Academician and author Noam Chomsky said on Friday that power-wielding people who are benefiting from U.S. President Donald Trump’s malice are working hard to ensure that the world that comes emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic will be structurally like the one that caused it.
“Even harsher, more authoritarian, more controls, more surveillance. They are working right now on things such as deregulation and many other ways. What’s going to be a post-pandemic world depends on what [these] people are doing right now,” Prof. Chomsky told V.K. Ramachandran, Vice-Chairman of the Kerala State Planning Board, at the 'Kerala Dialogue' web series on new concepts and government models organised by the Kerala government.
Stating that counterforces were emerging all over the world, Prof. Chomsky said they could change the ways things would turn out, if they could be brought together to form a powerful voice.
“There was the first announcement of a Progressive International, based on the Sanders' movement in the United States; Yanis Varoufakis's DiEM25 in Europe; and transnational organisations in Europe seeking to preserve what makes sense in the EU and overcome the deeply flawed parts of it. They are forming progressive international voices from all over the world — from India, Africa, the global South, U.S. and Europe,” he said.
Pointing out that “you can never predict how this conflict will emerge,” Prof. Chomsky said “we are ultimately going to recover from the pandemic at terrible cost, but we will never recover from the melting of polar ice sheets and other consequences of global warming, which are going to have a hideous effect on the world.”
“South Asia will become uninhabitable in several more decades, if it continues on our present course. That is just the beginning and we are not going to recover from that,” he said.
Prof. Chomsky said Mr. Trump was pulling out all stops to maximise the use of fossil fuels and to eliminate any regulatory apparatus that might mitigate them. “And for a good reason. That increases his rich friends and increases the corporate power. And it leads to the destruction of the organised human life,” he said.
On Kerala’s fight against the pandemic, Prof, Chomsky said the State's reaction to the crisis was quite startling, “Its quite amazing to see the reactions around the world. Not just Kerala, take Vietnam. They have not had a single death,” he said.
No quick escape
Asserting that while it may be too pre-mature to talk about the eradication of SARS- CoV-2 virus and that it appears the COVID-19 virus will stay on because of the spread and transmission that has occurred over the last few months, Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, chief scientist at the World Health Organisation the world is watching how this virus is behaving and mutating.
“So far it is doing like any other coronavirus and hasn’t changed structure in the major domains at which drugs and vaccines are being targeted. It is likely that this virus will stay with us for a long time, hopefully we will have a vaccine soon, and hopefully it will become just another manageable virus,’’ she said.
Dr. Swaminathan further added that the world is learning a lot about this virus. “Each week we understand more and more and therefore our thinking about it and the projections we are able to make do change. In science it is very common as you make advances scientist do debate and question each other and that is how knowledge advances. But for the general public it’s a new experience to have all of this debate happening out in the public domain,”she said.
“SARS was contained; MERS continues to cause episodic outbreaks, COVID-19 virus has seen an extremely quick round-the-world spread, causing major out breaks leading to significant amount of deaths,” she added.
Speaking about the importance of herd immunity to protect against COVID-19, she added that “after herd immunity is achieved, the person-to-person transmission is cut. Herd immunity for people means that if you immunize 95 % of people say against measles then it protects even the 5 % who are not immunized. That is what we hope to achieve, but I think in this case the way we will get there is through a vaccine and not cycles of natural, disastrous infections.“
Dr. Swaminathan noted that while COVID-19 isn’t Ebola which kills two-third of the people it infects, “COVID-19 has the ability to infected larger numbers and in that make some people very sick, which is why it is called a dangerous pathogen.”
Stressing the need to continue testing aggressively for the virus, Dr. Swaminathan said, “Testing is the only way to know where we are, where the population is and where we need to act. This will be the guiding map for governments across the globe. We can’t fight this virus blindfolded.”
Slamming the nationwide lockdown as a “disastrous arrangement” and the actions of a “war-time Napoleon”, Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen said States and countries that took the public into confidence and had a history of public action, had the best response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Addressing the Kerala Dialogues, Dr. Sen said: “The lockdown in India as a whole had features that were very doubtful and unattractive. It was done on a war footing as if the Prime Minister was Napoleon, rather than the leader of a public movement. It’s very important for any initiative, whether it’s lockdown or not, in connection with COVID-19 or any other pandemic, to have a consultation with the people, with civil society, with different political parties, with the unions, and so on,” he said. “Instead of that, we had a unilateral lockdown with a four-hour notice.”
Although the attempt to isolate citizens from contact with each other may have made medical sense, it was a “disastrous arrangement” from an economic perspective, with a failure to understand that preventing daily wagers from earning a living would result in people starving to death.
The eminent economist contrasted the Centre's actions to the Kerala government's approach of wide testing, contact-tracing and quarantine which banked on the state's strengths in public healthcare and civic cooperation. The State’s ability to bypass red-tape and act with speed and efficiency in dealing with the crisis also boded well for Kerala's future economic development post-pandemic, he said.
Kerala’s strong embrace of the welfare state has led the state from third-poorest in the early 1960s to being the top State in terms of per capita expenditure today, said Dr. Sen. On the other hand, Europe’s climate of austerity and the undermining of the welfare state in countries like Italy meant that state intervention was hesitant with costly delays.
Dr. Sen also drew historical contrasts from Britain of the 1940s. In dealing with its own population, the British government used an egalitarian approach of food rationing and price control to turn a food shortage crisis into a situation of better nourishment for those at the bottom of the ladder. At the same time, it had no sympathy for people dying under the Bengal famine. A similar “manifestation of imperialism” could be seen in the US today, said Dr. Sen, pointing to the fact that African Americans made up 70% of COVID fatalities in areas like Chicago, where they are only 30% of the population.
“The pandemic itself doesn’t come with lessons. The virus kills indiscriminately. It’s what we do and how we understand the problem that makes a big difference,” said Dr. Sen. “Every adversity, every dialectical challenge is potentially a learning experience. But it need not go that way if we refuse to learn.”
(With inputs from Bindu Shajan Peerpadan and Priscilla Jebaraj)