By Joe Lindsley
Lviv, Ukraine – «The writing is on the wall,» Melinda Haring and Doug Klein write in the U.S. publication the National Interest 31 March. «Ukraine is headed for major catastrophe.» Europe’s «poorest country» with a «showman president» is so ill-equipped that soon the Coronavirus will destroy the nation’s economy, they argue. I nearly spit on my Wuhan, China-made mask when I read this news. The beleaguered country described in that article is so different from the innovative, independent-minded nation I’ve come to know over the past three years. As global structures face existential threats, maybe Ukraine can now shine with a new model of community-focused growth.
First, Haring and Klein claim the the hyrvnia is faltering but this week it has as strengthened against the dollar. Then we should consider that Ukraine’s per capital income and gross domestic product are negatively affected by the stats in the breakaway eastern provinces where Russia has created misery. But the rest of the country, even though statistically poor, has emerged as an innovative, collaborative society.
In Davos-style circles, nations are defined as poor when they have low per capita income and low gross domestic product. By these measures, Ukraine is indeed the poorest country in Europe. But as Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates wrote in Project Syndicate in 2013, these international standards might not be the best rubrics for measuring a nation’s true health and wealth. «I have long believed that GDP understates growth even in rich countries, where its measurement is quite sophisticated, because it is very difficult to compare the value of baskets of goods across different time periods,» wrote Gates.
Likewise in Ukraine, I see dissonance between the global stats and the reality on the ground. How does the World Bank measure the value of Ukraine’s civil society? What is the value of the energy of a people who just six years ago stood in the streets until the pro-Russian government fled and so won their independence in the Revolution of Dignity? This is not a helpless people. Any place with such a spirit of solidarity and a desire for independence is not impoverished. And as global structures face existential threats, maybe Ukraine can now shine with a new model of community – focused growth.
A few days before the quarantine began, I spoke here in Lviv with a distinguished Georgetown University professor. I asked him why he visits Ukraine so often. «Because Ukraine, although it has weak political institutions, has one of the strongest civil societies I’ve observed anywhere in the world,» he said. A few weeks before at a conference at Ukrainian Catholic University, a PhD candidate told me his work was investigating the parallels between the Ukraine of today and the United States of the 1820s, a society which the French political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville praised for its uniquely strong civil society. What does this mean? That citizens forged strong fellowship and communities among each other, that without waiting for government they built good things together. The strength of the America observed by Tocqueville, and maybe the strength of Ukraine today, is not the corporate economic engine but rather the communal spirit of the people–an ability to work together and build good things together. Even if the official system were to fall apart, the actual system of human connection on the ground remains strong. Maybe this is why in Ukraine we have not seen the Toilet Paper Wars that have occurred in the American panic.
Many commentators in the United States have noted for years the «epidemic of loneliness»: Americans spend so much time working and commuting, living not in close – knit neighborhoods but in isolated suburbs, that they don’t know each other and as such in moments of crisis become in competition with each other. Now, in this new, forced social-distancing, maybe more Americans are starting to appreciate the idea of solidarity. «We realize that the wealth we have amassed for ourselves is material that can vanish, and that’s why we Americans panic,» a friend in Austin, a lawyer, told me the other day. «We are being pressed to consider where our foundations are.»
This is not a problem in Ukraine, where foundations of faith and family have not so withered away as they have in much of the West.. Here the prospect of a long quarantine, while difficult, is less of an existential threat to regular people. In Ukraine, as spring arrives, I sense a «waking up,» a sense that together people can take action to innovate and thrive. A friend with a tech firm in Kyiv posted a meme on facebook asking, «Who led the digital transformation of your company? «
Option C was circled. It was a joke, but also, why not? We have the means to live in a digital age. We can actually do it now, because we must. In Ukraine, I have seen that spirit of using radical thinking to respond to challenging moments. At this moment, a new demand is emerging for delivery services, package-pick-up kiosks, tech services. A Lviv firm has created a touch-free hand sanitizer dispenser that can be created in a 3D printer. 3D printers: What a brilliant concept in a time when we are not allowed to go anywhere, or in a time when we no longer can receive shipments of cheap goods from China. Everywhere we turn now, we see new opportunities to build a more innovative economy and society.
If Ukrainians stick to that spirit of Euromaidan, if they rely upon their family and culture as an actual and morally-supportive safety net, and if they see embrace this new digital era forced upon us, they can not only get through but can help drive a vision of the new digital economy that will arise out of this global moment of transformation. There are always opportunities for innovation. If the Chinese can successfully market Coronavirus masks proudly labeled as made in the city of Wuhan, where this crisis began, then what else is possible for the rest of us?