The lost year

2020 was the year the world came to a halt. It may as well be stricken off the calendar, the way the number “13” is omitted from elevator panels. It was the year a threat we could not see caused us to sequester ourselves in our homes and cease all but the most essential physical interaction with other human beings. Almost two million people worldwide have died, and economic value beyond calculation has been destroyed in its wake.

Thanks to the way we construe time, we woke up on Jan. 1 and imagined that a fresh beginning is upon us. By a lucky coincidence, the much-awaited vaccines against the deadly enemy arrived just as that accursed year was coming to a close, offering hope that the plague may finally be over.

But, it is premature to count our blessings. The world we have built is the same one. Momentarily interrupted by a perturbation whose significance it cannot grasp, it has resumed its journey like an uncoiled millipede that keeps going on the same path, indifferent to everything that has just happened.

That is what the global social system is like. It affects its environment in myriad ways but rarely adjusts to it. The environment that it appropriates and shapes according to its needs includes not just the surrounding ecosystem, but indeed all living things, all humans as bodies and flashes of consciousness.

This global system continually evolves into greater complexity. It manages complexity by setting up internal boundaries—in a word, by differentiating itself into specialized autonomous subsystems. In the past, differentiation took the form of segmentation, the horizontal splitting of smaller versions of the whole—the way tribes branched off from their original communities. Or the way nation-states rose from the dissolution of empires. In these self-contained communities, hierarchies formed, and families occupied their assigned places in what was represented as the natural order of things.

Today’s modern world is vastly different, says the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann. Its main form of differentiation is no longer segmental or hierarchical, but functional. Tribal, ethnic, and national identities have been superseded by roles rooted in functional subsystems like the economy, the legal system, the political system, the mass media, science, art, religion, etc.

Globalization has accelerated this functional differentiation, but, in addition, it has removed these functional domains from the control of nation-states. In particular, economic activity, the mass media, and science have become globalized, each operating according to autonomous codes. As such, they are inherently oblivious to humanist values like cooperation, solidarity, justice, or charity.

The race to invent a vaccine against COVID-19 testifies to this fragmentation. This is a race for supremacy not so much among nations as among profit-driven pharmaceutical and scientific conglomerates. The role of governments has been reduced to providing subsidies and/or advance payments to the frontrunners in exchange for getting the first rights to the limited production of the early vaccines.

The development of these vaccines must follow the internal rules applicable to all science laboratories everywhere if they are to be accepted as safe and effective for global use. No state—not even China or Russia—can dictate the pace and duration of this process, which is determined by the necessities, not to mention the contingencies, of scientific invention. Who would trust vaccines that were rushed through opaque clinical trials under the direction of political commissars?

As the experts tell us, it takes time before vaccines are declared safe and effective for general use. They go through human trials, in which, apart from efficacy, adverse effects are scrupulously monitored. Political entities all over the world know this, and the most authoritarian among them would think twice before they dare short-circuit a process that is bound to be vetted by global scientists who are indifferent to political allegiance at their work.

President Duterte was certainly misinformed if he thought he could trade political accommodation with any of the big powers in exchange for a privileged place in the queue for vaccines. None of these governments would have the power to grant such privilege, unless they themselves were willing to pay for it.

And here lies the whole irony of this global system—that every nation is left to fend for itself and fight for its share of the available vaccines in accordance with the brutal laws of the market. The rapid spread of the coronavirus contagion is a stark reminder of the reality of globalization. But, humanity’s response has been anything but global.

The face of what would have been a global response—the World Health Organization—has largely been ignored. The WHO is a world body only in name; it lacks the resources and the power to ensure that no part of humanity is left behind or neglected in the fight to contain a global plague.

The year 2020 is when we saw for ourselves how global society simply does not care. The more it grows in complexity, the more it fragments into inward-looking parts. The more it defines what surrounds it, the less sensitive it is to the needs of nature and of humanity as a whole. There is a way to alter this fatal course, but only an awakened global consciousness can lead us there.