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Monday, April 15, 2024

How a teeny-tiny virus that we can’t see changed everything

Coronavirus has changed the priorities of the nation-states, of the governments, of the institutions and of the individuals. It has changed our thinking. News from around the World shows we are living in unprecedented times. How an organism that we can't see has wreaked havoc upon us?

Over the past few days, the spread of corona virus has revealed an unsettling truth: our species, and our way of life, is brittle. Despite the carefully constructed veneer of invincibility, we are a people that are only ever one disease away from falling apart.

That our individual lives and collective systems are mortally frail. And that, while the audacity of our imagination and miracles of our science may have reached the stars and split the atom, we remain vulnerable to an infinite number of calamities in this boundless expanse of space and time.

Let us review some facts, so as to take stock of what has happened over the past few weeks. Since it first appeared in Wuhan in December of 2019, corona virus (COVID-19) has spread to 186 countries, affecting hundreds of thousands of people.

That the insides of Masjid-e-Nabwi (SAWW) would be as deserted as the corporate offices in New York City? That we would come to fear our closest friends and family members?

According to the latest numbers, verified by the World Health Organization (WHO), the virus has been confirmed in more than 286,000 people. Importantly, this is not the ‘true number’ of infected individuals; the ‘true’ count is far more, with a majority of the people not having formally been tested for the virus.

A sense of the true extent of this pandemic can be judged by the fact that, according to WHO, the rate of confirmation of corona virus is increasing faster than the rate of testing. For instance, during the period between March 6 to March 13, the average daily percentage increase in the number of confirmed corona virus cases was nearly twice the daily percentage increase in the number of tests completed.

During this time, corona virus has claimed almost 12,000 lives, or 11% of the infected people. This percentage has increased from around 4% during the first two weeks of March.

On the economic front, the modern world has been brought to a virtual standstill. The travel industry has been almost entirely shut down. Supply chain disruptions have affected all imports and exports globally. Large corporations, traded across various stock markets, are expected to incur some $10 trillion in losses during the first quarter of this year. Within last week alone, Dow Jones index has lost a third of its value.

Read more: Crisis of Governance in Pakistan

Importantly, a large part of the chaos and upheaval on the economic front has been driven by a collapse of the oil market, which dropped below $20 a barrel for part of the day Friday. It is expected that such low prices may force the oil industry to go through a generational restructuring – prices need to be at least in the $50-a-barrel range for companies and producing states to make a profit.

Pakistan is also in the midst of experiencing tremors of this global tectonic shift. The ‘confirmed’ number of corona virus cases in Pakistan has reached 671, and the percentage change in these numbers is increasing with each passing day. Of the reported cases in Pakistan, 4 have resulted in death, while there is hope that most will recover over time.

Much like the rest of the world, Pakistan’s economy is also suffering the effects of an imminent global recession. As the government ramps up its efforts to discourage social interaction, most economic activity has come to a standstill, with effects that are likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

That our petty squabbles with the vices of our time are just that: petty squabbles. That our mortality is the only certainty our existence. That in the final analysis of things, we are almost always living on a prayer

For now, there is no confirmed ‘cure’ for the corona virus. While testing on certain experimental drugs is in advanced stages, we do not (for now) have an antidote. It has been claimed that certain Chinese herbs, blended into a soup of sorts, has helped people to recover in China (the only country that claims to be past the stage of ‘epidemic’). Also, there is chatter that an anti-malarial drug, chloroquine, has shown promise in helping corona virus patients recover. However, this treatment has still not been approved by the various drug regulatory agencies of the world.

As a result of these unprecedented developments, owing to the epidemic, a majority of the people and businesses, across the world, have come to a halt. International borders have been closed, travel has been all but stopped, and with each passing day, an increasing number of people are choosing to stay at home, in quarantine, pausing all forms of human interaction and commerce.

Who could have imagined, just a few weeks ago, that we will find ourselves in this place? Who could think that a virus, less than 0.1% the size of a human cell, could stop the global machine? Who could imagine that Kaa’ba’s courtyard would be just as empty as the hallways of the Vatican? That the insides of Masjid-e-Nabwi (SAWW) would be as deserted as the corporate offices in New York City? That we would come to fear our closest friends and family members?

Read more: PM Khan has a red & a yellow button. One for lockdown. Which does he push?

Who would have thought that the ‘issues’ that consumed our collective existence till just a few days back, would almost instantaneously fade into oblivion? Who cares about the issuance of ‘production orders’ today? Who is still fussing about Nawaz Sharif’s platelet counts? What happened to the war that almost broke out between the US and Iran some weeks back? Or the upheaval that was rumoured to be taking place inside the Saudi royal family? Or Trump’s impeachment? Or Modi’s desire to start a nuclear war in South Asia?

No one is really sure of how this epidemic will develop in the coming days and months. The modern world, which seemed so impenetrable and robust till a few weeks ago, seems to have collapsed to its feet. And all of our science, our collective wealth, even human ingenuity, has failed in quelling our worst fears so far.

So, what should we do? What can we do? Of course, we should continue with our collective scientific pursuit to find a cure for this epidemic. Of course, we should observe all precautionary measures to avoid interactions that may result in the spread of this disease. And, to the extent possible, help others who are struggling (economically) during this testing time.

Read more: Corona pandemic: History being written in Pakistan & World

But, perhaps most importantly, in the coming days, as we take time to ‘socially distance’ ourselves from everyone around, let us pause for a moment to reflect on what this truly is: a reminder that humankind, despite all its achievements and progress, remains a vulnerable race. That our petty squabbles with the vices of our time are just that: petty squabbles. That our mortality is the only certainty our existence. That in the final analysis of things, we are almost always living on a prayer.

Prayer. Yes, there it is. Prayer – an idea that encompasses our mortality. A word that enrages so many liberals of our age, who believe in being masters of their fate. Prayer, a concept that brings home the fact that we are, despite our scientific miracles, a finite being. A species that has to continue looking up towards to the heavens with hope and fear.

And so, during the coming days of quarantine, if your vanity permits, take some time out for prayer. Reflect on the unwarranted sense of inevitability that we seem to have attached to our individual and collective lives. And in such a moment, if your ego breaks, as it should, take the time to kneel.

Saad Rasool is a lawyer based in Lahore. He has an LL.M. in Constitutional Law from Harvard Law School. He can be reached at saad@post.harvard.edu, or Twitter: @Ch_SaadRasool. This article originally appeared at The Nation and has been republished with the author’s permission. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.