A very eminent professor of economics at Cambridge, of Indian origin, with whom I conversed once or twice, Tweeted to an absolute excess on the disproportionate focus on Covid-19, quoting the number of deaths from other causes to make his point. So, I engaged him one day. It was not its capacity to kill, but the anxiety on account of instant contagion, that has brought down this world.
When you are in sound mental health, you are never hounded by the idea that someday you may commit suicide, even though a very high number of people do it every day. If you sit in a car, you never for a moment think that you may die in a crash because the lives of an unconscionably large number of people - much greater than Covid-19 - are lost in accidents. Despite the higher probability of these, you do not plan for these contingencies. But today, when you step out of your house, if you get into the Metro, occupy a seat at the airport, go to the park - you wonder if the virus released by the sneeze or cough of an active or an asymptomatic patient is still suspended in mid-air, or if the doorknob has been infected. Have my hands been properly washed? The anxiety is ubiquitous, the danger all pervasive. People have been driven to commit suicide at the merest apprehension that they may catch the contagion. Of course, the anxiety is unreal, insubstantial and disproportionate to the lethal potential, yet it has shut down the world.
But he would not give up. He said a mosquito bites you and you wonder if you have caught malaria, but here a starlet holds a party and Lucknow is locked down. I was not prepared to give up: Forgive me for being persistent, I said, a mosquito bite may give me malaria but I can’t pass it off to my wife even if I bite her, a Covid-19 infected man can cause havoc in concentric circles of people whom he meets by just being himself. Once you are delivered to an anxiety, you are beyond help.
Admittedly, the Wuhan virus is nothing in terms of lethal potential compared to SARS, in the very recent past. SARS came, occupied a slice of global concern for a while, and caused some loss of lives. So did the Avian Flu and Nipah, and quickly receded into history. In India, it was heard rather like a distant rumour. But the Wuhan virus has shaken the world and India. The devastation that it has caused to each one of us in our personal lives, to us as social creatures and to us as economic beings would be unimaginable - if it were not true. We cannot even begin to estimate the damage.
Paul Tillich, existentialist Christian theologian of culture, makes the distinction between fear and anxiety, in his book “The Courage to Be” as follows:
"Fear has a definite object which can be faced and attacked, endured or conquered, whereas anxiety has no object. Without an object or a tactic to defeat it, anxiety surfaces as the pain of impotence, negation and disempowerment.....He who is in anxiety is, insofar as it is mere anxiety, delivered to it without help.”
This anxiety on account of Covid-19 is not a naturally occurring germ or virus; it is anthropogenically created information (or deliberate disinformation) riding on the Chinese propaganda juggernaut. Once brought into being, it has mutated and multiplied of its own to create anxieties, inadequacies, and paranoia on an apocalyptic scale. The images of people dropping dead in the streets of Wuhan, the stores of thousands of cremations - true, false and apocryphal - helped build up the Wuhan Virus as the Horseman of Apocalypse, and lockdown as the only protection against it. China was economical with the relevant data, and when the invasion of the virus took place, the world locked itself down in response to the propaganda, reminding me of the immunologic response of a Horseshoe crab, a marine animal which lives around coastal areas. In response to invasion by a certain bacterium, the crab deploys a complete array of battle responses - everything that it has at its disposal . The outcome is widespread tissue destruction, as in the generalized Shwartzman reaction, or outright failure of the circulation of blood, as in endotoxin shock. That is what it looks like.
An objective scientific assessment of the lockdown is yet to be made, but not only the Indian economy but the entire system is in state of shock, and we are struggling to get back to our feet. The poor , as always,are the worst victim of bad planning, and the fate of masses of loitering migrant labours will someday, when the great Plague Novel is written about our crisis, occupy the centre stage of the writer's concern.
Meanwhile, now it seems we are resigned to coexist with Covid-19. In some quarters, herd immunity, nature’s way of doing things, is already being talked a bout. We will think about economic growth another day.Survival now occupies the centre stage of our concerns Is that how China wanted to reorder the world nearer to its heart’s desire?