Delayed by a year, the quadrennial showcase of the finest of European football was every bit as phenomenal as expected—and it came with a fantasy team too.
Football season is always a wonderful thing. This summer saw the Euro 2020 take place after a year’s delay thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Euros are, of course, the next best thing after the World Cup and for me personally this year brought with it the added fun of an official Fantasy Football game. Fantasy Football has been going on in one league or another since the early ’70s but I got into it only last year with the Champions League, also organised by UEFA. The cup was memorable no doubt, but surprisingly the much slower-moving fantasy game was every bit as thrilling.
Fantasy Football is a terribly interesting game of strategy, statistics, and an amount of luck that is not particularly dismissible. This year the game was entirely UEFA’s doing rather than the ridiculously renamed ‘UEFA McDonald’s game’ from 2016. Players set up an imagined squad of 15 real life footballers complete with an in-game budget of €100 million. Points are raked in over the course of the tournament based on players’ real-life performances with points allotted statistically or perceptually based on their individual contribution to the team. Every round counts as a ‘matchday’ and a limited number of transfers and substitutions are allowed between and within matchdays respectively. There are a handful of other rules but let us not get into the nitty-gritty just yet.
The primary reason I found fantasy football appealing was because it was not designed to be addictive and it was not a wormhole hungry to eat up my time. The game goes on at 1:1 pace—meaning a minute in real life is a minute in the game—and you do not have to ‘follow’ the game either or revisit it at regular intervals. Your time will mostly be spent setting up your squad every matchday and substituting players once daily. The strategising goes on when you watch the actual Euros, which I would have done anyway regardless of the game.
UEFA opened up the fantasy game a couple of weeks before the tournament kicked off which felt painfully long because I had set up my squad far too early and had to wait it out.
Things started to spring into action as the 12 June approached by when all national squads had been announced and a couple of players on my fantasy squad who did not make it to the tournament had to be replaced.
Matchday 1 is often the most unpredictable in any tournament of this sort because we have never seen these teams play in the recent past. International friendlies do go on before the cup but those are often sandboxes for experimenting squads, formations and tactics and are therefore not the most accurate representation of a team.
One thing was clear to me right from the start, however. The Italians had their defence figured out so it would pay to bet on them—particularly Donnarumma whom I saw as my default first choice goalkeeper for the entire tournament. I went with Florenzi as my pick of defender over Spinazzola which did not turn out well. I also went with Barella instead of Insigne, which was another dud. So ironically my bet on the Italians was right but I just happened to pick two-thirds of them wrong.
At the end of MD1 Donnarumma was my only good Italian pick and Florenzi was out with an injury. The unfortunate incident with Denmark’s Christian Eriksen also pulled my team down but that of course mattered much less than making sure Eriksen was alright and I am glad he is. My other two defenders, Kjær and Mæhle, were Danish would on any other day have proven to be promising picks.
With Germany turning out a performance worse than I had expected of them—and with Kimmich as a wingback rather than the midfielder I expected him to play as—I made barely any points on the final day. Luckily, picking Ronaldo as my captain that day more than made up for the other losses. It turned out to be a somewhat average start for my fantasy team with 48 points on the board and placed third in my league.
If the first matchday is generally unpredictable, the second is usually anything but—or so I thought. I planned to capitalise on this with a limitless team. A ‘limitless chip’ allows players to build their squad with a free rein, with no limits on transfers or budget, with one catch: the team only lasts for one matchday.
This was a good move strategically but did the bare minimum for me. There was no way I could match up to my MD1 performance with two of my players out and a couple of others pretty much sure to be benched. However, going in, I expected a better score than MD1 which was not to be. At 47 points, my team on MD2 ended up a point shy of my MD1 score despite being a limitless team.
There were a few big reasons for this: first, captain after captain blanked out. On the first day I picked Hradecky as a differential since his match was against Russia, who had a poor attack, but they scored early in the game and the possibility of a clean sheet vanished right at the start. Then I bet on Lukaku who had turned in an impressive performance on MD1 but Kevin de Bruyne outshone him on MD2. My third pick was England’s Sterling who also blanked out, prompting me to move to Mbappé who faced a relatively weak Hungarian team that nonetheless held France to a draw and made Sterling’s performance the previous day look spectacular in comparison.
Other losses came from Courtois, whom I had picked as my second choice keeper having sacrificed Donnarumma this week to make space for Immobile (who performed really well but whom I had not captained unfortunately), and Hernandez who was benched for France. However my bet on Ukraine’s Yarmolenko and Englands John Stones paid off as the former was looking at a clear victory against North Macedonia and the latter was up against Scotland, a prospect which would undoubtedly force out his best game.
The other gamble that somewhat paid off was dropping Ronaldo because he was up against a determined German side. Germany went on to win that match 4–2, making it the highest score by a team in Euro 2020 so far. Ronaldo grabbed a goal for himself anyway but the risk was not worth taking.
Despite my MD2 performance being a point worse than my MD1 performance, I managed to top my league table thanks to the others performing even worse. MD3 would be different.
After MD1, it is perhaps MD3 that is most unpredictable. As teams cement their qualifications to the knockout stage, they start to rotate squads, making it harder to determine who would play and who would remain on the bench. The best way around this, in my opinion, was to pick from squads that had something to play for and that meant stacking up on German players.
Of course the rule restricts us to three players from a country which forced me to drop out three of my six German picks (Neuer, Müller and Kimmich) and go with Robin Goosens, Serge Gnabry and Kai Havertz. My other strategy to reduce unpredictability was to wait till an hour before the transfer window closed when the squads for the first two matches would be released and then pick guaranteed starters from among those. I went with Chiesa and Tolói from Italy for the first match, and Embolo and Shaqiri of Switzerland for the second.
I was glad to see the former Bayern lad Shaqiri get some of the limelight as a key attacker for Switzerland and decided it was worth captaining him for the first day. In 90 minutes it was clear Shaqiri would probably be my single best pick as captain this Euro as he raked in two goals and 26 points. On the Italian side, Tolói and Donnarumma both brought in clean sheet scores as expected with a dozen points. MD3 had gotten off to the greatest start ever, bringing in 43 points—a single day’s score that nearly equalled both my MD1 and MD2 scores. There was little doubt who would top the league table this matchday.
While the remaining days were no match for the opener, the England and Germany matches brought in some good points leading me to an overall score of 69 points for MD3 and within the overall ranking of 150,000 and the national ranking of 1,500.
Round of 16
Having used the limitless chip for MD2 and the wildcard for MD3—the latter which I would soon start wishing I had left untouched—I went into the Round of 16 with a simple strategy: rake in guaranteed qualifiers. To me the eight that would go past this round were Denmark, Italy, The Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, France, Germany and Sweden. As a result I stacked up four Italians, four Dutch, a couple of Frenchmen and a German, a Spaniard, a Dane, a Belgian and a Swede: the usual fifteen-man squad.
Oh, how wrong I was. In what would become the worst round in terms of future team-building (not points) I watched as some of the top tier countries bowed out of the tournament. Denmark and Italy won as predicted on day one, although Italy shockingly gave away a goal to Austria before winning the match, and my points tally reached a decent 24—half of which came from Mæhle. But the shocks were only just beginning.
The Netherlands lost the following day, eliminating four of my players (the quarter-final transfer window only allows three transfers without penalising my with four points per additional transfer). Despite Belgium winning, Kevin de Bruyne left his match halfway with an injury that would see him sit out the next round. The day after, Spain won and France dropped out rendering a total of six players eliminated and one injured. Subsequently Germany lost to England after 55 years at Wembley and Ukraine ousted Sweden so the last day ended with two teams I had counted on disappearing from the tournament.
Despite scoring well this round—ending at 62 points—half my team had been eliminated. Only three free transfers were allowed, which meant I could bench four of my eliminated players and transfer three of them without losing any points. I would, however, lose flexibility for the quarter-finals, a trade-off that was acceptable to me. But then the real problem was that of Kevin de Bruyne who was not eliminated but injured and there was a slim chance he would appear in the next match, which meant he had to be on my bench and I would be left with one surplus player.
My choices were simple: either I could keep the player at the cost of squad flexibility and expect a great piece of football from the others to cover for him, or I could sacrifice four points to pick a more guaranteed starter who could make back more than four points for me. And at this point I made things worse for myself: I went ahead and made three playful transfer assuming it would let me reset to my Round of 16 team before I finalise my quarter-final team. I have no idea why I thought that way but it cost me all three transfers as I headed into the quarter-final. I would have to make at least three transfers for a functional team which meant losing 12 points with no other choice.
Jumping to the end for a moment, this meant the previously touted 150,000 OVR and 1,500 national rank were the highest I would reach this tournament. I dropped below 450,000 and 5,000 but managed to climb to 300,379 OVR and 2,250 national rank after the final match.
I could have picked three great players on free transfers but now sat before my computer picking three great people who were well within my budget but came at the cost of 12 points. Our top three league positions were 226 points, 192 points and 151 points at the start of the quarter-final round. Despite having a 34 point lead at the top of the table, giving away 12 points would not only reduce that to a 22 point lead, it would almost ensure that I would drop to second place if any of my players did not score well. My other option was to keep the 34 points lead and hope that a seven-man team could compete with an eleven-man team.
Some further thoughts: I decided to make this decision on a statistical basis. Judging by the previous rounds my players scored an average of 4.34 points. Let us round that down to 4 just to play it safe. This meant—to my surprise—that giving up or keeping players made no difference. If I kept four of my eliminated players, for example, I would lose out on 12 potential points on average. If I swapped out four of them I would be penalised by 12 points and then make those 12 points back. But remember that I rounded down from 4.34 to 4.0 which means there was a slim chance I would make back more than 12 points. I might make back fewer than 12 points, but statistically I was more likely to make back a little more. The risk of transferring four players at the cost of 12 points, I finally decided, was worth it.
Was it, though? The quarter-final round saw my lowest score till date: 39 points. This was mainly driven by the fact that I had exactly 10 players to put forth for the quarter-final. Lukaku and Schick gave moderate returns while Immobile’s stagnant gameplay threatened to make a return. Captaining Sterling paid off even though I am not a fan of his game. Mæhle was the only other person giving back reasonable returns while everyone else this round—including Donnarumma—returned merely a couple of points or fewer.
The semi-final was a predictable affair although the England–Denmark match could have gone either way if it were not for a questionable penalty call that gave England the upper hand. (For what it is worth, I side with Shearer, Wenger, Mourinho and co. in saying that was not a penalty.)
Things picked up on the fantasy front with the semi-final despite it being an even lower scoring affair than the quarter-final by 2 points, primarily because I felt my picks gave fair returns. I still had not many substitutes so flexibility was limited. Despite coming in third in my league in the quarter-final, I finished at the top in the semi-final with a paltry 37 points, nine clear of the next highest.
The teams going through to the final were pretty much expected: England, who had a comfortable time playing all their matches at home, and Italy who started that way but had been touring all through the knockout rounds. England had also had its fair share of luck in this tournament and they would have been the clear favourites to win this cup had it not been for their incessant nag that the cup was ‘coming home’.
My money was on Italy from the start and for me they were the favourites to win. As the days passed between the semi-final and the final, I noticed several others among my friends and in our local football team siding with Italy. We knew it would not be an easy match for the Azurri, but they arguably deserved the win more than the English did. Scotland’s The National seemed to agree, with a front-page picture depicting the Italian head coach, Roberto Mancini, as William Wallace pleading to him, ‘Save us Roberto, you’re our final hope… (We can’t take another 55 years of them banging on about this.)’
Spinazzola’s injury two matches ago put Bonucci and Chiellini at the centre of the Italian defence and, boy, did they prove their worth. After an initial bumble which saw the English defender Luke Shaw scoring with a surprise volley, the Azurri locked up their goal for good. They proved every match to Grealish, Saka and every other player Gareth Southgate threw at them. I had bet on Bonucci, but not Chiellini.
Playing head over heart I had filled my defence with Englishmen who produced returns too since this match ended a 1–1 draw. With Shaw’s goal and Trippier’s assist giving me a combined 13 points. Add to that Bonucci’s goal (indeed both goals came from defenders in this final) and a few more points from Emerson and Maguire and my defence line gave me a comfortable 23 points. The midfielders and forwards fared much worse across the board, ensuring my defence-heavy 5-3-2 formation paid off. I had subs today but no opportunity to play them; but on the bright side they barely scored.
The end result was decent enough: the top three in my league ended at 321/304/229, which I topped but only barely. For my first Euro fantasy league this was pretty good, but what I enjoyed more than winning was how much fun we had discussing our teams, building our teams, waiting to see one another’s strategies and just sit back and watch while we did our best to topple others off the leaderboard. After all a whole lot of respectful fun is what football is all about.
One of the most intriguing characters in ‘Assassins Creed: Odyssey’ happens to be just as intriguing in real life.
There are two things in the Assassins Creed game franchise that keep drawing me to the classic series: one, the honed open world role-playing nature of the games; and two, the heavy reliance on historic realism for their fictional narrative. For those unaware of the series, here is a primer: the games are centred around a never-ending struggle between the order of the Templars and brotherhood of the Assassins, who fight for societal control and societal freedom respectively. This bit is fiction, as are the narratives themselves, but the eras, characters and world building in the games are more accurate than one might expect.
The fight between the two groups is intertwined around real places in history, with real people who existed around that time, but with either the Assassins or the Templars fighting to write history throughout the game. Needless to say, the Assassins, among whom the player is one, usually win in the end, having written history as we know it today.
A famous example of accuracy in world building in these games is that the game developers, Ubisoft, spent over 5,000 hours modelling Notre Dame in Paris, an effort that might pay off by helping in the rebuilding of the real Notre Dame after it burnt down partially back in 2019. (Realistically speaking, while this is possible and Ubisoft has confirmed as much, the French government will likely not take them up on this.)
The most recent edition of the game, as of the time of writing this essay, is Assassins Creed: Odyssey which is set centuries before the formation of the brotherhood. It takes place across the rich, beautiful islands of Ancient Greece around the late 420s BCE, right in the middle of the Peloponnesian war between Athens and Sparta. We play as an offspring in the bloodline of the Spartan king Leonidas, fighting against an underground organisation known as the Cult of Kosmos which has been vying to control all of the Greek world.
As a fan of Ancient Greek and Roman history, I was excited to go into this game fully expecting to meet the likes of Socrates, Phidias, Aristophanes, Hippocrates and Pericles among others. What I did not expect was to meet, halfway through the game, an intriguing woman at the highest echelons of Athenian politics known as Aspasia.
From the get go Aspasia struck me as strange. Be it her mannerisms, her choice of words—or lack of some—or, more openly, the way the game introduced her. I am yet to complete ‘Odyssey’ but I strongly suspect Aspasia is incredibly clever and her motives incredibly sinister. I might even go as far as to say she is the elusive leader of the Cult, the so-called ‘Ghost of Kosmos’, that we are hunting.
The Grecian glass ceiling
There are a few things to understand about Greece, and especially about Athens, of this era if we want to appreciate Aspasia for whoever she was. Athenian women mostly confined to their homes and were not to participate in anything public. It was the highest form of disgrace for a Grecian man, especially one with a high social standing, to follow his wife’s words. The mostly male-dominant Grecian society was not particularly fond of a woman rising through the ranks, getting educated or—the worst of the lot—participating in political discourse.
In this context, Aspasia would have been a prime target for hatred. She was a well-off and well-educated woman, partner to the then top man in Athens, Pericles, and unbound by the social ropes that held Athenian women in their homes because Aspasia was not Athenian—she was a foreign resident in Athens, having been born and brought up in Miletus. Because she was not Athenian, she was not allowed to marry Pericles and was simply his ‘partner’, a tricky position that could have played a big role in how society would go on to view her as a prostitute of sorts. In reality, Aspasia was an upscale ‘paid companion’, a hetera, who also ran a salon and a girl’s school, being a proponent of education. Athenians tended to call both her business ventures brothels.
Despite all this, Aspasia’s most fascinating stories have to do with some of the greatest Grecian intellectuals of that time. She was close friends with Socrates, who, as a man who held women in high regard, often praised her liberally. She was also close with the likes of Aristophanes and Plutarch, both of who disliked her: the former often referred to her work as little more than prostitution while the latter pointed out negatively to her influence on Pericles.
As the most powerful man in Athens, and perhaps all of Greece, at that time, Pericles was influence by Aspasia greatly, and not just in the capacity that spouses are generally influenced by each other. Socrates points out that not only did Aspasia write Pericles’s famous funeral speech for the initial casualties of the Peloponnesian war but also taught Pericles the art of eloquent oration. However, while Socrates points this out with great respect for Aspasia, the same is turned into an accusation by Plutarch and others, with Plutarch extrapolating to claim it was Aspasia who coaxed Pericles into going to war with Sparta. The general consensus among Athenian statesmen at the time was similar to Plutarch’s: every fault of Plutarch—or at least what they viewed as a fault—was blamed on Aspasia.
Soon Aspasia was dragged to court on charges of impiety. While this would not be the end of her, it would mark the end of Perikles. The Athenian statesman decided to defend her in court and he won her case at the cost of his own reputation. The people stopped believing in him and his fellow statesmen spared no expense in using this incident to pull him down with a lead weight. Eventually Perikles would die of the plague and Aspasia would become partner to one of his old friends.
Even as all these events progressed Socrates continued to relish his frequent exchanges with Aspasia. Engaging in intellectual discourse, it is believed that the two continued to meet often, with Socrates allegedly going so far as to use several of her ideas to build those we know today as his. There is no suspicion that he stole ideas from Aspasia but there is little doubt that at least a few of his ideas were born out of his discussions with her.
Over time, especially among writers who were not Aspasia’s contemporaries, depictions of the woman became more positive. However, nearly all currently known literature is an inseparable amalgam of facts, fiction and incredibly biased opinions. Says the historian Madeleine Henry, ‘When we need Aspasia to be a chaste muse and teacher, she is there; when we need a grand horizontal, she is there, when we need a proto-feminist, she is there also.’
What we do know for certain is that Aspasia was in many ways ahead of her times—either because of her birth to because of her circumstance—being better educated, more open and holding a higher rank in society than most Athenian women of the time. We know for certain that she talked about ongoing events, boldly discussed her philosophy and rarely shied from intellectual discourse. And we also know that the likes of Socrates and Perikles, some of the greatest minds of the time, were close as well as on great terms with her. This much should be enough to inspire anybody to be bold intelectually, even today.
If Aspasia is lost to history it is only because she lived in a man’s world.
Every generation believes that their own times are harder than any in the past and that inaction is somehow the best path forward.
There is no better place to start this discussion than Charles Dickens’s famous novel ‘A tale of two cities’ which begins with these fascinating words: ‘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, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.’
If you were given that sentence out of context, with no idea who Dickens was, you would be forgiven for thinking it was written in the 21st century, perhaps even during the coronavirus pandemic. Note especially the final clauses: ‘…some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received … in the superlative degree of comparison only.’ In our era of rising far right groups, where everyone seems to be against everyone else and we only ever speak in terms of the best or the worst or the most treacherous or the most anti-national, this sentence captures the spirits of our current leaders more eloquently than any other; and to think that it was written in 1859.
The fact is, however, that our troubles today are no greater than humanity’s troubles at any other point in history and we have ample peer-reviewed statistics to back this up. Fewer people live in extreme poverty today than at any other time in history; we have fewer people today who go to bed hungry than at any other time in the past; the average person today has more leisure time than they would have had had they lived at some time in the past; our life expectancy is higher than ever before; death at childbirth is rarer than ever before; we have eradicated so many diseases that newer generations cannot even name several of them; people smoke half as often today as they did in the 1950s; theft and murder rates have dropped, making our streets safer for our children today than even when you and I were born; schooling and literacy are higher than ever before; and there are more democratic countries today than there have ever been in the past.
One can go on and on with examples, but the point is simple: we look at the present through a microscope, noticing every bit of it, every moment and every nuance; and we look at the past as a vivid painting on a vast canvas in all its beauty. Our view is inherently skewed in favour of the long past; rather than understand that today will be to tomorrow what yesterday is to today, our basest instincts drive us instead to pessimism, picturing a bleaker world than ever before, picturing downfall, loss and hopelessness. And this leads us, as it always has, to the questionable coping mechanism we know as nihilism: the idea that our lives are fleeting, and that we will all die in no time, and that everything is meaningless in the grand scheme of things, so nothing really matters and we might as well shut up, subscribe to inaction and let the world—and its ideas that care not a tuppence for us—simply ride on.
On the contrary, things do matter. Ideas do matter. And it is precisely because someone somewhere in the past cared enough to do something about it that we happen to be in a better world today than the one in which any of our ancestors lived.
If one slips out of Nietzsche’s grip in the context of holding the state accountable one inevitably falls into the arms of Camus. Peaceful, positive action against the state is not only our right but our duty. In subscribing to inaction fuelled by the thought that ‘such is how things are’ subscribers of nihilist inaction forget that Nietzsche, whose ideas these were, also said this: ‘I will have all antisemites shot.’ That is quite an action.
One issue that often sends people scurrying back to Nietzsche is the belief that any form of dissent is necessarily bloody—either literally or figuratively—and the idea that we live in a world run by algorithms hell bent on monetising disagreement only serves to further this argument. Look closely, however, and it becomes clear that these ideas stem from tunnel vision. Should one look beyond the most obvious culprits—social media, tech moguls and faceless algorithms—it becomes clear that the fast shrining room for debate today is actually a cultural issue that was prevalent long before technology pervaded our lives.
In his 1987 bestseller The closing of the American mind the philosopher Allan Bloom argues against a 1960s decision to remove the so-called ‘great books’ from academic syllabi. He eerily compares it to 1930s Germany. He then talks about how discouraging ideas has led to shrinking room for disagreement because every idea is considered equal to every other eliminating any potential debate at all. To simply sit back and let things be what they are—such is how things are—is to accept everything; and to accept everything is nihilistic. Bloom proceeds to make a passionate case for questioning things around us and for disagreement and debate grounded in reason and made elegant by a peaceful tension between complex ideas born out of reading and learning, especially the humanities.
Two things might strike us about this book: first, the idea that we have no room to debate has more to do with the fabric of our society than a handful of websites that make up less than a tenth of the internet; and second, the argument might seem quite relevant to today, when our assault on the humanities in universities has continued and a call for accepting ideas different from our own is loud and seemingly omnipresent. But at this point some context is due: Bloom’s book was a staunchly conservative one, making a conservative argument in an especially liberal era.
Today, the tables seem to have turned and the most dangerous thing we can do is subscribe to inaction because ‘such is how things are’. An equally dangerous thing would be to assume that a general consensus cannot be formed because all ideas are equally valid. This is abjectly untrue; with debate—open, peaceful, constructive, well-informed, decent debate—some ideas will give way to others, some ideas will triumph. To believe that all ideas are equal and that a consensus need not be reached is to signal that we are taking things personally. People most certainly are equal, their ideas need not be so. And this becomes immediately apparent when we stop taking ideas personally; and if we did stop taking ideas personally, we open ourselves to a good discussion and disagreement and the argument that all ideas are equal breaks down.
With this, let us return to Nietzsche. The German philosopher famously argues for amor fati, to love life and not want to change it. At this point bridging this with nihilism might seem natural to the point of being simplistic. But look no further than Camus to see how one might practise amor fati without necessarily giving to things because ‘such is how things are’ or even sitting idly by because no consensus may be reached since all ideas are equal:
The sum total of every possibility does not amount to liberty… Chaos is also a form of servitude. Freedom exists only in a world where what is possible is defined at the same time as what is not possible. Without law there is no freedom.
Camus’s idea of rebellion, of taking action, of debating, of disagreeing, inherits the sacred ideas of freedom, peace and individuality and does so explicitly without going the way of Ayn Rand’s ego. For Camus decent rebellion comes not from self-interest but an interest in the common good. ‘An act of rebellion is not, essentially, an egoistic act,’ says Camus, pointing out that, ‘The rebel … demands respect for himself, of course, but only in so far as he identifies himself with a natural community.’
That is the distinction between ideas, making ideas our identity, and fighting for an idea because it shapes society—the ‘natural community’ if you will—in which we live. Disagreement, rather than inaction and sitting back because ‘such is how things are’, speaks of our fundamental values that need to be defended. Camus, yet again, said it best: ‘Rebellion, though apparently negative, since it creates nothing, is profoundly positive in that it reveals the part of man which must always be defended.’
If the apparent lack of control stems from a uniquely modern problem like algorithms, it becomes important to realise that algorithms feed on either human instruction or human behaviour. In either case, we still hold the reins. My own social media feeds are not nearly as caustic as those I see others complaining about, which is because, one, I curate whom I follow and have clear reasons why I follow them; two, I do not read the news on social media, a seemingly innocent act that does a lot to give power the algorithm to learn about one’s stances on issues and then create an echo chamber.
Hidden behind an electronic facade, people find it easy and inconsequential to argue on such platforms; the solution is not to shun debate and sit back and let things run to ruin, rather it is to participate in sound debates (which should be easy if you do not make those ideas your identity), encourage reading, and preferably take the discussion elsewhere, such as to newspapers, an evening at the pub and so on.
Hidden behind an electronic facade, people are also more gullible to the mistaken belief that they are in fact making a difference. Virtue signalling is all the rage today because social media makes it easy to appear like one is making a difference even if they are not. This deepens the divide: as one side becomes pickier about things the other reacts furiously, pushing themselves further away from the idea than needed. The chasm widens and deepens, and the reason is crystal clear: everyone is busy enforcing their ideas instead of talking about or debating them first—or even considering if others might perhaps follow their arguments given some discussion in the first place. As a result, nobody ever reaches amicable resolutions and brutal friction abounds between polar opposites that need never have come to be.
In my own experience I have made much less progress trying to discuss ideas or show someone factually correct information while exchanging words on the web; offline, in an ‘old school’ tête-a-tête, things have been remarkably different. Sometimes, people just need to be in one another’s company to work up the patience to see things more reasonably. And to claim that algorithms have stolen power from users would be a defeatist attitude—one can blame a tool only so much—especially when you are still the one choosing to unquestioningly accept whatever an algorithm chooses to feed you.
In a lecture three years ago the Pulitzer-winning conservative journalist Bret Stephens had this to say about the nature of ideas and disagreement—
Socrates quarrels with Homer. Aristotle quarrels with Plato. Locke quarrels with Hobbes and Rousseau quarrels with them both. Nietzsche quarrels with everyone. Wittgenstein quarrels with himself.
These quarrels are never personal. Nor are they particularly political, at least in the ordinary sense of politics. Sometimes they take place over the distance of decades, even centuries.
Most importantly, they are never based on a misunderstanding. On the contrary, the disagreements arise from perfect comprehension; from having chewed over the ideas of your intellectual opponent so thoroughly that you can properly spit them out.
In other words, to disagree well you must first understand well. You have to read deeply, listen carefully, watch closely. You need to grant your adversary moral respect; give him the intellectual benefit of doubt; have sympathy for his motives and participate empathically with his line of reasoning. And you need to allow for the possibility that you might yet be persuaded of what he has to say.
The attentive reader may have noticed I have been picking conservative figures to make my points on openness, debate and disagreement; this was done intentionally so as not to leave room for doubts that I might be writing from inside a liberal echo chamber. Parenthetically, that modern-day hardline conservatives seem not to be following their own past words is something amusing to me; it is also an observation best left for another essay.
There are people on all sides with understanding and decency, and people without. The ideas that are at odds, however, do not represent these people; ideas are their own entities and confronting them is of utmost importance lest we soon find ourselves in a miserable society where amor fati far from being an approach to life becomes our only means of survival.
Nihilism feeds itself. Embracing inaction creates a world in which inaction becomes the sole means of survival and we leap closer to Rand’s Anthem-esque world. Embracing nihilism creates a world where chaining ourselves to nihilism becomes essential for existence. By all means sit back and take things lightly, especially take yourselves lightly; but ideas are not to be taken lightly. Not everyone has to agree on an idea, but once everyone agrees that all ideas can be debated openly and decently, there is no way society can escape a consensus.
If we are where we are today as a species—whether in our brilliance, our ruthlessness, our helpfulness, our carelessness, our resourcefulness or our heartlessness—it is because we reached a consensus on nearly every disagreement that crept into our society.
After 100 issues of ‘Briefings’ it is time for newer, better things: an all-new newsletter powered by Buttondown.
What prompted me to start Briefings a decade ago was a sense of adventure. I had been blogging for three years at that point and wanted to shuffle things up. Starting a newsletter seemed like a logical addition to publishing a blog but I was new to e-mail newsletters in general so I looked no further than the most popular solution available then, the good old Mailchimp.
The initial challenge was growing a subscriber base, which took time but was as steady as my writing was interesting. That, however, is fodder for another article. Last month I sent out the 100th issue of Briefings and even as I was writing it, I realised this was the perfect time to improve and refresh things in a meaningful way—both for my readers and myself.
Mailchimp is great, but it is bloated. It is the Wordpress of newsletters, and I quit Mailchimp for the same reason I left Wordpress: a yearning for simplicity. Likewise, I moved to Buttondown for the same reason why I moved to Hugo; in a lot of ways Buttondown is the Hugo of newsletter services.
Mailchimp is still great for someone looking for a complex management system and a drag-and-drop template-based set-up, but I was myself on the lookout for something simpler. With Mailchimp writing each issue was a chore. It was fun because of what I had to say, but the way I had to put it into words was bothersome. It involved clicking on several boxes, writing in a WYSIWYG editor, hoping any HTML additions I may do not completely mess up, and the process of sending an e-mail took me through a handful of pages.
With Buttondown, things are a lot more streamlined. The interface is second to none. In fact it could be a great example of how a no-frills interface should work. Things are fast and the entire process of writing and sending are on one screen. Designing is done separately which allows for—and this is my favourite part—writing newsletters in Markdown. The usual capabilities exist of course: subscription via RSS, double opt-in, newsletter archival, customised welcome e-mails, a dedicated signup page, optional embeddable forms, spellcheck etc. But the greatest aspect of Buttondown remains its pleasant writing experience—and I am not alone in saying this.
Buttondown also offers a premium newsletter option where we can charge for subscriptions—with Buttondown and Stripe taking a cut of course. This is not on the horizon for me, but it is certainly nice to know the option exists. Analytics is also available along with an option to disable it. More important, it does not focus on building a subscriber profile with names and a myriad fields for each subscriber. I have always only collected subscriber e-mails to keep things lean and straightforward and Buttondown is built around that approach.
It does, however, offer tags for people who want some level of grouping for their subscriber base and emails can be sent based on interest tags. Personally, I like to reduce the number of decisions a reader has to take while considering subscribing to my newsletter which is why there is just one field and a ‘Subscribe’ button. Simple is good.
So much for how this improves things for me. Now how does it better things for my subscribers? Put simply, the ease with which I can send out issues with Buttondown brings back focus to the content of each issue. That helps me make sure things are better than ever before. Once again, this reminds me of how Hugo and iA Writer streamlined my workflow to return all my focus to the content—once I had the design in place, like Buttondown.
However, the changes I plan to make go beyond this. The biggest change is in the length of each issue. I plan to keep it around 300 words, aiming to stay under. This allows me to be concise which prompts me to be careful about what I choose to share. We do not have a dearth of information to consume, so if I can make each issue brief but meaningful—whether that means three links or ten per issue—readers are sure to find it eating into less of their time while offering the same value as before or greater than that.
Also, the idea is to make Dispatch more personal than Briefings. Whereas Briefings had an almost corporate tone to it, I see promise in eschewing that facade for a more personal tone. I intend for Dispatch to read like a letter but with the added perks of its digital format. It will carry an image or two, if necessary, to break the monotony of a wall of text; but it will not have as many images as an issue of Briefings mainly because of its reduced word count.
The structure of each issue will change too. On the outside, I have restarted numbering from Issue 1 rather than continuing at 101 to make it amply clear that this is a whole new thing which carries forward everything my existing subscribers loved about Briefings. But because the two newsletters are so alike in spirit, the final issue of Briefings asked people to opt out of Dispatch if they want to. It was humbling that not only did an extremely small number opt out but a considerable number of new subscribers came onboard. Many asked about the new name which prompted me to put up a new page dedicated to Dispatch.
Finally, what bothered me most about Briefings from a materialistic standpoint was that its design was in no way aligning with that of my website. With Dispatch that issue has been solved. The rickety drag-and-drop interface of Mailchimp has given way to a simple custom CSS text area on Buttondown so everything—from the typefaces (on e-mail clients that support it) to the colours and overall design—is exactly like on the main site.
New issues of Dispatch will be sent out in the first week of every month. If you have not subscribed yet, you can do so right here:
If you ever find yourself looking to continue the conversation about something discussed in an issue, simply hit reply. If you have ideas too, simply reply to any issue to let me know. As with Briefings, my commitment to keeping my newsletter ad-free is renewed for Dispatch. It is one of the things my readers have expressed they like about my newsletter and, since this is a passion project for me, I find it perfectly reasonable to continue ad-free. Thank you for joining the ride; it will no doubt be an exciting and knowledgeable one.
A key beneficiary of the SARS-Cov-2 virus has been our natural environment. How significant is this positive impact, though? And have we learnt enough to ensure that things do not go bad again once we make it past this crisis?
Environmental degradation has been a major human footprint for centuries now. We have gotten so used to it that we no longer recognise it; it has become an integral part of our definition of our world. To worsen things, we also no longer care because we have not been able to feel its effects substantially.
While this degradation itself is taking place with a sadistic linear consistency, its effects are rising exponentially. We happen to be on the lower-end of that curve so we have not felt it too much; soon we will be on the rise of that curve and acting then to save our planet just might be too late.
In the midst of all this is the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic which has given both us and nature a bit of breathing space. It has given us time to rethink our actions and nature herself seems to be breathing cleaner now. But to think of this alone as the effect of COVID-19 on our environment would be a folly. The fact is that had we taken better care of our world, we would never have met this new virus.
A couple of months into 2020, shortly after COVID-19 had been declared a pandemic, and planes around the world had been grounded and industries been shut down, Venice’s canals famously cleared up, dolphins returned to Italian shores and the Himalayas were reportedly visible from farther away than usual. Even as a lot of ‘non-believers’ screamed for years that they could not see the negative effects of climate change, as soon as most of our world was quarantined, nobody could deny the dramatic positive changes in nature that they could see right before their eyes.
The evidence is not just anecdotal, however. Measurements showed that emissions fell by 25% in China at the start of 2020 and recently in New York by 50%. There also followed evidence of the content of NO2 over Italy dropping according to satellite surveys of the region released by the European Space Agency. Overall, while there was little evidence and lot of numbers backing up claims of climate change all these decades, there are now both numbers and anecdotal records of the environment improving in our absence.
There is a bit of a downside to this too. Such a seemingly quick recession of pollution could tempt people into thinking that this problem is easier to solve than it really is and therefore make it look like less of an issue to bother about.
However, replicating these weeks without another global threat to human life is near impossible. People simply quarantining themselves in sequence will not achieve the same effect; the whole world needs to do it at once and we will never do it again except at viral gunpoint. It is clear that despite the positive environmental changes this quarantine season has brought on, it is not a solution; it is more of a reminder to us to get back on track to saving our Earth. These changes we are living through are a reminder of what a better environment looks and feels like.
Transport is key in human civilisation and it will survive this pandemic. It is also among the bigger causes for pollution. It will continue to add pollutants to the environment once quarantines are no longer in effect the world over. People may even travel a lot more, driving further routinely as if bouncing out of quarantine to lands far, far away. Others may have gotten used to living at home and choose to travel less. This toss up tells us that it is not a factor upon which to assess our next steps.
However, industries may have been and will get back to being the biggest culprits. They ought to be slapped with stricter rules to curb pollution and that may in fact have some effect. Easing other laws in return would serve to incentivise them.
The expert consensus is quite clear: while there is an improvement in pollution and other environmental yardsticks now, during the quarantine, things will start to worsen once the quarantine has been lifted. Yet, the overall impact of these weeks we are spending at home may still be good if not spectacular: the predicted drop in global emissions could be thrice as much as the drop during the Global Financial Crisis of the late 2000s—a mere 0.3%—this year.
To add some more perspective, the pollution we have caused hits closer to home than most of us realise: given two similar cities, one moderately clean and the other highly polluted, scientists have predicted that the COVID-19 death rate is likely to be 4.5 times higher in the latter city. Plainly, had we not polluted the world so much, fewer people would have died of COVID-19.
While it is important to understand the impact that we have had on the environment and the impact that the SARS-Cov-2 pandemic has had on the environment, it is perhaps more important to look forward and lay a plan for how we hope to return the world.
One thing is clear: while our daily lives may become more convenient as non-essential service providers kick into gear the way society itself works may not—nay, should not be allowed to—return to the status quo. Things should get better overall, and that will only happen when everyone is in on the plan.
The idea behind this is simple: while cleaning up a beach or street can have a temporary, local impact—and is certainly important—it is a large scale effort we need right now if we plan to return to safer carbon levels. For long governments and industries alike have pointed fingers at individuals: there have been popular cries to use paper straws, carry our own containers, carry our own bags etc. But the scientific community has clearly pointed out that industries and not individuals are capable of making meaningful change.
While carrying a paper straw is great—and in no way is it condemned or ridiculed—every single one of us will have to carry paper straws for millennia before any visible change occurs. The same goes for that one trip to the market you might be tempted to avoid in favour of the Earth: it is great, but it is dew on the ocean. In better times that would have been a wonderful progression, but we do not have millennia now. By all means let us all work on individually reducing our carbon footprints, but let us not be deluded into thinking we are all making a collective impact for the simple reason that this responsibility is concentrated away from us.
The entities whose actions can make a difference are the ones deflecting blame from themselves to individuals constantly. As a 2017 report found, 71% of the world’s emissions came from just 100 companies and state producing entities. It is easier to enforce a change with these 100 companies, and considerably more practical, than to coax 6 billion people to change their lifestyles. The lifestyle changes should and will come, but over a much longer time period; the immediate change must be demanded from industries.
Something we as individuals can do to enforce such change is improve our habits rather than simply preach highly specific abstinence practices. ‘Any positive environmental impact in the wake of this abhorrent pandemic, must therefore be in our changing our production and consumption habits towards cleaner and greener,’ says the UN. What we need for this is a government stimulus package that follows on the heels of this pandemic.
An important thread to follow is individual human lifestyles and comforts. People are not to blame here: nobody ought to be blamed for seeking comforts; all animals do it on their own terms. However, negativity abounds when obtaining such comforts are hard. Governments will therefore have to make policies that place individual rights, comforts and health benefits strictly front and centre, well above corporations and above needless gun-toting for ‘national security’. If we all simply get along, there will be no need for such stray use of funds.
When governments and corporations help people live contented lives and not live in fear for their own health and wellbeing, people will be free to focus on their other habits, be it planning vacations better, shopping more responsibly or even seeking simpler recreations (since the mystery and allure of exotic recreations would have died down—we only desire what we cannot have etc.). The responsibility lies squarely in the hands of governments and none of the actions they need to take need to be detrimental to individuals.
The reason why such renewed focus on humans and the environment—a ‘green stimulus’ from governments if you like—is important is because humans have encroached on the planet enough that coming in contact with new viruses will become the norm. The worse climate change becomes the greater will be the occurrence of zoonotic diseases—those transmitted from animals to humans. The future of our environment quite simply is the future of humanity. The more content we are, the more in harmony we can live with each other and consequently with nature. This is simply a clever move that leaves little room for questions. A green stimulus package makes sense.
A group of policy experts from universities and think tanks have proposed a four-point programme that must be central to any such green stimulus:
- Create millions of new family-sustaining, career-track green jobs in clean energy expansion, building retrofits and sustainable homebuilding, local food economies, public transit maintenance and operations, electric appliance and vehicle manufacturing, green infrastructure construction and management, local and sustainable textiles and apparel, and partnering with existing pre-approved apprenticeship programs to bring more low-income and workers of color into good union jobs;
- Deliver strategic investments — like green housing retrofits, rooftop solar installation, electric bus deployment, rural broadband development, and other forms of economic diversification — to lift up and collaborate with frontline communities, including communities of color, Indigenous communities, low-income communities, communities that have suffered disinvestment, and communities that have historically borne the brunt of pollution and climate harm;
- Expand public and employee ownership by leveraging existing public agencies and assets (including public transit agencies, local housing authorities, public school districts, and electric co-ops), taking equity stakes in companies receiving substantial direct investment (including the airline, fossil fuel, and cruise industries), and conditioning strategic aspects of the stimulus package on worker self-determination measures and cooperatives; and,
- Make rapid cuts to carbon pollution consistent with keeping global warming as close as possible to 1.5 degrees Celsius, as the climate science tells us is required to limit further climate breakdown, and protect salaries, benefits, and retirements of fossil fuel workers.
If we are to salvage our environment and make a better world for us to live in, one that is at least safe for us than wild heatwaves and viruses that are unheard of, the stimulus packages that come next must reshape our industries, redefine the norm and allow individuals a huge stake in choosing how we can rebuild more responsibly than ever before.
The simplest scale with which to measure the direct impact of such a stimulus package is to look at its carbon intensity. Speaking of the opportunity we have to build ‘a greener economy’, Professor Sam Fankhauser the former deputy chief economist at the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development said, ‘The three tests which economists use for a good stimulus is they have to be timely, targeted and temporary, and there are a lot of climate change measures which fall into that category. So we can have a low-carbon recovery, that’s absolutely possible.’
That is always good news: it can be done. We just have to step up and do it. We are living through a direct result of one of our negative impacts on the environment while another is worsening things for us. And without us the earth is healing, which should ideally be all the proof we need. There is no need to invoke such dramatic quips as ‘the world is healing and we are the virus’ because the facts, plainly and simply, are themselves clear.
We need to use this opportunity to learn and change our approach to living in society and on the earth in terms of individual health, individual wellbeing, harmony, and environmental impact; either that or we had better reframe our school curricula right away so we can teach the next generation how to properly pack their doomsday kits and bid their loved ones goodbye.
As our world burns, humans are busy playing the fiddle. It is time we stopped for good.
For some time now, we as a species have been at our worst behaviour. We have discriminated amongst ourselves, put some on a pedestal and thrown others to the wolves, designed around us a society that is fundamentally flawed, twisted, unjust, crooked, self-centred and hollow. The pandemic engulfing us should be the last straw. If we do not come together now, we will be forever divided and forever weakened.
Our countries are being ruled by bigots. The media is biased to a fault. Hatred is celebrated, both secretly and publicly. Violence is legitimised by those wielding the reins and intolerance is becoming the lifeblood of people’s enthusiasm. There is nothing in today’s world that will hold any such negativity to account; there is nothing that steers us towards positivity and goodwill. People refuse to act until the threat is at their doorstep, and then too they only look after themselves.
Symbolism is good, symbolism can bring people together. But symbolism should never play second fiddle to practical solutions. Symbolism that is empty is merely a distraction from reality. Symbolism can step dangerously close to the complete denial that a problem even exists.
Technology has enabled us today to twist reality in forms we had never dreamt of before. Ideas can be planted and sourness cultivated from a distance. The film Inception is far removed from reality in that one need not go through so much trouble to plant an idea. A realistic text, an old video introduced in a new context, a deepfake is more than enough to convince someone beyond the point of no return that something is just so, that some people are just so, that an individual ought to do something, or that a country is better of without someone. Everything we have used our tools for, rather characteristically, is destructive.
The way forward is through goodwill, unity and acceptance. Our current trajectory will only drive us to the ground. All through history if humanity has ever come out of a situation in one piece it has been because of the work of a diverse set of people who managed to bring everyone together. We approached problems with solutions in mind and if that meant we had to work with our worst enemies, accept sexual orientations different from our own or hold back on criticising beliefs we did not like, we did just that.
But we have now gone a step back where we had to go two steps forward. We should not be tolerating other’s sexual identity, we should be accepting it and getting on with our day. We should not be tolerating other’s race, religion or colour, we should accept them and leave them no room in our decisions or laws or concerns. We should simply be human. And that means not making blanket statements, not calling people out when it is baseless but convenient to us, respecting one another at any cost, even when we differ in our sentiments, beliefs and identities.
A lot of our world is shaped by the media. The incredible availability of information and its consequent overconsumption have saturated our sympathies. Nothing feels real anymore and nothing feels as impactful. We have been desensitised to things that should have bothered us deeply and sensitised to things that are sensational simply because sensationalism sells. The world is dancing to the tunes of capitalism: everything comes at a cost, everything is measured with a common yardstick. An idea that seems so ignorant when put in other contexts (think of measuring your weight with a metre rule) makes perfect sense when the yardstick for everything is money and marketing. News that sells is reported regardless of what is virtuous; industries that sell are funded, regardless of their impact on our environment; people who can sell are elected, regardless of how twisted their moral compass is. This is all clear insanity; what we need is something that is obviously sane, something that does not amount to self-harm.
As we dig our own graves it will pay to look around us and wonder—perhaps even pause digging for a while. Where are we headed? What signs are we ignoring? That is not to say the answer is absolute: the answer is probably neither absolutely free healthcare nor absolutely free guns. Nor, perhaps, is the answer centrist even if centrism seems right. The answer is probably a mixture of ideas that no longer fit into the right/centre/left mould. The answer is a little bit of all our beliefs. And we will hear the answer only if we stop digging and listen, understand, accept and help one another climb out of the holes we are in today and start rebuilding with a ferocity driven by kindness.
The SARS-Cov-2 virus brought our civilisation to its knees. But our downfall started long before this pandemic, and its effects will be felt in all walks of life for quite some time after.
The COVID-19 pandemic the world is currently suffering through is not our first tryst with the threat of mass extinction and will not be our last. But some key players have entered the game now that never played it before, and these have forced us to reframe our thinking of how life will be lived in the future.
The economy is one of them. Flawed, skewed and delicate, our economies are an inexact science that always fascinates the physicist in me who is used to a great deal of precision and predictability. The newest generations are feeling the pinch of falling economies more profoundly than they ever have before. The jokes have stepped out of memes and into reality.
Technology is the other. From doctors to teachers to bankers to practically everyone else, all of us are embracing technology as a real tool at last. It has graduated from a luxury and a distraction to an indispensable tool that can both help prevent the spread of SARS-Cov-2 and help us survive our quarantine by feeding our most raw human desire to socialise.
The third is the environment. From dolphins returning to Venice to the skies clearing above our own homes, humanity taking a break has shown us how safe the environment is without us. While the pigeons may be puzzled and the elephants may be making their way closer to urbanity than ever before, we cannot help but stop and reconsider our future actions now that there is no doubt left that we have long been the cause of environmental ruin.
People are also realising the importance of the institutions they never cared two hoots about earlier: banks, grocery stores, delivery services, toilet paper and a bunch of other supply chains we took for granted. Every generation is reminded of the frailty of humankind and if the last two wars were the reminders for our older generations, we ought to consider ourselves spared.
Since the late Middle Ages our civilisation has been divided into three realms or ‘estates’. The first estate were the religious orders, the second estate were the nobility and parliamentarians, and the third estate were the commoners. Today, we seem to have five: the religious orders, the politicians, the commoners, the media and independent activists. Whatever the model one would subscribe to, two things have remained unchanged: the first two estates have greedily held onto to power and the right to take large-scale decisions, and the third have always been the ones who bear the brunt at every stage.
Over time this led to a monopoly where greed, conflicted interests and personal profits soared to the top of everyone’s priorities while the people who actually drove the economic machines were relegated to mere cogs. The greed of those at the top knew no end, and their control over the fourth estate went from suggestive influences to precise ownership. In the end, the supreme were beyond reach and the commoners remained unheard. Civilisation as we knew it grew a rift down the middle as the top few went on like they needed nobody and nothing and the bottom majority went on without the light of hope.
The metric that most succinctly captures this rift is a measure of wealth. Since the Second World War the wealth gap has constantly increased. Moreover, the wealth gap has increased faster when the economy was growing more slowly. This counterintuitive idea quite simply suggests that there is a priority built into the system by design where the rich get their share regardless of economic growth and the sluggishness of growth is only ever felt among the commoners—the majority. While any system that benefits the minority at the cost of pushing down the majority is itself questionable, the world simply went on with this idea because it seemed to work and we were far too risk-averse to try anything else.
The way this idea was reconciled with another popular idea of that time, equality, was through the theory of trickle-down economics. If the rich were allowed to grow their wealth, it reasoned, they would invest it back into the economic system thereby benefitting society at large. More precisely, if businesses and rich folks were taxed less they would have more to spend, and such money would make its way to everybody else. Of course what happened was more straightforward, and probably surprised nobody. Per Occam’s razor: the richer the rich people got the more they hoarded and multiplied their wealth; not only did nothing substantial trickle down, money left the majority and made its way to the wealthy. Either these people were often among the first two estates or this flawed system was worsened and made the status quo by these two estates—it was for the simple reason that the status quo benefitted them.
The numbers spoke of the rift quite loudly: as of 2016 the poorest 90% of the people in society owned 23% of all the wealth in the world; the richest 10% owned the remaining 77% of the wealth. Of that 77%, the richest 1% in the world owned half. These numbers had been growing since the 1970s.
The novel coronavirus that ravaged parts of China in late-2019 and is spreading through the rest of the world now, over the first quarter of 2020, simply widened this rift. Economies are turning out to be the biggest sufferers now. But cruelly enough, it is still the commoners who are bearing the brunt.
COVID-19 is a rich man’s disease. Its virus transmitted to humans because the rich people in China wanted to eat pangolins (and had shortly got a previous ban on selling wild animal meat lifted for this sake). Thereafter, people who could afford air travel flew across the globe, carrying the disease out with them and introduced it to populations the world over. They were offered cover by the most powerful authorities in China—even as the likes of Taiwan cried foul—who hushed up the affair long enough for it to become a pandemic.
But why did China do it? Simply because the people taking these decisions could afford to take such decisions. They literally could afford to sit at home, give up their jobs for a while, continue to draw huge incomes, and socially distance themselves with little to no worry. The people who were worst hit were the poorer ones; they needed their jobs, their student loans were weighing them down, they had families they would feed month-to-month, their arms stretched thrice could reach both ends of their homes—if they were lucky enough to have homes.
The International Food Policy Research Institute estimates that COVID-19 could increase the number of people living in extreme poverty by 6.5%, of which 5.6% would come from rural populations. Worse still is that Africa, which is so far the least affected by the virus, will see the worst effects of the pandemic thanks to trade shocks.
The long-term economic effects will be particularly visible in the job market. Full-time jobs are expected to reduce while part-time and contractual hiring will see a jump. In some ways this gig economy—which was hit hardest by COVID-19—will also reap the greatest benefits of this pandemic. Further, this crisis has shown us just how many jobs can be done from home. As a combination of increasing technology and reducing physical presence, people who can work from home will likely be asked to do so. This will save companies infrastructure costs and will give its employees a better work–life balance.
There will arise a general trend towards power shifting to the hands of employees rather than businesses now that it has been made amply clear how many businesses can crumble if its customers and employees step back, even if the entire board surges ahead.
Soon, besides some of our stablest institutions—such as responsible banks which can embrace new technologies like blockchain—businesses in general may start approaching freelancers to get things done in order to save money in the long run. Freelancers and other gig economy workers may then find the ball in their court and may finally inhale the sweet smell of ink as they dictate their own terms to their clients.
Similar benefits may extend to society at large. The greatest realisation so far has been that our healthcare system is unprepared for a pandemic. An epidemic can be handled when countries share resources, but a pandemic allows for no such generosity. It is to each their own, and on our own we are unprepared.
An important development that can potentially secure humanity’s future from most things but itself is universal healthcare. A guarantee of healthcare for every single person, taxation that incentivises production of medicines and medical equipment, laws that nip pharmaceutical price wars in the bud, and widespread presence of hospitals and doctors must become the norm if we have learnt anything from this pandemic. How such things will be funded is simple: tax the rich more heavily. Give honest new businesses a tax break but tax the obviously wealthy people with guaranteed streams of income—think Jeff Bezos—much more heavily.
To some, all this may seem a bit too optimistic to be real. Indeed I was quite pessimistic about it myself until, in a particularly enriching conversation, Ishtaarth Dalmia (@ishtaarth) pointed out to me that the failure of our institutions is due to ‘individual efforts to effect change’. This was a refreshing outlook for me that said there is hope yet.
Our ‘estates’ have failed us repeatedly, yet they seem to rebuild themselves. Our society has been crumbling for some time, yet the status quo seems to never want to change. Why would this time be any different? Will we not all just rush out of our homes forever forgetting how we felt when it first dawned on us that the virus was effectively shutting countries down? The answer lies in the fact that unlike previous instances (during the wars for example) the crumbling of our institutions this time is not a distant sociopolitical occurrence. This time it is personal. This time we are watching with our own eyes as our society falls precisely because individuals are absent, our institutions are falling because individuals are not around to drive them, the war—whether it is an inconvenience or outright suffering—is being fought not on a large-scale sociopolitical landscape but on an individual level, at home.
All this means there is hope that the individuals who failed to effect change will simply be replaced by individuals who understand the need to effect change and will do so. And this time round individuals will keep watch, institutions will be accountable to individuals and not first and second estate overlords.
Humans as a species have not demonstrated the ability to learn. But select individuals have. And with the weight of most of us behind them, change can be brought. It would be in the best interests of everyone—including the behemoths. Everything was set up this way with good intentions and we can reinforce those intentions and translate them into actions now. The current pandemic is a global wake-up call. All will be well if we are not overwhelmed by the freedom we gain when our quarantines are lifted and if our current predicaments fade into distant memories that seem almost fictitious. But there is hope yet: although individuals may forget, society may still remember and empower us all and remind us all—over and over again. And this time round, more than ever before, individuals collectively want to make a difference and believe they can.
This is what the finest of wines or the most masterly of abstractionist paintings would look like if they were a novel.
Because I had never quite gotten around to reading this book for a good seven years, it had turned into a mysterious fascination for me—a book that I had come to love and had grown biased towards. Despite my best intentions, my review may similarly be biased; consider this my forewarning.
The unbearable lightness of being is Czech author Milan Kundera’s masterpiece that meshes philosophies on living with the interconnected lives of four people, rife with art, politics and sex. This book is fiction, no doubt, but it is philosophy before fiction. Read as fiction alone, this book feels like a series of romps and messy lifestyles of unsympathetic people. But read with the background of the philosophies Mr Kundera peppers throughout his book, these stories suddenly become a lot more than mere descriptions of actions. They become a study of intentions, effects and, on some level, humanity itself.
Every other sentence in this book pierces you through either the heart or the head. The characters are singular in a way that no reader can hope to fully recognise with any of them. Nobody is clearly the protagonist. An overarching discussion exists of the heaviness and lightness in life: does responsibility make existence heavy or does it make it light? Similar questions are then asked about lots of things, often things that are twisted into submission elegantly into a neat philosophical context. Here, for example, is the novel’s take on burdens in life—
The heaviest of burdens is … simultaneously an image of life‘s most intense fulfilment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of a burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into the heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant.
The way that last sentence suddenly makes you question if how great you were feeling about the thought of being ‘lighter than air’ is in fact all it seems. Is it worth it?
Still, reading this book as merely a philosophical treatise does it little justice. Although the author himself decries the typical approach novels take to making their characters believable and realistic (‘It would be senseless for the author to try to convince the reader that his characters once actually lived’) the presence of the five key characters of this book helps ground its philosophy beautifully.
There is a sense of connection to the events in the book, but not by familiarity. The objects in the story feel tangible and the flexible passage of time feels deeply satisfying. Mr Kundera plays with the world like a potter toys with his passion project. He is unbound, flies freely, weighed down by the philosophy but made light by his dogged insistence on grounding all discussions in the lives of his five characters.
A particularly beautiful section picks up a discussion on vertigo, an idea that plays an important role in redefining our understanding of the characters in this book. It also jolts us into taking a second look at everyone and everything around us. Like so much of this book, it makes us question our world but, despite its firmness, refuses to bind us to its outlook. ‘What is vertigo?’ asks Mr Kundera as he narrates the story to us. The answers to his questions, it becomes clear to the reader right at the start, will come soon after the questions themselves—
What is vertigo? Fear of falling? Then why do we feel it even when the observation tower comes equipped with a sturdy handrail? No, vertigo … is the voice of the emptiness below us which tempts and lures us, it is the desire to fall, against which, terrified, we defend ourselves.
And so he goes on to talk about the entire life of one of his characters and how they experience vertigo at several key moments in their life.
The book is not filled with illusions of grandeur—sometimes it hurries in the other direction. It is rich with tales told matter-of-factly, not elaborately like, perhaps, in Anna Karenina, a book that plays some role in this tale as well.
The unbearable lightness of being turned out to be quite a different book from the one I had expected and not in a bad way. It was way more engaging and much more grounded in reality and a lot less high-brow than I had expected. I have no complaints. From a less personal, more objective view, this book is great if you have an open mind, a taste for the unconventional, and a stomach for assertive, raw and piercing views on life itself. While you read this book you will not find it unbearable; when you close this book, you will not feel light. Both of those are good things.
There seems to be barely any good news these days with COVID-19 spreading around the world, but looking at things from a broader perspective may be just the easing we need.
China made the first mistake: the country hushed up a newly discovered virus that was crippling people’s respiratory systems in late 2019. This was a typical move by the Chinese government because it did not reflect well on the country and, within the country, it did not reflect well on the government. The rest of the world made the second mistake: nobody prepared well enough or soon enough for a potential pandemic—when things were still sound and mobilising populations would have easier—despite the severe impact of the virus and its great capacity to spread having been scientifically established facts.
The story so far
Things may seem to have gone downhill since then and terms like ‘social distancing’ and ‘pandemic’ have become common speak. And for every observation we may now make is a minority exception that we will have to ignore. As of today almost 183,000 cases have been identified, 80,000 people have recovered, and 7,000 have died. Of the 195 countries on earth, only 45 have reported no cases of COVID-19 so far—and these 45 happen to be some of the smallest, economically weakest and internationally least prominent. In other words, the virus has effectively spread to the whole globe.
While the number of testing kits in existence is fewer than we would like and the number of ventilators too are fewer than we need, the swiftness with which most countries have responded (albeit after a delay) is encouraging.
Communities are responding to calls for self-quarantining, the global healthcare system is working in full throttle, and the spreading of awareness is taking place with incredible efficiency. Of course there are exceptions to all these, from people hoarding toilet-paper to profiteering by selling hand sanitisers at a premium and spreading misinformation for seemingly no gain. Priests and believers of various faiths have pleaded with their Gods in vain—the latest addition to this list being Donald Trump who called for a national day of prayer. Ignoring such monkeying that is slowing down our progress—or perhaps in spite of this—the world is surging forward with remarkable optimism.
The light at the end…
This global downfall may teach us all a thing or two but I would be lying if I said my hopes are high. Perhaps countries will realise how little they all are, perhaps neighbours will get along, perhaps we will globalise better and not just more, perhaps we will all help each other grow. But knowing the world, it is more likely we will go back to being what we were in due time while this pandemic will be nothing more than a boring history lesson to coming generations who will promptly repeat our mistakes. Life is truly a cycle.
Focussing on the present, though, it is hard not to appreciate the little things that have made it possible for us to get through these sombre times. The grocers, both big and small, who have been stocking up promptly so people have enough food supplies; those running public transport knowing the risks to their own lives that come with prolonged exposure; those in our healthcare system whose job it is to risk exposing themselves to such dangers while keeping the rest of us safe; and of course the scientists hard at work cracking this virus, trying to understand it better and develop methods that will improve our herd immunity.
Others too have taken a hit but been helpful: airplane companies are about to go bankrupt around the world as country after country closes its borders; cinemas, clubs, concerts and, in some cases, pubs and restaurants are closing down; schools and colleges are being shut down in most places; billion dollar sporting events are closing down worldwide to prevent mass gatherings; even the Kentucky Derby is being postponed for the first time since the Second World War. In fact, except for religion, everyone seems to be working together for the common good, often mercilessly so, to ensure we can deal with this new threat to humanity.
One way to look at this is that we needed an outside threat to bring us all together, to give us a common experience that shows us how similar we all are. We have a long way to go and we need to ramp up our current efforts at least a bit more before life comes back to normal. But if we need some optimism in these trying times all we need to do is look back at everything people across the world have done to fight this new strain of Coronavirus.
The human case
What prompted me to write down my thoughts here was a simple question: what if an animal species had been threatened by this virus? Say cats were at risk (as a dog person I find it easier to think of cats in this scenario) and humans were merely carriers.
First, we would have noticed cats dying much later than we did humans; second, we would have taken it much, much more lightly and the world would have gone on; third, we would have spread it carelessly—even callously; fourth, not a tenth of the funding we are currently pouring into COVID-19 research would have been put to use; and fifth, before we know it, cats would have become extinct.
Even with humans out of the picture the only difference such a virus deadly to cats would have made is slower transmission and slower global spreading. Cats would have died anyway.
This speaks a lot about our capacity to fend for ourselves. The organisational structures we humans have built over centuries, the intelligence we have gained, the societies we have birthed have all come together to help us today to fight a virus of this sort. This is not the first and will not be the last, but between the Spanish Influenza and COVID-19 we have come farther than most people would like to acknowledge. Perhaps this is partly because we want to do better—and we should—but it must not keep us from taking a moment to acknowledge where we currently are.
Thankfulness and responsibility
Those of us who are lucky enough to be able to relax at home as a measure of self-quarantining should also be responsible enough to know that our task is to prevent further spreading of this virus. To those in hospitals, we can hope for a quick recovery and help by not shocking the system.
Italy and China learnt the hard way and even though China’s count of infections is dropping (it was just one new local detection yesterday and 20 cases of people flying into the country) it is important that we do not relax prematurely. Cases have been known to relapse and that is our second responsibility: prevent relapse through the same measures we used to prevent initial spreading.
We complain all the time about running out of time, about having too much work to do and about having barely any time for ourselves. So this is a great opportunity to truly live in the comfort of our homes, to relax, to read that big book we have been putting off, to listen to some music and sip tea, to work on that project we did not have time to get to or perhaps even to call someone and talk to them or play with them online. Do whatever appeals to you in the comfort of your home.
Matteo Renzi, Italy’s former Prime Minister, wants us all to learn from his country’s mistakes which is commendable. Italy has among the worst cases of COVID-19 outbreak, possibly comparable to Wuhan itself.
We can also learn from the spirit of the Italians as they got on their balconies to play music for their community, talk across streets and even sing in unison: a perfect example of how humans can socially, mentally and physically support each other that truly makes us fit enough to survive a threat such as the one we are facing today, and no doubt the ones our future generations will face. For a change, it is great not to be the cause of our own downfall.