Though the rate of recovery from the Corona affliction is steadily rising and mortality rate slowly declining the world over, the pandemic is still raging quite viciously and humanity’s struggle to overcome this deadly infection is far from over.
There is an all-pervading sense of gloom and despondency as people try to cope with the ‘new normal’, a state of being decidedly perceived as much inferior to what life was before Covid-19 struck us.
Pandemics in the past have invariably shaped the socio-political order, even to the extent of ushering in momentous changes.
The 14th century Bubonic plague in Europe, commonly referred to as the Black Death, according to some estimates wiped out almost 60 per cent of Europe’s population. As serfs dwindled in numbers, landlords were compelled to offer them better wages, leading gradually to end of the feudal system.
As the deadly plague, causing untold agonies shook the foundation of men’s unflinching faith in God, the sway of the Catholic Church weakened and the quest for scientific knowledge gained momentum, eventually ushering in the Industrial Revolution.
The Spanish Influenza, the deadliest pandemic of the last century which obliterated almost one-fourth of the world’s population, disproportionately affected the young generation, and as the German army in World War I was badly hit by the pandemic, it became one of the significant contributing factors for Germany’s eventual defeat in the war.
The pandemic had far reaching impact on the course of Indian history as well.
Mahatma Gandhi contracted the flu but managed to survive, though heartbroken as he lost a grandson to the flu. When the pandemic struck India, it became clear that the British had ignored healthcare in the country as the medical infrastructure was in shambles.
The death and misery wrought by the pandemic fuelled anger against the colonisers and people rallied behind Gandhi, giving him the grass-roots support he needed to infuse momentum in our independence movement. Covid-19 is also likely to bring about radical changes.
Already, the economic fallout has been stupendous, as millions of jobs, particularly in tourism, aviation and entertainment industries have been lost, manufacturing has been badly hit and the poor, particularly in developing countries have been bearing the brunt of the pandemic most severely.
The heavily congested mega cities all over the world, from New York to Mumbai, Sao Paolo to Kolkata, where the urban poor live with inadequate access to sanitation, clean water and enough space for practising physical distancing have been most intensely ravaged by the Covid outbreak, highlighting the need for better urban planning.
As our cities, particularly in India are bursting at the seams, decentralised development, relocating businesses, commercial and educational institutions in the suburban areas so that rush to urban areas can be curtailed and more funding for and better management of public health infrastructure are the need of the hour.
The unprecedented economic downturn caused by the strict lockdown measures enforced by many countries in desperate attempts to control the spread of the highly contagious virus, has highlighted like never before the necessity of creating a more equitable and just social order to minimise human suffering.
As nations locked their borders, closed air space and the global supply chain got disrupted, putting a question mark on the process of globalization, the need for selfreliance, particularly for a huge, densely populated country like India in essential sectors like food grain production, basic manufacturing, and very importantly, in pharmaceutical industries has been felt quite strongly, calling for a recalibration of economic activities.
Need for promoting environment-friendly technology, for slowing down urbanisation and for encouraging alternative lifestyles while living in harmony with nature are now to be accorded highest priority.
Reckless interventions with natural habitats of flora and fauna have heightened the possibility of zoonotic transmission of pathogens like the coronavirus and as observed by scientists, climate change is further exacerbating outbreak of contagious diseases.
Our materialist cravings must be curtailed, and notion of development needs to be redefined, to ensure the continuation of our species. The pandemic has also exposed deep fault lines of our socio-cultural setup.
In medieval Europe, the Jews were blamed for incurring God’s wrath thought to be causing the black death and in a similar way, certain communities have been blamed for the corona outbreak both in India and in other countries, thereby spreading other deadly viruses of superstition, prejudice, irrational hatred and concomitant violence.
As jobs have been lost and career prospects jeopardised, our youths have felt devastated. Being brought up with a notion of success measured in terms of material prospects only, they are unable to cope with uncertainties of the new normal situation and are sinking deep into depression.
Cultural notions, value systems and mode of upbringing children must be changed, focusing more on being a worthy member of humanity, inculcating the spirit of service instead of acquisitiveness.
While granting Aristotle’s famous aphorism about man being a social animal, lockdown and long period of isolation have taught us the imperative of making a journey inward and discovering our own selves, as pithily observed by our ancient sages in Upanishad, ‘Atmanan vidhi’ (Know thyself and be free).
Developing hobbies, giving vent to one’s creativity, and nurturing bonding with close family members and friends instead of finding excitement and pleasure only in parties and boisterous social gatherings are the ways of sustenance in such periods of forced isolation.
While on one hand, fear and insecurity have driven some to be cruel and insensitive, making them behave inhumanly towards elderly, sick people and even frontline health workers, on the other hand, the crisis has brought out the best in many young people who have been running community kitchens and providing all kinds of services to the needy, keeping our hopes alive for the future of human civilisation.
Many women have fallen prey to intense levels of domestic violence as being cut off from outside world, they have been forced to be in close proximity to their tormentors. Many have been compelled to share disproportionate burden of domestic chores.
As access to education and work are likely to shrink in the post-corona world, particularly in countries like India, women’s share in them will be severely curtailed and there will be a renewed push towards retraditionalisation of women’s role in almost all societies, as recently observed by German Chancellor Angella Markel. Interestingly, prominent women leaders like Ms Markel and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand have shown better acumen in dealing with the corona situation in their countries compared to their male counterparts of other advanced nations, signalling the innate capacity of women in responding to crisis situations.
In our own country, Kerala’s Health Minister Ms K K Shailaja has succeeded in maintaining low mortality rates in the state due to early intervention and has been honoured by the United Nations for her efforts and commendable spirit of public service. Ordinary women have exhibited indomitable spirit in tackling the crisis.
The wife of a migrant labourer in a remote village of Bihar, whose husband could not come home due to lockdown, started working as a barber, shaving men to earn a living so as to feed her children, ignoring ridicule and sending a strong message to all women in this country that they should not give up their battle for a life with dignity.
Our politics should be less about primordial issues like caste, community, race, ethnicity and more about ensuring human security, measured along the parameters of health, education and other opportunities for better lives.
The onus is on us to push our policy makers towards these goals instead of sabre rattling and one-upmanship vis-àvis other countries. For long, we took our natural habitat for granted, consuming earth’s resources at an alarming rate and disturbing its fragile balance. The pandemic has given up a wake-up call to slow down, to conserve, to recreate, to redefine our priorities, social norms, personal predilections. We must not disregard this call.
The writer is Associate Professor of Political Science at Womens’ Christian College, Kolkata