IF IT SEEMS the current pandemic is unlike anything ever seen before, then try guessing the number of people who had been infected by the H1N1 or swine flu virus just ten years ago, in 2009. A million? 10 million? 100 million? How about 1.4 billion human beings? That was the upper range estimate for some studies and the lower range was 700 million. That means out of every seven human beings who lived, one got infected. And yet who among us even remembered H1N1 until Covid-19 struck? Unlike Covid-19, which spares the young and healthy, H1N1 made no such allowance. It might have killed as many as half-a-million. If so many had been infected, then it is quite possible many of us too had it and didn’t recognise we were a statistic of a pandemic. We also don’t remember being a prisoner of fear in a quarantined home, or jobs hanging by a thread.
Even though H1N1 had killed half-a-million people, within a few years there were studies and media reports asking whether there had been alarmism in the response to it. That was without any of the incredible measures seen today. Whether the world is now right in going into lockdown will only find its answer when the pandemic has passed. You can only find an analogy to such organised global measures in the World Wars of the earlier century and despite it, the pandemic might continue for a year or two. Social distancing doesn’t do much to the probability of someone contracting the disease eventually, only in reducing the burdening on the healthcare infrastructure.
No one really knows what will happen after the present shutdowns are lifted. The success of Wuhan isn’t guarantee that another wave will not follow. The virus can strike again every single place once the restrictions are lifted. Does that then mean, as some experts have suggested, a relentless series of shutdowns of entire nations would be necessary until a vaccine becomes available a year-and-a-half-or-two away? What will that do to the global economy? The millions of businesses that go bankrupt, the livelihoods lost and certain recession. If the developed nations struggle to remain economically afloat, that means loss of aid for impoverished nations, which then is more starvation, malnutrition, diseases and death. Also, even in first world countries, with healthcare resources committed entirely to one disease, what about all the others that claim many more lives than Covid-19 at present? These are deaths not from the virus itself.
Actions that come out of preparing for the unknown, the psychological driver of the global panic, have potential to inflict as much damage as the pandemic itself. An immediate cure or vaccine would make the question go away but without them, there will come a point soon when the world will have to decide what is hurting it more, the disease or the fear of it.