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365 days of plague: ‘To no germs do we succumb without a struggle’

By Joel Pablo Salud Published Mar 14, 2021 8:00 am

To be reminded of our mortality, the same mortality we’ve always known would come but choose to ignore, is probably the greatest of man’s fears.

Mid-March 2020, south of the metro.

Woke up to calm winds, air faintly thick with the odor of burning grass, and sun bearing down on everything in white heat. Along the horizon, dark clouds. I recall thinking that perhaps it would rain. But it didn’t.

Opening my Facebook page, there it was: the government’s declaration placing the whole island of Luzon under quarantine. Finally, they came to their senses. The new coronavirus from Wuhan Province in the People’s Republic of China, dubbed Covid-19, has reached our shores.

Thanks to government’s dilly-dallying and relentless denial, many of the five million mainland Chinese tourists from Wuhan, some of whom possibly already infected, arrived in our country for an extended celebration of the Chinese New Year.

Few had seriously considered the contingency that the world economy might be shaken to its foundations by a communicable disease. And even now that this has happened, many remain trapped in the mental coordinates of a world that no longer exists

My initial reaction was one of extreme anxiety. And why not? Imagine the comparative scale involved in every pandemic: a virus no bigger than 100 nanometers, a nanometer being 80,000 times thinner than a human hair, wreaking havoc on human populations.

The virus being present in a typical respiratory droplet measuring 10 micrometers, just inhaling or ingesting one would be the same as inhaling hundreds of these viruses, increasing the chances of infection.

Will the virus prove devastating like the Ebola, Spanish Flu or Bubonic Plague, or will it fizzle out due to the summer heat?

It has been a year since that day in March. I don’t know which is more demoralizing: a virus that has infected over 118 million worldwide, logging a death toll of 2.62 million as of this writing, or a government hell bent on militarizing the pandemic response as it lags desperately in providing a suitable vaccine?

The so-called “new normal” doesn’t seem to promise anything worth the adage “business as usual” in the long haul, with the exception, perhaps, of a national life straddling between economic jitterbugs and militarized zones.

In the Philippines, where the pandemic helped in building a police state, which sees “red” and “drugs” at every turn, reshaping the country into a huge concentration camp, the possibilities of returning to normal prove slimmer each passing day.

This brings me back to a paper I read in 2020 by Nicholas Eberstadt, the Henry Wendt chair at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC and senior advisor to the National Bureau of Asian Research, who said: “Few had seriously considered the contingency that the world economy might be shaken to its foundations by a communicable disease. And even now that this has happened, many remain trapped in the mental coordinates of a world that no longer exists.”

Not only do the new Covid-19 variants prove invasive, a new political variant has emerged alongside it: violence and murder as a political subculture. The state’s war on drugs and communist witch hunt faded little during the pandemic. As a protracted crisis, the pandemic now serves as the government’s agent of control and domination, more than enough for anyone to worry sick of his or her future.

The Philippine Air Force unloading PPEs after a lockdown was declared in NCR in March 2019. Photo by Russel Palma/Philippine Star

Given that our vision of “normal” ought to be a thing of the past, what now? In one corner, we are faced with a ravenous virus and its twin variants, in the other the political equivalent of a rapacious beast setting its eyes on you as you’re chained to a stake.

Our only choice is to adapt, and by adaptation, I mean move on to create a better “normal” than what we are faced today. Humans are not new to this acclimatization, given the wars, early pandemics, invasions, natural catastrophes as well as man-made ones, we’ve all overcome.

This time, however, we should prioritize our relationship with our one-and-only planet. Scientists have long considered decreasing biodiversity as a gateway to disease outbreaks. If only briefly, let me say that the killing, trading, and consumption of rare animals, which can host deadly pathogens, and which oftentimes leads to the elimination of the natural predators of infected rats and vermin, should be totally eliminated as a business venture.

We have messed with Nature’s progressions and processes for so long, it seems like it’s hankering for payback. Conflict, whose aftermath drags Nature to its fires, often sat as a breeding ground to disease. If you’re familiar with pandemic history, more serious outbreaks began during wars, sieges and troop movements.

The melting of glacial ice caps due to climate change is now feared as a hotbed for prehistoric viruses. But more than anything, humanity’s dabbling in Nature’s darker side if only to produce weapons of mass destruction must ultimately be put to a stop.

As to defeating Covid-19, humanity should rethink the goal of capital, and reshape it to answer the needs of the many, not only the privileged few. Big pharma should start afresh, and go back to the basics of healthcare. Easier said than done, I know. But when millions of lives are at stake (their own included) on account of a virus that respects neither wealth nor status, they have all the good reasons to change course.

Tyrants, on the other hand, come and go. Never has history been so adamant about this singular truth: dictators don’t last. No matter how hard they try, Nature claims the dust from which they came. The nation remains, and what the survivors do with it, having all generations in mind, will tell ultimately if we’ve learned from the lessons of the past or not.

While the future may seem bleak, it is not impossible to mend. Healing and devastation are the two things Nature is good at. Author H.G. Wells said it best in his classic novel, War of the Worlds, where neither tyrants nor pathogens can win over our birthright to this world:

“But by virtue of this natural selection of our kind we have developed resisting power; to no germs do we succumb without a struggle, and to many—those that cause putrefaction in dead matter, for instance—our living frames are altogether immune […] By the toll of a billion deaths man has bought his birthright of the earth, and it is his against all comers; it would still be his were the Martians ten times as mighty as they are. For neither do men live nor die in vain.”