Volume 2, No. 6, June 2020
Editor: Rashed Rahman
The current COVID-19 illness gripping the world is caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, the second severe acute respiratory syndrome virus to emerge since 2002 (the first was the SARS epidemic). As a result of its rapid spread, whole cities, regions, even countries are in lockdown, with hospitals under pressure from patient surges and shortage of protective and curative equipment. China, where the initial outbreak occurred in Wuhan, is breathing easier since the pandemic appears to be in decline, affording a gradual and incremental loosening of the lockdown throughout the country. This success has enamoured a large part of world opinion to the China ‘model’ of combating the virus.
But before we examine the China ‘model’ and contrasting approaches elsewhere (that arguably have ‘elevated’ the US and Europe to the dubious distinction of the worst afflicted parts of the globe), it may be instructive to trace the origins of the virus and its subsequent rapid spread globally.
The earlier SARS epidemic was ascribed to originating in bats, subsequently spreading to humans. The current coronavirus is ascribed to the consumption of pangolins in Wuhan. Whether this is later proved scientifically or not, these ascriptions point the way towards understanding the origin of pathogens and their transmission in contemporary times.
Industrialised modes of agriculture for profit maximisation produce pathogens such as Salmonella and Campylobacter at the site of production centres (cropping, livestock and poultry farms). But COVID-19-like viruses originate on the ‘frontiers’ of capitalist production, where the drive for profit maximisation has taken a serious toll of forests and wildernesses and given birth to a taste for wildlife as exotic food. The processes of natural selection in the forests and wildernesses that created immunity from pathogens has been eroded by industrial-type production of agricultural, livestock and poultry products, leaving them free to infect local human communities and travel up the supply and interconnectedness chain to large cities and then the world. Exotic wildlife products extracted at the edge of forests and wildernesses in periurban areas also can follow the same path. In short, capitalist agricultural and food production as well as the exotic wildlife products so much in demand may between them be the culprits responsible for transmission of pathogens and deadly viruses worldwide. Of course the real villain remains unfettered capitalism, for whom neither nature’s increasingly delicate ecology nor human welfare can be allowed to stand in the way of the drive for maximisation of profits. In this schema, profits, not people, are priority.
To tackle these capitalist practices is a bigger question encroaching onto the domain of politics and economics. However, that is a debate to be explicated another day. Currently, the issue of how to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, learning from other countries’ successes and failures, is top of the agenda.
China’s approach to tackling the virus, starting from the epicentre Wuhan, was predicated on a suppression programme, going all out fast enough to drive the outbreak into extinction (or as near it as to pose no further major threat). Given that despite its embrace in the last four decades of capitalism, the Chinese regime is still communist, permitted a mobilisation of lockdown measures that other, less disciplined societies have found difficult if not impossible to emulate. Without getting bogged down in the debate about balancing virus suppression measures with minimising economic hardship for the poorest because of its appreciation that half-hearted incremental strict measures would only cause greater and longer pain than a total approach, and being bolstered by its social safety nets to mitigate economic hardship for the most vulnerable, China’s ‘blitzkrieg’ against the coronavirus has succeeded admirably. Infections from returning travellers or local infections are declining and dwindling to insignificant proportions.
For reasons of political structure and culture, not many countries, even if they wish to, will be able to emulate the Chinese ‘model’ in toto. However, the most important and critical steps can and must be taken by regimes the world over if mankind is to see the back of the coronavirus pandemic with minimum human deaths and in the shortest time frame of economic and social disruption as possible.
Experience has shown that, short of the total Chinese approach, the priority has to be mitigation, i.e. ‘flattening the curve’ of infections by reducing the rate of the spread of the virus so as not to overwhelm the healthcare sector (which in Pakistan is already inadequate in terms of medical expertise, hospital beds, equipment, etc, let alone specialised isolation facilities). Those detected as having been infected need to be quarantined, and the population at large induced to practice social distancing and other preventive measures. These measures may not end up being implemented as efficiently as in China, but they will act as mitigatory effects.
Another aspect of the suppression of the coronavirus outbreak must consist of tracing those who may have been in contact with the infection and putting them through the testing and quarantining routine. In addition, private hospitals and other spaces that can be used as isolation centres for the infected must be commandeered to strengthen the capacity in the public sector for this purpose. Testing volume must be dramatically increased to cover all suspected infections to the extent humanly possible.
Medical professionals must be prioritised as far as protective equipment is concerned otherwise we risk losing our ‘frontline’ force in this war. Equally, the Corona Tiger (youth) Force Imran Khan wants to raise to provide the poor and daily wagers food supplies at their doorstep must be provided protective gear and trained in preventive measures so as to avoid turning acts of kindness into sources of further infection.
Last but not least, spare a thought for the poor, unemployed, daily wagers, and employees unable to work because of the lockdown. Pakistanis’ reputed philanthropy notwithstanding, feeding this demographic will strain Pakistan’s state and private resources to the breaking point. If the pandemic proves long lasting, economic collapse no longer seems beyond the possible.
Globalised, unfettered capitalism that has ruled the roost since the end of the Cold War may not be able to continue merrily as before after this pandemic. The planet Earth and humanity at large will no doubt demand in the short term a curtailing of capitalism’s rapacious exploitation of nature’s resources to the point of tipping the ecosystem into permanent catastrophe through climate change, etc, and its reckless expansion into and extraction of natural resources from the forests and wildernesses that not only have arguably been the source of the coronavirus and other epidemics, but threaten the Earth with unforeseeable effects of catastrophic seriousness for human life. Life, work, love, will never again be the same in a post-coronavirus world. A moment may well be approaching in history when the fundamental critique of capitalism as a system will find voice in the demand for its overcoming in the interests of a better world than it has bequeathed us.