Peter Frankopan's 2015 book The Silk Roads: A New History of the World sold 1.5 million copies worldwide and was named among the 'Books of the Decade' by the Sunday Times, London.
Called a 'rock star historian', Peter Frankopan is a professor of global history at the Oxford University. His 2015 book The Silk Roads: A New History of the World sold 1.5 million copies worldwide and was named among the 'Books of the Decade' by the Sunday Times, London. The follow-up book The New Silk Roads: The Future and Present of the World, about a new world forming across the spine of Asia, linking China, Russia, Iran, the Middle East with Central and South Asia published in 2018, is a major international bestseller.
A Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and the Royal Asiatic Society, Prof. Frankopan, one of the speakers of Jaipur Literature Festival's ongoing 'Brave New World' digital literature series, talks to Faizal Khan about the history of pandemics and how the coronavirus outbreak will define the future of the world.
Q: You have argued in your works that diseases had spread across the world in the past just like languages and cultures. How can history help us understand a pandemic?
A: Pandemics have occurred many times in the past. Doctors in China and India were writing about the importance of isolation more than two thousand years ago. So we can use history in three ways: first, we can take comfort that our ancestors have had to deal with these things before, and in doing so, get some perspective not only on what they lived through but also what we are dealing with today as well. However awful the current situation, it is better than the plague outbreak in Mumbai in 1896, when the city was also being ravaged by cholera, tuberculosis and other diseases.
Frequently Asked Questions
A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.
There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.
Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.
Second, history can help us have a better idea of which questions we should ask about what has happened in the past when communities and countries have been ravaged by disease: what happens next; how does society change; what might the future bring by way of challenge and opportunity? And third and finally, history is a valuable tutor – if one can listen carefully. How do we learn from the crisis of 2020; how do we prepare better next time; what should we have done and be doing differently? All these three – gaining perspective; preparing for the future; and learning from the past constructively seem to me to be extremely important.
Q: What will be the challenges before a post-pandemic world in terms of migration, trade and cultural exchange?
A: The truth is that it’s still too early to say. We do not yet know how devastating the pandemic will be, where its impact will be deepest and how long it will take to eradicate. So any projections must take into account a great many variables. But even on a basic level, the changes will be enormous. Migration between states may be restricted for many months if not until 2021 and the availability of viable vaccines. For a country like India which has a large diaspora, this means the separation of families for a very long period of time. We can conceive too how imports and exports change dramatically as it becomes harder to move goods between and even within countries, which can result in considerable changes to consumption patterns.
Some of these changes bring unexpected side-effects: in India’s case for example, restrictions on movement and the shut down of large parts of manufacturing is already having an immediate effect on air quality – which will in fact end up saving a lot of lives, especially amongst the very young and the very old. So there are a very large number of changes. And while it is tempting to look at the negative, it is also important to take a rounded view if possible and to see the big picture.
Q: Both rich and poor nations have realised the limits of their resources in the current crisis. How will that realisation impact on the social, economic and political policies of governments in the future?
A: It is a very good question. As the pandemic struck, there was a clear trend in many democratic countries towards populism and to hard-line policies. Such aggressive positions seem out of sync now with a world in which we are much more fearful and conscious of the value of life. So it may well be that we emerge into a gentler, more forgiving world as we realise that some things are more valuable than the humdrum of ‘punch and judy’ politics. As an optimist, I’d be happy with that.
As a pragmatist, however, my guess is that pandemic will generate tools to monitor our movements to help bring the disease under control, and that these will be re-modelled, adapted and used by cynical politicians in ways that are self-serving and have very serious long-term implications for us all. And I suspect these are much more serious for those of us living in democracies, where we are used to our freedoms. The surveillance state already exists in some countries; it looks to me like that will now become more common – something which poses many questions and rather fewer answers.
Q: What are the ways in which population and demographics are going to influence the global economy and politics? For example, what kind of role and influence will Asian countries like India and China with their huge populations, and a higher percentage of younger people, exert in world economy and politics?
A: Well, in the first instance, the lack of a co-ordinated international or global plan means that countries are all on their own and making decisions in isolation. This means that domestic markets become very important: if people in India are unable to travel abroad, and visitors are not allowed in, then large-scale markets can clearly do well. What is hard, though, is to anticipate what happens when new domestic champions emerge and are met with competition from outside as the world gets back to normal.
The question of young people is a crucial one: governments all around the world have raided the piggybanks of the next generations to pay for the price of not having been prepared for today: huge borrowings being made to protect jobs, to fund medical care and so on will fall on their shoulders. This seems to me to be very unfair and poorly thought through: crushing the dreams, hopes and realities of the young is very dangerous. And as I can tell you from my role at Oxford University, young people are often more intelligent and resourceful than their seniors. So it may be that the next generation start to demand fairer and better representation, perhaps even in government. I would not only not blame them; I would welcome it: why not have a quota for 25 per cent of MPs in India to be below the age of 35?
Q: How will the coronavirus outbreak remake Europe, especially with its own problems like Brexit and economic crisis?
A: The pressures from within the European Union at the moment are acute; it is not impossible that one result of COVID-19 is a reworking or even a breaking of the ties that have bound Europe together for decades. There has been bitter recrimination between the north and south of Europe about the handling of the crisis and of the attempts to support countries worst hit by disease. So we may see an acceleration of those pressures of which Brexit was clearly a part; but much depends on how the medical and economic crisis goes on.
Q: Donald Trump has categorized the United States as a "developing country" like China. Is there a possibility of reshaping the global economic structure?
A: Yes. When 16 million workers lose their jobs in three weeks, as happened in the US must now, then one can see that a potential economic catastrophe can emerge as a result. Much depends on the competence of decision making in the White House and by the authorities in the US. The US has been through hugely traumatic experiences in the last twenty years, with 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis, and bounced back from both. So one has to be brave to bet against the US. The US and China have been responsible for around 80 per cent of the world’s GDP growth in recent years. So a major reversal in both will have profound effects on us all.
Q: Though the role of WHO has been controversial, some institutions like IMF and World Bank are working closely with governments in this crisis. What do you think will be the relevance of global institutions like the United Nations once the outbreak is overcome?
A: It is a strange one. No one pays much attention to these global institutions until something goes wrong; and then they get blamed for what they have done or not done. Part of the answer must be to calibrate our expectations better. As it happens, the current crisis may provide a valuable moment to focus on how governments work more closely together and how to create either new or reformed forums that enable a better way of handling big problems – not just pandemic, but climate change too. But that only works if politicians actually want to find long-term solutions and are willing to move away from the petty point scoring that wins them votes in the short term. I am not wildly optimistic that the current crop of global leaders see things that way.(Faizal Khan is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi)