Home >Opinion >Columns >The case for universal responses to crises of humanity

The covid pandemic is truly a global problem. The same virus strain was largely responsible for spreading the disease in 188 countries. It did not behave differently depending on climatic conditions or people’s food habits. There are no reports of any major mutation of the virus. Its symptoms have been consistent across the globe. And the key reason for its spread was global travel, a byproduct of globalization.

Management of the pandemic, however, was not done at a global level. Different countries had different ways of dealing with it. Some like Taiwan managed it at a country level. India had a few national-level interventions, like a lockdown, but delegated most of the pandemic’s management to state governments. Then there are countries like the US that did very little at the national level. The responsibility to manage the pandemic was left to state leaderships.

But one standout initiative is the effort to develop a vaccine, for which multiple teams of health experts from various countries, pharmaceutical companies and universities around the world came together. These global teams are an excellent example of dealing with such a problem at a global level.

World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom has warned that covid is not going to be the last of the pandemics we are going to face. So, the next time we face a global scourge of this kind, how differently should we manage it? This evaluation will not only help manage the next crisis more efficiently, but also our existing problems better.

All problems have four broad stages in their management. These are: Understanding the problem, developing solutions, implementing the solutions, and monitoring the same. Of these, there is no doubt that the last two stages—of implementation and monitoring—are always best managed at the local level. Often, the first two stages—of understanding the problem and developing solutions—are also moved to the local level. This is because there is a strong belief among policymakers that differences in local cultures play a significant role in the construct of a problem. But some recent developments in the field of cultural neuroscience have thrown up a divergent view.

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, in his latest book The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures, mentions that unicellular organisms tend to “punish" those individual cells that tend not to cooperate with the larger group. In this regard, it is pertinent to note that some of the codes of present human behaviour were embedded in living beings billions of years ago. The nervous system, the source of behaviour, has been in development for the past 600 million years. Culture, defined by cultural anthropologist Edward Tylor as “the complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man (sic) as a member of society", can be traced to its genesis only about 50,000 years ago.

While studying a human behaviour problem, it makes sense to search for common codes that are relevant and embedded in the basic nature of the nervous system, or in the life form itself. This approach could lead to a solution that is far more fundamental and universal. Even if we take culture into consideration, it makes sense to look for similarities and then search for differences. If we pay too much attention to where such boundaries lie, we tend to pay less attention to the problem’s complete picture.

Even during the covid crisis, there were very many commonalties of behaviour across countries. For example, people across the world showed reluctance to adopt new social protocols like wearing masks. Such common human responses are visible in other problems too. For example, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman did not see an easy path to success on climate change because as humans we are not willing to accept certain short-term costs and compromises in our living standards to mitigate higher but uncertain losses that are far in the future. Also, road accidents across the world are caused by the same human behaviour, which is over-speeding.

An analysis of accidents suffered by railway-track trespassers in Mumbai found that the human brain underestimates the speed of large incoming objects. The proposed solution to this problem was based on the insight that humans always use a reference point while judging the speed of an object. So, as part of the solution, a series of track sleepers in the train’s path were intermittently painted yellow to act as a visual reference of its oncoming speed. Thus, an understanding of the cause of the problem as well as its solution emanated from a study of the basic construct of the human brain. This solution, therefore, can be applied anywhere in the world, irrespective of possible differences in culture.

One good thing to come out of the covid crisis is that the virus’s universality has made the world’s best talent work single-mindedly towards formulating a vaccine that could serve as a universal solution. This approach is more efficient than each country trying to develop a vaccine to suit its own population on the basis of perceived differences. So, much like the global vaccine development teams, can we constitute global teams that could take a more holistic view of various other global problems? While solving global problems, can we not focus more on the similarities of the human brain that has evolved over hundreds of millennia, than on our relatively recent differences of culture?

Biju Dominic is chief evangelist, Fractal Analytics, and chairman, FinalMile Consulting.

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