Can Covid-19 make us stronger?
There is an old saying that "what does not kill you makes you stronger". It might be a bit early in the cycle of the still unfolding saga of the Covid-19 pandemic to be asking whether we have survived this scourge and, if so, how it has changed us. Nonetheless, Covid-19 has already sliced through the veneer of civility and human compassion to expose the viscerally raw emotions of fear, panic and withdrawal, to the point where children leave their elderly parent dying of Covid-19 on the streets like toxic garbage, or toss out a dead relative like a plague-infested rat. Such panic psychosis, no matter how infrequently seen, does bring out the seamy side of extreme human selfishness—the Epicurean hedonism at its most vulgar.
However, we have also seen how healthcare professionals—doctors, nurses and technicians—remained steadfast in their Hippocratic oath to serve afflicted humanity while endangering their own well-being and depriving their near and dear ones of their intimacy. We have seen how law enforcing personnel such as police on field duty and ever-vigilant social workers have carried out the onerous and hazardous task of collecting unidentified corpses and burying them with the human dignity the dead deserved, but which their own kith and kin denied them. When we juxtapose instances of panic psychosis with those of social altruism, we get all the more confused and divided as a society.
Compared to human longevity, pandemics are rare occurrences. The last global pandemic—the "Spanish Flu"—took place 102 years ago in 1918. Obviously, people with living memory of the Spanish Flu pandemic are few and far between. Aside from epidemiologists and trivia enthusiasts, I doubt if anyone knew about the last major global pandemic until the coronavirus played tag across the world, forcing people to Google "pandemic" and learn about AIDS, Avian Flu, Ebola, MERS etc. Even Avian Flu is a distant memory, although it happened less than 30 years ago. The fact that a highly contagious disease—even with low morbidity but without any known treatment protocol—can play havoc with life and can turn the whole global economy upside down was not unknown to mankind, but the collective knowledge and wisdom of human civilisation was thrown to the wind for political expediency or the convenience of being in denial. This led to the inevitability of a global pandemic that has already cost the lives of more than three quarters of a million people and up to 200 million jobs worldwide.
On the home front, Covid-19 has already forced the government and multilateral development agencies to slash growth forecast by nearly three percent. What is more alarming is that the economic fallout of the coronavirus is pushing millions of vulnerable people into the ranks of the extreme poor, which is a real shock as most of these people have, only in the last 10 years, moved out of extreme poverty.
While Covid-19 related death rates and confirmed new cases have come down slightly from their peaks in late June, the curves are remaining virtually unchanged in recent weeks even though people's mobility has returned to almost normal, as is evident from the traffic situations in the capital and on intercity highways. While use of masks is more prevalent than before, it is not uncommon to spot someone crossing the street or waiting for a bus without a mask.
Even in offices and public places, it appears there is a Covid-19 precaution fatigue. All the paraphernalia and materials for protection from coronavirus is abundantly visible everywhere we go, but the clinical seriousness is no longer seen. In the mean time, government offices have started full schedule operations but are still restricting visitors, while private offices and businesses, including banks and restaurants, have also started regular operations. Have we really gotten over the hump in transmissions or will this lead to a resurgence in the number of new cases? Nobody can tell for sure.
The overall morbidity as well as total infections in the country has been low compared to our population size and high density. This has confounded public heath experts, who are still scratching their heads as to what might have contributed to our lucky escape thus far. Some half-seriously attribute this to our inherent resilience built up due to all the adulteration in foods and severe pollution in our environs, while others peg this on the climate and the monsoon season. The epidemiology department ought to study the real causes of this macro-level infection behaviour playing to our advantage, which might have some scientific basis such as our widespread inoculations against various scourges such as polio, diphtheria, smallpox etc that may not be so prevalent in advanced economies. No matter what the reason, we must find out the cause of both resilience and susceptibility to coronavirus so that we are fully prepared when it decides to go around the world once again, as has been seen in most regional and global pandemics of the past.
Aside from that, we need to make deep introspections into the social psyche of the deep gashes left behind by the economic decimation caused by Covid-19, leading to worsening unemployment and under-employment and the concomitant rise in general poverty. In the largest and wealthiest economy of the world, unemployment has surged to almost four times compared to the pre-Covid-19 period. Our government does not track the employment situation monthly like in the USA, but the general perception is that our economy has not suffered anywhere near the levels of job loss as over there. This might be because most employers have not outright retrenched workers even though some have curtailed benefits, as opposed to their counterparts in the richer countries where in any economic downturn, the employers dump employees like discarded cogs and leave them to the mercy of the government safety nets or unemployment insurance plans. Having said that, there have been some business and factory closures leading to job losses for workers, most of whom do not have savings to fall back on during such hardships.
What lessons we can take to heart from all this would depend on how we treat this still-unfolding episode of the coronavirus pandemic. We can see this as a pandemic exported from Wuhan, China and not our burden to bear, or we can see this as an external shock that has tentacles that can propagate freely in any country, and thus make this part of our preparedness against such shocks no matter where they originate. In recent times, we have seen the government taking on exercises for long-term visions such as Bangladesh 2041 and even Bangladesh 2100 (under the Delta Plan). As a lowly minion among the denizens of the country, I can only hope those visions have adequate provisions against unforeseen external shocks. Only when we are willing to learn from dreamy visions as well as stark nightmares will we be stronger as a nation and more resilient in the next crisis.
Habibullah N Karim is the founder of Technohaven Co Ltd, a co-founder of BASIS and the coordinator of Blockchain Olympiad Bangladesh.