The First Global Event

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 WorldBut 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.

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