Towards the end of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Vladimir declares that “we are no longer alone, waiting for the night”. He muses that we are all in fact metaphorically “waiting for Godot”, and that life is mostly “waiting for … waiting”. These past few weeks have felt like that in Ireland, and no doubt throughout the world we all have an urge to fast-forward time to a normality that we once took for granted and now crave. But in adjusting to the new normal, one thing is clear: we have a new appreciation of precarity. It no longer happens ‘over there’, to ‘them’ and not to ‘us’, and this is hugely important for the wider and longer-term socio-environmental challenges that lie ahead.
When the Ebola virus first emerged in 2014, it was minimally reported on the global stage, and its impact was largely confined to West Africa. The SARS virus from 2002 had followed a similar pattern of coverage in the West, and its effects were mostly confined to southern China. Both outbreaks and their devastating consequences were not in mainstream view, and the potential for a wider global pandemic was not politically or socially recognised.
In a globalized world, however, the potential for a virus pandemic was, and is, always there. SARS of course was a coronavirus too, one that just happened to be contained in terms of geographical reach. The outbreak of SARS, scientifically known as SARS-CoV, was contained relatively quickly in 2003. This did not happen for its successor, SARS-CoV-2, the official taxonomic classification for the current coronavirus that emerged in Wuhan, China in December 2019.
The effects of the current coronavirus commonly known as Covid-19 have been felt all over the world and reported on widely. Some have pointed to habitat and biodiversity loss globally as the underlying source of the outbreak and warned that our current outbreak may be just the beginning of mass pandemics. Others have asked whether or not we can heed the important lessons of excessive travel and environmental destruction? While there has been valuable discussion too on the urgent need now for brave and principled leadership in a time of environmental and political denial. The US, UK and Australia, in particular, have seen their current governments repeatedly deploy a politics of “dismissal and denial of risk”, which has sought to extend the power of elite capitalist interests, and simultaneously has resulted in the delaying of coordinated responses to a range of global concerns, from climate change to Covid-19.
Responding to Precarity
Responding to a globally felt precarity is now upon us, and there is no returning to the old normal of Western-centric thinking. We need to see and be responsive to precarity on multiple scales – in our own communities, in our own nation-states, and in an interconnected local-global world – and we need to be mindful too of how that precarity is differentially experienced across class, race, gender, sexuality, disability and other social hierarchies. We can profit from envisioning a sense of human security for all, and towards that end we can learn especially from the Global South, where communities have coped with multiple emergencies for decades, along with their deeply felt social impacts and long-term consequences. Such knowledge transfer is vital. It can help the Global North adapt innovatively to the worst effects of climate change, and it can aid us in being better prepared for cooperative transnational responses to emerging crises.
Another vital challenge in responding to human and environmental precarity is paying closer attention to the interpretation of science. What has been striking in recent weeks is the intensely political acts of scientific interpretation and translation that have been taking place. The UK’s u-turn on its ‘herd immunity’ policy, for instance, was reported by the BBC and elsewhere as happening because “the science has changed”. It hadn’t. Only the prioritised ‘functional knowledge’ for the UK government had. All of this behoves us to think a lot more about science communication and consensus building in the politics-policy nexus, and it is a wake-up call for universities everywhere to support inter-disciplinary research and teaching to this end. This has much broader relevancy, of course, for longer-term challenges of climate change, climate action and more sustainable practices of consumption and economic development.
An End in Sight?
When and how the Covid-19 crisis will end preoccupies everyone. It will almost certainly have a longer temporal trajectory than most governments are willing to broadcast. In all of this though, we can gain from expanding our global sensibilities to think differently about precarity, to think more globally about the environment, and to recognise what the environmental consequences are for the capitalist notion of endless growth. We need to see the world as “overlapping”, as the late postcolonial scholar, Edward Said, so empathetically envisioned.
Said had a great love for Waiting for Godot, a play for which I have a newly-found appreciation. We are all waiting now, and it is not just the destitute, the poor, the hungry and the out of view. While we wait, we must hope that a deeper appreciation and care for those in precarious worlds emerge from a crisis that we must face together. It is vital if we are to set in train a path towards a safer, more secure and more sustainable planet. The time for both thinking and acting differently is now. As Vladimir implores at the end of Beckett’s masterpiece, “let us not waste our time in idle discourse! Let us do something, while we have the chance! […] Let us make the most of it, before it is too late!”