One year after the book’s release, Zakaria’s take on our new era proves accurate (and hopeful)
By Vikram Nijhawan, Senior Arts and Culture Editor
From Thucydides’ account of the disease which ravaged ancient Athens in his History of the Peloponnesian Wars, to Daniel Defoe’s testimony of the 17th-century London epidemic in A Journal of the Plague Year, writers have often used outbreaks as an occasion to evaluate the state of their societies.
CNN’s Fareed Zakaria followed suit. On October 6, 2020, he released his book Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World, which contemplated the future of government, economics, public health, technology, and other aspects of our society that have been transformed in light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. From these observations, he distills the ten titular “lessons” or takeaways from recent events, neatly divided into chapters of the book. These axioms range from subversive to comforting, such as “Life is Digital”, “Inequality Will Get Worse”, “The World is Becoming Bipolar”, and “Globalization is Not Dead”.
“Futurist” is a fitting title for this public intellectual and global affairs analyst. Zakaria stood in good company, alongside the likes of Bill Gates, with his prescience about the pandemic dating back to a prediction he made on his CNN show GPS in 2017. This holistic, factual, and non-partisan approach to his theories differentiates him from many of his peers in an increasingly biased and insubstantial media landscape. In his usual manner, Zakaria draws upon an eclectic array of sources to buttress his claims, from classic literature to contemporary academia and up-to-date statistics.
Historians have long sought to strike a balance between analyzing broader trends while also factoring in human agency, a maneuver Zakaria navigates in an impartial yet astute style. He provides a macro-historical view of how similar pandemics in the past have radically disrupted our day-to-day living, while also opening up opportunities for positive change. As an example, he refers to Florence in the 14th century, whose population was decimated by the Black Death and the mass exodus which followed. Yet as Zakaria points out, after the pandemic, the city flourished economically, politically, and culturally, becoming the nexus of the Italian Renaissance.
Zakaria’s most interesting take, and a controversial one at the time of the book’s release, lies in the sixth chapter, “Aristotle Was Right”. Here, the author refers to the Greek philosopher’s famous adage that “man is a political animal”, and argues that cities will remain integral for collective socio-political identity. Over the past year, naysayers proclaimed the “death of cities”: the gradual decline of urbanization in favour of more spread-out models of living which are less conducive to the spread of contagious diseases. Zakaria was hardly the only one to correctly come to the defense of cities, but his insight into this matter speaks to his foresight as a writer and thinker.
Not all of the ideas Zakaria proposes about post-pandemic trends are completely novel, but the way he presents them, through his command over the written word, lends greater weight to his claims. For instance, when discussing the rise of artificial intelligence and how it stands to disrupt employability and overall human life, he states: “Perhaps the period from Gutenberg to AlphaGo will prove to be the exception, a relatively short era in history when humans believed they were in control. Before that, for millennia, they saw themselves as small cogs in a vast system they did not fully comprehend, subject to laws of God and nature. The AI age could return us to a similarly humble role.” Dramatic statements like these convey the significance of the long-term changes Zakaria outlines in a gripping way.
Although many of Zakaria’s points about recent human developments have solid factual backing, the specific examples he uses in certain cases can oversimplify or generalize the matter at hand. For instance, when arguing that our increasingly monetized world has led to greater inequality, he uses communal sports viewing as an example, writing that, “Historically, sports stadiums were built with seats that were all the same, the only difference being in their location.” Zakaria’s underlying point is valid, but this example disregards the pre-existing hierarchies for all manner of public events throughout history – from Rome’s Lex Flavia legislation asserting seating hierarchies in gladiatorial games across the colonies, to the Globe Theatre’s audience of “groundlings” attending plays during the Elizabethan Age.
Since this book’s publication in late 2020, there have been many reasons to hold out optimism in our current post-pandemic world. Several effective vaccines against COVID-19 have been developed at a record speed, with almost half of the world’s population receiving immunization. Conversely, the fault lines Zakaria addresses have also continued to play out over the past year. Vaccine inequity between developed and developing countries remains a barrier to fully overcoming the pandemic. Moreover, the global inequality he describes in the book has allowed resurgent variants of the virus, emerging from struggling countries such as India, to set back the world’s pandemic response progress.
Regarding domestic inequality, Zakaria states, “[…] if growing inequalities are not addressed by reforms, revolutions might follow.” This rings eerily true in light of the January 6th insurrections against the seat of America’s federal government. Similarly, the country’s messy and maligned withdrawal of armed forces from Afghanistan this past August – ending a failed twenty-year war and nation-building project – has revealed its diminishing power on the world stage, a theme Zakaria has touched upon for more than ten years now, ever since releasing his previous book The Post-American World. In the third chapter of Post-Pandemic World, “Markets Are Not Enough”, Zakaria discusses the rise of global capitalism. An excerpt from this portion serves to embody the book’s central idea – for every inevitable step forward humanity takes, we have the chance to backslide into disarray, or vice versa. This message is pragmatic and sobering. but fundamentally hopeful.
“We cannot close down the world. We cannot – nor should we – stop emerging powers from growing nor prevent technological progress. We can only navigate through the times and trends we face, and do it poorly or well.”Fareed Zakaria