Human System Failure

“It could be that there is something incompatible between us and our needs and our desires and our nature, and the idea of a human system that can guarantee everything, that can control everything, that can know everything, and that can control and know and run everybody.”

Christopher Hitchens, (Commonwealth Club of California lecture, 2014.)

Down a Hitchens’ rabbit-hole this morning I was, as ever, inspired by his take on a range of topics, and wondering what his column would be saying today about the recent events in Afghanistan, were he to still be alive.

A firm supporter of the decision to invade Iraq, Hitchens’ erudite perspectives over the last decade would have likely propped up a good deal of my knowledge about the world’s various armed conflicts, and the decisions taken by the US and the UK, and others, pertaining to involvement in them.

Covid-19, and its effect on the types of “human systems” to which Hitchens’ analysis alludes, will certainly stand, for a while yet, as a topic for political studies.

One of my friends recently described the last 18 months as an “enormous global bed wetting exercise” which, choice of metaphors aside, can easily be backed up, in terms of the clear evidence we have of the economic and social downturns being experienced, in particular due to lockdowns and the restrictions imposed on society by the world’s governments.

Whilst proven to be deadly, and growing deadlier through its variants, we’ve also growing proof that this virus is manageable. That vaccines are effective. But then, again – and critically for so many millions of people – that knowledge has come at the considerable loss of all the conditions necessary for economic development.

Which is fine if you have savings in the bank and access to the internet, however if you possess neither of these, and happen to also be living in a country experiencing humanitarian crisis, all you can possibly hope to do each day is earn some money.

From a very basic survey of the differences between countries, it’s become clear to me that locking down lower middle income categorised countries, such as Tanzania, Vietnam and Sri Lanka (Sri Lanka is borderline “upper middle” in fact) is an enterprise fraught with issues.

It is possible to lower transmission rates through lockdown but, in a lower-middle income country, it is simply untenable to enforce this for too long.

Talking to friends in Colombo and Dar-es-Salaam just this week, it’s also quite clear that the lower the income classification, the more unrealistic it can be to expect lockdown to be effective at all. In Dar, by all accounts, lockdown hasn’t been a tactic, given the expected disruption, and reaction, it would receive. Sri Lanka’s current lockdown is quite stringent, however many are choosing to bend the rules.

Here in Saigon, we’ve been fully housebound for the past 11 days, and there are plenty of signs that this a.) has not reduced the # of daily cases and b.) is being increasingly questioned by residents, whose businesses have suffered directly, not just recently, but over the last 8 weeks, during which lockdown rules have gradually tightened.

All of which, I think, provides a fresh set of data and assumptions to tackle the question of what type of governance structures, and what over-arching principles of governing, are actually fit for purpose? And, furthermore, which of these, ultimately, will provide optimal future gains for countries, both economically and socially?

Huge question, and no doubt my inability to answer it is what has left me glued to Christopher Hitchens’ monologues, and now penning this blog.

To borrow Hitchens’ line, there may well never be a perfect human system. Instinctively, I’d wager we’ve more examples from the last 100 years of how not to govern, rather than the other way around. Although I led with the mention of Afghanistan, it will surely take another twenty years to understand the full implications of the governance changes undertaken there, since the turn of this century. Not least, the changes of the past fortnight.

Purely from listening to the experiences of others, living in different countries, it’s a somewhat limiting exercise to list out examples of countries in which citizens are currently satisfied with the political status quo. In some cases, people’s whole lives appear to have been dedicated to illustrating the grievances to which they’ve been subjected, due to incompetent and unrepresentative politicians.

Sure, a modicum of vocal support for one’s country is easy enough to come by from these same people. I’m guilty as charged when I think of the unfounded fixation experienced during the recent Olympics, cheering on teenager skateboarders and pensioned show-jumpers. In every sense, since the pandemic took hold, any momentary and welcome distraction, sporting or otherwise, away from the topic of Covid itself, should have been embraced, like a long lost family member.

However, when people are drawn on the subject of welfare systems, of racial equality, government accountability, capitalism, communism – all the way through to exchanging stories of lockdown measures, contact tracing, vaccination brands, and everything in-between – it’s safe to say we’re very quick to get ourselves hot under the collective collar.

Will we undertake the type of “reset” that some are hopeful will, like a silver lining, provide a positive seam of learning to take away from this pandemic?

I was skeptical, earlier in the week, about this, within the context of organisations embracing the concept of collaborating with one another, sharing resources and objectives in the face of difficult social and economic conditions.

However, as individuals, with the respective desires, needs and nature, to which Hitchens references, can we actually reset ourselves? What does this look like even? Donating more time to good causes, loving thy neighbour, learning new skills, teaching old ones?

Once more, I can only conclude that, to do any of that – viscerally, actually – remains the privilege of the few, rather than of the many.

To even contemplate how “resetting” what we want, and how we go about getting it, for far too many people (from Kabul to Ho Chi Minh City, from London to Leeds) is at best an impossible proposition.

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