Message from a Mutating Virus

In early March of this year, I was in a hospital bed in Delhi for a week following a COVID diagnosis. This was just about four weeks before the second wave hit the country, showcasing the dystopic deadliness of the virus. It was strangely calm at that time with fewer than 10 COVID patients at the facility; the same hospital was recently treating close to 400. 

I’d occasionally chat with the nurses who recalled the “COVID times” earlier in the year when each nurse had to attend to up to a dozen patients at a time. But thankfully, they said, that was in the past and the virus had been controlled. Later, I thought of those nurses and how in a mere few weeks their lives had been upended, of the nightmare they were living through. How many patients were they attending to during the latest peak, 25, 30, 40? Were they themselves okay? Not all of them had been vaccinated. 

Maybe because I inhabited the calm before the Indian storm, I couldn’t trust or respect the current sense of wellbeing in the US. Yes, it’s different with nearly half the population vaccinated and a falling positive rate. But the Indian mutant, as other mutants, was already among us. Are the vaccines powerful enough? They can be tweaked, we’ve been told, to address mutant variations. But the overwhelming part of the global population remains unvaccinated and will have scant access for years to come. The mutants will grow. Will we be playing catch up? And for how long?

Corona came with a simple message which the rich and powerful are refusing to hear. It’s an equal opportunity virus and has zero regard for economic or political status. 

The Indian elite is experiencing a very hard time with the message. After all, who cared what share of the GDP went into healthcare, as long as there was excellent care for the upper and upper middle classes when they needed it. As much as the murderous Modi government is culpable for the recent crisis, it is working on a foundation of the unimaginative and pro-elite health care policy pursued by the Congress Party for decades.

But suddenly, it was not working anymore for the elite. The rich were on the streets along with everyone else scrambling for hospital beds and oxygen cylinders. It turns out that pesky GDP thing matters. No amount of pie-hoarding by the powerful is protection enough when the pie itself is tiny.

Corona is both devastatingly resilient and deeply egalitarian

I was afraid to pick up my phone in the morning some days, unsure of what dreadful news it might carry of my friends, my extended family. And I was reminded of last April. My cousin in Calcutta with family and friends in the US suffered from a similar anxiety about us in New York. Then, it was her worrying about the next bit of terrible news. It’s happening in turns. The virus is hard at work with its message.

But surely the vaccines will save us this time, at least in the richer parts of the world? Maybe they will. But what if there is another wave, a more virulent mutant wave maybe? Will there be enough beds this time? Enough ventilators? Enough quarantine care centres so the elderly are not forced again to take their chances? 

Vaccines are wonderful, but where is the preparation for the next crisis? Like Modi, Trump contributed handily to the crisis, but again as in India, the roots of the crisis run deeper. Because vaccines are not all-powerful, they can never be a replacement for a robust health infrastructure, and one that offers equal care to all. After all, Corona is a strong believer in equality. So if we don’t want a repetition of New York Spring 2020 or New Delhi Spring 2021, let’s try to listen to the virus. 

The power of the vaccine is directly proportionate to the number of people who are vaccinated. It’s a simple equation, but one that the EU bosses can’t quite comprehend. Even as the world burns, they continue to pledge allegiance only to profits. India and South Africa have requested for the waiver of intellectual property rights so the countries can produce their own vaccines. But the waiver of patents, the EU bosses tell us, will sound the death knell of innovations. What an inside-out logic! The squirrelling of knowledge will produce more, but freely sharing it will hinder the further production of knowledge!? The countries from the South are literally pleading for that knowledge so they can innovate and save lives. Then again, for the EU honchos, when has it really been about knowledge or about lives?

The virus demands that we make choices. Remain in the arid hell hole of capital with its false hope of security – we’re ok with our vaccines even if people die in the streets in other parts of the world; we’ll still be alright. You know who loves that thinking? Capital’s fraternal twin, the mutating virus. 

Or we treat a pandemic for what it is – a global affliction. No one is safe till everyone is safe. Ensure that a critical mass of the global population is vaccinated. Make sure that people are cared for when there are those inevitable breakouts in different parts of the world. 

But how, an EU honcho might ask, can we ever ensure that the people of Somalia are vaccinated, much less that they receive proper health care? Let’s not be fooled. The EU honcho in fact knows exactly how. It was a cabal of their kind who rode rough shod over the idea of national sovereignty, and forced countries of the South to decimate their economies and adjust their structures in the interest of capital. How about a structural adjustment in the reverse this time? One that also disregards national boundaries, but driven, for a change, by people, not profits. 

Corona is both devastatingly resilient and deeply egalitarian. There is only one way out of this – beat it at its own game. We have to be more resilient and more egalitarian. More resilience will require more than vaccines; it will necessitate massive investment in healthcare where there is no paucity of drugs or oxygen or beds. 

And to be more egalitarian? It is to diffuse the power of the boundaries that separate the fast food worker from the investment banker, and also of the lines that demarcate New York from New Delhi. The virus has no problems with that, so how can we? No one is safe till everyone is safe.

First published in The Tribune

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Nivedita Majumdar Written by:

Nivedita Majumdar is a professor of English at John Jay College, City University of New York. She is the author of The World in a Grain of Sand: Postcolonial Literature and Radical Universalism (Verso, 2021).

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