Humanity seems a lot like the Martians in The War of the Worlds: An unstoppable force that can overcome and overwhelm every ecosystem with impunity, only to be brought to its lowest point by a tiny pathogen, “the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth” (to quote H.G. Wells nameless narrator in the book).
A bit dramatic, I know, but it is a reminder of how much more vulnerable we are to nature than we think. Many of us are so insulated in our highly industrialized and urbanized societies that we forget “the environment” is not some distant rainforest or coral reef: It is everywhere, part of a single planetary system that does not care about political or physical barriers; viruses can spread everywhere and anywhere, and environmental collapse or degradation in one part of the world can reverberate everywhere else.
The novel coronavirus outbreak may be the first time in our species’s 250,000 year history that virtually everyone is being affected by the same event simultaneously. As Joshua Keating of Slate notes:
“Global event,” in this case, means a distinct occurrence that will be a significant life event for nearly every person on the planet. This is not to say that we’re all experiencing it the same way. Some become ill or lose loved ones; others lose jobs or livelihoods; for others, it’s merely a source of inconvenience or anxiety. And different countries and local governments are responding to the crisis in very different fashions, leading to wildly divergent outcomes for their citizens. But as the writer Anna Badkhen puts it, not since human beings first began spreading across the globe has a single event “affected everyone, on every continent, as instantly and intimately and acutely as the spread of coronavirus, uniting us as we fear and think and hope about the same thing.” It’s the truly global nature of the crisis that French President Emmanuel Macron was referring to when he called the coronavirus an “anthropological” shock.
This truth says as much about the era in which COVID-19 emerged as it does about the virus itself. It was only in the past 500 years that people in all regions of the Earth even became fully aware of one another and in the last 200 that they’ve been able to communicate more or less instantaneously. And it’s this very interconnectedness that allowed the virus to spread so rapidly across the globe. (The Black Death felt like the end of the world to many who experienced it, but more than a century before Columbus, entire continents of people were unaware of it.)
Previous events have had global impact in the past. Billions of lives have been affected by, say, the French Revolution, or 9/11. Contemporaneous writers have made cases for various events as the “shot heard round the world” or Ten Days That Shook the World. But these events were not experienced by the entire world at the same time—not even close.
Even the world wars, contrary to their description, did not impact the day to day lives of most people in Latin America, Africa, and parts of Asia. By contrast, COVID-19 has forced virtually every country in the world to either implement life-changing lock-downs or to endure the impact of the subsequent economic slowdown. Previous pandemics, including the deadly 1918 “Spanish”, were either limited in their geographic spread or occured when the world lacked an international forum for coordination or communications. These things still felt very much localized.
This matters because our species has only recently reached a level of consciousness and moral awareness that extends beyond the interrelated bands and tribes that were the norm for most of our quarter-of-a-million-year existence. Suddenly, we’re feeling for victims across the world, in places most of us have never been; learning from countries we otherwise never give much thought to (or in some cases can’t even find on a map); and enduring the same sorts of shocks to our routine as billions of other humans we pretty much forget exist. (Of course we know there are billions of other humans out there, but how often do we stop at any moment to consider how their lives our playing out at the same time as ours?)
As Keating notes, those of us with an internationalist bend are largely disappointed with the fractured and even divisive response by the world community. The notion that a bigger threat might finally unite humankind in a productive and cohesive response has yet to be proven. (Will it really take an alien invasion or robot uprising!?) I’m a tad bit more optimistic though: Though beleaguered and under siege, international institutions like the World Health Organization are still doing their thing; many countries and international organizations are coming together to pool their funds, resources, and knowledge to tackle this threat. As always, progress is never neat and linear.
However this global even hashes out, one thing is probably certain: Most people will pay more attention to what goes outside their respective countries.
Perhaps a more realistic expectations is that people may change how they view far away events—events like a mysterious virus cluster in Wuhan. Those of us who write about world news are used to making the case that people should care about events that happen in other countries and continents because it could eventually affect them—that political developments in Russia or a drought in Central America can very quickly become a major event in American life. Perhaps after the common experience we’ve all just shared, it will be a little easier to grasp the importance of faraway wars, revolutions, famines, and even “massively distributed” problems like climate change, feel a little more empathy for those directly affected by them, and have a little better sense of how they might soon affect us. For the first time ever, it feels like it’s literally true to say that international news is just news that hasn’t become local yet
While there have been no shortage of wars or diplomatic crises that should have roused us from our parochialism and insularity, maybe the first truly global even should do the trick.
Years ago, she was asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. The student expected Mead to talk about clay pots, tools for hunting, grinding-stones, or religious artifacts.
But no. Mead said that the first evidence of civilization was a 15,000 years old fractured femur found in an archaeological site. A femur is the longest bone in the body, linking hip to knee. In societies without the benefits of modern medicine, it takes about six weeks of rest for a fractured femur to heal. This particular bone had been broken and had healed.
Mead explained that in the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die. You cannot run from danger, you cannot drink or hunt for food. Wounded in this way, you are meat for your predators. No creature survives a broken leg long enough for the bone to heal. You are eaten first.
A broken femur that has healed is evidence that another person has taken time to stay with the fallen, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety and has tended them through recovery. A healed femur indicates that someone has helped a fellow human, rather than abandoning them to save their own life.
We might find the W.H.O.’s politics unseemly. At times they are certainly troubling, especially regarding Taiwan. (Though in fairness, most of the world, including the powerful U.S., has also officially shunted Taiwan in deference to China.)
But they are an inevitable, if not necessary, evil for an organization run by 194 countries full of rivalries, self-interests, and division. Its weaknesses very much reflect our own. International cooperation is not about singing kumbaya and getting along harmoniously; it is the sober and practical realization that, however divided the world is, there are problems bigger than any one country can handle (look at how the richest country in the world has struggled to contain this pandemic). That means making difficult, imperfect, and sometimes even maddening compromises.
It took working with a murderous bastard like Stalin to beat the Nazis in WWII, with the Soviets accounting for 80-90% of Axis losses at the cost of tens of millions of lives. (We also had to work with the bastard Nationalists and Maoists in China to accomplish the same feat against Japan, with the Chinese tying up most Japanese forces at similarly horrific costs.)
In the context of public health, this is nothing new. Even at the height of the Cold War, countries including the U.S. and the Soviet Union managed to set aside their differences and work through the W.H.O. to eradicate smallpox, a scourge of humanity that had killed hundreds of millions just in the 20th century.
With over 50 million cases and 2 million deaths annually, in 1958 Soviet virologist Viktor Zhdanov became the first to call on the W.H.O. to lead a global eradication effort. In 1966 Canadian-American epidemiologist Donald Henderson formed the U.S.-led Smallpox Eradication Unit to assist in this endeavor. A year later, the W.H.O. intensified global smallpox eradication with millions of dollars from around the world and a method developed by Czech epidemiologist Karel Raska. The Americans and Soviets provided most of the initial vaccine donations (no doubt, at least in part, to one up each other).
By 1980, the W.H.O. declared smallpox eradicated—the first human disease wiped off the face of the Earth, thanks to global cooperation.
On this day in 1968, the photo known as “Earthrise” was taken by the Apollo 8 crew, consisting of commander Frank Borman, navigator Jim Lovell, and rookie Bill Anders.
Better known as the first time humans had visited the moon, via ten lunar orbits, the mission led to an unexpected iconic photograph. “We have astronauts on a spaceship in another place, looking back on this beautiful planet with another heavenly body in the foreground—it’s stunning. It checks all the boxes.”
After looping around the moon three times and taking several photos of its surface, the crew famously greeted citizens of Earth during a Christmas Eve broadcast. On their fourth loop later that evening, they encountered something that totally surprised them: A striking view of home sliding out from behind the moon like the sun over Earth’s horizon.
It’s all the more remarkable when you consider that Apollo 8 — at that point the biggest rocket ever built — could have been a disaster. It was initially delayed due to hardware issues, but was pushed to December under the fear that the Soviets would beat the U.S. first (as they had seven years earlier when Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space). The crew was basically “riding a controlled bomb that had not been completely checked out, inside a spacecraft that had not been tested to everyone’s satisfaction.”
But not only did it go off without a hitch, but it produced an image that dramatically highlighted “the paradoxical context in which we exist: Our planet is simultaneously cosmically insignificant, and the most important thing we share as a species.”
National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry describes it as “the most important photograph ever made” and likens it to humanity seeing itself in a mirror for the first time.
“When something happens like that, it speaks to us on a level that we don’t maybe fully understand You can’t—as an artist, as a photographer, as a writer—you can’t necessarily predict it. It just happens. And that’s kind of the magic of art, isn’t it? We create things as human beings that speak to people in different ways.”
A shopkeeper in Delhi, India has been running a makeshift school for hundreds of poor and homeless children beneath a metro bridge for over eight years.
“The Free School Under The Bridge” was founded and run by 49-year-old Rajesh Kumar Sharma, the sole breadwinner of his family of five who operates a small grocery store nearby. He dropped out of college without completing his bachelor’s due to his family’s poor financial condition.
His idea started with just two local children in 2006, and has now grown to over 300, including slum dwellers, ragpickers, rickshaw-pullers and beggars, most of whom live nearby.
Sharma believes no one should be deprived of education due to poverty or denied his or her dream, so to that end he dedicates over 50 hours a week to the children — for free.
“I am driven by my selfless goal of educating these poor and underprivileged children whose smile is more than enough for me.”
He now runs two shifts: one from 9-11 AM for 120 boys and the other 9-4.30 PM for 180 girls, aged between four and 14 years. The open house school has the Delhi metro bridge as its roof and five blackboards painted on the wall, with some stationary such as chalks and dusters, pens and pencils. The children sit on the ground covered with carpets and bring their own note books, which they often share or study with in groups. The location is relatively far from traffic, and passing vehicles hardly get noticed by the students.
In addition to a standard curriculum, Sharma also teaches students practical skills like hygiene, which is difficult to maintain in such abject poverty. He’s installed separate toilets for boys and girls.
Fortunately, his example has attracted seven other volunteer teachers from the community, as well as some support from locals.
“Some people visit the school occasionally and distribute biscuit packets, fruits, water bottles and packaged food. Some youngsters celebrate their birthdays with the children, cut cakes here and have food together by sitting beneath the bridge. “Such occasions make them feel that they are also the part of the society no matter where they live or what background they belong to,” he said.
In addition to teaching full time while running his shop, Sharma also ensures students get enrolled into the nearby government schools. He ensures hey devote sufficient time to their education and conducts attendance; if a student is frequently absent, he checks in with their family.
“Sometimes, some children get absent for days as they have to assist their families due to extreme poverty. No child wants to discontinue his or her studies but they also have to make their ends meet. “They come to my school fighting hunger, extreme poverty, adverse weather and sometimes resistance from their families. They all dream big. You can see the smile on their face while they study here,” he said.
On this day in 1979, the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) certified that its efforts led to the global eradication of smallpox, the only human infectious disease to date to have been completely eradicated.
This millennia-long scourge of humanity was responsible for 300 million deaths in the 20th century alone, and even in the early 1950s an estimated 50 million cases occurred worldwide annually, with a mortality rate of about 30 percent.
Like so many examples of human progress, this remarkable achievement was a product of globalization and international collaboration.
The Chinese developed the earliest recorded form of inoculation in the 16th century, and possibly as early as the 10th century. Smallpox scabs from the infected would be ground up and blown them up the noses of healthy people. They would then develop a mild form of the disease and become immune to it. While 0.5-2.0 percent would die, this was far less than the usual 20-30 percent rate of a full-blown infection.
It was not until centuries later, in 1796, that the true vaccine was developed by English physician Edward Jenner. Shortly thereafter the British and Spanish governments implemented vaccination programs both at home and in their colonies worldwide.
The first regional effort to eradicate smallpox was made in 1950 by the Pan American Health Organization founded in 1902 by the U.S. and eleven countries in the hemisphere. The campaign succeeded in wiping out the disease across the Americas in all but four countries.
The first global effort came in 1958 at the urging of Russian virologist Viktor Zhdanov, who called on member states of the WHO to act. At the time, smallpox was still killing 2 million people every year. After initial delays and failures, in 1966 an American-led international team was formed solely to eliminate smallpox, and one year later the WHO contributed $2.4 million annually to the effort, utilizing a new disease method advocated by Czech epidemiologist Karel Raška.
The WHO established a vast network of consultants who assisted countries in setting up surveillance and containment activities. Initially, vaccines were donated overwhelmingly by Russia and the U.S., but by the early 1970s, more than 80 percent of all vaccines were produced in developing countries.
In spring of 2018, something amazing happened in one of the most polluted beaches in the world: For the first time in decades, an extremely vulnerable turtle species has been spotted on the shores of Mumbai, India.
As The Guardian reported:
At least 80 Olive Ridley turtles have made their way into the Arabian Sea from nests on the southern end of Versova beach in the past week, protected from wild dogs and birds of prey by volunteers who slept overnight in the sand to watch over them.
Versova has undergone what the United Nations has called the “world’s largest beach cleanup project” over the past two years, transformed from a shin-deep dump yard for plastics and rubbish to a virtually pristine piece of coastline.
The man who leads the ongoing cleanup operation, the lawyer Afroz Shah, said he started anticipating the turtle hatchings two months ago when farmers on the southern end of the two-mile (3km) beach reported seeing turtles in the sand.
“The moment we got that news I knew something big was going to happen,” he told the Guardian. Last Thursday, some of his volunteers called to say they had spotted dozens of baby Olive Ridley turtles emerging from their nests.
He called the forest department and then went down to the beach with about 25 others, guarding the area while the tiny creatures hobbled across the sand, “making sure not one hatchling suffered a death”, he said.
In just two years, average Indians were able to reverse ecological devastation and watch a dying species begin to rejuvenate. Imagine volunteering day and night to make sure these little creatures had a fighting chance.
For more than two years, Shah has been leading volunteers in manually picking up rubbish from Versova beach and teaching sustainable waste practices to villagers and people living in slums along the coastline and the creeks leading into it.
About 55,000 people live along the beach and the waterways that feed it in the crowded megacity. Shah said he taught them by example, offering to clean communal toilets and pick up rubbish himself before he ever sought their help.
“For the first six to eight weeks, nobody joined,” he said. “Then two men approached me and said, very politely, ‘Please sir, can we wear your gloves?’ Both of them just came and joined me. That’s when I knew it was going to be a success.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, in the eastern state of Odisha, a record-breaking 428,083 Olive Ridley turtles had nested a month before. This is hardly an isolated incident.
Think about these little-known success stories whenever we hear rhetoric about the developing world not pulling its weight in the fight against climate change or ecological devastation.
And let’s keep these efforts in mind when we begin to lose hope that we are losing this fight. In the grand scheme of things, cleaning up one polluted beach for one single species doesn’t seem like a lot, but it reveals our amazing potential to fix things if we have actually invested the time and will power.
Meet Yahya Assiri, a Saudi military officer-turned-activist who runs an underground human rights group against one of the most oppressive states in the world.
Born in a region of Saudi Arabia that fiercely resisted the al-Saud family and its fundamentalist Wahhabi allies, he grew up in a polarized family environment: his grandmother despised the government and its ultraconservative brand of Islam, while his father, like most in his generation, was more favorable to the royal family because of the wealth and security it provided.
Exposure to these opposing views instilled in Assiri a penchant for asking questions, even while he was climbing the ranks of the military. After failing to fulfill his lifelong dream to be a pilot, he joined the administrative side of the Royal Saudi Air Force, where he often worked on international arms deals (Saudi Arabia is one of the largest importers of military equipment). He regularly heard colleagues complain about their meager salaries and struggles with debt and poverty, which sat uncomfortably with the sheer wealth of the royal family and the claims that it brought prosperity to Arabia.
At 24-years-old he began to ask questions internally about these issues, describing himself as a sensitive person who could not ignore the suffering around him, even as he progressed swiftly through the air force and earned good money. Initially resisting the desire to speak out — knowing full well the risks — he began exploring the internet, finding a series of websites and forums in Arabic where people were debating politics. Thus began a double life in which Assiri worked for the government by day but spoke against it online through a pseudonym by night.
Eventually, his online activities gave way to participating in actual public forums, namely at the home of a prominent Saudi human rights activist, Saud al-Hashimi, who Assiri credited as a pivotal figure in his life. In 2011, Hashimi was arrested and jailed in for 30 years on the false charges of “supporting terrorism”, which galvanized Assiri further. Why didn’t regular Saudis have a voice? Why was the regime so afraid? And why was it so wealthy while average Saudis around him struggled?
As more activists got arrested around him, and the government began asking questions about his online activities, Assiri, who by now had a wife and two kids, made the difficult choice of leaving behind his otherwise prosperous life to seek asylum in the U.K. There he founded his own human rights group in August 2014 to keep the fight going.
Knowing that authorities usually dismiss international human rights groups as foreign agents trying to impose Western values, he cleverly chose the name Al Qst, which is a Quranic term meaning justice.
“I used this name to speak to the people. The name comes from our religion, so no one could say my human rights organisation is an attack on the culture of our people.”
The organisation is voluntarily run, relying on a vast underground activist network to keep tabs on everything going on at home. As of 2015, Assiri has eight groups on the messaging application Telegram — which is popular among activists in repressive countries — covering different topics including women’s rights, poverty, the fate of activists, and specific regional issues. The group also has an active Twitter account with over 45,000 followers (@ALQST_ORG)
Assiri wishes to keep the group exclusively Saudi-run so that it cannot be easily dismissed by the authorities nor skeptics. The ultimate goal is to grow Al Qst into a strong civil society organization, since civil society is very much lacking in the country’s stifling sociopolitical environment.
“I believe Al Qst will become the most important organisation dealing with human rights in Saudi Arabia. This is because we – the Saudis – are the best people to understand the complicated problems facing our country.”
Assiri is a reminder that even in the most blighted places, there is some flicker of hope, and not everyone who lives under an odious government is spoken for by that government (something a lot of Americans who otherwise hate one administration or another ironically forget).
I am immensely grateful to have made it to another year in this world. It seems morbid to frame it that way, but consider that the vast majority of the 108 billion people who have ever existed had short, painful, and miserable lives that often ended in terrifying violence, famine, or disease.
This remains the reality for tens of millions of people around the world, and it’s only by random luck that I was born in just the right time, place, and condition not to be in the same position. I — and most of you reading this — are literally in the top 3-4 percent of all humans who have ever lived, for no discernible reason than random chance. (This doesn’t even include the many people who live in similar prosperity but whose lives are cut short by freak accidents that could just as well happen to anyone.)
Of course, this kind of gratitude should be had every moment of everyday, but given the context, now is as good a time as any to highlight it.