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The Brave New World In The Wake Of Covid-19

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“Thinking is not one of the natural activities of man; it is a product of disease like high temperature in illness. In France before the Revolution, and in England in the early nineteenth century, the disease in the body politic caused certain men to think important thoughts,which developed into the science of political economy”– Bertrand Russell in ” Legitimacy versus Industrialism”-(Unwin 1965). It’s time again for the world now grappling with Coronavirus Pandemic to remember these words of Russell, the great philosopher to “think important thoughts” to be able to put in place new institutions of governance and systems to meet the challenges of the Pandemic and in its aftermath – if that takes place soon enough. The reason for this somewhat pessimistic view are many:
First, despite all the progress of mankind in science, a vaccine for the Coronavirus which is turning into ” systemic” – generating multiple debilitating diseases affecting the patients immune system does not seem visible soon; and prospects for recovery are dim especially for the ageing population and everyone suffering from some ” co morbidities”. Also being an air borne virus, CVD 19 spreads rapidly in closed spaces as in shopping Malls, residential tower blocks Hotels,Parks and public spaces. Second, the prescribed preventive measures like wearing masks, maintaining “social distancing, frequent hand wash are difficult for the masses to follow in a poverty stricken, overpopulated country especially in urban centres in India where well over half of the people live in slums or slum like conditions. Third, the Indian economy founded on the unorganized sector which employs over 94% of the work force has been disrupted in a way never experienced before. An estimated 20 crores of people have lost their livelihoods in the wake of the Pandemic which is on the conservative side as the reality is far worse for any one to see; as for instance in the National Capital Region, the informal economy on the streets and lanes has collapsed in the wake of continuing lock down like the one around Shopping Malls and the Markets. Consumerism has vanished as masked men and women have lost interest in dressing or making a fashion statement as in some developed countries. Travel, transport and hospitality are sectors badly hit and unlikely to recover in the near future. Our urban -technology and service sector led growth model is in shambles – all stimulus notwithstanding.

According to the media, the public debt as percentage of the GDP in 20-21 might be 84.5% as against 2019-20 estimate of 71% of GDP and it’s scary that the Non Performing Assets NPA of the Banks may rise to 14% from 8% which means a huge rise of unpaid loans of corporate houses. On top of this is the reality that poor tax collection in April and May this year has widened the fiscal deficit pegged at 3.5% of the GDP in the budget estimates to go up to 8% of GDP which is bound to set in motion a high inflation. This will hit the poor and middle classes most by reducing their purchasing power or effective demand shrinking the market further towards recession. Sadly, the projection of global rating agencies that the economy may shrink by about 5% to 6% even in this year may turn out to be true.

There is however not enough appreciation of the climate change aspects of the crisis nor the long term implications of the Pandemic which has wiped out trillions of dollars from the global economy and disrupted the most advanced economy of the world – the US and its society as reflected in the huge surge in unemployment and in a way in the ” Black Lives matter” movement. If one virus could do so much damage what if several virus appear at a time? One shudders to think about it though it is certain to be the fall out of climate change . While the investigation into the Wuhan Lab in China’s connection to coronavirus is crucial, it is imperative that we realize the link between global warming / climate change and appearance of a new virus which is inevitable given the fact that the glaciers are melting and evergreen rain forests are fast disappearing as in Amazon and in our own Assam’s Dehing Patkai forest Reserve or Dibru Saikhowa National Park due to state action to allow mining regardless of irreversible damage to environmental it has caused. One thing is clear from the humanity’s tryst with Coronavirus that the nation states – even the most powerful ones and national and global economy cannot meet the multiple challenges of the Pandemic. A new architecture of Rules based multilateral global governance is the need of the hour under a strengthened UN system. This will work only if all countries, and especially India, China, Russia Brazil and US adopt a strong Conservation and Environment Policy and systems of resource use only in harmony with environment and ecological security. To put it bluntly,the present Forest and environment policies of most of these countries and India in particular are being implemented more in their breaches than observance. There is need for a new agriculture and land use policy in tune with Late Bharat Ratna Nanaji Deshmukh’s call to see “the Rural people as the custodian of natural resources and life support system ” and therefore the rural sector’s contribution cannot be judged in terms of share of agriculture in the GDP.

India also needs a dynamic public health and social security policy in place of the existing 2017 National Health policy with the object of spreading the reach of state health care system departing from present reliance on the private sector health service providers whose primary motivation being profit maximisation tend to operate only in urban centres. It must include a state funded scheme to vastly expand medical education so that the huge shortage of doctors, nursing and para medical staff especially in rural India could be met.

If as Russell said the “disease”- coronavirus results in serious thinking on these stategic survival issues of nation states and mankind, it will lay the foundation of a brave and sustainable human civilisation. Time for action is now as it’s not going to be business as usual even if the Pandemic is contained.

About RANGAN DUTTA

( The writer is a retired IAS officer of the Assam – Meghalaya cadre and has served as Scientific Consultant in the office of the Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government of India)

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