The Covid Chronicles
The Postnormal Perfect Storm - In Three Parts
Part 1: The Nature of the Crisis
When Ziauddin Sardar published his landmark paper Welcome to Postnormal Times (PNT) ten years ago, he proposed a new theoretical approach for developing a better understanding of how change itself was changing in the present. Over the years, there have been criticism of Postnormal Times (PNT) theory. Sardar fully engaged with these criticism in Postnormal Times Revisited and even presented a timeline of how various artefacts - such as meaning, truth, knowledge, world order, governance – had transformed from classic to modern to postmodern to postnormal times. Later, Sardar and John Sweeney developed the theory further in The Three Tomorrow of Postnormal Times, while Sardar and Jordi Serra applied it to Intelligence. These papers, along with contributions from Scott Jordan and others, have been collected in The Postnormal Times Reader.
Criticism notwithstanding, reality is stubborn; you may or may not believe in gravity but there will be serious consequences if you jump from a tall building! Over the past few years, the number of events, issues and cases that support postnormal times theory have grown rapidly. The current Covid-19 pandemic, we argue, is a perfect example of a PNT phenomenon.
So let’s begin with a quick recap. Postnormal Times was theorised as ‘an in-between period where old orthodoxies are dying, new ones have yet to be born, and very few things seem to make sense’. Or, as the Italian journalist, Ezio Mauro put it in his conversation with the late British sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, ‘we are hanging between the “no longer” and the “not yet” and thus we are necessarily unstable’ (ref: Zygmunt Bauman and Ezio Mauro, Babel, Polity, Oxford, 2016, p20). We are thus living in ‘a transitional age, a time without the confidence that we can return to any past we have known and with no confidence in any path to a desirable, attainable or sustainable future’.
How have we got here? The fact that the rate of change in contemporary times is accelerating has something to do with it. As has our ability to communicate with millions of people at the speed of light – thanks to social media. We live in a globalised world that is interconnected and interdependent in countless ways. News and information, as well abuse and misinformation, spread at astonishing rate; and we are primed to act and interact in an instant. All these actions, interactions, interconnections at every level, from local to global, at every moment of our lives, constantly and perpetually, generate a change that we have not seen or experienced before – postnormal change. This change is a direct product of the Speed with which change occurs; the global Scope of this change; the fact that this change can Scale down to individual levels; and that it often exhibits Simultaneity. The 4Ss define the dynamics that generate postnormal change.
Postnormal change does not necessarily produce postnormal phenomenon as such. But in an interconnected, globalised world, with a host of legitimate and illegitimate perspectives, multiplicity of scales, and numerous interacting elements with non-linear relations, they bring Contradictions to the fore and enhance the Complexity of the system. The system as a whole is now much more than the sum of its parts; it exhibits the property of emergence, meaning it cannot be analysed in terms of its parts but can only be understood in complete, unabridged form; and its interacting components self-organise to produce new patterns and structures. Complexity and contradictions then generate positive feedback loops leading to Chaos. It is when the 3Cs – Complexity, Contradictions and Chaos – come together that a postnormal phenomenon is engendered.
Together the 4Ss and the 3Cs constitute the basic pillars of the postnormal times theory.
Postnormal phenomenon, as we would expect, generates and is deeply embedded in uncertainties which in turn produce a variety of ignorances. In attempting to understand postnormality, we have to deal with uncertainties and gaps in our knowledge which expose our biases, or can only be filled in the future, or by re-examining our basic assumptions, ideas, values and worldviews. As such, postnormal events and issues cannot be controlled or managed – they can only be navigated.
So, why do we believe that Covid-19 pandemic is postnormal? To begin with, because it exhibits all the traits of postnormal change: Speed, Scope, Scale and Simultaneity – the 4Ss. Let us deal with these one by one.
It is evident that the contagion has spread incredibly fast. The first confirmed case was in November 17, 2019; five months later there are almost 2.5 million confirmed cases and more than 167,000 deaths. Given the shortage in test kits, the real figures will probably be much higher.
Global 2020 infection maps easily demonstrate the spread, first from Wuhan, through land transportation systems, then globally thanks to air travel systems through clusters of infection: parties, ski trips, and conferences. Currently, only a few African and Pacific Island countries have no detected cases. It is just a matter of time until they too report local infections. It will be the fastest-growing global pandemic in human history.
Pacific Island countries have no detected cases. But it seems to be just a matter of time before they too report local infections. Covid-19 will be the fastest growing pandemic in history.
The combination of a comparatively high degree of infectiousness, undetected transmission by asymptomatic individuals in the first few months of the disease, and our lack of knowledge about the virus, have made human confinement the best option to fight further spread. But that has put the world’s economy under great stress. After starting in China, Covid-19 has triggered cascading effects. Thus, what the 2008 global recession or the growing climate emergency have not been able to achieve, clipping the wings of the global market economy, is perhaps one of the main outcomes of this pandemic. It has effected almost every individual, in every community across the planet; and there is no telling to what its mid or long-term effects could be. A vaccine is still far away on the time horizon.
The pandemic is altering billions of lives. All of a sudden, communities are learning how to live indoors while many cities look like ghost towns and nature gets a break from human activities. Retail and manufacturing are suffering and all-in-all this may be the best argument for local and regional (vs. global) production. A new economic relationship is unfolding and begs the question: how much of our present arrangements will survive (and recover after) the peak of the infection? It will be interesting to see the direct short-term impacts on the economy and the rippling, secondary impacts, to which we are not currently paying attention.
It is hard to argue with the evidence that the Covid-19 pandemic has all of the expected characteristics of postnormal change. But what made it a postnormal event?
Sardar’s original paper argued that PNT emerges as a result of the growing forces of Complexity, Chaos and Contradictions - the 3Cs. But are more than the forces or characteristics of PNT, they are also postnormal enablers - intrinsic factors that need to appear jointly to bring about postnormal phenomena. Complexity, chaos, and contradictions have always been around but they are converging and feeding each other now in ways that are unique and unpredictable.
Complexity is the property of a system that has multiple components that interact in many ways. Complex systems exhibit behavior based on the interaction of these components. Some properties that complex systems exhibit, as we have already mentioned, include: self-organization, nonlinearity, emergence, feedback cycles, and adaptation. To grapple with the postnormal aspects of complexity, consider the role of the plurality of diverse elements in the Covid-19 system and their interconnections.
Plurality of diverse elements: Covid-19 is the result of several elements acting synchronously. First, the large Chinese diaspora now spread across the world. Second, the timing of the emergence of the pathogen coincided with the Chinese New Year. Third, perpetual international travel that spreads the virus at astonishing speed. Fourth, the virus has had impacts across a whole range of sectors from the economy and international finance to health services, employment, food production, and manufacturing. It has exacerbated system stress by restricting travel and freedom of movement upon which the systems depend.
Interconnection: millions of Chinese travelled from the far corners of the earth to return home to celebrate the Chinese New Year with families, in what is among the largest annual population movements across the planet. Diffusion maps of the virus across China show how widespread and complex air, rail, and road transportation made viral transmission unavoidable. This tapestry of multiple interconnections made the spread of the virus inevitable, despite the apparently effective lockdown measures in Wuhan, and the surrounding region, because the virus was already loose in the world.
We should emphasize that we are not arguing that the situation was not already complex to begin with. On the contrary, in our present global and hyperconnected civilization, complexity is a priori given. One of the emerging lessons from the pandemic may be that fragmented, self-governing political systems seem to be poorly adapted to a planetary civilization. The global system is not even close to a system of governance, it is still a Wild West of nation-states not unified, but separated by territorial integrity, tenuous sovereignty, and a lingering attachment to the Peace of Westphalia. With roughly 200 separate countries, not to mention the thousands of cities, states, and territories in the mix, connectivity is sought even more desperately to respond to the scientific, economic, social, and political needs of the crisis.
Another factor adding to global complexity is China's growing financial muscle and status as the world's second-largest economy and military power. What will economic contraction mean for its new Silk Road Initiative? In any case, system complexity has been fuelled by the success of the Chinese economy and the huge demographic shifts from rural villages to megacities. China has become an increasingly mobile society. Making things even more complex, China has become a critical player in the global supply chain.
Thus, the concurrent happening of New Year’s celebration and massive travelling exacerbated the system’s complexity. We saw how the mix of unitary, federal, and confederal states, the World Health Organization, and leading experts took disparate responses in restrictions of movement and epidemiology tracking. China is criticised for taking draconian steps, whilst South Korea is praised for taking a democratic but communitarian response. At the time of writing, Italy, Spain and the USA appear to have responded “too little, too late” to avoid serious casualties. Images of a crowded Bondi Beach highlighted the Australian public’s nonchalant attitude towards the emerging threat. Nonetheless, the point is that there is no way to tell, at this juncture, if any of these strategies will be successful in the middle or long-term.
The second C in PNT analysis, chaos, is seen as the feature of dynamic non-linear systems that exhibits disproportionate inputs and outputs; the Covid-19 pandemic has shown chaotic behaviour in many ways. Indeed, the fact that we know so little about the virus has not helped, but its high rate of infection (R0) and asymptomatic carriers have resulted in a wide range of responses leading to a large variance in results. Differences in geography, climate, and community infections have made it very hard to identify patterns. In many senses, this whole crisis has been like an event where thousands of butterflies begin to fly simultaneously, without anyone noticing them, and they then unleash a barrage of hurricanes far too powerful to be mitigated.
For instance, in the first two months of the emerging pandemic, the intricacy of systems and messaging, of surveillance and effective communication, were revealed. The overlay of social media complicated matters more, with confusion about conspiracy theories, basic facts, and then presidential and prime ministerial fake news. The EU came to face the realities of decisive leadership on one hand, and the re-emergence of hard borders, on the other hand. Sovereign decision-making and reliance on supply chains hampered manufacture and distribution of basic protective gear, and leaders sent mixed messages to consumers about appropriate behaviour. Vaccine production has also been compromised by short-term capitalism and a lack of strategic, long-term responsibility for the possibility of pandemic. Ironically, contagion war gaming and role-playing has been widely used in academic and foreign policy settings, but apparently no one at the top paid attention (or cared) enough to respond in time. Response to the pandemic reflects the complexity of the global milieu, in the USA for example, governors and city mayors are taking the most aggressive and prudent steps to prevent the spread of the novel virus (like in Italy, where some mayors are personally enforcing the confinement). The federal government reacted slowly and likely without sufficient resources to avert a larger crisis. But, that's the exciting part about living in postnormal times, because we need to learn to expect the unexpected, get comfortable with being uncomfortable, and dance even though we don’t know the song.
The contradictions in the wake of this crisis are obvious. Efforts by politicians to downplay the crisis and avoid panic in many cases has made it worse. Long held values get in the way; the values of economic production, jobs, and continued growth contradict community health and well-being. This crisis will illuminate, like no other, the direct relationship between androcentric values, particularly economic values, and the rest of the planet. Preliminary figures already demonstrate the improvement in the quality of air, water, and atmosphere due to the economic slowdown. Covid-19, some say, may be Mother Earth’s rejoinder.
The pandemic brings a host of other contradictions to the fore.
- It has been riding on globalization dynamics, but it is forcing lockdowns everywhere. Some are even calling for a deglobalization process. The question is, while some countries seem to be doing well, so far, will they be able to make it through a global recession or depression?
- Social distancing reinforces the importance of close-community networks, yet it is also lethal for local retail as it lacks the structure to deliver, while Amazon and the like are making record profits.
- Similarly, it is providing a window opportunity for some collaborative economy firms (Globo, Uber, Airbnb). Yet it is also devastating the base of their business model: riders and drivers getting sick, homeowners going bankrupt…
- The pandemic calls for effective and inspiring leadership at a time that has otherwise been dominated by fructuous ideologues worldwide (with few dignified exceptions). Or as we see, providing opportunities for authoritarianism and the rise of strong-men to go unchecked.
- The Internet and telecommunications make it possible for the world to stay in touch and for many professionals to carry on. But it will also accelerate growth of cyber-infrastructure, the automation process, and will likely leave millions unemployed.
- And then the most poignant contradiction: the moral dilemma between saving lives or saving jobs. Or even worse: killing people that do not respect confinement (a measure originally designed to keep them safe) as in the case of President Duterte of the Philippines who ordered violators be shot.
As shocking or concerning these contradictions may seem, the main implication is that they only increase the postnormal nature of the phenomenon. And, if we continue to use the very framework that brought us to his phenomenon, how are we going to fare as things become more postnormal?
In this regard, the CPPFS is particularly concerned and disturbed about the likelihood that the Covid-19 will have its greatest impact on the most vulnerable and marginalized people on the planet; after all our primary concern is decolonising futures. In industrialized countries, it is clear that the elderly and marginalized are expendable. We give great lip service to the importance of "first responders" and yet we are allowing hundreds if not thousands of nurses and doctors and other health care workers succumb to this pandemic. We might not have been able to foresee Covid-19, but we certainly sensed the emergence of such a global challenge. We could hardly find a better example of full blown postnormal event than the Covid-19 crisis, to a point that it can be properly called a postnormal perfect storm. As a postnormal phenomenon, there is no way to put the genie back in the lamp or control this crisis. We need to learn to navigate it. Of course, the best way to navigate a storm is to be able to anticipate and find the course that can take us away from it, this is why futures is even more important in PNT. Alas, that moment has passed and now we have to determine the best line of action once we are already in the centre of the cyclone. At this point the most critical question is how can we navigate this crisis?
In the next instalment, we will consider: how much do we not know about current Covid-19 crisis? And how are going to deal with our ignorance?
Up Next - Part 2: Navigating the Crisis
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