A month ago, if someone had said ‘social distancing’, I would have really thought they were talking about the Indian caste system with its perverse idea of untouchability. ‘Lockdown’ till recently would have evoked images of a very entertaining style of wrestling where all matches take place inside a steel cage. And ‘flattening the curve’ would obviously be an attempt to trim the well-rounded waistlines of Indian policemen and politicians.
But after reading all the literature on the new pandemic gripping the world, I am slowly beginning to understand how out of sync I have been. These terms are the new jargon for concepts and measures being pushed worldwide as the best way to stop the rapidly spreading COVID-19 on its tracks.
The theory is that social distancing, which requires everyone on the planet to be permanently several feet apart from all other members of our species — will help avoid transmission of this highly contagious virus. ‘Lockdown’, the most recent Chinese product to go global, now means imprisoning entire populations in their own homes — along with plenty of soap and water- to slow the speed at which newly infected land up in hospitals. All these will then ‘flatten’ the graph of exponentially rising infections, predicted by mathematical models.
These measures have set in motion things, completely unimaginable till very recently and what is unfolding now in front of our eyes is like a bad sci-fi Netflix series. Governments are boldly ordering entire countries, cities, malls, schools, religious institutions and all entertainment venues to a standstill. Security guards in hazmat suits are pointing guns, thermal ones of course, at everyone’s faces all over the place.
Politicians and religious leaders are cancelling mass rallies or photo-ops while the rich and famous hide in their private bunkers (hopefully forever). Even the usually ‘me first’ middle-classes are cooperating by stopping all airline travel, stockpiling essential supplies, buying up all masks and sanitizers in the market and pulling out all their money from the stock markets. (some inexplicably fight over extra toilet paper rolls, but then protecting one’s behind in these tense times is perfectly understandable.)
In case you think I am being even a wee bit skeptical or sarcastic, attitudes that are as dangerous as sedition these days, let me clarify. I am not complaining about any of this at all. In fact, I am personally enjoying the quieter ambience, less polluted air, empty streets, easy availability of tickets for flights and trains, cancelled meetings and so many other things that seem like luxuries from the distant past. When was the last time you got to snooze right after lunch on a weekday? (Darwin never said our species was meant to work very hard!)
Given what little we know about COVID-19 and the even larger number of unknowns (I have seen some very pretty graphics that are also pretty frightening), governments being proactive and erring on the side of caution does make sense. And if these radical steps manage to save even a single life, anywhere in the world — irrespective of class, colour, creed — all this disruption of our lives should be well worth it.
It is indeed a sort of turning point for the entire world to completely transform our global or national systems — political, financial or social. Many have died and more will in the coming days, before COVID-19 runs out of poison. We should beat back the pandemic urgently but also make every life count, building on the current willingness to do the unthinkable — by making the world a truly better place.
In fact, I now believe strongly that this ‘war footing’ approach, to marshal all resources available to save human lives, should be the model of governance in every country for all time to come in the future — not just for medical disasters but all disasters in general.
Just imagine if a similar effort as the one we are witnessing globally can be done to solve the looming crisis of climate change — no more use of fossil fuels, no coal-fired power plants, no mining or deforestation or factory farms. Or winding up the global weapons industry and putting in all that money to prevent malnourishment that affects a whopping 815 million people around the world.
Imagine, finding a cure for cancer, that takes over 9.5 million lives annually. Or preventing deaths of an estimated 1.35 million people and 54 million debilitating injuries each year in road accidents by taking all the private cars off the roads. Yes, shut those bloody malls, universities, schools, airports and declare a global health emergency to tackle tuberculosis (1.5 million deaths), malaria (619,000 deaths) or save the lives of babies in Africa and South Asia (2.5 million), who die within the first month of being born due to preventable diseases.
Imagine, putting the money needed to set up universal health care or basic income programs for everyone on the planet. Imagine… ok, ok I realize I am beginning to sound like John Lennon himself, so please don’t shoot me now!
I accept at face value all the extraordinary new policies regimes everywhere are trying out to save their citizens as being completely well-intentioned. All these were completely unimaginable just a few weeks ago. My point is very simple — I am only pleading that we continue on this same path for well after the coronavirus crisis is over. At least till we solve some of the biggest threats to survival of millions of human beings that have been around, even before this new virus appeared recently.
Surely such a noble goal will be championed by every politician, social media influencer, television anchor, movie celebrity and star medical expert? And the wonderful people of the world will readily sacrifice their personal comforts in order to prevent so many needless deaths of our fellow human beings? Yes, please say yes!
Uh, oh…why do I get the feeling that in just a couple of months some big pharma companies will announce a new vaccine, fast tracked by regulators, those who can afford it will get their shots — and then all this global panic will be over as abruptly as it began? Journalists will restart covering fashion models, instead of epidemiological ones, and all will be well with the world again.
In the meanwhile, COVID-19 will continue to still hunt down the aged, the poor and the weak in many parts of the world for a long time to come — joining the legion of ailments that have tormented them for decades. And then the term ‘social distancing’ will go back to being all about the deeply racist and hierarchical caste system, while ‘lockdown’ is what will happen to those who refuse to hand over all fundamental rights to the mighty state or some elite groups of experts.
As for millions of the poor, unemployed, homeless, refugees, daily wagers — it is their survival ‘curves’ that will be completely ‘flattened’ due to the great recession about to hit the globe. In the end, there will probably be more people at the bottom of the social ladder who will die of deprivation — than due to the ongoing pandemic — with no one to calculate their mortality or case fatality rates.
Mass disasters of any kind can turn all of us fearful and selfish or inspire the display of great compassion and solidarity. COVID-19 is a pandemic with many possibilities and a ‘once in a century’ opportunity to sift real facts from hyperbole, get organised, change the world dramatically for the better and forever.
Satya Sagar is a journalist and public health worker who can be reached at [email protected]