Could Covid-19 prove to be another landmark event similar to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union?
It’s a cruel irony that humanity has made spacecraft to Mars but not enough face masks, gloves, gowns, hand sanitizers and test kits for its own survival.
My maternal grandfather who is 96 never misses to talk about the Second World War whenever I go and visit him. Elaborated anecdotes of the brave Gorkha soldiers fighting in the Burmese front under the Allied Command quickly change to more subdued references to the genocide, massacres, mass bombings and starvation. World War I had seen 40 million military and civilian casualties while the Second World War saw this increase to 75 million deaths. Thirty thousand Gorkha soldiers died in the World War II alone. Disease outbreak was a depressing corollary of all these wars and conflicts.
It is not that the COVID-19 is the first pandemic that humanity has witnessed. Smallpox first appeared around 10,000 BC and the disease is even mentioned in ancient Sanskrit texts. Goddess Sithala, a folk deity, worshipped in North India, Nepal and Bangladesh is believed to cure poxes, sores and other diseases. During the 18th century, over 400,000 people died annually in Europe from smallpox. Overall fatality rates were around 30 percent. From 1346 to 1353, the plague, which originated from Asia from mice and flea and which ravaged Europe and Africa, resulted in deaths of 75 to 200 million people. Exactly a hundred years ago in 1920, a deadly outbreak of influenza infected over a third of the world’s population. The mortality rate was estimated at 10 to 20 percent with up to 25 million deaths. The sixth cholera pandemic (1899-1923), which originated in India, killed over 800,000 before spreading to the Middle East, North Africa, Eastern Europe and Russia.
My generation missed all these major global hostilities and pandemics and although Maoist insurgency (1996-2006) brought to the fore the horrifying instances of mindless killing, loot and brutality it was not until 2015 that grounded me to the ‘impermanence of life’ as taught by the Bhagwat Gita. I was at Harvard University when the devastating earthquake struck Nepal on April 25, 2015.
As flights get cancelled, people get locked up at homes, business activity is collapsing, schools, universities, offices and hotels are closed and the whole world looks helpless in the face of a disease, one is tempted to ask: Is this another landmark event similar to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union? Not even after the atom bombs were dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 or in the aftermath of the tragedy that struck America in September, 2001 has half of the world locked itself in self-isolation. The scale of the deaths from the COVID-19 may not be as much as a nuclear detonation on a crowded megacity but the fact that all the five permanent members of the UN Security Council are impacted by this virus exposes our common vulnerability.
Military table-top exercises have planned for a second strike after a nuclear bomb has been dropped. Hollywood movies have imagined the President of the US getting kidnapped in mid-air and academic workshops have thought of several volcanoes erupting at the same time but none could fathom a catastrophe as big as this. It’s a cruel irony that humanity has made spacecraft to the Mars but not enough face masks, gloves, gowns, hand sanitizers and test kits for its own survival. Nature seems to be teaching us through some bizarre sense of justice that now Fiat, Ferrari and Lamborghini are having to make ventilators for the rich and the poor alike.
Time for reckoning
Are we in the midst therefore of a historic shift in international relations and how we view the concept of sovereignty, integrity and national security? The hour has rapidly come upon us when we need to realize that we all live in this planet and its useless fighting over tiny fragments of territory. Foremost is the realization that the earth is a single geographic unit and as technology has advanced, our world is getting tighter, fuller and more inter-connected like never before. A virus that spreads fast, a virus that does not recognize national boundaries should be an eye-opener. In the 1800s, the voyage from Calcutta to London would take four to six months depending on weather and speed of the ship. Today it takes up to 12 hours by airplane. An email may not even take 12 seconds. Yet, the institutions that we created after the Second World War haven’t changed. There has been a complete transformation of global scenario impelling a new pattern of international relations thus providing us a rare opportunity to create a system of burden-sharing and cooperative security rather than focusing on one’s own country or planning only for the next general elections.
In addition, we will have to look freshly and thoughtfully to the whole efficacy of United Nations and its specialized agencies. UN was founded in the principles of maintaining peace and security, developing friendly relations among nations and to achieve international cooperation in solving international problems. Chapter 1 Article 1 (4) of its Charter envisions it to be a centre for harmonizing the actions of nations in the attainment of these common ends. Due to resource constraints, wrangling between major powers and red-tapism, UN has been ineffective in this as during several other past crises and therefore needs restructuring. Same goes for multi-lateral institutions and regional organizations. Nations need to give more priority to regional organizations, allocate more resources to research and early-warning and encourage merit and expertise in government. As a silver-lining, the video-conference between SAARC heads of governments held on March 15 on how to contain the spread of the COVID-19 will hopefully revive the SAARC process.
The epidemic is a global threat, the virus is the common enemy, but there could also be multiple challenges in the near future such as energy insecurity, disruptions in the global food supply and other supply chain and trade restrictions that will hamper our efforts. Migration and refugees is another issue. For the first time, nations are realizing that trade wars can also endanger public health simply because not all medical products including personal protective equipment is produced everywhere for everyone at all times. This is why we must strive for global inter-dependence especially on issues of global health emergency.
Small counties are already alarmed by the head-wind of multiple challenges coming our way. As India is on a 21 days lock-down, Nepal is double land-locked and could be headed for an emergency with shortages of daily essentials like vegetables, fruits, cooking gas and even petroleum. Migrant labor from the Gulf, Korea and Malaysia could return en masse resulting in massive decline in remittances at a time of a global economic slowdown. Students could be restless as colleges are closed and foreign embassies will be more stringent on long-term visas. As stocks plunge and tourist inflow decline there could also be public outcry over the unnecessary expenses of federal provinces and perks of lawmakers.
Often times, we have seen economic crises translating into political upheavals. Prolonged closure of industries could lead to massive unemployment and will hit the poorest section of the society harder.
Hopefully, the COVID-19 pandemic will teach us that no state is insulated or separated from each other. It is urgent that we re-orient our strategic thinking from conventional concept of the balance of power to a global governance of inter-connectedness.
The author is the Director of ‘Centre for South Asian Studies’, a Kathmandu-based think-tank