Small is still beautiful: Prospects of a post-pandemic world

What does ‘return to normalcy’ really mean?

A man wearing a mask carries a bunch of balloons along Fifth Avenue near Central Park on March 13, 2021 in New York City. [Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images]

Late last month, I received my second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a medical facility near the Columbia University campus in New York, where I live.

This coincided with the devastating news that the official coronavirus death toll has passed half a million in the United States, and 2.5 million across the world. The number of cases, meanwhile, topped 100 million globally and is still rising.

The development of several effective COVID-19 vaccines, and the consequent immunisation campaigns in many countries, led many to finally start wondering what life may be like in a post-pandemic world. The stubbornly rising case numbers, injustices surrounding vaccine access and the emergence of more contagious variants, however, indicate that there is still a very bumpy road ahead to finally getting this pandemic under control and return to normalcy – which raises the question, what exactly does “return to normalcy” mean?

The three Cs: COVID-19, coup and climate chaos

Soon after my second COVID-19 shot, I received an email from a dear friend who I had been remiss in contacting, asking how I was coping with, as she put it, “the three Cs” – the COVID-19 pandemic, the coup attempt at the Capitol, and the climate crisis.

Donald Trump, and Donald Trump alone, was responsible for most of the calamity inflicted on us by these three Cs here in the US – his negligence and incompetency in handling the pandemic led to thousands of preventable deaths, his turgid fascism resulted in an attack on the country’s seat of democracy, and his pompous ignorance and denial of science exacerbated the climate crisis.

He is now out of the White House. But what is ahead of us – where do we go from here?

The world’s leading scientists have long been speculating about the post-pandemic world. Experts in fields ranging from psychiatric epidemiology and business administration to urban planning and medicine have been sharing their insights on how we shop, work, socialise and seek medical care may change after the pandemic.

Many from the social sciences have rightly warned of a possible rise of totalitarian surveillance and xenophobic isolationism due to the pandemic. Others from STEM fields have painted a much brighter picture of the post-pandemic world, pointing to the public’s renewed respect for and trust in scientists who recommended effective measures to slow the spread of the virus, quickly sequenced its genome, and within a few months developed multiple vaccines against it.

Such speculations warning or reassuring us are meant for us to imagine a saner and more liveable future for the world at large. But their scope is constrained by the disciplinary formations they stem from, as well as the economic, business, social and public health parameters we know or hope to achieve in the near future.

Another factor that puts any speculation on the “post-pandemic normal” into question is the innate propensity of humans to forget and move on. The pandemic will undoubtedly have its own long chapter in history books, but those books are already filled with many horrors humans have experienced and rushed to forget and move on with business as usual.

I for one am not convinced there actually will be a “post-pandemic world”. Something deep in our collective global psyche has been affected that even a wilful determination to forget will not soon eradicate the physical and mental consequences of this first truly global experience. This pandemic was a wakeup call for those who are still in denial of climate calamities that keep showing their signs from the fires of California to the snows of Texas. Something is seriously off-kilter in the unfolding enormity of our worldly and cosmic experiences. Trump’s “Space Force” must have started long before and will unfurl long after him. We need not just to rethink but drastically scale back.

Think small

I do understand why most decent Americans let out an audible sigh of relief after Trump’s exit from the White House. I also, like many of them, believe the large-scale horror humans have perpetrated on planet earth requires large scale solutions. But I am finding it hard to convince myself that the Biden administration, or any other government in any other country, could help us find answers for our myriad problems.

To me, all states, big and small, from Israel and the US to India and Brazil, look the same: perpetrators of organised military violence against defenceless masses.

So in my search for answers, I turn to something else.

Throughout Muslim history after each large-scale calamity like the Mongol invasion or British or French colonial barbarism, we have had a turn to what in English is called “mysticism”, which is not just a bad translation but in fact a terrible and abusive misrepresentation of what Muslims call “Irfan” or “Tasawwuf”. Put together, these two terms signal the disciplined body and a purposeful soul mindful of caring for cosmic order beyond one’s own mortal limitations.

But one need not move to Islamic or Persian “mysticism” to see the light. These days I find myself turning back to a brilliant little book I have been reading and teaching since its publication in 1973, EF Schumacher’s widely read and admired Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as If People Mattered – a collection of essays critical of predatory capitalism at the time staged by the 1973 Arab oil embargo and its global consequences. This little book in many ways anticipated the two successive volumes of the French economist Thomas Piketty – Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2013) and Capital and Ideology (2020) – in their reconfiguration of the systematic terror of unbridled greed that Trump and the entire Republican Party today best represent.

What makes that thinking even more relevant today is the calamitous consequences of our ecological footprints that has made life on earth almost untenable.

At the heart of the collective effect of the three Cs of COVID-19, coup, and climate remains crafting of inner space, a systematic decluttering of the soul, the prospects of harmony between our inner and outer worlds. Americans are worried about the psychological consequences of isolationism. I had no clue we were in isolation with so much calamitous noise around us.

Thinking harmony

The German economist Schumacher never heard of the Iranian poet Sohrab Sepehri, or Sepehri of Schumacher. But blessed are the rest of us in whom the two have met. In his economics, Schumacher was a poet, in his poetry, Sepehri showed how indeed “small is beautiful”. No small was small enough for the enormity of joy Sepehri saw in the world.

“I don’t want this life to be any other way than it is,” Sepehri once wrote in a letter to a friend. “It is so full as it is that it drives me mad. Let’s not touch the arrangement of the world as it is …” There is a resignation in Sepehri’s prose here, not an acceptance of defeat, but a declaration of triumphant peace, that we also see in Abbas Kiarostami or Yasujirō Ozu’s films. The detection of inner peace through (not despite) the storm of living life as it is.

“I have come to the feast of this world,” Sepehri writes in the same letter, “and this world to the feast that is me. If I were not here, Existence would be missing something. This very branch of the wailing willow in our yard, if it did not move the whole world would be waiting in despair.”

Are we still capable of such assurances – after “the 3-Cs” we have just witnessed – this organic link between us and the world, both as feasts to one other? Consider the following passage from Schumacher’s book – and remember he wrote this almost half a century ago:

“Ever bigger machines, entailing ever bigger concentrations of economic power and exerting ever greater violence against the environment, do not represent progress: they are a denial of wisdom. Wisdom demands a new orientation of science and technology towards the organic, the gentle, the non-violent, the elegant and beautiful. Peace, as has often been said, is indivisible – how then could peace be built on a foundation of reckless science and violent technology? We must look for a revolution in technology to give us inventions and machines which reverse the destructive trends now threatening us all.”

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.