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  • Writer's pictureBill Paton

WAITING FOR RAIN: Living in a world in suspense

The world is suspended in anticipation of an unknown future. An era has ended but we are not quite sure what exactly has ended, and a new era is beginning but we are utterly uncertain what it will be like.

by William Paton 22 August 2020

In André Brink’s novel, Rumours of Rain (1978), searing drought and angry unrest in Soweto foreshadow instability before the end of South Africa’s apartheid system of racial segregation. Most were waiting for rain but also feared the storm.

Today, the mood worldwide is equally uneasy. The still-worsening Covid-19 pandemic will continue throughout 2021, at least, with untold consequences. Nearly four years of the Trump administration has left the world waiting to see if the American elections in November will bring a) a Democratic Party landslide, b) a still-possible Trump upset or c) something unimaginable in‑between hinging on a contested election result.

The growing USA-led crusade against China has also left the world wondering if the rift with China will worsen still. Will it become a more open conflict, perhaps even a hot war, or will cooler heads prevail? Will the anglophone West accept that the dreaded dragon is indeed growing up big and healthy and that it is best to try to cooperate with it on issues like climate change and trade?

Many clouds have gathered. From Belarus to Lebanon, Brazil to Venezuela, South Africa to Cameroon, people are in the streets protesting, about government mismanagement of the pandemic, about racism, sexism, corruption, stolen elections or growing inequality.

There is a strong consensus that an era has ended but which era was it? Was it the end of post-Soviet uncontested American hegemony since 1991, America leadership since WWII, or of two centuries of Western hegemony?

Around the globe we are all wondering about lots of things. Should I try to stock up on rice or wheat flour? Will my currency crash? Should I try to buy a little gold? How will I make a living? When can the children go back to school? Can we afford health care? Will we have to move?

The most important event of the year – the COP 26 or UN climate change meeting in Scotland, intended to pledge new emissions reductions targets – was postponed. Covid‑19’s millions of deaths are bringing the world a gruesome discount on our harmful emissions. However, this will also make recent emissions look artificially lower, hiding the real trend. This may be the most serious consequence of the pandemic – missing civilization’s final wake up call. Will governments seize this chance to just roll over and ‘hit the snooze button’ for another five years in favour of an unsustainable ‘economic recovery’?

Taken all together, this ominous gathering of clouds represents an appalling lack of global governance. We knew the Security Council was powerless to face a hostile superpower but we did not know it would fail to face a pandemic. We did not expect the World Trade Organization to fumble into a neutered state during a trade war. We did not expect a frontal assault on the World Health Organization during a pandemic. We did not expect the endless taunting of Iran. We did not expect a global decline in respect for truth.

So, will it be a shower or a hurricane? Will we bask in its sunny aftermath or sob among the wreckage? None of us know and few of us feel that we can influence the outcomes much. But we are all here waiting … 7.8 billion of us … waiting for rain.


Dr William M. Paton was leader of the United Nations in Republic of Congo and Tajikistan; Director of Country Programmes worldwide for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (Geneva); and Deputy Director General of the International Development Law Organization (Rome). He has also worked for the UN’s International Organization of Migration and the Chinese Academy of Science. He now lives in Beijing. Comments are welcome sent to or WeChat / WhatsApp: bmpaton.

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