The earliest cases of the COVID-19 caused by a novel coronavirus were detected in January in China this year. But it has been only 7 weeks since the pandemic swept through the entire world, pockmarking map of the globe with red-blobs of varying size on almost every country.
It isn’t the first pandemic to afflict the human race. Ancient Greece suffered from one deadly pandemic during the Peloponnesian War back in 430. It killed two-thirds of the population of Libya, Egypt, Ethiopia and Greece in an era when medical science was not even at its rudimentary, incipient stage of development. Since then, there has been a long list of causes that developed into full-blown pandemics, including Cholera, Plague, Measles, Flu that carried the prefix Russian, Spanish and Asian, SARS and, closer to the date, the HIV and AIDS. Each of these caused destruction of human life on a scale greater than the present calamity.
And yet, it appears that COVID 19 has the potential of leaving a far bigger imprint on our collective consciousness than anything from the past. Four Big Thoughts stand challenged.
1. Human Invincibility
The human has evolved over 200,000 years, most of it as the unchallenged occupant of the earth. That translates to about 73 million days. Over this period – particularly the last 2 thousand years – man has accumulated vast scientific insights, humongous material wealth, breathtaking medical sophistication and unparalleled military might. And yet, in a mere 60 days, the world has had to scamper to the safety of its homes, anxious not only for its economic sustenance but even prospects of extinction.
Horrendous as they are, 450,000 cases of infection and 19,500 deaths should not have so traumatized us. But the truth is that we realize that we face an enemy that is not merely growing in strength but is accelerating the process. It took 41 days for COVID-19 to enter 100,000 bodies and then, it took a mere 11, 4 and 3 days respectively to breach the next successive 100,000 marks.
At this point, it seems to be outracing our reach for a cure and containment. It is also outpacing our imagination. It has begun to dent our perception of invincibility just a bit.
If the past is a credible indicator, we will surmount the challenge. The world has united against the scourge and the cost may be high, but the human race will prevail. But it will leave a long, traumatic shadow on our collective consciousness that will leave us more mindful of our fragility.
Globalization was already in a slow retreat before COVID-19 arrived on the scene. Western economies were beginning to revolt openly against what-they-felt was the unbridled nature of the system – loss of employment, especially in the manufacturing sector as capital fled to greener pastures, distrust of immigration caused by perennial conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, the easy displacement of the population looking for better opportunities and the perceived loss of indigenous cultural identity of the host nations, were all turning countries inward and marching to the drumbeat of nationalism.
The ease with which COVID-19 has proliferated will strengthen the war cries of anti-globalists. The debate is already beginning to acquire a new passion. But will COVID-19 strike the mortal blow against globalization? The jury is still assembling to consider but, ironically, a counter-argument has developed. Can mankind ever hope to surmount such a large scale challenge without a global effort? Isn’t the transnational coordination, exchange of information and medical expertise critical for this campaign to be won?
3. Big Government
There has been a permanent Right-Left divide – at least in the liberal democracies – on the quantum of the role that the government should play in the lives of the populace. Ronald Reagan had famously said, “….government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.” That was the first inaugural address that the new President had himself authored; it not only reflected the cherished belief of the Republican party but has galvanized successive Republican governments, leading up to the Trump administration. Big Government has been seen as the enemy and the market place with its private players as the true saviours and custodians of the nation’s well-being. This chorus has been opposed by the left, albeit in soft undertones. And now, with the pandemic raging, in every country the Big Government is back at the forefront – and the voices that opposed it appear to have quietened in sober realization. A battle of this magnitude can only be fought with the government in the lead. After the pandemic subsides, the views against the Big Government may soften. That will be a paradigm shift.
4. Liberal Democracy
China was the first to suffer the full blow of COVID-19. By 16 February, while most of the world was untouched, COVID-19 had afflicted over 70,000 Chinese nationals. It appeared that the virus would bring the might of the Chinese government to its knees for a long time. But since then, the Chinese have completely flattened the curve to a point that they are confident enough to open the Great Wall to the tourists and even restart life in the epicentre of Wuhan. Of the original 81,218 patients, 73,650 have reportedly recovered. Another 4000 are under watchful treatment. Even if one discounts some of these figures as the ‘usual Chinese propaganda’, the turnaround is truly remarkable. It has been infinitely harder to exercise similar cast-iron control in Italy and Spain – the number of deaths in both countries has surpassed China – and even other Western countries, including the US and Germany. Does it underscore the infirmities in the governance of liberal democracies where it is not easy to impose large-scale curbs? We don’t know that. But chances are, that social-scientists and intellectuals will examine this long after we have returned to the stability of our old lives.
COVID-19 is a slow-moving cloud that will pass. But it will transform our consciousness in many ways. Hopefully, it will leave us gentler and yet stronger.