COVID-19: An Overstaying Visitor without Visa

As the New Year 2021 unrolled, there were so many heart-felt prayers, longings, and high hopes for the better future safer medical protection, and total emancipation from Covid-19.

Feb. 16, 2021, 6:39 p.m. Published in Magazine Issue: VOL. 14 No. 13, February 26, 2021 (Falgun 14, 2077) Publisher: Keshab Prasad Poudel Online Register Number: DOI 584/074-75

New Year 2021 has Come but 2020 is Not Gone

The year 2021 has come but the year 2020 does not seem to be gone yet. The massive disruptions in daily life continue. The despairs of the masses keep getting worse as many of them are driven to utmost hardships, not being able to afford even their basic needs including food. The long lines of food distribution are an immensely painful sight – be it in developed countries or developing. The reported cases of mental depression and suicidal or near-suicidal tragedies are on the ascend in a global scale. Domestic violence, exploitation of women, and inadequate care for the children go unchecked. It has been a very stressful year unlike any other years before in our memories and experiences. As someone said, there are decades when nothing happens; and there are years when decades happen. Decades of hard-won gender-related achievements have been shattered in a matter of months. Regaining them is going to be a tough and time-consuming hard task again.

Income disparity within and among the nations is accelerating in favour of those who are already in the top echelon. In its most recent report, Oxfam laments that the collective wealth of the world’s billionaires increased from US$ 8 trillion to US$ 12 trillion within just nine months’ time from March to December 2020, almost like in a casino. The World Bank at the same time is warning that the same world’s 100 million people are at the risk of being driven to extreme poverty, and 72 million children to illiteracy. It makes a mockery of the rich; it underscores the humiliating agony of the millions of middle-income class professionals with their income stagnating for decades; it forewarns the pending social divides and difficulties ahead; and it emphatically displays major deficiencies in the system.

The problem does not lie in the making of fortune itself; the problem lies when the colossal wealth remains totally unshared with the less fortunate segments of the society. In Sanskrit, Atharvaveda says, “Shatah HastahSamaahara, Sahasra hastahSamkeera”. When it comes to wealth accumulation, it indeed encourages us to go ahead and make as much fortune as possible with hundred hands as though our two hands are not going to be enough. The shloka (or the verse), however, also cautions us not to stop there. It invigorates us and inspires us to be hugely compassionate in sharing the accumulated wealth to the neediest and poorest in the society who have been denied of such opportunities in their lives. The shloka stresses that our magnanimity must be so mighty to be requiring one thousand hands for philanthropic charity work because our two hands are going to be barely enough. After all, it has been hammered out time and again that philanthropy is not charity; it is social responsibility.

The impressive surge in the stock market is belying the people’s desperation in the real market. The shareholders’ surging profits in Wall Street are only contrasted by the stakeholders’ stagnating income on the main Street. Such a situation is being coined as “K shape recovery” where some sectors of the economy do significantly better (like technology, software, and finance industries) while some other sectors falter pretty harshly (like travel, aviation, hospitality, entertainment, and other service industries) leading to the splintering of the economy, and widening of the income chasm between the billionaires and the bottom-less poor. The fault line in the market economy under Capitalism is becoming increasingly obvious prompting CEO of AOL, Steve Case to stress that Capitalism for the poor and Socialism for the rich simply cannot sustain. It now needs rebooting. The pandemic continued since 2020 is exposing the structural flaws and weaknesses in the rich as well as poor economies alike.

As the year 2021 arrived, we all exchanged fake smiles and cheers amid our hardships, just to give a false pretension as if everything is okay with us. We ourselves have felt pain in the sufferings of others, as others may have felt the same way in our own sufferings. Now I understand why Maya Angelou must have titled her own autobiography book “I Know Why a Caged-Bird Sings”. Pathogensareunequivocally demonstrating time and again how humans are so fragile and vulnerable. They neither care about the man-made demarcation of an old year and a new year, nor they bother to honour the artificial borders imposed by countries.

Perhaps very few new years have been awaited with so much excitement and anticipation than the year 2021. Yet no new year’s excitements and anticipations have been as devastatingly overshadowed by the overhangs of the previous year as the year 2021. As the New Year 2021 unrolled, there were so many heartfelt prayers, longings, and high hopes for a better future, safer medical protection, and total emancipation from Covid-19. People craved economic security, and overall better days than in 2020. On the first day of the New Year 2021, I, like everyone else, following our grand old tradition, greeted many of my friends and family members with good health, progress, peace, and bliss. I dare say, that many others like me, were lying to some extent (with a good intention of course) while extending our mutual greetings to one another. Because it was only all too evident that the risks of ruins and fear from the viruses (old and new variants) that had started and spread during 2020 are still among us in 2021. Perhaps we all have been so fatigued with our cumulative harrowing experiences in 2020 that we simply wanted to be blanketed in some soothing comforts and assurances from one another, even if they were likely to be somewhat less true and less real. The year 2021 has come like false dawn – the dawn that has broken but the sunlight is yet to brighten the day.

An Uninvited Guest Imposing Unwanted Rituals

This pandemic has forced humans to alter structurally many of their rites and rituals, and norms and traditions. Suddenly, our basic ways of mutual greetings with handshakes have become unsafe. Paying visits and respects to the elders in the family have become a health threat to them. Human congregations have been made taboo, and social distancing from one another, a compulsion, rendering human physical intimacy a fade memory. Once-in-a-life-time events like wedding celebrations and university graduations of children and grandchildren now go unattended. Even the most heart-rending events like mortality and funerals now cannot be mourned in a decent manner with much-deserved deep respect for the departed souls. It is a great injustice indeed with no one to complain to, and nowhere to plead!

Face-to-face teaching between teachers and students is considered medically not recommendable. Virtual life led by tech-apps like zoom, live storm, join.me etc are replacing real human conferences and communications. Masking more than half of the face (which used to be the traits of terrorists, and bank robbers during the early days) is now mandatory. Working from home (WFH) has reduced friendship among our office-colleagues to the screen level. Business spaces are becoming not as important as before due to increasing automation. Likewise, workers’ physical presence in their offices is considered not so critical because of digital instruments like emails, virtual conferencing, google docs, chat channels, etc.

The CEOs of big corporations, however, seem to take satisfaction when they remark that their corporations are now seeing “productivity going through the roof”. However, there are also other CEOs like Staya Nadella of Microsoft who are concerned and feel that “Digital technology should not be a substitute for human connection”. Truly, it should not be ignored that there are many others who cannot resort to working from home either for their lack of skills, or simply due to the nature of their work as the frontline workers in the hospitals, and in many other basic service fields. So much of their services are demanded during the pandemic, and yet so less recognition is given to their works. Even lesser is their meager income for their daily high-risk works. These people thus get hurt more in the increasing shift of work from the office to home.

Yet, several of such practices are going to stay with us, even after the COVID 19 viruses will be gone for good. Many countries are already making it clear that wearing a mask, conducting as many official meetings virtually as possible, maintaining physical distancing, allowing no more than half of the staff in the office at any one time, and encouraging work from home are going to stay with us in the short to medium term. We have already started to address it as the so-called "new norm" and have already begun to adjust our life ahead accordingly. Interestingly, while the birds and beasts used to be, and are put to the cage in the zoos, humans now find themselves being increasingly caged at home as their official work confines them a large part of their time to home. These unfathomable changes are happening all in one year.

We All are in the Same Boat

We are already being warned, lest we all be caught mentally unprepared, that the elimination of the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to take four to five years, and only after that, any good degree of restoration of the pre-pandemic normalcy could be expected. This seems realistic and understandable. There are various vaccine-related issues that will need to be addressed during this period. These include the issues of possible vaccine supply constraint (nationally, globally or both), people’s shifting level of confidence in the efficacy of different brands of vaccines and their doses, their willingness or hesitation to take the shots, equitable distribution of vaccines to rich and poor countries alike, the institutional readiness of many developing countries to effectively handle the task of vaccines administration, etc. Addressing them is likely to take several years. Living in a shared world, no country can be considered fully safe until ALL countries are deemed safe.

Furthermore culturally, in some countries, people refuse to wear masks in the name of their individual rights and freedom. This puts not only the people in their countries at risk but also to the people in other countries, because viruses do not have respect for the country's borders and boundaries. Towards this, Kishore Mahbubani points out the contrast in high death from COVID-19 in the Western societies, where individual rights are valued vis-à-vis the Asian societies where social responsibilities are given priority. He stresses the high deaths per million of the population in Belgium that stands at 1,813, UK 1,559, Italy 1,465, the US 1,362, and France 1,164. By contrast, such figures for Taiwan are 0.3, China 3, South Korea 28, and Japan 45. Given this, it is only rational and prudent that social good and social responsibilities are given priority over individual freedom and preferences during a pandemic like this. Until then, getting the entire world vaccinated is going to be neither quick nor easy. As a result. viruses get more time to mutate. Already new variants have been found in several countries making the task of universal vaccination that much more complex uphill task.

Additionally, the “vaccine nationalism” has started showing the ugly part of humanity as rich countries have begun reserving a large number of vaccines as early as mid-2020, long before the vaccines were even approved. The rich countries, accounting for no more than 14% of the world population, had already secured, in advance, 53% of the global vaccines’ supplies. Canada, for instance, had pre-reserved 8.9 doses per head of vaccines, or enough to vaccinate its entire population over five times. The similar figures for the US stood at 7.3 doses per head or enough to vaccinate every American nearly three times. The sloppy vaccine distribution would mean some 90% of the people in dozens of poor countries would not be having enough vaccines for “years to come” according to Anna Marriott, Oxfam’s Health Manager. These poor countries would not have enough vaccines even for their health workers and others in the frontline services. This has prompted Amnesty International to make a sad and sorry observation - “By buying up the vast majority of the world’s vaccine supply, rich countries are in breach of their human rights obligations”.

Ironically, the nature of this pandemic is such that irrespective of the massive vaccine purchase by the rich countries in advance, they cannot feel safe until all the non-rich countries are also made equally safe. Bill Gates rightly says, “Like it or not, we are all in this together”.Therefore, it is in global interest that the vaccines are recognized as a public good and be treated accordingly rolling out vaccines evenly among all the countries with no differentiation and discrimination of any kind.

In this context, Covax is a noble global initiative aimed at promoting international cooperation. and ensuring equitable vaccine distribution to all. Covax, however, remains grossly underfunded. It pays to the world to make this initiative a global success. Given the pervasive nature of this pandemic, and in view of the global threat it poses, a proposal submitted to the WTO General Council jointly by India and South Africa in early December 2020, for waiving the Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) for COVID-19 vaccines, deserves a serious consideration not only on the humanitarian ground but also on the vested interest, and financial ground for the rich countries. For instance, IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva sees significant global financial gains in the quick universal vaccination. She recently remarked, “This (9 trillion dollars) is what we gain between now and 2025 if we accelerate vaccination across the world. Of this, 60% would go to low-income countries and emerging markets, and 40% would go to advanced economies”.

Finding Happiness in Paltry – Not Plenty

Living in limited space under repeated lockdowns for over a year now, it becomes only natural for many of us to reflect on the concept of physical space - what it means when we have it, and what it means when we lack it. We begin to wonder on an even more basic notion of how much of the space is enough space for us, and in how little space, we can still manage ourselves adequately and sufficiently. What comes to our mind is Neil Armstrong, who upon landing on the moon, immortalized those words – “That is one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind”.Thereby he uplifted the entire humanity’s space venture to a different level altogether. He, and many other astronauts, have spent weeks and months in a cone-shaped narrow spacecraft of normally “a maximum diameter of 3.9 m at its base and a height of 3.65 m”. In the constraint of the physical space, they all have succeeded in their missions (barring a very few mishaps which were beyond their control).

Our imagination also runs through the lives of those hundreds of submariners in the submarines who carry out their assignments several months without break, together with their hundreds of colleagues, in the congestion of an elongated metal trunk in the stillness and darkness, deep under the water without ever getting to see the light of the day. During my own personal student days at the East-West Center in Honolulu, I have personally been inside a military submarine and seen the lives of those submariners. In reply to my dumb or innocent query about how their life is in a highly narrow submarine in the depth of the Pacific Ocean, I remember one submarine simply telling me - “dark, deep and quiet” but managing well.

Finally, the towering Nelson Mandela comes to our mind who had spent 27 years of jailed life in a prison cell in Robbin Island in South Africa. Of this,18 years was in a cell, the size of which was estimated at a mere 8 feet by 7 feet. The endurance of a man with a height of 6 feet 4 inches, spending 18 years in that claustrophobic cell defies the human imagination. However, what the cramped claustrophobic cell had denied him, namely, the free and open space -Nelson Mandela had found the limitless space and freedom within himself -in his own mental universe. This internal freedom kept his spirits unbowed, his courage was undeterred, and his dreams and ambitions intact. Most of all, he walked out of the prison cell with absolutely zero revenge feelings towards his jailors, who had robbed him of more than a quarter-century of his life.

Nelson Mandela had become, inside the prison cell, what Geeta calls a “Sthitapragyana”, someone above the dualities in life – someone to whom pleasure and pain, loss and gain, shame and fame are just the same. To him, there is no difference between the rich and poor, weak and strong, big and small. From the meditative silence in that cramped cell, Mandela came out wiser, nobler, and bigger ever, expanding not just his own boundary, but the boundary of the entire humanity. He displayed that in how scanty space, and in how paltry little trifle things, humans can survive,and indeed thrive with a great sense of equanimity and serene happiness – something which people fail to find amid abundance and plenty outside. Those fortunate few, whoever found the joyful happiness, always found it within themselves, and never outside of them. As we tend to despair in our prolonged lockdowns, we derive a great sense of relief by contemplating on these great souls.

Freedom in Lockdown

In our reflection and rumination during the lockdown, we may see things that we had not noted before. Suddenly we notice how it took super tiny pathogens, which are not even visible to our naked eyes, to awaken us, unmistakably, that irrespective of whether we live in rich countries or poor countries, and whether we are of white, brown, or dark coloured skin, or with huge amass of wealth or no wealth, we are all deeply and biologically intertwined to one another. We all are equally vulnerable to the prevailing viruses. Oblivious of such interlinkages, and in our own gross naivety, we assume life as a zero-sum game where one can only gain if we make the other party lose.We submerge ourselves in what John Kenneth Galbraith calls the “carnival of greed”. We dump any sense of our compassion in the trash can as we pursue the endless game of greed where the expression “enough” simply does not exist.

In truth, in the interconnection of humans, life is a win-win game with both sides coming out as winners. If we have not explored and engaged our thinking along this line before, it is high time that we do so now under the shadow of the vicious pandemic. This change of heart, if it happens, could be a hugely positive outcome of the otherwise horrendous COVID-19 pandemic. If we could attain such inclusive and embracive attitude, with sincere empathy towards other humans, this could be the most effective answer to many of the COVID-highlighted social structural challenges like the exacerbating income inequality, the mindless exploitation of the children and women, wanton and careless assault on the environment, and many more.

The Sanskrit great poet Kalidas, in one of his acclaimed literary works, “Kumarasambhavam”, emphasizes that“Dharma”, or all good actions start with good health.“Shariram Khalu Dharma Saadhanam”. However, despite such ancient guidance, the pandemic has exposed how hopelessly ill-prepared we humans have been in terms of keeping our health infrastructure safe, sound, sufficient, and reliable. Due to such lacking, the overhanging shadow of human mortality has never been felt as close to us at any time in our living memory. Every human effort and attention are now focused on minimizing the risk of contracting COVID-19from others or transmitting to others. “Stay Safe and Stay Healthy” has become our mutual wish and normal greetings to one another. In other words, just remaining healthy or mere survival has become a strong indicator of our achievement. That is quite a downward adjustment of our aspirations.

Having referred to the ugly part of humanity earlier in the context of “vaccine nationalism”, it is only appropriate to emphasize some noble side of humanity as well. This lies in the endless human ingenuity. As humans develop increasing resistance to antibiotics, science is already designing the “next generation of antibiotics”, nudging humans towards a post-antibiotic regime. Likewise, similar progress is being accomplished in scientific research on pathogens towards expediting the vaccine manufacturing process – a process being called “messenger-RNA (mRNA). Under this technology, the human body is used as a shortcut to the vaccine manufacturing process. In the past, a factory was needed to make the protein, thus took a long time to grow them. However, with mRNA, the human body itself now acts as the factory. The co-founder of Moderna and MIT Prof. Robert Lange remarks, “With messenger RNA, the human body does all the manufacturing itself so you can create a vaccine much more rapidly…..When injected into the body, the RNA enters the cells, and the cells make the protein which is the vaccine”.

It will be humanity’s victory over the pandemic if two things could be brought together - human ingenuity on technology on the one hand, and humanity’s awakening to the importance of social responsibilities over individual rights on the other. After all, humans live and thrive in society. In society, there are times when individual rights and freedom take priority over social norms. There are times when the reverse will be the case. The extent of individual rights and freedom stops when their pursuance results in larger social harm. The pandemic has brought us to such a point now. If this could be well understood and appreciated, we are bound to sail to the shore of safety beyond the reach of the current and future pathogens.

Finally, I am tempted to quote again a Sanskrit shloka from one of the ancient scriptures. The meaning and spirit behind this shloka uplift us above our egoistic little self. Our love, kindness and compassion become so large to be able to embrace the entire humanity. It makes us realize that however tiny we all are, we are still part of the infinite universe.

“Lokah Samastah Sukhinah Bhavantu”

May one and all on this planet be holistically happy and fulfilled. Let happiness and fulfillment be everywhere.!!!

Singapore 01 February 2021

Omkar Shrestha can be reached at omkar.shrestha@gmail.com

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