A slum dweller sanitises his hands before collecting relief material in Kolkata, India, on Thursday. Agence France-Presse
Amit Khanna, Indo-Asian News Service
An oft repeated adage ‘change is the only constant’ is perhaps axiomatic and true in most cases. Yet what we will see in the course of the next few months and even years is a ferocity of change humanity has never witnessed. Our history is replete with stories of pandemics and the havoc they wrought across geographies ever so often. While so far three million people have been infected by the deadly COVID-19 virus and over 2,00,000 have died, it is not by any means anywhere near as deadly as some earlier epidemics and diseases.
For example AIDS infected 75 million people with over 32 million deaths. Or just last year 1.5 million people died from Tuberculosis (TB) and 5 millions of malaria. Plague over the past millennia wiped out millions and the Spanish Flu, a hundred years ago, 50 million. What is it about this coronavirus strain which is threatening to change the course of human life in the 21st century?
Several leading epidemiologists agree on one thing. While COVID-19 may be less lethal than SARS, MERS or Ebola and other viruses, it is far more infectious. Its transmission, though so far may have been restricted to droplets (as distinct from transmission by air or physical contact), most estimates anticipate that at least 20 per cent of the global population is likely to be infected by this virus in the next one year. This is an alarming number and the world is not ready to handle so many sick people at the same time apart from the fact that the scourge of other illnesses, like cancer, strokes, heart attacks and pneumonia etc, continues unabated.
We can take precautions, though. One of the safest means to curb the spread is through social distancing as the virus has a limited range of transmission, around six feet. Since a COVID positive person unknowingly may touch various common facilities like public transport, elevators or other shared facilities, wearing masks and repeated washing of hands is essential. Isolating infected persons is necessary. There are a lot of efforts on at a frenetic pace around the world to develop a vaccine for the virus and it appears that by next year we should have it in use universally. Meanwhile, different treatments are being tried by various doctors around — from plasma therapy to using other existing drugs and variants.
A few are working new drugs too.
It is now largely accepted that COVID-19 is here to stay in some mutated form for a long time. While the cure and vaccine may ultimately render it less infectious and lethal, the threat of another virus or bacteria will always loom large in people’s minds for decades. According to historian-thinker Yuval Noah Harari under the skin surveillance, which includes biometrics, blood reports, x-rays, body scans, and even implants will become commonplace. As he wrote in Financial Times on March 19, “Many short-term emergency measures will become a fixture of life. That is the nature of emergencies. They fast-forward historical processes. Decisions that in normal times could take years of deliberation are passed in a matter of hours”.
We are entering an age of moments. Nothing will be taken for granted. Sifting sands economic turmoil will swallow men and money alike. Today’s world is neither ready nor can it afford such a large-scale upheaval. In the meantime, we will have lockdowns, opening-ups, isolations, quarantines. We must learn to live a sequestered existence alongside our normal lives.
In our hyperconnected world, where travel across national and international borders is no longer a luxury, a pandemic assumes a hitherto unknown scale and dynamics. Since the past few weeks almost the entire planet is in a partial or total lockdown mode. Billions of us live in some kind of social isolation. Yet, never before has there been such a tremendous flow of information — facts, fiction and ignorance as during the current crisis. The economies of nations lie dishevelled. Individual financial strain varies from extreme penury to a job loss.
The conveniences of the 21st century, which we take for granted are suddenly irrelevant or redundant. Simultaneously we are discovering new needs and shortcomings. Life is in a churn no doubt. It’s a time of relearning and there are no teachers, people are learning on the fly themselves.
What will life be in the post Corona world? Quite different for sure. How much no one knows.
Let’s begin with some obvious changes. Re-emergence of personal hygiene is one such change. A vast majority of the global population still has no or erratic running water. Sanitation, especially garbage disposal, sewerage and drainage are missing or broken. A simple thing like safe potable water is an issue. Bathing and washing hands either because of water shortage or social habits is not considered essential in many parts of the developing world.
Recent campaigns for improving hygiene — personal and civic — have had an impact. The Corona crisis will be a game changer in this regard. The use of masks will become ubiquitous, if not mandatory, at least in public spaces. Social distancing is a reality which will stay. Of course in certain areas, where population density is high, it is impossible to maintain any distance. In many countries, including India, millions of people live cheek by jowl in slums, ramshackle housing and temporary settlements. For many, survival itself is a challenge. In the months to come, it’s not economic compulsions but social compulsions which will force an existence under a pall of fear.
The world order itself will change. The last global realignment happened post war in the mid-1940s and a further correction after the fall of the Berlin wall. In the last 10 years, China has emerged the second biggest power. Geopolitics is under rebuild. The left will be left behind and the only way forward will be of compassionate capitalism, inclusive liberalism and aspirationalism. Political ideologies, the entire gamut of isms of the 20th century will fall by the wayside as people and nations seek to overcome instability and look for growth amidst chaos. There is no reason why the concerns of a hundred years ago should matter to the future generations. Baggage of the past, idealism of an era that never existed is dead wood.
This is the age of the moment. Parag Khanna, Founder, FutureMap, sums it up well, “The Coronavirus has proven to be a greater test for leadership than 9/11 and the financial crisis combined, a sobering shock that has shattered complacent assumptions that progress always moves “up and to the right.”
Evolution, both biological and civilizational, is a much more haphazard and indeterminate process. I expect the rise of domestic markets. Globalisation will be replaced by collaborative enterprises and most transglobal companies will evolve into smaller region-specific entities, each isolated by local regulations.
Last night was a dreadful night. I wanted to reach my destination, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t move because the roads were jammed by a ruthless and an invisible traffic in the shape of a virus, visible only to the victim.
A year into the pandemic, infection rates are falling. Hospitals are quieter; morgues are emptier. Emboldened by vaccines, we’re dropping our masks and stepping closer. Slowly we’re reopening indoor dining, theaters, museums and schools.
The Ministry stressed in a statement on Saturday that, its aim to continue expanding the scope of testing nationwide to facilitate the early detection of coronavirus cases and carry out the necessary treatment.
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