A masked problem tests humanity

By Mukesh Sharma

Beijing, Jan 22 (IANS): Time was when nobody would have thought that a virus would get embroiled not only in pathogenesis and polymerase chain reaction (PCR), but also in geopolitics and realpolitik.

It is a global phenomenon -- like malaria and AIDS -- but goes beyond the trappings of earthly common sense.

Ask whimsical Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, who appeared in a public service ad exhorting people to get vaccinated, or Home Minister Amit Shah, who seemed quite at home campaigning for state elections, both without a mask.

The virus which caused Covid-19 is a retrovirus -- one which has become a retrofit for global politics and strategic relations among nations.

The ability to live by social norms propounded by the most famous philosopher across the Himalayas has been thrown to the winds across the globe. Confucius, who lived from 551 to 479 B.C., emphasised righteousness and propriety, and the country he came from is seen to be the place where the novel Coronavirus originated.

Thousands of miles away in a constitutional monarchy, a prime minister is in trouble for hosting a party in the backyard of his official residence in London as the country that once boasted one of the best healthcare systems in the world struggles to come to terms with the recklessness of its leader.

The Etonian Johnson threw a bash where no one wore masks and social distancing norms were thrown to party goers' whims and fancies. Ten Downing Street is thwarting attacks from Boris Johnson's peers within his Conservative Party and it might take a miracle for the fumbling Johnson to save his scalp. According to leading pollsters YouGov, Johnson's net favourability rating went from +29 per cent in April 2020 to -52 per cent last week.

China has gone beyond denying its culpability. The country is fighting the virus and its aftermath by going for mass testing and contact tracing. Besides sporadic cases in Beijing, the tourist city of Xian that houses the Terracotta Warriors has been badly hit. And the southern city of Zhenguan has seen people being quarantined at home after visiting high-risk areas.

Wang Huiqin, who works for state media, regrets having visited a high-risk zone. She thinks the epidemic has peaked and is trying to come to terms with her home isolation.

However, Amna Pervaiz Rao is very positive despite travelling with her two-year-old as Omicron cases keep mounting across the world. Rao, who is based in Doha but travelled to Europe, believes that as new variants of Covid emerge, the intensity of the affliction decreases.

"I think we have to take Covid in our stride and move on as time passes," says the English Editor with Qatar University.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the contagion has taken a toll on the United States more than Joe Biden's indiscretions over Ukraine have riled Vladimir Putin. The US President's comment that whether Russia will attack Ukraine would 'depend on which side of the bed Putin wakes up on' created a brouhaha enough to bring down the press briefing room of the White House.

Politics, as they say, is not the last refuge of the most virtuous. In this respect, Lebanon seems to be the least bothered. Its currency has lost 90 percent of its value -- reason enough for the Lebanese to shun the anxiety which comes with the proliferation of the virus or its latest mutation -- Omicron.

Qatar, which hosts the FIFA World Cup in November this year, is taking measures to bring down the number of cases that have been recently rising. Countries, especially the smaller ones, might be eyeing herd immunity.

In the Indian subcontinent, where relatively easy border permeability gives rise to a floating population, herd immunity could be a utopia. A large proportion of the population in Qatar comes from India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, et al. The Gulf state's 2.7 million people could benefit from herd immunity.

"Omicron has changed the view on Covid. Earlier, people were withdrawn and isolated. Now, they are no longer inhibited. A very large part of the population has been infected by the virus, so we are going toward herd immunity," says Fazeeha Ashkar, an Ayurvedic doctor from Kerala.

In fact, experts say, Omicron has led to stronger immunity and so the next time there is a pathogen that threatens the population, we may be able to take it on in a better way.

As Putin's Russia takes on the West in a festering dispute related to the eastward expansion of NATO, Moscow mayor Sergey Sobyanin has urged 30 per cent of employees to work online.

Broadcast journalist Anastasia Osipova says the situation is not good.

"The Covid situation is grim and I don't see any imminent improvement," says Osipova, who is based in Moscow and often travels to neighbouring CIS nations.

The number of cases in Russia is about 57,000, according to an official source.

As predictions abound for the course of the pandemic, one remembers Lebanese-American academic Nassim Nicholas Taleb of the University of Massachussetts. His theory of 'Empty Suits', so-called experts who make money often from faulty projections and extrapolations, is most relevant today.

As societal norms have been masked by the affliction and ‘social distance' has acquired a new meaning -- much away from what sociologist Georg Simmel wanted it to be, even doctors and medicine experts don't know where humanity is headed. Probably their trade hasn't given them enough epistemic abilities to forecast the future, as Taleb, the Dean's Professor in the sciences of uncertainty, would likely say.

Talking of trade, despite tensions between India and China and the uproar over the pandemic, bilateral trade is at an all-time high -- a leap of 46 percent.

As Alexander Pope would say today: For forms of the virus let fools contest, whatever best administered is the best.



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