Are these the worst of times, or the promise of the best of times to come?
At no period in recent memory has the world been as united, its thoughts and fears as focused on one single invisible living being whose name has also been transmogrified more than a couple of times and still remains unclear. Call it COVID-19, or Cornonavirus or novel coronavirus, this has been engaging the undivided attention of media personnel, virologists, economists, psephologists, dieticians, futurologists and personists.
The Oxford virologists have been on a relentless search for an antibiotic for checking this epidemic and are on the verge of making a breakthrough, though laboratories the world over are also frantically in search of a serum that would kill this global menace. Meanwhile a crack team also of Oxford opinion pollsters is working day and night to find out the need for a radical change in the world order so that future viral invasions of such a nature do not occur. This team comprising of historians, psychologists, behaviourists and sociologists have found some correlation between this phenomenon and the rulers of major countries worldwide.
They have come to the conclusion that the old categories of imperialism, socialism, democracy, dynasty and Marxist realism and their numerous variants and mutations have all become somewhat irrelevant in the context of the new kind of dangers that this virus has thrown up. Standing land armies and control of the oceans and strategic bases have no relevance and something like the Medicines sans Frontiers could, perhaps, provide the answer; or perhaps the Foreign Legion.
The need for a radical change has also been equally felt by the United Nations Secretary General, Mr. Antonio Guterres. According to him this is the ‘greatest challenge of our age’ and it has demonstrated in no uncertain terms the extreme fragility and vulnerability of the world order as each nation has gone about tackling it in their own way.
‘This epidemic has brought us all on our knees’, he confessed. On a note of optimism he said this crisis is also a great opportunity to build a brave new world, but the big question is whether nations are prepared to embark on this exciting journey. He wondered how despite the great leaps in scientific and medical advances and the technological progress they had no clue to this menace. He told a virtual meeting of the World Health Organisation’s world assembly that this has demonstrated the fragility of not just the health systems but also of the international institutions, and related issues like climate crisis, cyber-security and nuclear disarmament.
The Oxford pollsters have found that over 70 per cent of Europeans are now in favour of introducing some kind of basic universal income, though in Britain the figure is slightly less at 68 per cent. Another finding, which is somewhat disturbing, is that 53 per cent of young Europeans repose more confidence in authoritarian states than in liberal democracies for tackling crises of this nature. Interestingly, the world’s greatest democracy and the largest dictatorship are pointing fingers at each other for causing this global crisis. And they are using the World Health Organisation’s chief as taking sides instead of doing his assigned duty of controlling the epidemic.
‘Covid-19 is a wake-up call. It is time for an end to the hubris’, said Mr. Guterres, obviously slamming countries for their disjointed approach to tackling the issue. ‘We have seen some unity, but very little unity in our response to Covind-19. Different countries have followed different, sometimes contradictory strategies and we are all paying a heavy price. Many countries have ignored the WHO. As a result the virus has spread across the world.’
Mr. Guterres said the pandemic was now spreading even to the southern hemisphere, where its impact might be ‘even more devastating.’
As if to echo these concerns the WHO Director General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said the infection has moved ‘like a bush fire’ and cautioned that the early blood studies consistently indicated that only between one and two people in ten, appeared to have come into contact with the disease, triggering an immune reaction shown by the existence of antibodies.
In the 4.5 million cases so far of the infection more than 300,000 lives have been lost. Even in the worst-hit regions, the proportion of the population with telltale antibodies is no more than 20 per cent, and in most places less than half of that. In short, the majority of the world’s population remains susceptible to this virus.
The WHO chief said he understood the anxiety of some countries to get back on their feet and return to work, but nevertheless there is need or caution. ‘It is precisely because we want the fastest possible global recovery that we urge countries to proceed with caution’, he said. ‘Countries that move too fast, without putting in place the public health architecture run the real risk of handicapping their own recovery.’
Sounding another note of caution he said the pandemic runs the risk of unwinding the ‘decades of progress’ in the fight against maternal and child mortality, HIV, malaria, tuberculosis, non-communicable diseases, mental health, and polio’ among other health threats.
It is not only Trump and Xi who are striking contrasting postures. Even survey results show how high the stakes are as the world comes out of the medical emergency and face the fallout of the economic and social consequences. Even the suggestion of about the universal basic income proposal had been dismissed as utopian though many developed countries had introduced something similar. Spain’s economic minister had suggested a ‘minimum vital income’ that could become a permanent instrument in the system. Almost some variant of this sort of measures had been suggested all too often.
Mr. Guterres has also called or an all-out effort to end this ‘tsunami of hate and xenophobia’ that has been sparked by the epidemic. The pandemic has unleashed a spate of scapegoating and scaremongering, he pointed out. The anti-foreigner sentiment has surged in the streets and in the social media. ‘Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories have spread as well as the epidemic related to anti-Muslim attacks’, he said. This former Portuguese prime minister and head of the UN refugee agency said that the recovery from this crisis must lead to a more equal and sustainable economy worldwide.
‘This is an opportunity to rebuild differently and for the better’, he said alluding to climate change as well as social protection systems.
Instead of reverting to the systems that had been unsustainable so far, we need to make a leap into a future of clean energy, inclusivity and equality and stronger safety nets, and also universal health coverage, he said. ‘Either we go through this pandemic together or we fail.’
Migrants have been targeted and vilified as carriers of the virus and denied treatment and shunned as despicable. This is also the case with the elderly who have been the most vulnerable well as the most expendable. Didn’t Faulkner say that the Crime and Punishment was worth any number of old widows?
Even frontline workers like doctors and nurses and health professionals and whistle blowers and human rights activists are being targeted for just doing their job. Apart from fighting the virus the UN chief also appealed for all out effort to end the hate speech globally. Educational institutions could impart ‘digital literacy’ to impressionable young people who are the ‘captive and potentially despairing audiences.’ Media, especially social media companies, could do much more ‘to flag and remove racist, misogynist and other harmful content.’
Meanwhile the lockdown had opened many windows and we have been exposed to visions we had only thought about or read in classics, the daffodils and wrens and placid lakes and 'clouds like white elephants'. The skies had never looked so blue and the air so clean. Now we know these were not poetic license but hard reality. Kalidasa and others were just describing what they saw before their crooked eyes, they were like socialist realism practitioners
This has also slowed down the pace of working life and has shown that there is no need to be present in person at every occasion. The era of airborne economists and medieval historians and even leaders have all become so redundant in the era of Skype and other gizmos. Even that grand experiment of the Anglo-French Concorde was such an expensive affair and had to be scrapped. It didn’t prove anything.
This should make us all turn our attention to climate change and the preservation of the valuable flora and fauna and take a break from this reckless scramble for material pleasures, and direct our attention elsewhere, to a better quality of life. The time taken to sit in the balcony and see the sun set and light a candle and ring a tiny bell might after all not seem such a quixotic retrograde effort.
Such settings can make people emotional and it was touching to see doctors being welcomed home with garlands by the entire housing colony where earlier they were hardly on talking terms, too busy to catch their flights.
What a transformation from the time when they were all the time accusing each other and television screens were filled with news of lynching and murders and hate speeches during the election campaigns these tend get shriller and there has been no break from elections. If one reckons that more people have died on the roads in avoidable accidents than what the pandemic has claimed so far, one can get an idea of the gravity of the situation.
Sometime images are more telling than words, however evocative. The images of the migrants on their long march can send many messages. The way civil society has more often rallied and given a helping hand and provided succour, the way the poorest have shared their home and meagre food, all make one believe in the basic kindness of humanity. In the midst of all this hysteria and heated media debates these images seem more enduring, they are as eternal as the robin that chirps in the morning or the laburnum that has just now put forth its shoots.
Observers had noticed a remarkable parallel between the span after World War I and now in the kind of leadership most countries have thrown up. Instead of Salazar in Portugal and Mussolini in Italy and Franco in Spain and Hitler clearing his throat in Germany, we now have from Trump to Xi to Putin to Erdogan to North Korea’s own Kim. They are invariably strong men with their power dressing and they all have the full backing of their people. One thing they have in common is absolute conviction in their judgment and their infallibility.
The facts and views expressed in the article are those of the writer.