We are all fools

Nature has now sent a stern message calling out our foolishness.
On January 31st 2020, the WHO declared the COVID 19 crisis to be a public health emergency of international concern. (Image: Anesthesia Patient Safety Foundation) On January 31st 2020, the WHO declared the COVID 19 crisis to be a public health emergency of international concern. (Image: Anesthesia Patient Safety Foundation)

Which industry has seen phenomenal growth since World War II? It is food. People have been encouraged to eat more and more as part of the general consumerist thrust to increase consumption. So, the moment people's incomes have gone up they have begun consuming more food along with other things. The economy can grow only if we consume more. This is why we also have to eat more. Not just in quantity but also in variety. Our plates these days not only have more helpings but they also have more categories of food.

This is nowhere more so than in China. The phenomenal growth and prosperity that China has seen since the 1980s after it opened up its economy and became the world's manufacturing hub has been accompanied with a corresponding increase in consumption. Not only that, China became the global hub for producing meat and exporting it and so huge meat farms were constructed.

The Chinese always used to eat wild animals but the huge increase in prosperity led to an equally massive increase in the quantity and variety of wild animals that they consume.  Over a hundred varieties of wild animals are consumed by the Chinese.

One adverse consequence of this over the past decade has been that virulent mutants of a virus that causes influenza, the corona virus, called zoonotic viruses, which reside in some of these wild animals like bats and pangolins, invade the humans who are eating their meat.

Thus, there was the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) virus epidemic that originated in China and then spread around the world at the turn of the century killing 774 people. Then about a decade ago there was the MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) zoonotic virus that originated from camels in Saudi Arabia - another nation that had seen huge prosperity. Too much eating of camel meat resulted in the virus invading the humans and killing 858 people.

Similarly, there was the Nipah virus, which comes from pigs, outbreak in 1999 in Malaysia which had a rerun in Kerala a couple of years back killing 20 odd people. A couple of years ago the zoonotic Ebola virus had a devastating run in western Africa killing 11,500 people.

It is not only the rich who are eating more, even though, obviously they are consuming more than the less wealthy. So deeply has consumerism spread through society that even those with less money freak out once in a while on exotic and expensive food in the same way as almost everyone in society these days aspires to drive a motor car or stay in a luxury condominium. While it is difficult to do the latter, it is fairly easier to eat a one off exotic meal.

Another aspect of this emergence of China as the global manufacturing hub is that, cities have expanded displacing the rural people in its periphery and converting them into cheap labour in the same way as in the early years of capitalist development in England. A phenomenon that has been named by Marx as primitive accumulation as opposed to accumulation that takes place in established factories. The outsourcing of manufacturing work to China and other Asian and African countries is a manifestation of primitive accumulation as labour and other protective laws that prevent exploitation of workers are absent. These are the people who also work in the wet markets catching the wild animals and then selling their meat.

This transmission of these zoonotic viruses from animals to humans followed by human to human spread resulting in high fatalities did not disturb humans very much as they were quickly isolated and did not overly affect the developed economies of the west. So, humans continued on their wayward ways increasing their consumption of wild animals, especially in China. Consequently, nature struck again. In November 2019, another mutant of the corona virus, which has now been named COVID 19 by the World Health Organisation (WHO), spread to humans in the city of Wuhan in Hubei province in Central China.

China is generally secretive about such things, and so, the matter was kept under wraps for more than a month till the disease got out of hand. Primarily because unlike the earlier zoonotic viruses, COVID 19 is highly infectious like the original flu virus and also quite deceptive, remaining in the host without producing symptoms for long periods of time while the host went about infecting others. By the end of December 2019 matters had got out of hand in Wuhan and so China reported the matter to the WHO.

Surprisingly, WHO instead of sending an expert team to Wuhan to assess the situation, accepted China's word that it had things under control and just recorded the information. The problem reached epidemic proportions by January end with huge increase in cases and deaths and so China locked down Hubei province which was the initial epicentre of the outbreak.

The WHO, however, dithered. Even after China allowed its personnel to visit Wuhan and study the situation, it did not initially declare the situation to be a public health emergency of international concern. This despite the fact that cases of infection were being reported from all over the world by this time and it had become clear that the disease was much more infectious than those caused by the earlier zoonotic viruses even though its fatality rate was not as high as theirs.

So, even with a lower fatality rate, the immensely higher rate of infection would cause huge problems especially among the aged and those with comorbidities of other diseases like diabetes and heart malfunction, which too, incidentally, are related to over eating and consumerism.

Finally, on January 31st 2020, the WHO did declare the COVID 19 crisis to be a public health emergency of international concern. International air travel began to be restricted and some screening and quarantining began to be done of air travellers at airports but since most passengers did not show any symptoms of the disease despite being infected they passed the screening test and went into their countries spreading the virus further.

A vicious pathology of economic growth has gripped human kind. (Image: Flickr Commons, Prachitai, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Despite clear indications that the disease had become an epidemic and was spreading fast throughout the globe, the WHO not only refused to declare it as such but on the contrary its Director General criticised people for spreading alarm and held meetings with Social Media platforms to curb posts that said that the virus would cause serious problems. Thus, Facebook set its algorithms to automatically censor any post with the words related to corona virus in them. Whereas the reality was that the virus was spreading across the globe surreptitiously very fast and by the end of February the number of new cases daily outside China had surpassed that in China.

The result of this dithering by the WHO was that mass congregations continued as usual in other countries and especially in Europe and the USA. The biggest mass congregations take place in sports events and especially football matches. Throughout the month of February, the matches in various football leagues in Europe continued unabated with thousands of fans congregating in them and the virus had a field day surreptitiously propagating itself widely.

Even though screening and quarantining of symptomatic cases was being done worldwide and so the overt spread of the disease was stalled for some time, actually the disease was spreading very fast through the asymptomatic infected persons thus setting up the scene for a subsequent explosion. The WHO still advised against large scale travel and trade restrictions even though it upgraded the risk of global infections to very high from high.

The number of cases, deaths and the countries affected began to explode in the month of March and much belatedly the WHO finally declared the COVID 19 outbreak to be a pandemic on March 11th, a full one and a half months after China had locked down Hubei province. Governments across the world began stopping air travel and taking steps to prevent mass gatherings, but by that time it had become too late and the asymptomatic infected people had spread far and wide and the symptoms of the disease were manifesting themselves in a surge of new cases. Even the most developed country in the world, USA, is now staring at a scary 100,000 deaths by the time the virus has run its course.

The main reason behind the WHO dilly dallying and Governments not taking more stringent measures to restrict air travel and trade is their fear that this would adversely affect the global economy and profit making. First, consumerism is promoted to spur economic growth and when that has an adverse impact on nature and there is a corrective reaction from it, action to contain it is delayed for fear of impacting economic growth and profit making. A classic catch 22 situation if ever there was one. This is the vicious pathology of economic growth that has gripped human kind.

Now the push back from nature in the form of the COVID 19 pandemic will result in a steep decline in economic growth and serious disruption of the global economy. Whereas, in earlier crises we had to contend mainly with demand recession, this time there will be disruption in both supply and demand. Throughout the world the capitalists are clamouring for state bailouts as a result as they always do after becoming socialists in times of crises. 

India too has been deficient in its response to the pandemic. Following, the global trend it too delayed the quarantining of foreign air travellers coming into the country and so the virus spread through the country and especially in the cities that had international airports like Mumbai, Kochi, Delhi, Ahmedabad and the like. So, even though a stringent national lockdown was initiated from 25th March onwards, the disease is spreading continuously in a few hotspots in the country.

Luckily most of the country is free from the virus and some areas like Kerala have succeeded in controlling its spread. Moreover, due to some unknown reason the level of infection and the death rate in India are very low. Even though it has been argued that since the level of testing in India is low, there is a possibility that many cases are going undetected, this may not necessarily be true.

The Worldometer data up to 19.4.20 midnight for 26 countries, which had more than 10000 cases (China is excluded because its testing data is unavailable) has been given in the scatter plot below.

There is no clear relationship evident from the graph as the data points are scattered all over. The trend line that has been fitted shows an inverse relationship that the more the testing done, the lesser is the case per test ratio or level of infection! However, the level of fit of the trend line is very poor as it explains only 8.2% or the data. Thus, globally there is very little relationship between the level of testing and the level of infection and there is a small likelihood that with higher testing the level of infection may show a decline.

Another saving grace seems to be that 80% of those who test positive for the virus are asymptomatic. That is they do not show any symptoms of the disease. The WHO has so far not found any evidence of asymptomatic transmission. That is unless the virus comes out of the body through droplets it will not spread and if there are no symptoms of cold then the virus cannot come out. It is when the asymptomatic person becomes symptomatic that the danger of spread begins and since in 80% of cases this does not happen so if the overall infection rate is low as it is in India.

This then brings us to the discussion of the lockdown that has been imposed to control the pandemic. Due to the dilly dallying, lockdown 1.0 had to be imposed at short notice without taking into account the effect it would have in the immediate and long term. The immediate effect was to jeopardise the livelihoods of the migrants who would not be able to sustain themselves without earnings and in the long term the economy and thereby employment would take a severe hit due to the stoppage of economic activities.

The revenues of governments both at the centre and in the states too would take a hit at a time when their financial health was anyway bad due to an underperforming economy and the badly designed Goods and Services Tax (GST) regime. Even though the lockdown has been partially lifted now, nevertheless, since the main drivers of the economy like the cities of Mumbai, Delhi, Ahmedabad etc., are still in the grip of the disease and likely to be in lockdown for an extended period, the portents for the future are not good.

This is more or less the situation across the world as production and employment have taken a serious hit. However, the western developed nations not only have social safety nets in place but they have also given stimulus packages of up to 10% of the GDP to tide businesses and citizens through this crisis. The government of India has just rearranged the budget numbers so far and not really offered any substantial stimulus either to businesses or to its poor citizens.

The various laws of conservation of energy and mass, which form the basis of physics also govern economics. Unfortunately, the fools who guide modern economics and advocate unlimited growth fuelled by the urge to make profits think that these conservation laws do not apply to their discipline.

The greater tragedy is that we, the common people, have also fallen for this fraudulent economics and have been indulging ourselves in an orgy of consumerism unleashed by it. Nature has now sent a stern message calling out our foolishness. If we do not heed it then it has more sufferings in store for us in future.

 

Rahul Banerjee is an Indore-based social activist and development researcher who works with Bhil Adivasis and Dalits.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of India Water Portal.

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