Death has been dubbed ‘the great leveller’. This sobriquet fits, in that the Grim Reaper does not discriminate against anyone. Coronavirus may also be considered a great leveller of sorts, for it infects all humans indiscriminately and instils fear in rulers and plebs alike. Prince Albert II of Monaco has been afflicted with coronavirus. Queen Elizabeth has rushed to her Windsor Castle for self-isolation on account of the COVID-19 spread in Britain. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s wife, Sophie, has tested positive for coronavirus, which has also not spared the glitterati; Hollywood superstar, Tom Hanks, and his wife are also down with the virus. So has British Health Minister Nadine Dories. Whether British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, too, has contracted the diseases, is not yet known, as he has not been tested.
The continent-hopping coronavirus has rendered manmade, frantically guarded geographical boundaries meaningless. It has already spread to about 169 countries, in the Global North and the Global South alike, afflicted about 309,000 people and left more than 13,000 dead. In Sri Lanka, the number of infections is 80, and counting. A curfew has been imposed to prevent the spread of the virus.
Autocracy Vs democracy
Coronavirus defies democratic responses to its spread, in a manner of speaking. China, the cradle of COVID-19, has prevailed at last, reducing local infections to zero, through autocratic means. It did not care two hoots about the democratic rights of the people in responding to its national health emergency and opted for large-scale shutdowns and coercive methods to beat the virus decisively. The people fell in line as defiance was dealt with ruthlessly. Other countries have had to follow suit, or be beaten by the highly contagious virus.
Quarantine is the key to the curbing of any epidemic or pandemic. But people, anywhere in the world, are averse to being isolated and, therefore, do their best to evade quarantine, and among them are many carriers. Hence the need for all states to deal with the suspected cases of COVID-19, with an iron fist and ensure that they are isolated and properly treated. Even the so-called crusaders for democracy, in the western hemisphere, such as the US and the UK, have been left with no alternative but to resort to drastic action to contain the pandemic or perish.
COVID-19 is a zoonosis, as is common knowledge, but the animal, through which the virus has jumped to humans, has not been found out. The Pangolin is widely considered to be the medium, but earlier, snakes were blamed. Opinion is divided on the place where the disease first occurred though Wuhan city, in China, has earned notoriety as the epicenter of the new virus. The Patient Zero, however, has not been found, and this has given rise to speculation that virus may have found its way into Wuhan from some other country. Conspiracy theories galore! It is also claimed, in some quarters, that the virus was created in a laboratory and it got released accidentally.
No sooner had coronavirus started spreading, in Wuhan, than some Western nations sought to confer pariah status on China, which has challenged their global dominance. A section of the international media dubbed the coronavirus the Wuhan virus. President Trump, also, derisively called it the China Virus, only to draw heavy flak from medical professionals. A section of the western media embarked on an anti-Chinese campaign, calling China ‘the sick man of Asia’, again. Little did they realise that COVID-19 would spare no country. The epicentre of COVID-19 has since shifted from China to Europe! It is some Italian nationals holidaying here, and Sri Lankans returning from Italy, who caused the spread of COVID-19, in this country. Time was when Europeans had the red carpet rolled out for them at the BIA, because of the much-needed forex they brought in, but, today, they are not allowed to enter the country!
Coronavirus has humbled some world leaders who think no end of themselves. It has made US President Donald Trump eat his words. Trump’s knee-jerk reaction to the coronavirus outbreak in the US was to make light of the threat. On 11 March, he claimed that the virus was on the verge of disappearing, but a few days later, he had to make a U-turn and declare a national emergency besides unlocking as USD 50 billion for the battle against COVID-19.
Epidemics and socio-political upheavals
Epidemics not only destroy lives but also have a devastating impact on countries affected by them. The Black Death or the bubonic plague, which spread from Asia to Europe via the Silk Road, in the 14th Century, left millions of people dead. The Pestilence carried off humans indiscriminately, and it is believed that it wiped out more than one half of the population in Europe and brought about epoch-making political, economic and social changes in that part of the world.
Sri Lanka has had its share of misfortunes caused by epidemics, throughout history. Dr. S. A. Meegama’s well-researched book, Guns, Taverns and Tea Shops – The Making of Modern Sri Lanka, reveals how epidemics troubled the British colonialists, in the 19th Century. He says about the cholera outbreaks:
“The colonial government was deeply concerned by the explosive nature of these epidemics, which tended to disturb the peace and the normal equilibrium of society. The stability of the imperial order itself was threatened when people rushed about in a panic, day-to-day business and even government offices ground to a halt, and minor officials and even the police were seen to be, if not disobeying at least ignoring the fiat of the Crown. Thus, the colonial authorities had to move very swiftly when cholera or smallpox or dysentery was on the march.”
Sri Lanka boasts a modern healthcare system today, and its disease control capability has improved by leaps and bounds. Cholera, smallpox and malaria epidemics are no longer heard of, but new epidemics continue to trouble it. Frequent dengue outbreaks and the current COVID-19 spread are cases in point.
COVID-19 has sent the global economy into a tailspin. Europe is faced with the prospect of a recession within the next few months due to COVID-19, economists warn. Italian economy is in tatters owing to the crippling lockdowns in view of the staggering death toll from coronavirus. The number of deaths due to COVID-19 had risen to more than 4,900, in Italy, at the time of writing.
On Saturday, the death toll increased dramatically by as many as 793 in Italy. This has been attributed to the fact that Italy has an ageing population, and the fatality rate is very high among elderly people afflicted with coronavirus. The number of people diagnosed with the virus has risen to about 54,000, in the economic powerhouse of Europe, Germany, which is also experiencing severe stresses on its economy.
One of the worst affected industries is air transport. Most airports across the globe remain either partially or completely shut down to prevent COVID-19 infections from entering countries. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has recently forecast a possible loss of worldwide revenue to the tune of USD 113 billion this year. This amount is one-fifth of last year’s overall revenue and four times higher than what IATA estimated, in February, when the corona virus outbreak was reported from China.
The World Economic Forum informs us that some economist fear that the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic could be as severe as the Great Depression of the 1930s. There are some economists who predict a possible bounce-back in the near future, but the global economic outlook remains gloomy.
According to J. P. Morrison forecasts, the Chinese economy, the second largest in the world, is likely to contract 40%, in this quarter while the US economy, which is the largest in the world, is expected to shrink 14% in the next quarter. The cumulative impact of the contraction of these two giant economies on the world is not difficult to guess.
Richard Kozul-Wright, Director, Division on Globalization and Development Strategies at UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development), envisages a slowdown in the global economy to under 2% for this year, costing probably USD 1 trillion. But some economists are of the view that the economic cost of COVID-19 to the global economy will be as much as USD 2 trillion.
Kozul-Wright predicts that the world economy is “almost certain to go into recession over the coming months; and the German economy is particularly fragile, but the Italian economy and other parts of the European periphery are also facing very serious stresses right now as a consequence of trends over the last few days.” This shows the severity of the economic impact of COVID-19.
The worst affected will be the developing countries like Sri Lanka. The aforesaid UNCTAD economic expert has this to say: “Heavily-indebted developing countries, particularly commodity exporters, face a particular threat due to weaker export returns linked to a stronger US dollar. The likelihood of a stronger dollar as investors seek safe-havens for their money, and the almost certain rise in commodity prices as the global economy slows down, means that commodity exporters are particularly vulnerable.”
The worst is yet to come for Sri Lanka, whose rupee is depreciating rapidly against the USD, which was selling at Rs. 189 over the weekend. The export sector might gain marginally from the rupee depreciation, but, overall, the country will lose as it is heavily dependent on imports and most exporters don’t bring back their dollars here. The government has decided to curtail non-essential imports such as vehicles as a short-term measure to halt the tumble of the rupee.
Social cost of COVID-19
The biggest social cost of coronavirus, next to the huge number of deaths, which are bound to devastate families across the globe, will be job losses due to the impact of the pandemic on individual countries and the overall slowing down of the global economy. The airline industry is almost grounded and the service sector crippled with tourism industry having ground to a halt. Tens of thousands of factories have been closed due to the spread of the virus and severe shortages of raw materials caused by the lockdowns in China. They have suffered staggering losses, as a result, and will take months, if not years, to recover. Workers will bear the brunt of the problem.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) has predicted that about 25 million people will lose their jobs thanks to COVID-19. “The effects will be far-reaching, pushing millions of people into unemployment, underemployment and working poverty, and proposes measures for a decisive, coordinated and immediate response,” the ILO has said, calling for an internationally coordinated policy response to lower the job losses, as in the case of the global financial crisis of 2008 and 2009.
Unemployment manifests itself in various forms including unrest, violence and an increase in the incidence of poverty and could, therefore, lead to unforeseen social upheavals. This will be one of the worst fallouts from COVID-19. Thus, it is clear that the world’s war on COVID-19 has to be fought on several fronts, and all countries must sink their differences and join forces for this purpose.
COVID-19 as a warning
The COVID-19 pandemic has sent the world reeling at a time when some countries are dependent on stockpiles of biological weapons, among other things, to safeguard their national security interests. The overall COVID-19 mortality rate is believed to be between 1-3%, but the new virus has plunged the entire world into chaos and shown its potential to kill many more people unless the world gets its act together. No country is safe regardless of its military and economic prowess. Given the widespread devastation coronavirus has wreaked upon the world, how dangerous the situation would be in case of biological weapons being used, in a future a war, is not difficult to imagine.
It is popularly believed that biological weapons were first used by Germany during the World War I. But historians argue that Emperor Genghis Khan, who built a sprawling empire, in the 13th Century, was the first to resort to biological warfare, crude as the methods he employed were. He used to lay siege to enemy fortresses and have rotting corpses catapulted into them so as to cause diseases to spread there, compelling the beleaguered combatants to surrender.
Biological weapons, according to the World Health Organisation, are microorganisms like viruses, bacteria, fungi, or toxins that are produced and released deliberately to cause disease and death in humans, animals and plants. “Biological agents, like anthrax, botulinum toxin and plague can pose a difficult public health challenge causing large numbers of deaths in a short amount of time while being difficult to contain. Bioterrorism attacks could also result in an epidemic, for example, if Ebola or Lassa viruses were used as the biological agents. Biological weapons is a subset of a larger class of weapons referred to as weapons of mass destruction ….”
The spread of coronavirus had better be considered a dire warning to the nations planning germ warfare. The danger of biological weapons has been known to the world, and the first UN multilateral treaty banning biological weapons came into being, in March 1975, as the Biological Weapons Convention. But despite such multilateral agreements, some countries continue to experiment with, produce and stockpile biological weapons, on the sly, while accusing one another of doing so.
One can only hope that all nations will learn the lessons that the COVID-19 spread offers and stop the dangerous practice of weaponising germs.