Do you understand the game China has been playing with humanity for the past few months? Astrophysicists tell us that our universe had its birth some 13 billion years ago when the cosmic egg exploded with a big bang, throwing matter across empty space, unimaginable in extent, almost infinite. From this cauldron of hot gas emerged the billions of galaxies containing billions of stars, planets, asteroids, comets, etc. Our Milky Way galaxy also emerged from the same cosmic egg, containing our Solar System with the Earth, our home, coming into existence some 4 billion years ago, at a nondescript spot within it. Chance, Fate, Consciousness, or whatever one may like to call, decreed that life would evolve on this “pale blue dot” “suspended in a sunbeam.” By now, almost everyone is familiar with this supremely evocative description of our world by Carl Sagan, whose words I would like to reproduce here:
“Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilisation, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”
Carl Sagan was more than an astronomer or an astrophysicist. He was a prophet, unlike the prophets of the Books, who invoked a wrathful God who would bring pestilence and calamity upon the people if they did not believe his Words; but a visionary, who evoked in us a sense of wonder and amazement at the cosmic show that the Universe had unfolded before us. He looked at astronomy as a humbling discipline that would be “character-building.” He wrote,
“There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.”
But far from preserving and cherishing this, our only home, we have inflicted untold wounds on Mother Earth, demanding more and more from her, disembowelling her in search of earthly goods, destroying the atmosphere around her with toxic gases, and irrigating her with rivers of blood. Ever since man organised himself into tribe, clan, nation, country, he has sought to be her sole master, massacring millions in wars and famines. Whole species have been eradicated, not only non-human but human as well. The Earth has been drenched in blood time and again with this ceaseless macabre dance of death.
History records many of these wars and famines that depopulated huge swathes of the Earth. Apart from wars, there have been revolutions that have taken more lives than any wars between two nations or groups of nations. But every time the survivors regrouped and managed to not only claw back but to make improvements in their lives. Forced to industrialise rapidly, science and technology received priority in education; agriculture became modernised; transport and telecommunications received huge financial allocations, and healthcare saw cutting edge experimentation in fighting disease and debility. The survivors, after every man-made or natural calamity, tightened their belts and bent down to the task of rehabilitation and revival.
However, the calamity brought upon the Earth by the Chinese virus COVID-19 is going to be much more disastrous than any of the wars or famines that the Earth has seen at any time before. While wars and famines not only destroyed the economies of nations but they also removed a large number of people at one time. World War I killed approximately 40 million people. World War II ended with 73 million deaths. The Russian Revolution resulted in about 20 million dead. Ian Johnson, in the article, “Who Killed More: Hitler, Stalin, or Mao?” published on 5th February 2018 in New York Review of Books, has this to say:
“Mao was responsible for about 1.5 million deaths during the Cultural Revolution, another million for the other campaigns, and between 35 million and 45 million for the Great Leap Famine. Taking a middle number for the famine, 40 million, that’s about 42.5 million deaths.”
Thus, during the last century, wars, famines, and revolutions together claimed about 175 million lives. This, of course, does not include the killing fields of Cambodia, the Vietnam War, the Sri Lankan and Rwandan civil wars, and many other conflagrations that erupted from time to time in different parts of the globe. To estimate an unnatural loss of 200 million lives in the last century may not be an exaggeration. However tragic it was, the survivors had that many less human beings to look after and rehabilitate.
The China virus, in contrast, will end up destroying whole economies without making any significant change in the population numbers. Maybe a vaccine is found in the next 12 to 18 months, but during this period the number of lives lost will, at the most, remain in thousands (maybe hundreds of thousands) but unlikely to be in millions. The world population of 7.80 billion will hardly be impacted negatively. The previous ‘flu epidemics took perhaps more lives but did not end up destroying world economies in the same way that this one has the potential to do. The lockdowns announced by the free world are costing billions of dollars every day, and no amount of quantitative easing is going to bring back a semblance of health to sick economies. Businesses will collapse like sandcastles, banks and financial lenders will all end up in sick wards; and billions will lose their jobs. Without a corresponding reduction in population, the pressures on an economy will remain the same. We can sue China for trillions of dollars, but even if they do end up paying this amount, there is no way the world will return to a state that existed at the end of 2019.
So, has Prime Minister Modi overreacted when he announced a complete national lockdown from Sunday, 22 March? In my humble opinion, he seems to have done so. The idea behind the lockdown is to minimise human-to-human contact, identify and isolate infected cases, and to firewall them till they are either healed or dead. There is no guarantee that the country will be able to identify, in 3 weeks, each and every infected individual among the 1.35 billion people of India. There are not enough testing facilities available. The chances are that the identified infected will be isolated and quarantined, while the rest will be allowed to return to normalcy. But, it will be a miracle if new cases do not turn up as soon as the lockdown is relaxed because not enough people would have been tested. A cycle of 21-day lockdowns appears to be the most likely response of the administration. I don’t have to tell how disastrous this on-off system of working will be for the economy and the country. Add to this the misery of untold migrant labourers who are desperate to go to their homes, and are now found walking on open roads without food, water or shelter. The potential psychological damage cannot even be guessed at!
The economic package that the Finance Minister unveiled is nothing but a temporary anodyne that may help in containing the pain but will not heal the compound fracture. The RBI too has pitched in but that too is an anodyne, not a splint or plaster or a surgery.
While we can continue our debate on the culpability of China, the Government should recognise COVID-19 as a calamity and deal with it just like it dealt with other natural calamities in the past. Shutting down the economy is not the answer. An information blitz, warning the people about the dangers of human contact, advocating personal hygiene, keeping a safe distance, etc are already in place. Let individual business leaders address these problems in their workplaces and advise those who can work from home to do so. But those who are required to be in offices should be permitted as long as the certain protocol is observed. Farmers are composting huge amounts of non-edible produce because, first they have no way to transport it, and second there are no markets to send it to. A calamity of gargantuan proportions is unfolding before us, but somehow we have shut our eyes to it. Flights, trains, buses, public and private transport should not be brought to a grinding halt but permitted to ply again, with certain protocols, like the number of passengers per flight, bus, or train compartment. Markets should be kept open to receive and sell goods. Trucks and lorries should not be stopped from moving goods from factories and warehouses to markets. Same goes for taxicabs, autos, and private vehicles.
Factories too can be regrouped in a similar manner. In order to minimise job losses, a rationalisation of salaries and perks can be undertaken by all business entities and government organisations. Let those who draw above a stipulated minimum wage take a pay-cut that would reduce the overall burden on the employer. Germany rebuilt itself after the War and within 10 years the whole world was looking with astonishment at the German miracle. It was achieved with the sacrifice of the people who decided to work for reduced wages in the service of the nation. Of course, they didn’t have to support a standing army after the war. Unfortunately, we cannot afford to do that, considering our neighbourhood. But surely we can make appropriate military alliances that will deter our enemies from thinking of war while helping us keep our defence budgets within our means. Our people have always responded whenever asked. I am sure they will put their heart and soul in rebuilding the country after this calamity passes.
At the time of writing, there are 598, 236 cases and 27, 372 deaths worldwide. In India, there are 873 cases while 20 people have died from Covid 19. With a well-informed protocol in place, my guess is that we will not exceed 20,000 in a year or thereabouts. While there is no denying that every life is precious, can we afford to sacrifice the lives of generations to come, if we leave a shattered-beyond-redemption economy to them? Is it morally right?