.
There is no entitlement in this new place anymore, there are only awareness and mindfulness, and the playing field is now flat, for the rich and poor, old and young, are equal in their ability to get infected – just ask Mr. Hanks or Mrs. Trudeau. We can’t blame this virus on any one nation (forget “China Flu,” Mr. Trump!) – it is a consequence of our overzealous greed. We created a globalized, interconnected world to maximize our returns on investment and derive economies of scale; now we all suffer together: toilet paper shortages are taking place across the world not only in one particular market.
This is also not a time for spreading doom and gloom, but for facing up to our inevitable destiny, that the world is a crucible of mortal foibles, that as much as we create we will destroy, and that we are currently going through a period of destruction before light appears at the end of the tunnel. The WWII generation, our parents, lived through a similar catastrophe, but they never gave up hope. Hopefully, this pandemic will form firmer backbones within all of us who survive it – and hopefully, we will also never forget.
In the meantime, wash your hands, keep your distance, bury your greed, and practice faith, hope and charity.