By Laksiri Fernando –
“Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.” ~ John Donne
It has been now for some years that the World Health Organization (WHO) and other experts have been repeatedly emphasizing that the climate change has an adverse effect on endemic disease spread in the world. Today COVID-19 has become a pandemic. By this morning over 198 countries are affected with the total infected cases nearing 500,000. It is not merely the climate change that the WHO emphasized as a challenge for disease control, but also our present ways-of-living.
“Today, worldwide, there is an apparent increase in many infectious diseases, including some newly-circulating ones (HIV/AIDS, hantavirus, hepatitis C, SARS, etc.). This reflects the combined impacts of rapid demographic, environmental, social, technological and other changes in our ways-of-living. Climate change will also affect infectious disease occurrence.” (WHO, “Climate change and human health”).
These ‘ways-of-living,’ as the WHO has called them, have exploited the natural resources to the brim (oil, coal, gas etc.), destabilizing the geology of the globe, and polluting the environment, rivers and the oceans. What should be added to this list is the moral, ethical and also spiritual degradation of the people. Today all young people want to live in cities or rather megapolises, understandably so because the governments do not supply basic amenities to the rural people, in both the so-called developed countries and developing ones. High alcohol and drug use among some of the young and the old are rampant.
The young also move from developing and poor countries to the developed and rich countries in millions, as refugees, because there are unnecessary and horrendous political and social (tribal?) conflicts in developing countries than in developed ones. The refugee problem today is seven times (77m.) higher than after the World War II (11m.). If the COVID-19 attacks them, there is no one to stop the unimaginable disaster.
Some Reasons Behind
During the last three-four decades the humans discovered highest forms of technology through science which undoubtedly could resolve many of the social and industrial problems including the global warming. Solar energy was one. However, many of these innovations were used lopsidedly for mere profit making and rather aggravating the prevailing problems and creating new problems. Even during the present COVID disaster, some countries use the situation to surreptitiously experiment nuclear arsenal detrimental to all human endeavors.
Capitalism without any control or monitoring has gone into extreme extents under neo-liberalism depriving billions of people without basic needs and safeguards particularly when economies go into slightest depressions, not to speak of the presently evolving economic crisis. Various forms of neoliberalism has destroyed the welfare principles of state management not only in ‘neoliberal’ and capitalist countries, but also in many previously social-democratic or even socialist countries.
There is no wonder how and why the COVID-19 first emerged in Wuhan, China. It has nothing to do with the country, people or the ethnicity/race. It is to do with its lopsided industrial development and new lifestyles of some of the young people. This is common in many parts of the world. Wuhan is the largest city in the central China with over a 11 million population within a small area size. It is during the preventive lockdown that one could clearly see the level of pollution of the city which came down by 30% percent after the preventive measures.
It is not the origin that matters much in understanding the grave danger of such pandemics. This is similar to the ‘Spanish Flu,’ during 1918-1920, after the end of the World War 1, still some ‘experts’ arguing about its origin. The term ‘Spanish Flu’ itself is wrong. While at present, China has managed to control the spread and effects of the pandemic, the epicenter has shifted to Southern Europe (Italy and Spain) which might possibly shift to North America, if necessary steps are not taken soon. The situation in New York is already ‘pandemic.’
The Present Situation
At present, the picture of the pandemic can be summarized as follows.
By this morning (26 March), there were total of 467, 594 confirmed cases in 172 countries with the death toll nearing 25,000. This is an increase of over 50,000 cases within 24 hours. There are 25 countries mainly in the developed regions, exceeding the cases over 2,000. The next tier exceeding 1,000 total cases are also in the developed or highly developing regions. When the pandemic spreads into the developing and poor countries, the situation would be devastating for the dearth of resources, hospital beds, doctors and medical workers. Indonesia is already experiencing the crunch.
The following Table 1 gives basic figures for the ten highest affected countries, which confirms that now the epicenter of the virus has shifted from China and East Asia to Europe and US without sparing the Middle East or more specifically Iran.
Table 1: Ten Highest Affected Countries
Source: Johns Hopkins University, 26 March
The above figures are quickly outdating while some are questionable. In respect of China, the recovered cases are reported for some regions while they were not included in the reported cases initially. In the case of US, the recovered figures are not available even for the Johns Hopkins University! It is a fast moving country in the disaster, the President of the country making contradictory statements. During the last 24 hours, the new cases have increased by 10,000 in the US, while the deaths by 800.
Comparable to ‘Spanish Flu’?
The present pandemic is similar to the ‘Spanish flu’ during 1918-1920 period, while recent SARS, HIV and similar diseases being the early warnings. A quarter of the world population of that time or 500 million got infected, and at least 15 million tragically dying. Then, even the young were not spared, but this time young would be most affected (if not by the disease), by the economic fallout as a result. It is not purely the fault of the young that they are at present being ‘little callous,’ but the fault of public information and public education in general. The world is already is in a recession. The single digit unemployment in many countries soon would be double digit. All stock markets are falling. Businesses are closing and millions are out of work.
Coming back to the comparison, the WW1 that triggered the ‘Spanish Flu’ was different to the WW2. At the second world war, Fascism and similar regimes were there to fight against, although some powers experimented the atomic bomb as for fun. The first one (WW1) was purely a power competition for markets, new colonies and imperial pride. The ‘Spanish flu’ was the return from the nature, for the devastation that was done by the major powers. The situation today is similar although there was no world war (but small wars adding up to a ‘third’ or a ‘fourth’). Instead of worldwide war, there is a worldwide economic and power competition between major and medium scale powers aggravating the air pollution, sea pollution, river pollution and resulting in devastating climate change. Coronavirus is the return from the nature.
Unreasonable Social System
In addition, during the last three-four decades, the gap between the rich and the poor in all countries has increased three-four times. In the case of the US, the richest 0.1% receives income 200 times more than the 90% of the total population. This is not a reasonable system and even some of the richest people might agree. The main defect is not with those people, but with the system.
Even in a country like Australia, 2.9 million people are considered to be below the internationally accepted relative poverty line. This is about 13.3% of the population. The situation in EU-28 is no better, except in some Nordic countries. At present 120 million people in the EU are considered at risk of social exclusion. This is about 22% of the entire population. The situation in China also has been going in the same (neoliberal) direction in recent times, 1% of the rich population possessing 35% of the country’s wealth.
Under the present socio-economic systems, welfare measures are reduced to the minimum. Health and education in the public sector are neglected or underfunded. That is part of the present health crisis in many countries. The most affected country in this context would be the ultra-neoliberal US. Given the disastrous competitions between States and the fear of each other, military expenditures have exponentially been increased. Disregard for the global warming, pollution and devastation of the nature is at the center of this coronavirus pandemic. Millions and millions of workers have no permanent employment; they are only casual workers. Within days of imperative lockdowns, these workers would be out of work. Only some countries have taken measures to assist them in their daily living through social security payments. If these countries had policies on Universal Basic Income (UBI) for all, the situation should have been much better.
The challenge of the present pandemic should not be taken as a challenge for this country or that country; this party or that party; or this system or that system. Even the total neoliberalism is not the sole culprit, but its degrading aspects. Even the old ‘welfare state’ might not be the sole answer, if it is without a responsible and a duty abiding citizenry. Therefore, the public education on human rights and human duties is important in finding long term solutions.
There are countries which give priority to saving the economy, rather than saving the lives of the people, even at this catastrophic stage. There is no question that the economies should be saved, but not necessarily in the old mold. At the moment, the first priority should be given to the people’s health, young or old. More spending should be on the health sector and for research in finding solutions and a vaccine for coronavirus. Giving up on the old, who are apparently on the forefront of the dying, is completely immoral.
The challenge is for the whole humanity. It is a challenge not only in the health and the economic sphere, but also in the moral and the spiritual sphere. When the COVID-19 is going to hit the poor third world countries, who is going to help them? Early signs are already there in Asia, Africa and Latin America. This is a challenge for the United Nations and other international and multilateral organizations. We are yet to see their constructive responses. Cooperative approaches are necessary within and among countries to face the present crisis.
The major powers should immediately give up their nuclear arms race, and all countries should cut down their arms spending for the barest minimum, keeping military personnel (if necessary) only for internal security and law enforcement purposes. However, those forces should not be used against the political enemies or the ethnic enemies/minorities.