Humans had started to believe that they had become invincible with technological advancements. Now, an organism that is one-thousandth the width of an eyelash has forced about seven billion people across the world to not only stop flying, but to also stay within the confines of their homes.
Many are optimistic that a vaccine will soon be found and we will return to life as we knew it. This misses a larger point: There are limits to technological advancements. Defeating the coronavirus doesn’t obliterate the risk of emergence of new viruses. With rapid deforestation and climate change, many new viruses are emerging even as we race to find a vaccine for COVID-19. And there are no instant vaccines for them.
While viruses are as old as human existence, climate change has only aggravated our vulnerabilities. In 2014, a virus frozen in the Siberian permafrost for 30,000 years was revived in a laboratory and was still found potent enough to infect an amoeba.
With glaciers melting, floods ravaging countries and earthquakes bringing down the sturdiest of human creations, the coronavirus, could well be the trailer for what is to come. If we want to come out of our houses and live with the freedom to move around, we need to course-correct.
For starters, we must redefine human development goals and prioritise sectors which need more attention. Both villages and cities will have to be treated in a way that factors in the sustainability of their development. We can no longer turn a blind eye to the specific requirements of our villages and cities; we need to make both self-sufficient and non-exploitative when it comes to using natural resources. Catchment areas and floodplains will have to be freed from construction and commercially exploitative activities. Smart cities must be complemented with smart villages that are not just provided electricity, sanitation and water, but are also digitally connected. The move towards green energy, including solar and wind has to be made.
While we do need to augment medical education with more doctors and better healthcare facilities, India also needs to give a big push to medical research. Research is not only needed in the field of allopathy, but also in the field of traditional medicine such as ayurveda. Together, the two can prepare us for the challenges of tomorrow.
Market demand cannot be allowed to dictate economic models on which countries are run. Market demand initiated a relentless assault on nature with resources being extracted without caring for the future of the planet. An important question to ask is the role that politics will play in this effort to prevent environmental degradation that exposes mankind to threats like viruses and bacteria.
Human history shows us that some of the most seemingly insignificant things have ushered in some of the most significant changes in the world. In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari describes how wheat production changed the course of human evolution. Harari says, “We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us.” In Against the Grain, political scientist-anthropologist James C Scott said that wheat cultivation is responsible for the arrival of what we now understand as state power, and with it, bureaucracy and inequality.
No political party can afford to ignore the significance of a virus. Irrespective of their ideological moorings, parties will have to come together to formulate a uniform, transparent and implementable policy to tackle such threats to human existence that know no territorial boundaries.
Political parties have to work together to develop an agenda for human development that focuses not just on GDP growth but also on enhancing livelihood security by generating sustainable occupations. The virus is just one aspect. We must be able to foresee the socio-economic disruptions that will take place as a result of such changes. In a federal system such as in India, it is important for both the Centre and the states to have a minimum agreed “path of growth” which is sustainable and reduces dependence on international market forces.
We must realise that the corona pandemic is not a temporary disruption. The virus will run its course, but India needs to prepare itself for the economic impact that will hit the country because of rising sea levels, more cyclones, floods and melting glaciers. In 2018, the World Bank estimated that the current trajectory of carbon emissions will result in sharply diminishing the living conditions of 800 million South Asians. We can debate the numbers, but we cannot debate on whether it will happen.
The current pandemic has seen the country act as one unit: Almost the entire country has responded responsibly to the call of staying indoors during the lockdown. States, too, are working in coordination with the Centre to fight the virus. Future challenges need to be met in a similar manner.
Another question is how the economy will change after the threat of the pandemic recedes. All assessments show that there will be an economic meltdown. The exact nature of the impact will depend on how long it takes for us to take control of the situation. The current crisis has exposed the vulnerabilities of the global economic and trading systems. There is thus a need to review the sectors which are disproportionately dependent on international market forces.
Sectors such as aviation and tourism may well be hit the hardest. But the rush to fix the economy cannot discount the aspect of sustainability. Financial packages for an economic revival should be carefully planned to ensure that they are directed towards activities which provide greater scope for sustainable livelihood security, as opposed to those which are dependent on the global economy.
We need to devise better models for our existence so that we can overcome not only the challenge at hand, and are never again held hostage by a virus. The good news is that it is totally doable.
This article first appeared in the print edition on April 21, 2020 under the title ‘Future, post-COVID-19’. The writer is national general secretary, BJP, and member of Rajya Sabha.