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Being 'humans'

What has the disruption taught us? Are we in a better position to handle the next global catastrophe?

Being humans
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A year ago, the Indian government announced the nationwide lockdown to fight the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19). All of a sudden, all activities stopped; there were no noisy cars on the road; no people on the streets. One might say the world went quiet. Those who don't live with the cacophony produced by traffic and crowd in our cities will not understand, I suspect, what this quietness means. It was a deafening silence.

A year later, the noise has returned to its near-normal levels. But this comes at a time when millions are on the brink of livelihood collapse. COVID-19 fatigue has set in despite infections resurging and countries once again locking down. Vaccines are available. But instead of exhaling, the world appears to be even more anxious.

So we must ask a few questions: What has this disruption taught us? Has the lack of socialisation made us better humans or worse? What will the future be like when we have more disruptions, not less? Are we in a better position to handle the next global catastrophe? I suspect not.

This is not to suggest that we as a society have not learnt anything in the past year or have nothing to be proud of. Indeed, we have much.

We should look back with amazement at the sacrifices made by doctors, nurses, sanitation workers, municipal workers, laboratory technicians — they are the ones who bore the brunt of the pandemic. They did this by risking their lives. We owe them a great debt of gratitude.

We must also recognise the work done by scientists to develop the vaccine — in record time. There is no doubt that this must be seen as a tribute to the inventiveness of the human mind and enterprise.

Even though we couldn't do enough for the fleeing migrant workers — the cities of their dreams turned their back on them — we did feel their pain. The images of their desperation are etched on our memory. There was also a collective response with efforts to provide relief coming from all quarters, the organisation as well as the individuals. This showed us that we haven't forgotten the most powerful of human traits — empathy and compassion.

But, I suspect, we will find out the past year's downsides later. The children of the world are the worst hit by the pandemic — they have lost a year of socialisation in the best of cases. But in the worst cases, where parents have not been able to pay school fees, they are deprived of mid-day meals given at schools; where parents are out of jobs, they have lost everything.

I know that the young are resilient. But this is backbreaking, even in our world, where they face the daily challenge of survival. The pandemic has shattered their entire world. We will have to now pick up the pieces and do so as quickly as possible so that they do not lose their adulthood.

For the rest of us, I would dare say, it's been a bittersweet year. The comfort of our homes and family — and this, of course, applies to those of us who have the privilege of space — has not been sufficient enough. We have missed the noise of the street; the interactions with our colleagues; human friendship and the warmth of physical contact.

We have learnt, to our collective horror, that we are not ready to give up our messy and often not-so-gentle world. We are zoomed out even as we have learnt new skills, taken delight in working remotely and stayed connected with people across the world with a much lower carbon footprint.

But the biggest mystery of the past year has been the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 infections on the more affluent societies. As I write this, the total number of cases in the world adds up to a staggering 124 million, and a quarter of these are in the US alone. The jury is still out on this. But in India, there is a strong belief, even if misplaced, that the virus is the disease of the "rich".

Finally, we must also note that even as countries have struggled to act, our government stands out in terms of its response to the virus. The lockdown, however draconian, brought down infection rates. The vaccine is available even in the faraway corners of the country and some 50 million doses have been dispensed. You can walk in and get the vaccine — something rich governments are still working to organise.

We can say that more is needed to be done for the livelihood security of the poor; but perhaps much more needs to be done to ensure that our leaders do not break the COVID-19 code. If crowds are negligent today it is also because they see it happening during election rallies or at other gatherings. But all in all, it has been the kind of year that tormented us but also evoked hope.

We human beings haven't given up on that most important facet of our lives. Not yet. Not ever.

The writer is the Director-General of CSE and editor of Down To Earth. Views expressed are personal

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