Day 56: Our fragility

19/05/2020

Day 56

The world of today looks very different from the first day that Indians entered the lockdown. India has crossed 100,000 mark for cases of coronavirus infections. 3303 lives have been lost. The latest big victim of the virus is Brazil. In a span of a week the virus has burned through its population. They have lost 17,983 lives and have 271,885 confirmed cases. The Lancet reports that the estimated doubling of the rate of deaths is about 5 days. Imperial College estimates the rate of transmission (R0) at 2.81. This is the highest in the world. The country’s president seems to have got their emergency response completely messed up, first, by underestimating the potential damage that the virus can do to Brazilians and then by removing his health ministers twice in a row. 

It is as though the virus is working its way through the planet one region at a time. While sitting in this part of the world, we haven’t yet witnessed the brute force with which the pandemic can claim lives, we have experienced the eerie silence of our cities. The impact of what has happened in the last two months, in our cities and in the world is being realized. Human beings may be resilient, but there is tremendous fragility in the lives that we have built around us. The way this fragility ripples through the economy to our homes reveals a portrait of our civilisation in the year 2020. Why did we have to leverage so much? Businesses over leveraged their balance sheets. They justify their dividends even in times of crisis, even as some of their employees huddle around with their families anxious about meeting the monthly bills. We justify shareholder rights to corporations even as every legal system in the modern world claims itself to be founded on principles of fraternity. The selective sense of fraternity stands exposed. 

A cohesive social fabric could have been society’s mask against this pandemic. This collective mask also ran short in supply unsurprisingly. The current generation has been so consumed with itself that it has gone about raising debt recklessly. Early last month, in his Harper Lecture, Raghuram Rajan raised concerns of inter-generational equity in the way many governments have put together extraordinary economic relief packages for their economies. Someone will have to pay. Raising debt and spending comes easy to this generation which is consumed with itself. The national debts will be inherited by the next generation in addition to old age care for the current. Are we thinking about it?

Coping from this crisis may not be easy for many of us. No one will come out untouched or unscathed. Experiences are good teachers. This is a teachable moment. If anything, as individuals and as families we might want to reconsider our consumption and our over comfortable lives at the expense of discounted prices that are offered on the skin of the most powerless of workers. The resources that are used for manufacturing these consumer goods also tend to get built on the lands and resources of the most powerless of settled populations. 

It is astounding to see the number of fronts on which the exposure of our fragility and vulnerability is happening. Agreeing to it may not be easy. Committing to a less thoughtless living can be a start.

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