The insidious in Covid

The Covid-19 novel coronavirus continues to spread, by now afflicting all continents except the Antarctic. At the time of writing (September first week), global infection cases have crossed the 27 million mark, and fatalities are closing on the nine lakh figure. Indeed, this virus is proving to be far more deadly than the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) of 2002-2003. It is an unseen killer, a contagion spread through person to person contact, or contact with objects harbouring an organism which is invisible to the naked eye. There is no logic to its spread; for instance, cases of infection have been evident even in nations which have no epidemiological connection with China, the country of origin, or which do not have heavy tourist footfalls or other visible pathways of contagion.

In many nations, which had imagined they had got a grip on the pandemic, renewed clusters of Covid-19 cases have suddenly resurfaced, testifying to the ability of the virus to remain dormant and then strike again when least expected.

In many of the worst effected nations all economic activities have ground to a halt, while in countries which have not yet witnessed unmanageable clusters the pandemic has resulted in huge financial losses.

It is this very invisibility and randomness which has struck terror into the heart of humanity, as also the reality that Covid-19 is an affliction which we have not encountered before, and thus have no remedy for. International sporting events like the 2020 Olympics have had to be indefinitely postponed, cultural and academic activities all over the world have been brought to a standstill and it is no longer possible for individuals to lead “normal” lives.

The panic which this pandemic has generated has negatively impacted upon a consumer-driven market economy on both aspects, production and consumption. The fear of infection has kept workers out of factories and other production units, thereby bringing to almost total halt the manufacture of commodities. The implications of this stoppage, especially in a country like China which is one of the major suppliers of goods to diverse world markets, had been an almost crippling break in the supply chain.

At the same time, consumers have stopped buying all but the barest of necessities, thereby lessening demand for non-essential commodities, and bunging a spanner in global trade. In many of the worst effected nations all economic activities have ground to a halt, while in countries which have not yet witnessed unmanageable clusters the pandemic has resulted in huge financial losses.

Even more of concern to mankind than the economic downturn, is the enormous power suddenly vested upon the State by the affliction, whereby the needs of the “individual,” including her or his liberty, have been subsumed by the needs of “society,” its safety and wellbeing.

No doubt, some countries, including severely struck ones like the USA, Brazil and India, are trying to reopen their economies and crawl back to the semblance of normalcy, at the risk of enhancing the rate of infection and death. But this bodes to be a slow and tortuous process and, at the moment, the end of the tunnel seems to be not yet in sight.

Unfortunately, adding to the confusion are divergent opinions as to when either a vaccine or an antidote would be available to arm mankind to combat this deadly virus. While Russia has raised some degree of hope by registering the first Covid-19 vaccine, called Sputnik-5, individuals like Bill Gates, whose foundation is funding a number of Covid-19 vaccine research concepts, have asserted that a safe and effective vaccine will not be available till the second half of 2011.

In short, humanity at this moment is in a state of utter shock, disbelief, fear and consequent panic!

The Covid-19 novel coronavirus continues to spread, by now afflicting all continents except the Antarctic. At the time of writing global infection cases have crossed the 27 million mark, and fatalities are closing on the 9 lakh figure. In short, humanity at this moment is in a state of utter shock, disbelief, fear and consequent panic!

The liberal nations of the Western world, as also vibrant democracies amongst developing nations like India, have had to take up the Chinese model of containment, and impose lockdowns upon their citizens.

This is where the adverse side-effects of Covid-19 reveal themselves, whereby what is not and should not be normal is accepted to be so by a fearful mankind. The most insidious of these side-effects, perhaps even more of concern to mankind than the economic downturn, is the enormous power suddenly vested upon the State by the affliction, whereby the needs of the “individual,” including her or his liberty, have been subsumed by the needs of “society,” its safety and wellbeing.

Such subsuming, of course, is considered to be “normal” in an authoritarian regime like China. If China could attempt to contain the epidemic within Wuhan city, from which the virus is thought to have originated, placing its 11 million citizens in quarantine, and also put in lock-down cities in the Hubei Province where Wuhan is located, thereby cutting more than 50 million of its people off from the rest of the world, it had been because the Chinese people have long been conditioned to accept the unquestionable power of the State and unhesitatingly obey whatever directive it imposed.

Not surprisingly, in the absence of alternatives, the liberal nations of the Western world, as also vibrant democracies amongst developing nations like India, have had to take up the Chinese model of containment, and impose lockdowns upon their citizens. In order to do so, most of them have had to decree stringent directives which violate the basic rights of citizens. People’s movements are restricted, professional activities have been stopped and sources of livelihood taken away by the State.

The argument for surveillance and monitoring of individuals in society, thereby breaking the canons of right to privacy, have been legitimatised.

The irony is that such violation of civil liberties is actually of exigent requirement at this moment if mankind is to get the better of this deadly virus and save lives. Equally ironic is the fact that the course adopted by the State in most democratic nations has the sanction of scientists and the medical fraternity. Obviously, directives for people to stay at home or shops to remain closed will not directly prevent deaths; what these are designed to do is to slow the rate of infection, thereby ensuring that health-systems are not overwhelmed by sheer number of cases and the authorities can keep a grip on the therapeutic handling of the pandemic.

In imposing lockdowns and ensuring that people are kept at home, the Governments of democracies have adopted the same autocratic methodology that China had, thereby removing the broad line which divides the two. Yet it would be a foolhardy civil rights activist who will question the legitimacy of the formers’ actions, given that these are necessary to protect the lives of people. Neither would any rational individual question the right of global leadership to assume the “Big Brother” mantle or attempt to create an Orwellian, dystopian world.

Little wonder that, in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, the steps a country like South Korea had taken, are not only being lauded, but also being presented as an ideal modus operandi which should be emulated. The moment the danger of a pandemic had loomed on the horizon, that nation had put into place a strict identification, monitoring and tracing mechanism whereby the movements of each of its citizens could be tracked, something akin to what China had done.

The highhanded behaviour of the police force has won a nod of approval from a panic-stricken middle-class which, in another environment, might have unleashed a chorus of abhorrence.

In other words, the argument for surveillance and monitoring of individuals in society, thereby breaking the canons of right to privacy, have been legitimatised. Yet, given that South Korea has not only succeeded to a great extent in controlling the pandemic, but also kept its fatalities comparatively low, the necessity of such measures have been underlined!

A similar psychology is behind the reality that all of a sudden in a nation like India highhanded behaviour by the police force has won a nod of approval from a panic-stricken middle-class which, in another environment, might have unleashed a chorus of abhorrence. Ever since the imposition of the lockdown and also later the initiation of relaxation measures, the electronic media in the country has been filled with visuals of the police taking the law into their own hands, beating lockdown “violators” or making them perform sit ups with their hands clutching their ears.

One can only hope and pray that “the new normal” does not convert into “the forever normal!”

No matter that such actions do not follow the due process of law and erase the distinction between a democracy and a dictatorship, the shrill exclamations of approval from television anchors perhaps reflect the approval society has greeted them with!

Yes, these are abnormal times which require abnormal measures. Unfortunately, as Bill Gates has reminded us, the current pandemic is an “era defining event” whose effect would last for years to come. Thus the danger is very real that the insidious empowerment of the State because of Covid-19 would remain operative for a long time, and one can only hope and pray that “the new normal” does not convert into “the forever normal!”

A shorter version of this writing was published in The Navhind Times, Greater Kashmir and Orissa Post newspapers. The full version is on this website here.

(Padma Shri Arup Kumar Dutta, a prominent social historian, writer and journalist based in Guwahati, Assam, is the author of some 30 books, among them Kaziranga Trails and The Ahoms)