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Seismic shifts and aftershocks

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DAN BROTMAN

In spite of my company closing down, I’m grateful for my privilege compared to the majority of South Africans. Unlike most, I have ample space in my home to exercise and be on my own, and can afford nutritious food and private healthcare. I also have access to high-speed internet and technological devices that enable me to communicate with the outside world whenever I wish, including with my family in the United States, with whom I recently enjoyed two Passover seders via Zoom.

As a naturally-introverted, young, and healthy individual whose basic needs for survival are being met, the fear and anxiety I’m living with in lockdown are less about the actual pandemic and more about how the societies in which we live may emerge worse-off as the result of the collective trauma we have experienced.

Growing up in the Boston area in the early-2000s, my generation was taught that if we excelled in high school, we would be accepted to a prestigious university, which would then automatically lead to a good job. Having graduated from university a decade ago in the midst of the global financial crisis, my peers and I soon discovered that the straight-forward path to a fulfilling life that we had been instructed to follow was no longer applicable in a world that was undergoing seismic shifts.

Many of my peers graduated without a job lined up, and were forced to move home with their parents, sometimes taking unpaid internships or jobs that did not require an undergraduate degree.

I, too, realised that the rules of the game on which I had been raised were now obsolete. But, I viewed this period of despair and uncertainty as an opportunity to start following my own truth. In 2010, at the age of 23, rather than move back into my parents’ home and face a potentially bleak future, I threw caution to the wind and flew to Israel with one suitcase, where I worked at a call centre for four months and slept on my friend’s couch in Jerusalem. I then followed my heart in April 2011 to Cape Town, where a combination of fate and luck enabled me finally to start building a new life.

Almost a decade later, it feels as if history is repeating itself. The universal truths we once took for granted, such as unfettered globalisation and cross-border mobility, the idolisation of entrepreneurship and risk-taking, and a push towards small government, now seem to be out of fashion, but we haven’t yet learned the new rules of the game.

When people ask me what I plan to do next, I don’t know how to respond, as I’m unsure what the world will look like, even once a vaccine is discovered. The collective post-traumatic stress disorder we may carry could result in us deciding to continue conducting the majority of our business, social, and spiritual lives online.

Governments may balk at suddenly having to relinquish the enhanced power and invasive tools to which they became accustomed during the pandemic, leading to authoritarian tendencies worldwide. Immigration may be severely curtailed as the world experiences unprecedented unemployment, limiting upward mobility for skilled and unskilled economic migrants. Partaking in international travel, either for business or leisure, may become socially unacceptable, prohibitively expensive, or too logistically complex for the middle-class. Countries may focus on decreasing their dependence on global supply chains and trade to the greatest extent possible, resulting in a rise of ultra-nationalism and racism. Such potential scenarios, whether realistic or imagined, make me fear the day when lockdown ends.

This pandemic has also given me time to reflect on inequality and risk. At times I find myself reading international news and envying the residents of developed countries whose governments can afford to fund overly-generous stimulus packages. These cash payments help the recently unemployed pay their bills and highly subsidise employee salaries so that companies can avoid retrenchment. In fact, I have a friend in the US who has recently been granted a temporary leave of absence due to COVID-19, and is now earning more from federal and state unemployment benefits than he earned when he was working.

The residents of developing countries, whose governments usually don’t have the resources to fund such a generous social safety net, are often left to their own devices. These governments are often dependent on donations or funding from high net-worth individuals, non-profit, and/or multilateral organisations to provide some semblance of a social safety net for small businesses and the unemployed. The pandemic has raised questions about whether working or running a business in a country with a weak social safety net is, in fact, too high a risk, given the possibility of future global health, environmental, or financial catastrophes.

Connecting with Judaism centres me at a time when the world feels so uncertain, and I’m grateful that our religious leaders have adapted so quickly to using video conferencing tools. I also surprisingly feel calmer when watching documentaries about past global traumas, such as the 1918 Spanish flu and the world wars. In the first half of the 20th century, entire generations were confronted with global challenges that forced them to put their lives on hold or suspend their careers for years on end.

However once those cataclysmic events ended, many of them went on to build happy and productive lives. If our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were able to rebuild after having put their dreams on hold for years, then so too can we emerge from this pandemic and rebuild an even brighter future.

  • Dan Brotman is a native of Boston, a graduate of the University of Oregon, and has been living in South Africa since 2011. He co-founded an educational travel venture that took 1 000 South African business leaders to ten of the world’s most innovative countries.

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