A virus in distant Wuhan, China did not cause much of a stir initially; but five months on, with five million people infected and more than 3 lakhs dead globally, the coronavirus is a major concern for humanity all over the world. Caught in a stranglehold of death and distress, humans are feeling acutely nervous.
If alive today, Thomas R. Malthus, the proponent of Malthusian Theory in 1798, would have said: I told you. If you overburden Mother Earth with demands beyond its carrying capacity, you will be sized down. With the world's population nearing eight billion, are we too many for Mother Earth? Is Covid-19 sizing down humans as predicted by the doomsday prophet Malthus?
Covid-19 is not an extraordinary blip in man's long history. Something sinister was destined to happen sooner or later. Bill Gates predicted the inevitability of such an outcome while addressing the TED conference in 2015. He said that the world needs to be ready for the next health crisis… while Ebola seems to have been brought under control, next time "we may not be so lucky". Stephen Hawking said in 2006, "Life on Earth is at the ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster, such as sudden global warming, nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus or other dangers." Hawking was not only looking at supernatural events but also man-induced disasters. He advised humans to look for an alternative celestial body to live on.
What is happening around us now have put humans on their back foot. Cowered and cornered, humans are seeking refuge in their houses with protective masks, disinfectants, and hand wash. Where possible, they are retreating from the congested cities like Dhaka, Delhi, and Bombay to the relative safety and uncongested shelters of rural areas.
But why should humans be so cowered? True, the virus is highly contagious, but so had been many other viruses that had visited mankind in the past. And it is not that they have not seen such pandemics before. In the last 2,500 years, the total human lives lost due to major pandemics are estimated to be about 400 million—the major ones like the Black Death in the mid-14th century killed as many as 200 million; the plague of Justinian around the time Islam was emerging as a major religion killed some 40 million people; the great plagues of 17th and 18th centuries killed nearly 36 million; and about a 100 years ago, some 50 million people died from the Spanish flu. These are significant numbers, and some of the pandemics killed more than half of the global population during those periods. More recently, the HIV-AIDS killed some 30 million people. Beyond the pandemics, famines and diseases killed another 200 million. In their ferocity and killing power, most of those pandemics dwarfed Covid-19. How could man, the most "civilised" creature in the world, proud conqueror of the earth and the seas, and explorer of the deep space, be cowered by this rather "minor" threat posed by Covid-19?
Since prehistoric days, humans have survived many pandemics, and have learnt their lessons on how to conquer them. With a little bit of patience and self-isolation only, Covid-19 could have been controlled by reaching "herd immunity". But modesty, focus and action are not always the qualities that our leaders demonstrate. Otherwise, how could they engage in meaningless blame game or cut the funding of one of the prestigious agencies whose action is valuable now in leading man's victory over Covid-19?
Humans were not cowered by past pandemics, nor had they stopped doing whatever they were doing. They even continued to fight wars, lobbing the dead bodies of soldiers succumbing to Black Death "as cannon balls" over castle walls to make the enemy run away from the awful stench of decaying bodies (The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, by Peter Frankopan).
The heroics of humans have not just been their ability to survive the past pandemics. Humans did survive many cataclysmic natural events like floods, earthquakes, and tsunamis. Such incidents over the past centuries killed (in addition to pandemic deaths) more than 204 million people. But humans seemed to have conquered these incidents also. Cut down and fallen, they renewed their journey again, and forged ahead. Their courage and strength have been demonstrated again and again.
With this long experience of survival, man today should not be afraid of Covid-19. After all, has not man made great advances in science and technology? Are they not digging deep down the earth, exploring the deep seas and going under the polar caps to explore resources, and blasting off to the outer space searching for habitable places for colonisation? With the vast knowledge they possess, can't they blast their way to victory against this minute, invisible virus?! What a pity!
These conquests of humans underline their self-confidence, their relentless pursuit to complement their progress with more achievements. Covid-19 could hardly be a match for them, only if they could reach herd immunity. It hasn't been achieved yet but it seems not too far away from their reach either. Some frontrunners like Remdesivir, Hydroxychloroquine, and Avigan are having some teething problems; no less than 30 other drugs are under the watch list of the European Medicines Agency, and some may go for clinical tests soon. These show good promise for sound public healthcare needed for reaching herd immunity.
But we should not forget something: the real fight is not man versus nature, or man versus virus. It is man against man. The history of man's fight against themselves is full of dreaded stories. The death and destruction caused by man's greed and anger against one another, manifested in the form of colonisation, invasion, and wars of epic proportions, is a testament to man's cruelty, unsurpassed by nothing else.
A sense of invincibility has given man the arrogance to believe in themselves too much. Malthus believed that too, as he said: "The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction, and often finish the dreadful work themselves."
In the last few centuries, more than 655 million humans perished through wars, ethnic cleansing, political purges, political unrest, abuse of labour, slave trade, and forced labour. The count of death includes only the major wars and crimes; many more have died in conditions created by such hostilities. These figures represented much larger percentages of the global population in those days than the current Covid-19 figures do, which as of now stands only at about 0.4 percent of global population.
Man need not be afraid of Covid-19. They need to get their act together, not by spending trillions on killing machines, but by taking care of nature and the children of Mother Nature.
Atiqur Rahman is an economist, ex-Adjunct Professor at the John Cabot University, Rome, Italy, and ex-Lead Strategist of IFAD, Rome.