A certain tale about uncertainties

It is March 25, 2020. The day I turn 39, and also the one when India begins the biggest social experiment in the history of mankind. Too strong a statement? Perhaps, it will sound so to someone in the distant future, one whose knowledge about what we are going through today, will be nothing more than an oft-repeated voice of memory of a slowly fading grandparent. Indeed, like the world wars are to us today. I do hope, with all sincerity, that we reach such a future sooner rather than later. Where the world begins to make sense once again. And that really is the hallmark of our times — things have simply stopped making sense. The world we were born into and raised, no matter how lopsided, violent, or unjust, it still made sense to our collective conscious. While the few good ones amongst us fought to make it a better world, the idea of life and living stayed true for all. Until now, that is. Within months, this universal idea has been turned upside down. It’s true, what they say. One doesn’t understand the meaning of losing perspective, until one has already lost it. I can now imagine, what it must have felt for the people in the throes of the great depression, the great Bengal famine, the world war, the holocaust, and the historical likes. Yet, the present is even more disheartening by all measures, even, and especially, by an intellectual one. The reason, pay close attention, lies in how entirely predictable the current crisis truly was. Yep, read that again — Covid-19 is probably the most predictable global event of our times. So much so, that a student of medical science, one with even a half-baked understanding of statistical probability, could have written an undergraduate paper predicting the outbreak. Granted, the “when” of it was impossible to nail, the “if” of it, however, was a foregone medical, statistical, and mathematical conclusion.

Science interlude. There are literally millions of viruses in the animal kingdom — of which, we know about barely 3000, or thereabouts. The rest of it, we simply know that we don’t know. And not knowing them also means our bodies have no way of identifying them. Consequently, there is no way of treating it when it does arrive. The whole thing is painfully obvious, and again, not just in hindsight, but as readily available historical and empirical evidence. After all, it has happened over and over again since time immemorial. The bubonic plague, the Spanish flu, swine flu, ebola, SARS, and so on. Every single one of them is an example of a virus jumping from animals to humans. So, the question essentially becomes, with all the advances in technology and progress in our day-to-day lives, isn’t it important for us to direct our efforts towards predicting, preventing, and once and for all eradicating such outbreaks? Well, yes, the scientific community for one, is doing its bit. In 2017, when CEPI — Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations was launched, Nature magazine called it “by far the largest vaccine development initiative ever against viruses that are potential epidemic threats”. R&D is also underway for some time to develop what are called Universal Flu Vaccines — a single flu shot that will immunise humans against all possible viruses. It may sound like fantasy, especially in times that we live and struggle in today, however, science has managed to surprise us a lot more. Having said that, science sets its own pace, and more often than not, it isn’t the pace of our needs. Breakthroughs will happen when breakthroughs will happen. And not before. So, in the meantime, what can we, the sitting ducks do. To be fair, after the SARS outbreak, the WHO tried to framework a policy specifically towards something that can be done. It got nearly 196 countries together and had them vow to put in place a system that will improve their abilities to detect, assess, and report public health events. However, more 10 years later, only a third of the countries were anywhere close to being complaint. Of course, had it only been a few bad apples, better still if they were only in the ‘third-world’, it would’ve been easier to put the tardiness down to the usual suspects of ineffective governance, illiteracy, corruption, and so on. But that wasn’t the case. Many countries in the prized and matured ‘first-world’ list were among the culprits. How could this be? What causes much of the world to be inert regarding such a pressing commitment? The answer, once again, is painfully mundane and all too obvious — human nature. We humans, work better with timelines, with goals stated and defined ahead of time. We are hard wired to the KRA mode of functioning. And to a large extent, it’s understandable. Well-defined goals and timelines allow us to quantify parameters of success and failure, which in turn allows us to improve. Unfortunately, in the pandemic worksheet, everything is open. There isn’t a clear time horizon, even an approximate one. There are no predefined criteria that we can set, be it in terms of where it will originate, how it will spread, or how it will affect humans. And therein lies the problem. A pandemic, by its very nature, is a problem of tomorrow, until that is, it happens today. And this is precisely why, it takes incredible discipline for a country to allocate time and resource in the now when it can so easily be put off until later. However, what is shocking, is the complete unwillingness of some countries to fix even the most understood and proven of mistakes of the past. The Chinese wet markets are a glaring case in point. It is an undisputed fact that it isn’t easy for viruses to jump species. Had it been so, the world’s population would’ve long ended— the viruses, too, having run out of species that can host their spread. No, the viruses can’t make the jump until exceedingly favourable circumstances are created for it. For one, they need a place where different species congregate together. Next, is the necessity of tangible modes of transmission between species. Finally, a clear path to jump into humans. Once, all of these conditions are met, then, the virus in all its gratitude, can take it from there. And the Chinese wet markets lovingly oblige on all scores. A ‘wet’ market, by its very name, means a market that’s filled with ooze of all kinds. The animals in the market aren’t dead when they are brought there. They are slaughtered at the point-of-sale, every single day, every waking hour. And this scenario is rife with countless viral possibilities. As different animals are soaked in each other’s blood, excrement, pus, mucus, and other convenient viral petri dishes, they make their smooth passage to another species. What’s more, these Chinese wet markets aren’t home to only the poor, soon-to-be-fried-delightful chickens. There are snakes and mongrels. Bats and bears. Lizards and even roaches. It truly is, a virus’s ‘wet’ dream — all puns intended. Finally, a simple lack of protective gear such as gloves and masks, is good enough to complete the last mile journey of the virus into us, humans. And viola! stick-a-fork-in-us, the human’s done. The Chinese government did close down thousands of wet markets around the country after the SARS outbreak, however, as soon as it became yesterday’s problem, the markets were back in full force, that is until it once again became today’s problem with Covid-19. Now, before someone comments, and rightly so, that this isn’t the only way for viruses to spread into human — and it isn’t, there are many other possibilities such as increasing deforestation, expanding urbanisation, mining exploration, etc. are all valid contenders — however, the question still remains on why someone would continue to do the exact same thing that has been established beyond any reasonable doubt to be the reason for some previous pandemics?

Coming back to the world’s biggest social experiment. It turns out the only strategy against a virus pandemic, well, not exactly a strategy but more like the only, lousy option, is to cage ourselves in our homes. Ironic, that the animals that we humans cage, can in the end cage us right back. And just like we kill to consume them, they, with the help of viruses, consume us to death from within. Maybe, this is every vegetarian’s I-told-you-so moment. Of course, they aren’t saying it, it’s difficult to indulge in such pleasures when you’re battling for survival. Even more ironic, possibly, is the fact that the biggest social experiment is about being asocial. India, just like many other countries, has gone into a complete lockdown, in a desperate bid to contain the virus. Read that again, to contain the virus, not erase it, because there’s no way to do the latter, yet. It is, at best, different governments pleading with their citizens to not make lives more difficult than what it has already become. Of course, like in any situation, there will be outliers. People who will defy the plea and go out, after all, in times like these, human nature is as much an enemy as the virus itself. It is also human nature that will give rise to further xenophobia, paint a racist colour on all Chinese and Chinese looking people as cancer of the society. It is sure to happen in India, too, where the North Easterners will bear brunt for their oriental features. Creation myths indeed require devils. Of course, it is also people venting their anger and helplessness of the present situation. Locked in their houses, unable to breathe without fear, unable to step out without warning, people are beginning to fight their own demons in solitude. And demons of relationships in families, or simply the demon of boredom, fatigue, and familiarity. However, there is a genuine culprit, on whom the blame can squarely be placed. And that is the Chinese Communist Party — not the Chinese people but their one party, dictatorial government, whose oxymoronic active impotency, has jeopardised the entire human race. Not only did they not close down or at the very least fundamentally alter the wet markets, they also tried in a dictatorial regime’s stereotypical way, to suppress the news and information about the outbreak. Remember, the WHO initiative of getting countries to build a better system around public health events? CCP has taken the diametrically opposite initiative on its own. And little wonder that the Chinese propaganda machine is already working overtime to paint the spread as a ‘foreign power’ conspiracy to its citizens. Perhaps, locked down in our houses around the world, this would be a good time to crowdsource ideas to bring down the CCP.

So, how does it all end? Well, from a pure academic lens, there are 3 ways a pandemic can end, including possible combinations.

  1. Vaccine — this is, of course, the best case scenario. We finally develop a cure. However, even in the most optimistic timeline, by the time you and I are able to get a shot, it’s likely to be 24 months, if not more.
  2. Rewire — in this scenario, the world shifts its axis of behaviour. Social distancing becomes the new normal, business, and people find a way to work around the whole thing. In the process, reimagining and fundamentally rewiring many industries. Of course, this is a slow burn, not to mention the massive disruption for the foreseeable future.
  3. Let go — we let the virus run amuck. Let it rip through the world population and let it run its course, until enough people are exposed, and the ones who survive develop a ‘herd immunity’, and their bodies adapt to fight Covid-19 on its own. As pessimistic as it sounds, this is also the most realistic of all situations.

Or, we get lucky and one fine day, the virus starts dissipating on its own. For one, it has a precedent. The SARS pandemic ended like that. However, luck while an extremely lucky break, is never the best way out of a tough spot. After all, let alone Covid-19, we still don’t know how to fight SARS. If it were to reoccur right now, sorry to sound so morbid, then we as a race are truly done for. And that’s also why any of the above scenarios or its combination, while immeasurably more inconvenient than luck, are the only hope in the long run. I, for sure, am hoping that we figure out which way we are headed, at least by March 25, 2021 — I’ll turn 40 then, and I’ve got big plans for entering that milestone — only this time, it’s likely to be a milestone as much for the world as it will be for me.