Historian Helen Carr has pointed out that “the practice of quarantine is nothing new.” It was used alongside other measures in the 14th century to curb the disease that became known as Black Death. The novel coronavirus has leaped from the Chinese seafood and poultry marketplace to become a “global health emergency”. At first, it wasn’t taken seriously. The first case was reported on January 30. But the Indian government stirred into action only after March 11, when the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 as a pandemic.
The managers of this pandemic are fond of using the word “war”. But if it were a war, who would have been better equipped to win it than the US of A? If it were not masks, gloves and hydroxychloroquine that health workers needed, but nuclear bombs, fighter jets, ballistic missiles, drones, smart bombs, bunker busters, would there be a shortage?
Questions are being asked that why do humans face such deadly diseases time and again? Is it something related to the degradation of the environment and loss of biodiversity? Many scientists and researchers think it is. It may be possible that human activities for development, such as road building, mining, shipping, etc., are unleashing new terrors today. According to David Quammen, author of Spillover, “We invade tropical forests and other wild landscapes, which harbor so many species of animals and plants – and within those creatures, so many unknown viruses…. We cut trees, we kill animals or cage them and send them to markets. We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.” The outbreaks of animal-borne contagious diseases such as Ebola, Sars, bird flu and now Covid-19, are evidence that pathogens are transferring from animals to humans. The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that three-quarters of new or evolving infections and diseases originated in animals. The “wet market” in Wuhan where various wild animals, such as squirrels, foxes, scorpions, rats, civets, crocodiles, live wolf pups, salamanders, monkeys, and turtles, were sold.
The corona crisis is still to spread through the length and breadth of India. But if and when it does, we can be certain it will be dealt with, with all the prevalent prejudices of religion, caste, and class entirely in place. The mainstream media has already fused the Covid-19 story with its 24/7 toxic anti-Muslim tirade. The Tablighi Jamaat has been declared to be a “super spreader”. Each day, the pandemic is being used by the media to stigmatise, stereotype, and demonise the Muslim community. The general tone is that Muslims invented the coronavirus and have intentionally spread it as a form of “bio jihad”.
We need to move fast and decisively to prevent further damage to both the economy and society. This requires integrated and large-scale policies with special focus on employment and income generation. We can choose to do so while carrying on our backs the burdens of prejudice and hatred; or we can walk lightly, with little baggage, and prepare for a new, better world.
The writer is a research scholar, Department of History and Culture, Jamia Millia Islamia. [email protected]