COVID-19: A Moment of Awakening for the World

By Tsering Namgyal

Tsering Namgyal, a Buddhistdoor Global columnist, is the author of The Tibetan Suitcase: A Novel. He was previously a financial journalist based in Hong Kong.

As a business journalist who also happens to be a Buddhist, it is easy indulge in some navel-gazing while observing the world reel at the catastrophic effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

Financial markets, with its boom and bust cycles, are often seen as a barometer of confidence in the status quo. Journalists by default are often forced to act, for better or worse, as the first-draft oracles of the future.

It is not surprising that whenever I go to Hong Kong or Singapore, one is often confronted with the anguish among many of what could go wrong next and what lay underneath the shining façade of the great future in front of us.

Because of our roles as economic commentators, especially at events like FinTech and Blockchain conferences (which I attend on a regular basis), we end up with a somewhat elitist and insular ringside view of things, and since the more perceptive of us believe we have rare insights into the future of our world. Financial journalism, ironically, forces one to come to terms with, on an almost real time basis, some of the most Buddhist of ideas, such as suffering in samsara and, of course, the idea of impermanence and the dangers of hubris.

Whenever people asked me, knowing that I was a writer, what would happen in the future, I optimistically told them that the law of nature was such that the pendulum would hopefully swing back to normality, even during times of chaos or upheaval. But few would have known that it would take such a dreadful pandemic to deliver a rare moment of awakening for the world.

Because on the surface, it seems that Buddhism and the business world – more precisely shareholder capitalism — cannot be farther apart. The former is about seeking peace, contentment and sustainability in the moment. The latter is often characterized by the relentless push towards a trajectory of profit and growth for a hopefully glorious future.

Yet, the two philosophies – one of “being” and the other of “having” – have shown some signs of convergence in recent years, especially as members of the top echelons of politics and finance (such as billionaire Michael Bloomberg and the chief executive of Blackrock Larry Fink) are now urging corporates to go beyond paying lip service to climate change and seriously work to help mitigate the impact of imminent ecological disasters.

Anyone with an iota of common sense knows that capitalism — powered by twin wheels of speed and greed – cannot go down the self-destructive path for too long as if everything is hunky-dory.

And the social and political unrests that rocked cities like Hong Kong in the past few months and elsewhere, and the urgency of climate catastrophe that made a young Swedish girl a global icon, have shown that it was high time for the world to take a pause and reflect.

And not even the shrewdest of political and economic pundits – except for the novelist Dean Koontz’s book The Eyes of Darkness, albeit with the benefit of hindsight – could have managed to predict the black swan incident in the form of Covid-19 that had already killed thousands around the world.

The disease, which originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan, does not differentiate between nationalities, social class, or educational or economic background. The economic consequences of the lockdown have been felt around the world, and it will hit the developing world particularly hard. It will also affect job opportunities for young people and workers from many different industries, and disrupt day-to-day living as measures in the West increase in severity. People are wondering when or whether normalcy will return at all, or if 2020 will forever alter the way we live and organize our lives.

But the crisis has its silver lining, as some commentators are coming to learn. Reduced human activity will give nature a much-needed break and as people retreat back to their homes. Communities will become stronger as people remember how important human-to-human contact is. As people retreat inside their homes, they have begun to do things that they otherwise would not have had time or interest to do: from baking and cooking to reading as well as writing, which this columnist has been doing in the backdrop of eerie silence on a day the entire country is in a lockdown. Also, with luck, the world will welcome a large number of beautiful new babies nine months from now.

The more bookish of us will reach out to the long-forgotten but important Russian novels on our reading lists. Some publishers in India are already promoting reading and reflection, ironically on social media, as these old-school activities have come under serious threat with the rise of the Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook.

The good news was that the strident calls for soul-searching and mindfulness no longer sounds nearly as preachy or moralistic – or, for the busier of the Davos elites even creepy or Luddite – when governments and authorities around the world are desperately scrambling to curb the further spread of this pandemic.

The Dalai Lama has constantly been reminding the world ad infinitum of the idea of “universal responsibility,” given how interconnected the world has become and that no man or a country is an island.

It is unfortunate that it would take a disease as powerful as this to hammer home the message and to teach us how to be human again.

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