Back at the start of 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic first threw the world off balance, little did I know that in about ten months I would be fighting the disease myself.
It started as a deceptively simple feeling of unease. It was the sort of mild body ache that you knew would go away of its own accord. Then came a cold, just as mild, just as eager to leave. None of it seemed alarming. Slowly, the temperature rose, but never so high as to cause alarm. For the first four days, the primary characteristic of the virus that had attacked me was a sinister absence: it never caused enough harm to make you take it seriously.
A silent virus
This is perhaps the single biggest reason why COVID-19 counts are so high across the globe today. When the disease hits, it does not crash the party; it simply slithers in through your door and makes its way around more or less unnoticed until things become overwhelming.
People tend not to bother until one of two things happen: they are cured thanks to a superior immune system; or they fall sick enough that they can no longer ignore it, eventually needing medical attention before either making it back (such was my case) or unfortunately losing the battle (as over one million people have as of the time of writing this article).
By the time I had lost my sense of smell, it was about four days in. Discerning that I had lost my sense of taste, however, was a more confusing matter because I did have a taste. Unlike smells, my tastes had not all vanished. Everything tasted more or less like it should but somewhat bitter. It is well-known that one’s sense of smell enhances their sense of taste, which is why the reverse made sense too: losing one’s sense of smell meant also losing most of their sense of taste. Except bitterness, somehow. This was another reason why I delayed suspecting COVID-19. Some others I talked to who had also got this disease reported completely losing their senses of both smell and taste.
By the fourth day, the urge to get myself tested—prodded in no small part by my wife—was too hard to overcome and so I got in line at a local testing centre. My fever somewhat increased later that day but dropped off by nightfall, perhaps (I fancy in hindsight) so that I could wake up refreshed with the energy to answer a telephone call from the District Health Office informing me that I had tested positive for COVID-19.
A virus behind the scenes
Being largely asymptomatic it was first planned that I would isolate myself at home while others in the house would get tested too (which they did, and thankfully all tests turned out to be negative). This is currently the norm enforced by the local government: quarantine at home as a first resort.
Being largely asymptomatic also meant the path ahead was clear: I would remain isolated for seventeen days, per government regulations, taking appropriate dosages of tablets, and getting enough rest while my body would fight and expel the SARS-Cov-2 virus that was an unwelcome visitor in me.
However, things turned out to be a bit more complicated than that. About three days after my isolation at home began, things started to go downhill again. My temperature rose around the same time I began noticing a sort fo tingling sensation in my chest whenever I breathed deeply. And every deep inhalation was followed by a cough-ridden exhalation.
Over the past few months, having closely followed the ongoing research on this virus, I was aware of two things: people who had this virus had developed lesions in their lungs and, at times, blood clots all over their body. While my breathing remained normal, breathing deep tickled my chest enough that I could no longer ignore it.
A fight ensues
We had planned a few tests to be done after my recovery, including a CT scan that the wife and I, among others, both had in mind. But the tingling in my chest had been conspicuous long enough that I decided that same evening to get a CT scan done immediately. Securing an appointment proved quick and easy thanks to some excellent doctors. By 8 pm I had my scans in hand and was inside an ambulance heading to a dedicated COVID-19 hospital where I would be admitted for observation. Little did I know at this point that there were lesions in two lobes of my lungs causing congestion, and that I would have to spend the entire coming week in hospital, being administered antiviral medication, blood thinners and lots more.
My full diagnosis came to me on my first morning in a hospital bed. Blood thinners would have to be administered, fever will have to be reduced through the usual methods, and my ease of breathing will have to be watched closely.
The morning that followed the night of my admission I had only one thought in mind: I was incredibly lucky to have a supportive family and friends who went out of their way to enquire about my health daily and stay connected with me virtually all through. One can never be thankful enough. But one will also have to spare a thought for those who do not have such a support system. COVID-19 forcefully isolates the infected, like insult upon injury, rendering them powerless not only physically but also mentally. Having a good support system is key to getting through the fortnight or so that this infection gets people down.
The other big problem is how this virus exploits its silence (no doubt by design) to spread quickly. In the hospital I was in was an entire family of infected people with nobody on the outside to take care of them. Healthcare is pretty good so the hospital likely did take care of everything, but their stay was longer and undoubtedly more arduous than mine.
In a close-knit society like India, especially in the lower economic strata, in my experience, an inclination towards familial closeness overshadows quite a lot else. Isolation due to a virus quickly becomes an emotional question of balancing the feeling of abandoning someone and being there for them against all odds. The latter swiftly ensures the new coronavirus spreads across the household in no time.
Treatments and world views
Determining the ideal treatment for COVID-19 is an ongoing affair, but there was little doubt when I was in hospital that a five-day treatment with Remdesivir would be adequate as I was only on the brink of needing oxygen but thankfully ended up not needing it. I remember somewhat dramatically when the doctor unscrewed the oxygen inlets from the wall mounts beside me to make more space for me to move around in bed freely; it was almost symbolic. It is funny how so many mundane incidents suddenly become beacons of hope when one is down. Is our sense of gratitude heightened? Is this humanness in its rawest form? Why, with health, do we bounce back to becoming ungrateful?
The other line of treatment was blood thinners, because SARS-Cov-2 is known to cause several random blood clots. Additionally, this managed to balance the increasing blood sugar brought on by steroids, an observation that prompted me to begin tabulating twice-daily measurements of blood sugar for the month following my discharge from hospital. (The chart above was made over ten days since discharge and a month is yet to pass since said discharge, so an updated chart will be put up by the second week of November.)
It is said that being down with something one is helpless to fight alone not only enriches one’s world view but also permanently changes one’s approach to life itself. I used to think only a severely traumatic event could possibly do such a thing but I was wrong. While I would not term my experience ‘traumatic’ for lack of understanding of that word, I will say this: actually falling ill with an illness the world was talking about—and I was only ever talking about—gave me a renewed focus on the things that matter in life. In Stoicism we call this memento mori, and people like Steve Jobs and Todd Henry put it well when they said one must do something as if it were the last thing one ever does in life, and if it isn’t worth being part of your legacy, it is worth questioning if the thing is worth doing at all.
I fear this heightened sensitivity will pass. I hope it does not. And my reason for writing it down here openly is to help me recollect, should I ever need it later.
Back on my feet
I have never been one to count my chickens before they hatch. That is one reason why I pushed writing this piece for close to two weeks since my recovery. The other reason was to see if over time I have any new insights about the entire event (I do not).
Quite a few people have told me what I do following my recovery from COVID-19 is as important as the treatment process itself. A key task ahead for me is to consistently hit my spirometer goals and in this I am happily logging improvements. The other approach is to get in a lot of exercise, but not too enthusiastically, and this I am approaching with a good old-fashioned brisk walk. Eventually I hope to return to my daily cycling.
Interestingly, contracting this virus also introduces two specific lines of thought: first, about all of our individual places in society; and second, about our responsibility to society.
The second one is easier to understand: as someone who got COVID-19 it is quite important to know the spread of the virus ended with you. To live with the thought that you gave the virus to someone who then gave it to someone else is hard to say the least. Having been extremely cautious—laughably so at times—knowing that nobody contracted the virus from me was satisfying. This was in large part because I isolated myself from the earliest possible days. I also eventually learnt whom I contracted the virus from and how, but I would not want to get into the details of that without good reason.
The other thought, that of our place in society, is something that has troubled more than a handful of unfortunate families especially in India. Months ago there were reports of victims and their families being shunned—even chased out of their towns one point—for having this infection. Either that died down as the virus became more common in society or the media simply stopped reporting it having found shinier toys to keep their short-lived attention. However, if you thought your neighbours were thoughtful enough to be supportive in such times, you might want to think again. Storms shine light on fair-weather friends.
A lesson for the world
Following Remdesivir the tingling in your chest passes; and following a fortnight of rest slowly morphing into work so does the dyspnea. At least in cases like mine that were severe but not critical. And these are good signs. All this rest has also given my an opportunity to get updated with the ongoing research; things are promising and we will no doubt have a vaccine eventually, but in our haste to have a vaccine in hand it is equally important that we do not sacrifice the stringent scientific boundaries that will make these vaccines reliable and trustworthy.
My other fear is that nationalism (and a fake sense of patriotism) will grip people at an inopportune moment. Right when all we need is for science to be left alone, and perhaps followed and heeded, some countries will leap ahead callously looking for some recognition and with overblown amour propre.
If this virus was in some ways an interesting lesson to me, it is a critical chapter in humanity’s existence. But while we have all been capable of looking out for ourselves, we have always had a poor track record when it comes to learning from our mistakes collectively. Everything has always been someone else’s problem. Not anymore.
A key beneficiary of the SARS-Cov-2 virus has been our natural environment. How significant is this positive impact, though? And have we learnt enough to ensure that things do not go bad again once we make it past this crisis?
Environmental degradation has been a major human footprint for centuries now. We have gotten so used to it that we no longer recognise it; it has become an integral part of our definition of our world. To worsen things, we also no longer care because we have not been able to feel its effects substantially.
While this degradation itself is taking place with a sadistic linear consistency, its effects are rising exponentially. We happen to be on the lower-end of that curve so we have not felt it too much; soon we will be on the rise of that curve and acting then to save our planet just might be too late.
In the midst of all this is the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic which has given both us and nature a bit of breathing space. It has given us time to rethink our actions and nature herself seems to be breathing cleaner now. But to think of this alone as the effect of COVID-19 on our environment would be a folly. The fact is that had we taken better care of our world, we would never have met this new virus.
A couple of months into 2020, shortly after COVID-19 had been declared a pandemic, and planes around the world had been grounded and industries been shut down, Venice’s canals famously cleared up, dolphins returned to Italian shores and the Himalayas were reportedly visible from farther away than usual. Even as a lot of ‘non-believers’ screamed for years that they could not see the negative effects of climate change, as soon as most of our world was quarantined, nobody could deny the dramatic positive changes in nature that they could see right before their eyes.
The evidence is not just anecdotal, however. Measurements showed that emissions fell by 25% in China at the start of 2020 and recently in New York by 50%. There also followed evidence of the content of NO2 over Italy dropping according to satellite surveys of the region released by the European Space Agency. Overall, while there was little evidence and lot of numbers backing up claims of climate change all these decades, there are now both numbers and anecdotal records of the environment improving in our absence.
There is a bit of a downside to this too. Such a seemingly quick recession of pollution could tempt people into thinking that this problem is easier to solve than it really is and therefore make it look like less of an issue to bother about.
However, replicating these weeks without another global threat to human life is near impossible. People simply quarantining themselves in sequence will not achieve the same effect; the whole world needs to do it at once and we will never do it again except at viral gunpoint. It is clear that despite the positive environmental changes this quarantine season has brought on, it is not a solution; it is more of a reminder to us to get back on track to saving our Earth. These changes we are living through are a reminder of what a better environment looks and feels like.
Transport is key in human civilisation and it will survive this pandemic. It is also among the bigger causes for pollution. It will continue to add pollutants to the environment once quarantines are no longer in effect the world over. People may even travel a lot more, driving further routinely as if bouncing out of quarantine to lands far, far away. Others may have gotten used to living at home and choose to travel less. This toss up tells us that it is not a factor upon which to assess our next steps.
However, industries may have been and will get back to being the biggest culprits. They ought to be slapped with stricter rules to curb pollution and that may in fact have some effect. Easing other laws in return would serve to incentivise them.
The expert consensus is quite clear: while there is an improvement in pollution and other environmental yardsticks now, during the quarantine, things will start to worsen once the quarantine has been lifted. Yet, the overall impact of these weeks we are spending at home may still be good if not spectacular: the predicted drop in global emissions could be thrice as much as the drop during the Global Financial Crisis of the late 2000s—a mere 0.3%—this year.
To add some more perspective, the pollution we have caused hits closer to home than most of us realise: given two similar cities, one moderately clean and the other highly polluted, scientists have predicted that the COVID-19 death rate is likely to be 4.5 times higher in the latter city. Plainly, had we not polluted the world so much, fewer people would have died of COVID-19.
While it is important to understand the impact that we have had on the environment and the impact that the SARS-Cov-2 pandemic has had on the environment, it is perhaps more important to look forward and lay a plan for how we hope to return the world.
One thing is clear: while our daily lives may become more convenient as non-essential service providers kick into gear the way society itself works may not—nay, should not be allowed to—return to the status quo. Things should get better overall, and that will only happen when everyone is in on the plan.
The idea behind this is simple: while cleaning up a beach or street can have a temporary, local impact—and is certainly important—it is a large scale effort we need right now if we plan to return to safer carbon levels. For long governments and industries alike have pointed fingers at individuals: there have been popular cries to use paper straws, carry our own containers, carry our own bags etc. But the scientific community has clearly pointed out that industries and not individuals are capable of making meaningful change.
While carrying a paper straw is great—and in no way is it condemned or ridiculed—every single one of us will have to carry paper straws for millennia before any visible change occurs. The same goes for that one trip to the market you might be tempted to avoid in favour of the Earth: it is great, but it is dew on the ocean. In better times that would have been a wonderful progression, but we do not have millennia now. By all means let us all work on individually reducing our carbon footprints, but let us not be deluded into thinking we are all making a collective impact for the simple reason that this responsibility is concentrated away from us.
The entities whose actions can make a difference are the ones deflecting blame from themselves to individuals constantly. As a 2017 report found, 71% of the world’s emissions came from just 100 companies and state producing entities. It is easier to enforce a change with these 100 companies, and considerably more practical, than to coax 6 billion people to change their lifestyles. The lifestyle changes should and will come, but over a much longer time period; the immediate change must be demanded from industries.
Something we as individuals can do to enforce such change is improve our habits rather than simply preach highly specific abstinence practices. ‘Any positive environmental impact in the wake of this abhorrent pandemic, must therefore be in our changing our production and consumption habits towards cleaner and greener,’ says the UN. What we need for this is a government stimulus package that follows on the heels of this pandemic.
An important thread to follow is individual human lifestyles and comforts. People are not to blame here: nobody ought to be blamed for seeking comforts; all animals do it on their own terms. However, negativity abounds when obtaining such comforts are hard. Governments will therefore have to make policies that place individual rights, comforts and health benefits strictly front and centre, well above corporations and above needless gun-toting for ‘national security’. If we all simply get along, there will be no need for such stray use of funds.
When governments and corporations help people live contented lives and not live in fear for their own health and wellbeing, people will be free to focus on their other habits, be it planning vacations better, shopping more responsibly or even seeking simpler recreations (since the mystery and allure of exotic recreations would have died down—we only desire what we cannot have etc.). The responsibility lies squarely in the hands of governments and none of the actions they need to take need to be detrimental to individuals.
The reason why such renewed focus on humans and the environment—a ‘green stimulus’ from governments if you like—is important is because humans have encroached on the planet enough that coming in contact with new viruses will become the norm. The worse climate change becomes the greater will be the occurrence of zoonotic diseases—those transmitted from animals to humans. The future of our environment quite simply is the future of humanity. The more content we are, the more in harmony we can live with each other and consequently with nature. This is simply a clever move that leaves little room for questions. A green stimulus package makes sense.
A group of policy experts from universities and think tanks have proposed a four-point programme that must be central to any such green stimulus:
- Create millions of new family-sustaining, career-track green jobs in clean energy expansion, building retrofits and sustainable homebuilding, local food economies, public transit maintenance and operations, electric appliance and vehicle manufacturing, green infrastructure construction and management, local and sustainable textiles and apparel, and partnering with existing pre-approved apprenticeship programs to bring more low-income and workers of color into good union jobs;
- Deliver strategic investments — like green housing retrofits, rooftop solar installation, electric bus deployment, rural broadband development, and other forms of economic diversification — to lift up and collaborate with frontline communities, including communities of color, Indigenous communities, low-income communities, communities that have suffered disinvestment, and communities that have historically borne the brunt of pollution and climate harm;
- Expand public and employee ownership by leveraging existing public agencies and assets (including public transit agencies, local housing authorities, public school districts, and electric co-ops), taking equity stakes in companies receiving substantial direct investment (including the airline, fossil fuel, and cruise industries), and conditioning strategic aspects of the stimulus package on worker self-determination measures and cooperatives; and,
- Make rapid cuts to carbon pollution consistent with keeping global warming as close as possible to 1.5 degrees Celsius, as the climate science tells us is required to limit further climate breakdown, and protect salaries, benefits, and retirements of fossil fuel workers.
If we are to salvage our environment and make a better world for us to live in, one that is at least safe for us than wild heatwaves and viruses that are unheard of, the stimulus packages that come next must reshape our industries, redefine the norm and allow individuals a huge stake in choosing how we can rebuild more responsibly than ever before.
The simplest scale with which to measure the direct impact of such a stimulus package is to look at its carbon intensity. Speaking of the opportunity we have to build ‘a greener economy’, Professor Sam Fankhauser the former deputy chief economist at the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development said, ‘The three tests which economists use for a good stimulus is they have to be timely, targeted and temporary, and there are a lot of climate change measures which fall into that category. So we can have a low-carbon recovery, that’s absolutely possible.’
That is always good news: it can be done. We just have to step up and do it. We are living through a direct result of one of our negative impacts on the environment while another is worsening things for us. And without us the earth is healing, which should ideally be all the proof we need. There is no need to invoke such dramatic quips as ‘the world is healing and we are the virus’ because the facts, plainly and simply, are themselves clear.
We need to use this opportunity to learn and change our approach to living in society and on the earth in terms of individual health, individual wellbeing, harmony, and environmental impact; either that or we had better reframe our school curricula right away so we can teach the next generation how to properly pack their doomsday kits and bid their loved ones goodbye.
The SARS-Cov-2 virus brought our civilisation to its knees. But our downfall started long before this pandemic, and its effects will be felt in all walks of life for quite some time after.
The COVID-19 pandemic the world is currently suffering through is not our first tryst with the threat of mass extinction and will not be our last. But some key players have entered the game now that never played it before, and these have forced us to reframe our thinking of how life will be lived in the future.
The economy is one of them. Flawed, skewed and delicate, our economies are an inexact science that always fascinates the physicist in me who is used to a great deal of precision and predictability. The newest generations are feeling the pinch of falling economies more profoundly than they ever have before. The jokes have stepped out of memes and into reality.
Technology is the other. From doctors to teachers to bankers to practically everyone else, all of us are embracing technology as a real tool at last. It has graduated from a luxury and a distraction to an indispensable tool that can both help prevent the spread of SARS-Cov-2 and help us survive our quarantine by feeding our most raw human desire to socialise.
The third is the environment. From dolphins returning to Venice to the skies clearing above our own homes, humanity taking a break has shown us how safe the environment is without us. While the pigeons may be puzzled and the elephants may be making their way closer to urbanity than ever before, we cannot help but stop and reconsider our future actions now that there is no doubt left that we have long been the cause of environmental ruin.
People are also realising the importance of the institutions they never cared two hoots about earlier: banks, grocery stores, delivery services, toilet paper and a bunch of other supply chains we took for granted. Every generation is reminded of the frailty of humankind and if the last two wars were the reminders for our older generations, we ought to consider ourselves spared.
Since the late Middle Ages our civilisation has been divided into three realms or ‘estates’. The first estate were the religious orders, the second estate were the nobility and parliamentarians, and the third estate were the commoners. Today, we seem to have five: the religious orders, the politicians, the commoners, the media and independent activists. Whatever the model one would subscribe to, two things have remained unchanged: the first two estates have greedily held onto to power and the right to take large-scale decisions, and the third have always been the ones who bear the brunt at every stage.
Over time this led to a monopoly where greed, conflicted interests and personal profits soared to the top of everyone’s priorities while the people who actually drove the economic machines were relegated to mere cogs. The greed of those at the top knew no end, and their control over the fourth estate went from suggestive influences to precise ownership. In the end, the supreme were beyond reach and the commoners remained unheard. Civilisation as we knew it grew a rift down the middle as the top few went on like they needed nobody and nothing and the bottom majority went on without the light of hope.
The metric that most succinctly captures this rift is a measure of wealth. Since the Second World War the wealth gap has constantly increased. Moreover, the wealth gap has increased faster when the economy was growing more slowly. This counterintuitive idea quite simply suggests that there is a priority built into the system by design where the rich get their share regardless of economic growth and the sluggishness of growth is only ever felt among the commoners—the majority. While any system that benefits the minority at the cost of pushing down the majority is itself questionable, the world simply went on with this idea because it seemed to work and we were far too risk-averse to try anything else.
The way this idea was reconciled with another popular idea of that time, equality, was through the theory of trickle-down economics. If the rich were allowed to grow their wealth, it reasoned, they would invest it back into the economic system thereby benefitting society at large. More precisely, if businesses and rich folks were taxed less they would have more to spend, and such money would make its way to everybody else. Of course what happened was more straightforward, and probably surprised nobody. Per Occam’s razor: the richer the rich people got the more they hoarded and multiplied their wealth; not only did nothing substantial trickle down, money left the majority and made its way to the wealthy. Either these people were often among the first two estates or this flawed system was worsened and made the status quo by these two estates—it was for the simple reason that the status quo benefitted them.
The numbers spoke of the rift quite loudly: as of 2016 the poorest 90% of the people in society owned 23% of all the wealth in the world; the richest 10% owned the remaining 77% of the wealth. Of that 77%, the richest 1% in the world owned half. These numbers had been growing since the 1970s.
The novel coronavirus that ravaged parts of China in late-2019 and is spreading through the rest of the world now, over the first quarter of 2020, simply widened this rift. Economies are turning out to be the biggest sufferers now. But cruelly enough, it is still the commoners who are bearing the brunt.
COVID-19 is a rich man’s disease. Its virus transmitted to humans because the rich people in China wanted to eat pangolins (and had shortly got a previous ban on selling wild animal meat lifted for this sake). Thereafter, people who could afford air travel flew across the globe, carrying the disease out with them and introduced it to populations the world over. They were offered cover by the most powerful authorities in China—even as the likes of Taiwan cried foul—who hushed up the affair long enough for it to become a pandemic.
But why did China do it? Simply because the people taking these decisions could afford to take such decisions. They literally could afford to sit at home, give up their jobs for a while, continue to draw huge incomes, and socially distance themselves with little to no worry. The people who were worst hit were the poorer ones; they needed their jobs, their student loans were weighing them down, they had families they would feed month-to-month, their arms stretched thrice could reach both ends of their homes—if they were lucky enough to have homes.
The International Food Policy Research Institute estimates that COVID-19 could increase the number of people living in extreme poverty by 6.5%, of which 5.6% would come from rural populations. Worse still is that Africa, which is so far the least affected by the virus, will see the worst effects of the pandemic thanks to trade shocks.
The long-term economic effects will be particularly visible in the job market. Full-time jobs are expected to reduce while part-time and contractual hiring will see a jump. In some ways this gig economy—which was hit hardest by COVID-19—will also reap the greatest benefits of this pandemic. Further, this crisis has shown us just how many jobs can be done from home. As a combination of increasing technology and reducing physical presence, people who can work from home will likely be asked to do so. This will save companies infrastructure costs and will give its employees a better work–life balance.
There will arise a general trend towards power shifting to the hands of employees rather than businesses now that it has been made amply clear how many businesses can crumble if its customers and employees step back, even if the entire board surges ahead.
Soon, besides some of our stablest institutions—such as responsible banks which can embrace new technologies like blockchain—businesses in general may start approaching freelancers to get things done in order to save money in the long run. Freelancers and other gig economy workers may then find the ball in their court and may finally inhale the sweet smell of ink as they dictate their own terms to their clients.
Similar benefits may extend to society at large. The greatest realisation so far has been that our healthcare system is unprepared for a pandemic. An epidemic can be handled when countries share resources, but a pandemic allows for no such generosity. It is to each their own, and on our own we are unprepared.
An important development that can potentially secure humanity’s future from most things but itself is universal healthcare. A guarantee of healthcare for every single person, taxation that incentivises production of medicines and medical equipment, laws that nip pharmaceutical price wars in the bud, and widespread presence of hospitals and doctors must become the norm if we have learnt anything from this pandemic. How such things will be funded is simple: tax the rich more heavily. Give honest new businesses a tax break but tax the obviously wealthy people with guaranteed streams of income—think Jeff Bezos—much more heavily.
To some, all this may seem a bit too optimistic to be real. Indeed I was quite pessimistic about it myself until, in a particularly enriching conversation, Ishtaarth Dalmia (@ishtaarth) pointed out to me that the failure of our institutions is due to ‘individual efforts to effect change’. This was a refreshing outlook for me that said there is hope yet.
Our ‘estates’ have failed us repeatedly, yet they seem to rebuild themselves. Our society has been crumbling for some time, yet the status quo seems to never want to change. Why would this time be any different? Will we not all just rush out of our homes forever forgetting how we felt when it first dawned on us that the virus was effectively shutting countries down? The answer lies in the fact that unlike previous instances (during the wars for example) the crumbling of our institutions this time is not a distant sociopolitical occurrence. This time it is personal. This time we are watching with our own eyes as our society falls precisely because individuals are absent, our institutions are falling because individuals are not around to drive them, the war—whether it is an inconvenience or outright suffering—is being fought not on a large-scale sociopolitical landscape but on an individual level, at home.
All this means there is hope that the individuals who failed to effect change will simply be replaced by individuals who understand the need to effect change and will do so. And this time round individuals will keep watch, institutions will be accountable to individuals and not first and second estate overlords.
Humans as a species have not demonstrated the ability to learn. But select individuals have. And with the weight of most of us behind them, change can be brought. It would be in the best interests of everyone—including the behemoths. Everything was set up this way with good intentions and we can reinforce those intentions and translate them into actions now. The current pandemic is a global wake-up call. All will be well if we are not overwhelmed by the freedom we gain when our quarantines are lifted and if our current predicaments fade into distant memories that seem almost fictitious. But there is hope yet: although individuals may forget, society may still remember and empower us all and remind us all—over and over again. And this time round, more than ever before, individuals collectively want to make a difference and believe they can.
There seems to be barely any good news these days with COVID-19 spreading around the world, but looking at things from a broader perspective may be just the easing we need.
China made the first mistake: the country hushed up a newly discovered virus that was crippling people’s respiratory systems in late 2019. This was a typical move by the Chinese government because it did not reflect well on the country and, within the country, it did not reflect well on the government. The rest of the world made the second mistake: nobody prepared well enough or soon enough for a potential pandemic—when things were still sound and mobilising populations would have easier—despite the severe impact of the virus and its great capacity to spread having been scientifically established facts.
The story so far
Things may seem to have gone downhill since then and terms like ‘social distancing’ and ‘pandemic’ have become common speak. And for every observation we may now make is a minority exception that we will have to ignore. As of today almost 183,000 cases have been identified, 80,000 people have recovered, and 7,000 have died. Of the 195 countries on earth, only 45 have reported no cases of COVID-19 so far—and these 45 happen to be some of the smallest, economically weakest and internationally least prominent. In other words, the virus has effectively spread to the whole globe.
While the number of testing kits in existence is fewer than we would like and the number of ventilators too are fewer than we need, the swiftness with which most countries have responded (albeit after a delay) is encouraging.
Communities are responding to calls for self-quarantining, the global healthcare system is working in full throttle, and the spreading of awareness is taking place with incredible efficiency. Of course there are exceptions to all these, from people hoarding toilet-paper to profiteering by selling hand sanitisers at a premium and spreading misinformation for seemingly no gain. Priests and believers of various faiths have pleaded with their Gods in vain—the latest addition to this list being Donald Trump who called for a national day of prayer. Ignoring such monkeying that is slowing down our progress—or perhaps in spite of this—the world is surging forward with remarkable optimism.
The light at the end…
This global downfall may teach us all a thing or two but I would be lying if I said my hopes are high. Perhaps countries will realise how little they all are, perhaps neighbours will get along, perhaps we will globalise better and not just more, perhaps we will all help each other grow. But knowing the world, it is more likely we will go back to being what we were in due time while this pandemic will be nothing more than a boring history lesson to coming generations who will promptly repeat our mistakes. Life is truly a cycle.
Focussing on the present, though, it is hard not to appreciate the little things that have made it possible for us to get through these sombre times. The grocers, both big and small, who have been stocking up promptly so people have enough food supplies; those running public transport knowing the risks to their own lives that come with prolonged exposure; those in our healthcare system whose job it is to risk exposing themselves to such dangers while keeping the rest of us safe; and of course the scientists hard at work cracking this virus, trying to understand it better and develop methods that will improve our herd immunity.
Others too have taken a hit but been helpful: airplane companies are about to go bankrupt around the world as country after country closes its borders; cinemas, clubs, concerts and, in some cases, pubs and restaurants are closing down; schools and colleges are being shut down in most places; billion dollar sporting events are closing down worldwide to prevent mass gatherings; even the Kentucky Derby is being postponed for the first time since the Second World War. In fact, except for religion, everyone seems to be working together for the common good, often mercilessly so, to ensure we can deal with this new threat to humanity.
One way to look at this is that we needed an outside threat to bring us all together, to give us a common experience that shows us how similar we all are. We have a long way to go and we need to ramp up our current efforts at least a bit more before life comes back to normal. But if we need some optimism in these trying times all we need to do is look back at everything people across the world have done to fight this new strain of Coronavirus.
The human case
What prompted me to write down my thoughts here was a simple question: what if an animal species had been threatened by this virus? Say cats were at risk (as a dog person I find it easier to think of cats in this scenario) and humans were merely carriers.
First, we would have noticed cats dying much later than we did humans; second, we would have taken it much, much more lightly and the world would have gone on; third, we would have spread it carelessly—even callously; fourth, not a tenth of the funding we are currently pouring into COVID-19 research would have been put to use; and fifth, before we know it, cats would have become extinct.
Even with humans out of the picture the only difference such a virus deadly to cats would have made is slower transmission and slower global spreading. Cats would have died anyway.
This speaks a lot about our capacity to fend for ourselves. The organisational structures we humans have built over centuries, the intelligence we have gained, the societies we have birthed have all come together to help us today to fight a virus of this sort. This is not the first and will not be the last, but between the Spanish Influenza and COVID-19 we have come farther than most people would like to acknowledge. Perhaps this is partly because we want to do better—and we should—but it must not keep us from taking a moment to acknowledge where we currently are.
Thankfulness and responsibility
Those of us who are lucky enough to be able to relax at home as a measure of self-quarantining should also be responsible enough to know that our task is to prevent further spreading of this virus. To those in hospitals, we can hope for a quick recovery and help by not shocking the system.
Italy and China learnt the hard way and even though China’s count of infections is dropping (it was just one new local detection yesterday and 20 cases of people flying into the country) it is important that we do not relax prematurely. Cases have been known to relapse and that is our second responsibility: prevent relapse through the same measures we used to prevent initial spreading.
We complain all the time about running out of time, about having too much work to do and about having barely any time for ourselves. So this is a great opportunity to truly live in the comfort of our homes, to relax, to read that big book we have been putting off, to listen to some music and sip tea, to work on that project we did not have time to get to or perhaps even to call someone and talk to them or play with them online. Do whatever appeals to you in the comfort of your home.
Matteo Renzi, Italy’s former Prime Minister, wants us all to learn from his country’s mistakes which is commendable. Italy has among the worst cases of COVID-19 outbreak, possibly comparable to Wuhan itself.
We can also learn from the spirit of the Italians as they got on their balconies to play music for their community, talk across streets and even sing in unison: a perfect example of how humans can socially, mentally and physically support each other that truly makes us fit enough to survive a threat such as the one we are facing today, and no doubt the ones our future generations will face. For a change, it is great not to be the cause of our own downfall.