Exodus of migrant workers from Delhi (Photo: Ashish Sharma)
War wounds. War kills. Usually, indiscriminately. In quick time. It disrupts. It destroys. It creates a great deal of uncertainty. It is the worst reality for human beings. Unsurprisingly then, war—the metaphor, analogy and imagery—is being frequently deployed as the world battles a contagious virus. But this is different from war. Human beings know war; there have been plenty of very destructive ones in the last hundred years. As a herd or species, while we have no immunity to the physical and economic consequences of war, we do have psychological immunity. In the battle against Covid-19, we don’t. We are in unknown terrain. That is why we are unsure, even confused. And while we crave for better strategy, we won’t have one.
In war, the enemy is human. Now, it is a micro-organism. The enemy wants something, usually territory. The virus has no declared aim other than to multiply. There can be no negotiation or ceasefire with Covid-19. There is no option of neutrality or staying out. There is no question of surrender as a means of saving lives. And, our weapons are insufficient to rout it. In a war, we know the probabilities. With Covid-19, we don’t.
Some of what we know frightens us. The virus doesn’t attack directly from air or water. Instead, it goes incognito in a human body and then transmits. The ‘enemy’ therefore could be one’s family member, neighbour, office colleague or a random stranger. We also know that the virus is highly contagious, much more than its milder cousin, the season flu, and far more than other potentially killer viruses like SARS, Ebola and MERS. The chances of getting infected are high.
Some of what we know gives us comfort. The virus has an estimated mortality rate of around 1-2 per cent. In some countries, like Germany and South Korea, it is well under 1 per cent. In others, like Italy, it is closer to 8 per cent. The difference may be explained by the denominator—some countries are testing only severe cases while others are testing a much bigger set. It is safe to say that Covid-19 isn’t the deadliest virus we know—Ebola kills 50 per cent of those infected while MERS kills 30 per cent.
But then, if extrapolated, those very numbers may not be so comforting. The deadliest war in human history is World War II which was fought on every continent and killed around 3 per cent of the world’s population. Assuming half the world catches it before a vaccine or cure is found, in a worst-case scenario, around 0.5 per cent of the world’s population may be killed, which is a fraction of WW II’s fatality rate but hardly trivial.
There is only one way to stem the spread of the virus—social distancing—to keep people apart. Again, human beings are not programmed for this. Even in war, people come together physically, to fight, to organise essential services, to comfort. In Covid-19, the prescription is the opposite. It is bound to cause hardship given that society and economy are organised on, and productive because of, interaction.
In war, because there is some society-wide psychological immunity to what it entails, it is much easier for leaders to impose measures that may cause hardship. It is possible to take draconian measures like locking down cities, conscripting people to fight and ration essential supplies. One society summons deeply embedded nationalism, solidarity and sacrifice in times of war against another society which does the same. In war, people die for their country, for ideology, for a way of life or some greater cause. On the other hand, there is no meaning, justification or glory in being felled by a rampant virus.
In the end, countries have responded, and will continue to respond, to the challenge of Covid-19 depending on their levels of society-wide psychological immunity. There is a reason that the advanced countries of the West are faring badly. And it not because Donald Trump or Boris Johnson are incompetent. These societies are not hardwired for extreme hardship and draconian government actions. These are open societies, globalised economies with highly mobile, prosperous citizens. The cost of hardline social distancing through lockdowns early on would have been deemed too high. Even after the explosion, in cases, none of the Western countries are locked down like India is or China was. The advanced Western countries would find it equally hard to adopt the alternate approach of Singapore and South Korea which essentially uses extensive surveillance, contact tracing and strict quarantines to curb the spread of the virus. These would be viewed as Big Brother, intrusive big-state measures. In the end, it is only when the society’s tolerance for the increasing number of deaths and overcrowded hospitals breaks, do draconian measures kick in. By then, outcomes are poor and leadership looks hapless. The fact is that this pathway was inevitable.
Contrast this with how the emerging and the emerged economies of Asia have dealt with the crisis. Societies are more immune to draconian measures by the government as well as the dominant nature of the state. China’s highly secretive modus operandi let the virus loose. But the very same opacity and the immunity of Chinese society to it led to the most successful clampdown on the virus. The lockdown of Hubei, so brutally enforced, with people sealed off inside their buildings and dragged away to quarantine at the slightest hint of a fever, could only happen in China, which uniquely combines efficiency, opacity and brutality. And it is accepted by a majority of the people. South Korea and Singapore are ruled with a much lighter touch but there is an acceptance of the benevolent state and a tendency to follow instructions. In both cases, the people are wired to trust the state to deliver positive outcomes.
India is different from both. In what is an irony, it is an open society which is somewhat immune to a draconian state. Unlike in East Asia, people don’t always trust the government to do what is best for them. And perhaps, because of this, they are hardwired for bad news. India has an unusually high psychological immunity to unnatural death in large numbers. Around 1 million children under the age of five die in India every year but it does not move us to act decisively. Around 300,000 to 400,000 people die annually of tuberculosis. Some 150,000 die in road accidents but nobody is fighting a war on road safety. About 40,000 mothers die in childbirth. If India had a better healthcare infrastructure, it could have probably opted for a more limited lockdown strategy while enforcing social distancing. That may have meant a higher casualty rate but would have reduced the economic and social hardship. It may have found acceptance by a majority. In the end, a strong leader took a hard, and hardly easy, decision based on sound scientific advice to enforce a complete nationwide lockdown for three weeks.
But, in an open society, it is tough to enforce. The attempted mass migration of labour from cities to villages in the aftermath of the lockdown decision is not proof of the Government’s incompetence. Instead, it is evidence that in open societies people don’t always accept government diktat, especially if they find it unreasonable from their point of view. India’s poor are hardwired for bad news (on their economic, societal and health prospects). The death of a few thousand persons overseas and some hundreds in India does not sound like war to them. They would gladly sacrifice their livelihoods and stay put in uncertain circumstances, say in a war with Pakistan or China, but should they do the same for an imported virus apparently inflicting those who have travelled abroad just because the Government says so? And no government in India can simply lock them up or seal them in like China.
If the battle against Covid-19 were war, humanity would have won it by now. Eventually, we will defeat Covid-19 not with the kind of coherence that we crave.