Humanity has come a long way. The path to survival and existence is treacherous and never-ending. We have always feared death or had a desire to escape it. Mythical stories of every culture talk about some kind of soma, amrit or ambrosia — the elixir of life that can make a human immortal. With series of wars and historical conquests in different epochs of history, development in new kinds of weaponry — from stone and metal to biological weapons — were seen in large numbers.
However, when humans started meddling with nature, it brought its wrath on us. This wrath is sometimes in the form of big disasters such as earthquakes, floods or forest fires. On the other hand, it can come to us in the smallest of forms such as a flea or a microorganism. During black death, people thought it was the work of some evil force and could not believe it to be a flea which engulfed an entire armada.
Pandemics, or even epidemics, have had a great influence in shaping the history, politics and economy of the world. In the Justinian plague recorded in the sixth century, the entire Byzantine empire was brought to its knees. By the time the plague disappeared, the empire had lost its territories.
One of the biggest turning points was after black death, which weakened the clergy and paved the way for scientific revolution. The Spanish flu of 1918 killed upto 50 million people. It also thrashed the German force in World War I. In his memoir, General Erich Ludendorff wrote, “The flu was one of the reasons for Germany’s defeat.”
Over the last few years, the world has been alarmed by some potential plague. SARS in 2003 was anticipated to be the new black death, though it was successfully contained. Viruses such as Ebola had sent a shockwave to Africa’s social and economic development. However, a few months ago, humanity’s race to achieve immortality and supremacy was abruptly postponed by a novel virus. Interestingly, a virus is neither a living nor a non-living being. A confused entity like this has threatened the existence of the very identity of our entire civilisation.
How much advancement is enough? Covid-19 has proved that technology cannot make us invincible. It is evident from our history textbooks that whenever we have faced any kind of setback, we have fought through it with a new invention — be it creation of antibiotics, smartphones or nuclear weapons. All the pandemics before have been dealt with a perfect medication. This time, the case is too complex. In order to fight, it is imperative to know its beginning, i.e. the cause. However, the important clue for this, the source of the virus, is still unavailable.
As fast as we are climbing the ladder of development, the downfall caused by diseases is also getting massive. Today, a pandemic has become the only cause of a potential economic recession. Even during a war or national emergency, our forefathers and parents have never been in a situation of house arrest for such a long time. A microscopic virus has on its own brought an energy crisis, with oil prices coming down. The roar of the bull in the share market has also vanished.
The changes because of the pandemic are not just in terms of the economy. Every aspect of our daily lives has been changed, ranging from social customs to fashion. Masks with new patterns and materials are now flooding on Instagram posts as the outfit of the day. Eventually, we will also make truce with a more virtual connection to the world. Confinement will become ‘the new normal’.
We have surpassed the age of information technology, but the sources to find a piece of information are now aplenty. Too much content, with false news, has opened up a loophole in the process of development. Confusion and chaos over a pandemic will become difficult for political systems to bring in any measures. Hate speeches and spread of prejudice about a particular section of society have widened the gap and made the target group more susceptible to death.
In the book The Great Leveller, historian Walter Schidel credited Black Death for improving the lives of the serfs. He considers the medieval pandemic to be one of the pillars that flattened inequality in that age. But sadly, the coronavirus has widened this gap, discriminately affecting the lives of the poor, women and migrant labourers.
In the pre-pandemic world, globalisation was considered the ‘new world order’. However, the idea of nation-state and its territorial integrity has now resurfaced after the pandemic. This time, there will be reshuffling of global superpowers because of a virus. Asian countries including China and South Korea have a better chance now at becoming a hegemon.
During the 1962 Cold War, the world stifled when it heard about a confrontation near Cuba. However, we were saved by a Third World War. Treaties and agreements were laid down to let go of nuclear weapons. However, we were forced to break the rules and recreate ourselves. In the age of biotechnology, there are huge chances of chemical and biological weapons starting a war rather than nuclear explosions.
After the ‘Manhattan Project’, physicist Robert Oppenheimer said, ‘Now I became Death, the destroyer of the world.’ Later, the father of atomic bombs was blacklisted for opposing the hydrogen bombs. He was right in anticipating the exodus of humanity with the launching of nuclear weapons. Speculation about the novel virus being a weapon is still in the air. However, for the first time, an outbreak has brought in enmity and suspicion among countries.
Black Death, after which the global system took almost a century to recover, is remembered to this day in the ubiquitous children rhyme “Ringa Ringa Roses”. Roses refers to buboes and all fall down refers to the millions of victims of it. However, people recovered from its trauma and built the world again. Only time will tell how the new virus will be remembered — whether it will be recalled as a child’s play or the greatest blunder of humans of the 21st century.