Why didn't we see this coming?
The devastating impact of this pandemic in our technologically advanced and interconnected times points to several levels of institutional failures in heeding visible warning signs
Let's talk discipline and restraint. Or the lack of these, even in this time of hotspots, colour-coded city zones, rapid test kits and the lockdown. India's self-styled experts in this essay, the TV anchors and soothsayers, them in their chairs as oft as out of them, have screeched out their customary and premature verdict. The blame, they claim, primarily lies with those Indians who continue to be in self-denial mode and refuse to accept that we can be infected by COVID-19, eventually ending up as a frozen-in-time statistic. Or more chillingly, as a listless number nonchalantly scribbled on a tag and attached to a cadaver's toe in an over-flowing mortuary.
No one disputes this. Admittedly, each one of us has to be diligent and vigilant, perhaps even become vigilantes if we may, to ride out and survive this storm. But before we castigate the average denizen for being brazen and blasé in these testing times, what verdict should we pass today on the leaders of the free world, all of whom were caught napping by the numbing and humbling impact of this version of the Coronavirus, literally with their pants down?
A recent quote by United States President Donald Trump in the New York Times sets up a vivid backdrop. "Nobody knew there would be an epidemic of this proportion. Nobody has seen anything like this before," Trump said.
Let's kick this legless mist of deniability out. The all-powerful and consummate United States, with all its known and unknown intelligence and security agencies and tangential paraphernalia, failed or chose not to recognise the gravity and peril of COVID-19. Worse still, it saw and read all the signs but refused to accept and believe that this could have any impact on its own land. Be that as it may, this flaccid excuse is feeble at best. Perhaps an after-the-disaster debased attempt to seek exoneration by claiming that the world has not had a comparable prior experience. That shield is wilting fast, with damning facts emerging each sleepless night and each following killing day.
We shall not deliberate extensively on China today, with only a small later mention in this column. Let's leave the larger debate for a hopefully healthier and cleaner tomorrow, for the purists and pundits to decipher. A $20-trillion lawsuit has been filed against China for economic losses allegedly incurred. Sometime soon, someone will put a finger on the cost of human emotions, lives and suffering. We will then perhaps double, triple or even quadruple that $20-trillion rap-sheet. So, that's set aside for another day — obeisance will be paid and penance shall be performed. Today, the world needs to get right-side-up as far as human lives and economies are concerned.
The world's most powerful leaders knew of COVID-19 and the appended global health implications over six months ago. They were perhaps too complacent, even cocky to admit that the doomsayers and death-mongers could be right, for once — that a deadly pandemic was preparing to breathe fire soon and was standing just short of the side curtains, ready to take the customary bow and start its dance of disease and doom. For that oversight, Europe and the US are paying a big price today. The global superpower and its new-war allies lead in COVID-19 infections and death toll.
Let's move eastward, to the United Kingdom. In the 1930s, Winston Churchill warned of the growing might and aspirations of the Nazis, hinting at an impending, potential military conflagration. Few paid heed. A decade later, well into the blood-curdling and life-culling World War II, then UK Prime Minister Churchill said: "Never was so much owed by so many to so few…" He was referring to Allied forces facing insurmountable odds and giving up freedom and lifeblood to save the few remaining bits of Europe from Germany's rampaging Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler.
Some 80 years later, on March 17, 2020, Churchill's words were repeated by Ireland Prime Minister Leo Varadkar on St Patrick's Day. "Never will so many ask so much of so few." Much as Churchill foresaw and warned of a military onslaught by the Nazis, Varadkar predicted COVID-19's killing potential. In a slightly moderated version of Churchill's quote, Varadkar referred to health-workers who would soon front a battle not seen for generations, against a deadly, class- and mercy-less marauder. Here again, few paid heed. None did, in fact, if we talk about the scheme and scale required to stem off COVID-19.
In February this year, World Health Organisation chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned that the world was not giving due credence to COVID-19, or garnering the requisite armour and shells to blow away a global outbreak. Again, as history shall recollect a few decades down the road, few paid heed.
Across the United States, the United Kingdom and all of continental Europe, parks and cinema halls remained open, bars and pubs had their usual share of raucous mirth through after-office evenings, while choc-a-bloc metro, train and airline services continued unabated.
Online reports say as early as in September 2019, the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board (GPMB), backed by the World Bank and WHO, delineated moves to ready the world for a widespread health emergency. "There is a real threat of a rapidly-moving, highly-lethal pandemic of a respiratory pathogen, killing 50-80 million people and wiping out nearly 5 per cent of the world's economy. A pandemic of this scale would be catastrophic, creating widespread havoc, instability and insecurity. The world is not prepared," said GPMB, convened after the outbreak of the H1N1 flu in 2009 and the Ebola scare in 2014.
Other than providing lip service, few paid heed. Still.
As far back as in late November 2019, ABC News reported that the US intelligence machinery was sending out sporadic warnings that a new contagion was sweeping through Wuhan in China. The warning raised alarms and gave the US (and therefore friends in Europe) an opportunity to catalyse mitigation and containment efforts, to ward off a cataclysm. Five months later, as history shows us today, little heed was paid to this, again.
Finally, earlier this month, The Guardian stopped the world in its tracks by quoting American science journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner Laurie Garrett from 1994, citing her submission 'The Coming Plague'. 'While the human race battles itself, fighting over ever-more crowded turf and scarcer resources, the advantage moves to the microbes' court. They are our predators and they will be victorious if we, Homo sapiens, do not learn how to live in a rational global village that affords the microbes few opportunities,' Laurie wrote.
Soon after came SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome-Cov) and Ebola. And now we have COVID-19. The fourth coming. No one took heed in 1994. We were complacent and cocky in early 2020 as well.
And this then is what we are left with. In the US, the afflicted and deceased figures for New York alone are more than the numbers for countries elsewhere. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is invigorated after his stint with COVID-19 and now rearing to get back on to the helm of things. Spain and Italy are limping back to their feet, with infected and death numbers plateauing after weeks of setting records. Germany. Russia and Iran, pulling along…
India? Well, we are in the world's toughest lockdown — for 43 effective days till May 3, 2020, when Lockdown 2.0 ends. We have no dentists, repair shops, opticians, bookshops, pubs, mechanics, office boys, house-helps, hair-dressers, maids, 'chole bhature' or 'golgappas'. This is a new India. Sure, that makes us antsy. We want to get back to normalcy and revitalisation. And that primarily includes our freedom to roam the streets and 'maidans' and the opening of restaurants, bars and liquor shops.
We know the biggest crisis will hit us when that happens, once our stay-at-home ends, as India's true COVID-19 numbers will reveal themselves only after the lockdown. That's inevitable. Somehow, a balance needs to be worked out for tomorrow. We didn't ask for this. Our 'Developed Nation' friends didn't prepare us for this, despite having ample forewarning. Now that they are hit, they ask us to bear with it, even flex their muscle to try and scare us into shipping medications like hydroxychloroquine to their shores. We provide the same, while we live through the toughest lockdown in history. We shall, inevitably, persevere.
Views expressed are strictly personal