The novel coronavirus may slay its thousands as it spreads, while the common flu routinely slays its ten thousands every year. The panic being seen now reflects humanity’s most primal fear — the fear of the unknown. While influenza has been studied for over a hundred years, the behaviour of COVID-19 is still unknown. But it is more similar to influenza than the other Coronaviridae, in that it spreads rapidly from host to host without the need for an intermediary. The speed of transmission is dramatic, but the death rate is not orders of magnitude higher than in influenza. While there is talk of a pandemic developing, it is not necessarily frightening.
The term “pandemic” does not necessarily indicate a great slayer. The sense of serious illness resulting in staggering death rates dates from before the era of sulpha drugs and penicillin, which have contained the secondary infections which contributed to the death rate. Now, morbidity and the number and geographical spread of infections has more meaning, and the cost of a pandemic may be told primarily in economic, social and political damage. These outcomes have always been visible, even in medieval times, but the shock of seeing whole countries being depopulated by scourges like the Black Death overshadowed them.
The world’s markets are already bearing the brunt of negative sentiment, and policymakers are bracing for a 2008-like situation. The disruption of supply chains has taken a toll across various sectors, and is especially visible in automobiles and pharmaceuticals. China had become the new Japan, the world’s supplier across industries, but the current void could provide an opportunity to China’s competitors and alter trade relations in the future.
The social effects of a pandemic are no longer very significant, because scattered deaths among the elderly, the immunocompromised and the poor are unlikely to change society’s perceptions of itself. It’ll be nothing like the Black Death, in which entire working populations were wiped out. The power relations between lord and peasant were altered for ever and the very superstructure of agrarian society was shaken up, paving the way to future emancipations.
Now, the most interesting effects of a major outbreak would be seen in terms of political legitimacy, whose yardstick changes over time. In medieval Europe, a failure to protect subjects from external aggression was a suicide pill for the nobility. But the Black Death, which slew many more than the Golden Horde ever could, did not cause subjects to question the abilities of their masters. Security does remain a concern in our era — going by popular culture, the US is still to get over the debacle at Pearl Harbour. But over the last 100 years, the legitimacy of governments the world over has been increasingly gauged by their ability to deliver amenities, health and education, goods which would have been considered extras in earlier times. And today, a government which is unable to protect women from sexual violence, earlier considered to be a routine feature, would be rejected. The 2012 Delhi gangrape, the execution of whose perpetrators is imminent, sparked off a public movement which delegitimised the existing political order and sent the grand old party of India to the fringe of our political perception. As a consequence, both the state and the national capital of Delhi changed hands.
Novel coronavirus has already exerted a political effect, with attention focused on the performance of world leaders. Singapore prime minister Lee Hsien Loong is being admired for his remarkably clear public statement concerning the nature and impact of coronavirus and the interventions planned by his government, which had put online a map showing specific infections in real time. The US President Donald Trump is being laughed at for failing to understand very much about the disease, and because his administration seems to have tried to polish up the numbers (the Centers for Disease Control appeared to stop reporting the number of people tested), at a time when transparency is essential for the medical response.
Speaking of which, in order to make work on COVID-19 available to the research community as rapidly as possible, Nature has promoted Outbreak Science Rapid PREreview (outbreaksci.prereview.org). The idea is to apply an open and even anonymous review process to the volumes of unrefereed material appearing on the subject, and make the material freely available at least while the rapidly developing public health emergency runs its course. “Research to support outbreak response needs to be fast and open, too, as do mechanisms to review outbreak-related research,” the organisation says. Scientific publishing, which once moved at glacial speed as a matter of caution, would benefit if such publicly accessible review mechanisms were retained as a matter of course, and not only during emergencies.
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