Beppu, Oita Pref. – Renowned biologist Richard Dawkins recently tweeted a quote from Harvard professor Steven Pinker’s “Enlightenment Now” in response to the novel coronavirus: “The first step toward wisdom is the realization that the laws of the universe don’t care about you. The next is the realization that this does not imply that life is meaningless, because people care about you and vice versa.” A pandemic is a natural phenomenon and beyond the control of humans. While Homo sapiens emerged no more than a mere 200,000 years ago, viruses have a history of several billion years. But humans can care about each other. In other words, global trust and solidarity are their greatest weapon.
Movements of people have been restricted on a global scale. This was a logical step because movement spreads the virus. In Japan, a state of emergency was declared on April 7. Although physical exchanges between people have been temporarily blocked, I feel that bonds with people around the world have deepened through the internet.
A friend in Washington regularly updates me on the situation in the United States. A Chinese graduate of Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University (APU), where I serve as president, delivered masks to his alma mater. An Italian friend gave me a word of encouragement, saying we should hug each other once this pandemic is over. A video sent by a friend in France showed people on their apartment verandas applauding medical professionals coming back home. A friend in Britain sent me a news report that 750,000 people responded in three days to an announcement seeking 250,000 medical volunteers.
The APU campus in Beppu, Oita Prefecture, where cherry blossoms were in full bloom, would have been filled with the joy of new students had it not been for the pandemic. Instead, it is still and quiet. News reports sent by friends around the world enliven my spirits, which would otherwise be inclined to droop. Every day I am convinced that the endeavors of people all over the world to live with all their might, seriously thinking about what they can do in their respective positions, will certainly save the planet.
Looking back at the history of pandemics, what comes to mind first is the plague of the 14th century, which first hit Central Asia and spread all over the world like a flash through the globalization routes in Eurasia that arose under Pax Mongolica. It destroyed China’s Yuan Dynasty and is said to have killed one-third to a half of the European population.
What happened as a result? The plague gave rise to two phenomena. One is the “memento mori,” a symbolic reminder of the inevitability of death. Many people thought the plague happened because God was angry, and so tried to be more pious. They thought they must serve God more. The other is “carpe diem,” seizing the moment without giving thought to the future. People thought God would not necessarily save them and that it was better to enjoy life more. A representative example of this attitude is Giovanni Boccaccio’s masterpiece “Decameron.” This re-examination of human existence led to the birth of the first phase of the Renaissance in Italy, the glorious Quattorocento.
Everything has good and bad sides. Take automobiles, a symbol of modern civilization, as an example. While they are convenient, they are also lethal weapons that kill hundreds of thousands of people every year. Still, nobody calls for the scrapping of automobiles because their social utility is overwhelmingly high.
Similarly, a pandemic may represent the dark side of today’s globalization, but benefits from globalization overwhelmingly outweigh this dark side. This time, in the face of a crisis, central banks across the world acted speedily in concert and prevented to some extent the collapse of financial markets. Since the virus spreads as people move, countries closed their borders almost at nearly the same time. Japan also banned the entry of people from countries and areas experiencing COVID-19 infections, but it would probably have been impossible to stop people arriving at Haneda or Narita if other countries did not restrict the departure of their people.
For the time being, APU has decided to teach all classes online. About half of the university’s students are from outside Japan, representing about 90 countries and regions. We are able to teach students all over the world online thanks to globalization. This is how the university can tell its students, “Stay home, stay where you are.” Raising anti-globalization slogans by citing the COVID-19 crisis is a typical example of discourse that fails to see the forest for the trees.
In coping with the COVID-19 crisis, APU has made rapid progress in weighing and implementing reforms that enable university employees to come to work together with their children when schools are closed, office staff to work from home, and teaching to be done online. Other organizations must be experiencing similar changes.
Without a doubt, IT literacy among the public has improved significantly. A major issue confronting Japan is its poor labor productivity — which continues to be the lowest among Group of Seven economies since the 1970s. At the root of the problem is the chronically long working hours of corporate employees — as some people put in many overtime hours because that’s what their colleagues do. The government has tried to reduce work hours and change people’s style of working by amending relevant laws that took effect in April 2019, but I am hopeful the post-pandemic society will see radical changes in work styles.
Yuval Noah Harari, author of “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” said in the article “In the Battle Against Coronavirus, Humanity Lacks Leadership,” which he contributed to Time magazine in March, that “a high level of international trust and cooperation” is the only way humankind can defeat COVID-19. The pandemic will come to an end. How we behave to minimize the sacrifice until then is now up to the wisdom of humankind.
Haruaki Deguchi is the president of Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Beppu, Oita Prefecture. A popular lecturer and author of more than 40 books, he founded Lifenet Insurance in 2008 after a career spanning nearly 35 years at Nippon Life Insurance Co.
Your news needs your support
Since the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis, The Japan Times has been providing free access to crucial news on the impact of the novel coronavirus as well as practical information about how to cope with the pandemic. Please consider subscribing today so we can continue offering you up-to-date, in-depth news about Japan.