It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair . . . — Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
Although none of us may have foreseen that we would become witnesses to a monumental period in human history, we are indeed experiencing a substantial tectonic shift unseen in recent decades. Not only has the apparent prosperity that we have been enjoying since the global financial crisis of 2007–08 quickly fallen apart, the superiority of the free market economy has also come under intense criticism. The ever-expanding dominance of the free market seems to have reached its limit—not only constrained by natural resources, human well-being, and technology, but more importantly, the market has hit its moral and social capital limits.
There is an ancient Chinese proverb that could probably be translated as: “True integrity is manifested in the midst of an impasse, each remarkable act is recorded in history (時窮節乃見，一一垂丹青).” Humanity and morality face a tough test in this global pandemic, which has disrupted the very foundations of our daily lives. In the past, there were very limited actions we as people could take to make a difference. We simply did not have the information nor the knowledge; even if we did, we did not have the channels by which to share our insights, not to mention the means to drive change from the bottom up.
In the 21st century, this is no longer the case. Not only do we have access to information and knowledge, we have the ability to connect with others and to potentially ignite a movement. Nonetheless, the very tools that empower us—the social media platforms and information technology—are also distracting and confusing us. The spread of reliable information is competing every second with other misinformation and fake news. (Ng 2020)
Similarly, the very leaders who we should be able rely on to protect and guide us through this crisis may be unreliable and disappointing. Even if they genuinely attempt to do the right thing, they may be morally bankrupt and with limited credibility. And even if they are reliable, some of them are so narrowly focused on their own interests, without having built trust with other leaders. Their silo-mentality and short-sightedness drive them to pursue unilateralism instead of bilateralism or multilateralism. They may promote their own interests at the expense of those of other countries, destroying many global efforts to sustain reliable global collaboration. Even worse is when leaders attempt to exploit our vulnerabilities—greed, hatred, and ignorance—in order to manipulate us. They may try to stimulate our unreasonable desire to consume more, or they may promote our hatred toward others to distract us from the important issues. There is no doubt that the new era of misinformation makes it almost impossible to tell truth from lie. We can no longer trust everything reported in the media, and definitely not everything sent over the internet.
As historian and author Yuval Noah Harari argues: “Irresponsible politicians have deliberately undermined trust” and our social and moral capital over the past few years. They have used their authority to discredit journalism, science, and basically all opposing views, domestic and global. They have tried to convince us that there is no one else worthy of trust except for these irresponsible politicians themselves, making any local and global collaboration impossible. Perhaps this notion of me first, my country first, and my people first to uphold one’s own self-interest or group interest is understandable in normal times. However, in the midst of the global crisis we are now experiencing, individualism, unilateralism, and isolationism only mean that humans are all resorting to our own little islands, with no one and nowhere to ask for help.
The irony is that we are no longer living on islands. The maximization of profits pushes the use of the market and the limits of the market to extremes. We rely so much on our trade partners on another part of the planet because information and shipments flow almost instantaneously. There are no more backup plans and there is nowhere to hide. A group of people being sick in one part of the world can easily cause disruption in another part of the world.
Capitalistic societies are surely not only too big to fail but also running too fast for us to jump off. We have been riding this tiger for too long and we are too scared to face up to it. Perhaps, the silver lining of this pandemic is that it will force us to pause, reflect, and rethink our priorities. Trend forecaster Li Edelkoort has suggested that this pandemic might be considered as “a quarantine of consumption.” It could probably give us a rare but necessary “detox” moment for our growth addictions. Although it may seem painful, “slowing and shutting down can produce a better environment.” (Fairs) This is particularly true when we realize during this crisis that economic prosperity under the free market economy seems to protect only the well-being of a privileged few. Once we stay away from our indefatigable consumption behaviors, we may see the possibility that “another and better system be put in place with more respect for human labour and conditions.” (Fairs)
While our daily lives, livelihoods, and prosperity might suffer meaningfully, nothing is more important than the well-being of ourselves, our friends, and our families. Do we care about more about the bottom line or staff members? Afterall, there is no company if our staff, customers, and suppliers are no longer with us. It is impossible to make a living when we are no longer healthy. Perhaps this pandemic will force us to finally make the tough choices. Billionaire entrepreneur Bill Gates said in an interview with TED that “there really is no middle ground, and it’s very tough to say to people, ‘Hey, keep going to restaurants, go buy new houses, ignore that pile of bodies over in the corner. We want you to keep spending because there’s maybe a politician who thinks GDP growth is all that counts’ . . . it’s very irresponsible for somebody to suggest that we can have the best of both worlds.”
Instead of falling prey to those divisive, inciting, and delusive speeches and behaviors, we should cherish the uniqueness and beauty of humanity: genuine care, compassion, perseverance, selflessness, bravery, integrity, and so on. Yuval Noah Harari encourages us to fight misinformation with information, distrust with trust, alienation with collaboration. American psychologist Philip Zimbardo also reminds us that in the darkest hour, as the Lucifer effect has predicted, heroes are among each of us. Real heroes are not supermen or superwomen: “most heroes are everyday people, and the heroic act is unusual . . .” Zimbardo further reiterates that we “have to learn to be a deviant, because [we]’re always going against the conformity of the group. Heroes are ordinary people whose social actions are extraordinary. Who act.”
The Buddha was a deviant and being a Buddhist is being a deviant. It is not the case that we have to forcefully superimpose our ideas onto others or society. But we need to develop resistance against greed, hatred, and delusion, which have been the fundamental causes of human suffering. The Buddha taught that we need to heal not only the illnesses in our body but also in our mind. He suggested that a mind that is subject to the three poisons of greed, hatred, and ignorance is a mind that is “unskillful” (morally bad); a mind that is “defiled,” a mind that is “ill,” a mind that is “in bondage”—a mind that “suffers.” In contrast, a mind that is free from the three poisons is a mind that is “skillful” (morally good), “pure,” “well,” and “in freedom”—in other words, a mind that is “happy.” (Yakupitiyage)
Harari warns us of the world after the coronavirus. His deep concerns are the choices between firstly totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment; and secondly between nationalist isolation and global solidarity. Leading economist Branko Milanovic also worries about the risk of societal disintegration and strongly advocates the importance of “keeping social bonds strong.”
These risks can perhaps be best understood from a Buddhist perspective: are we brave and wise enough to rebuild trust, conquer the fear inside us, and reprioritize what is most valuable to us? Hence, instead of giving up our freedom and social and moral capital for protection, could we be truly fearless and free. Instead of needing to worry about survival, we can spend quality time with one another other—united together in the pursuit of something uniquely precious to humankind and the ecosystem?
Fairs, Marcus. “Coronavirus offers ‘a blank page for a new beginning’ says Li Edelkoort.” Dezeen. 9 March 2020.
Harari, Yuval Noah. “Yuval Noah Harari: the world after coronavirus.” Financial Times. 23 March 2020.
Milanovic, Branko. “The Real Pandemic Danger is Social Collapse.” Foreign Affairs. 19 March 2020.
Ng, Ernest C.H. “Shifting Trust in the Age of Fakery.” Buddhistdoor Global. 23 January 2020.
Schleifer, Theodore. “Bill Gates says we can’t restart the economy soon and simply ‘ignore that pile of bodies over in the corner.’” 24 March 2020.
Yakupitiyage, Karunadasa. 2015. Early Buddhist Teachings: The Middle Position in Theory and Practice. Hong Kong: Centre of Buddhist Studies, The University of Hong Kong.
Zimbardo, Philip. 2008. “The Psychology of Evil.” TED2008.