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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 26, New Delhi, June 13, 2020

World Health Organization proposes “living with Covid-19” approach | Jayanta Debnath

Saturday 13 June 2020

by Jayanta Debnath


The Covid-19, an infectious disease is perishing the whole world for a few months. The global communities for the first time in human history are forced to be under house arrest not for the threat of any military operation or war, but to escape infection. It has forced the states all across the world to launch national lockdowns or restrictions to save people’s lives. The Covid-19 originates in China in December 2019. It has now spread all over the world including India and brought about a humanitarian crisis. We are uncertain about when this virus will lose its vigour and how many people will be killed and infected ultimately? Record says, in the past, some health diseases had lasted two-three years. The World Health Organization claims Covid-19 will be with us for a long time. In this backdrop, a serious question may come to the mind of the people and researchers. Is living with Covid-19 possible? To address this emergent question, various aspects around Covid-19 are examined and aimed at exploring possible upshots, if, the nations are willing to living with this virus.

Keywords: China, Covid-19, global community, India, living, possible, WHO

A disaster with no origin: 

Once, German Sociologist, Ulrich Beck termed our globalised world as ’Risk Society’ in the 1980s and gets widespread popularity in 1990s. His terminology has become more relevant in the 21st century especially in the context of the global consequences of Novel Coronavirus (Covid-19). He defines a risk society that “deals with hazards and insecurities induced by modernization itself in a systematic way” (Beck, 1992). Beck was extremely worried about the ill effects of modernity and ecological crisis. As no unique concept emerges without a context; it was therefore essentially the Chernobyl disaster occurred on 26 April 1986 in Ukraine that forced him in rethinking about technological and industrial development and how such development endeavours affect our natural environment. According to Beck, human beings are always subjected to risks of natural hazards, but modernity causes severe human-induced risks to society in the form of pollution and other health hazards.

Today’s states act as ‘risk managers’. Risks occur due to either natural hazards or anthropogenic hazards. A hazard is defined as an event that may cause loss of life, injury or other health effects, property damage, social and economic disruption or environmental degradation. Hazards may be natural or anthropogenic in origin. Natural hazards are predominantly associated with natural processes and phenomenon. On the other, anthropogenic hazards or human-induced hazards are the results of human activities and choices. A hazard is a perceived natural event, which is dangerous to life, and property...a disaster is the realization of this hazard (Goel, 2007). United Nations defines a disaster as a serious disruption of the functioning of a community or a society at any scale due to hazardous events interacting with conditions of exposure, vulnerability and capacity, leading to one or more of the following: human, material, economic and environmental losses and impacts (UNDRR, 2020).

Natural hazards cannot be prevented from being occurred. But effective management of the concerned authorities can impede a disaster. A disaster occurs when a government fails to control a situation. In case of Covid-19, some countries like New Zealand, Iceland and some states in India like Odisha, Kerala and Uttarakhand have done exceptionally well to mitigate the adverse effects of the virus and reducing fatality rate. On the other, unawareness and negligence of Donald Trump has made Covid-19 situation in the USA worst and in India, some states like Maharashtra, Gujarat, and West Bengal have failed to manage the event properly, which has brought a disaster for the administration as well as people.

The Covid-19 that was first identified in December 2019 in Wuhan, China is an infectious disease. On 30 January 2020 WHO declared the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern. On 11 March 2020, it was tagged as a pandemic. As of now, it does not fall into the general categorization of natural and anthropogenic hazard. Such categorization is based on the origin of the event. Somebody also doubts that it is a biological hazard. So there are many possibilities and questions because Coronavirus’s origin is yet to be discovered. If US President Donald Trump’s allegation against China comes true, it should be considered as an anthropogenic or technological hazard and disaster. Trump suspects China released Coronavirus in horrible lab ’mistake’. Therefore, he urged China to be transparent about the origins of the novel Coronavirus outbreak (The Hindu, 2020). Some other countries including India also seek an independent investigation on the origin of the disease. On the other, Executive Vice Foreign Minister of China, Le Yucheng hits back at the US allegation. He warns about the ‘politicization of the virus’. Le termed the virus a “natural disaster” (NBC News, 2020). But as far as my understanding of disaster research is concerned, no disaster is ‘natural’, only hazards can be natural and due to government’s negligence and inability to control the situation fetches a disaster. However, the World Health Organization stands by China. It says, Coronavirus originated in animals in China and not manipulated or produced in a laboratory (Hindustan Times, 2020). In this circumstance, if China’s stand and WHO’s finding is proved to be true, Covid-19 should not be considered as an anthropogenic or technological hazard or disaster but a natural event and disease. However, with the passing of time Covid-19 caused a socio-economic disaster for all. The time will say whether by origin it is a natural hazard or a technological hazard. Or may remain a disaster without origin.

The Covid-19 is an invisible enemy, which has caused a massive humanitarian crisis in the entire world. It is not that the world did not see any damning health diseases earlier. There occurred many epidemics in different countries and regions like Black Death, Spanish flu, Hong Kong flu, SARS outbreak, Middle East respiratory syndrome Coronavirus, HIV/AIDS, and Swine flu. If we study the SARS outbreak, Spanish flu, Hong Kong flu it would be seen that such health diseases had lasted more or less two years. The Black Death, which is also known as the Pestilence and the Plague had lasted more than three years. But the Covid-19’s rapid spreading and worldwide fatality have made it a global health disaster. As of 1 June 2020, 60 lakh 57 thousands 853 cases have been reported across 216 countries, areas or territories. It has taken 3 lakh 71 thousand 166 lives (WHO, 2020). It is said human beings have progressed immensely in the field of science; information and technology, in spite of that world’s repute medical establishments have not yet succeeded to invent a foolproof or even a working vaccine to cure Covid-19. It shows how threatening is Coronavirus. This reminds me here a relevant quote of a disaster researcher, E. L. Quarantelli. He once said disasters of the 21st century will both quantitatively increase and qualitatively worsen (Eyre, 1999). Interestingly, one can find similar views between him and Beck. Beck’s notion of ‘risk society’ had implied the explicit understanding of Quarantelli on the disaster of our times.

Living with hazard or disaster? 

In combating Covid-19, the national government of every state has been devastated and exhausted so far. The World Health Organization has started to say that Coronavirus will not go from the earth easily. Such an assertion raises an important question that should we live with Covid-19? The WHO special envoy for Covid-19, David Nabarro says, ‘the world will have to learn to live with the Coronavirus (India Today, 2020)’. The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, India also says people should learn to live with the Coronavirus (MoHFW, 2020). Is it possible? In disaster management research, researchers are familiar with the statement “living with floods”. The concept of “living with floods” may be possible in the flood-prone areas or countries like Bangladesh and India. “Living with floods” never means leaving the rivers totally to their own devices, but it means a bare minimum interference with the working of nature (Mishra, 2001). In terms of flood hazard, Bangladesh and India rank first and second respectively in the globe. In these countries, flood hazard is a recurring phenomenon. In India, every year flood affects different parts of the country. A large section of the people in India lives in the floodplain for agriculture, fishing and other activities for livelihoods. It is said that a small or moderate flood sometimes brings blessings for the agriculture and the fishermen community. For example, the people of Indian Sundarban each year face severe natural hazards, i.e. flood, high tidal wave, cyclone for its geographical location. Since time immemorial, the villagers in Sundarban are facing severe devastating natural hazards and destruction as in the last 11 years faced three super cyclones Fani, Bulbul and a few days ago Amphan. These natural catastrophes have ravaged the entire Sundarban region. The lives of the communities in Sundarban revolves around a famous Bengali proverb that is jole kumir dangai bagh (Crocodiles in water, tigers at ashore), which signifies a two-way crisis for the villagers. Tiger attack is a common phenomenon. Tiger attack has made many widow villages in the region. Around 300 islanders in West Bengal and Bangladesh are killed each year by tigers and crocodiles alone (Jalais, 2007). Yet people live with these challenges because they believe Sundarban is their life. If they leave Sundarban, they will lose their livelihoods and habitation. Due to limited opportunities for livelihoods, people in Sundarban adapt themselves with such usual hazards.

On the other, “living with earthquakes” may be feasible in countries like Japan. Japan is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, which is the most active earthquake belt in the world. Japan faces 20% of earthquakes in the world. Around 1,500 earthquakes strike the island nation every year and minor tremors occur almost every day. It seems community can live with natural hazards but not a disaster like Covid-19. For example, hazards like earthquake, cyclonic storms and landslides occur and last just for a few minutes or half an hour. A flood situation may stay for three-four days or a week. After the occurrence of such natural hazards and its destruction, a rehabilitation and reconstruction process begins for resilient. In other words, a person can live with and deal with a visible enemy, but it is difficult to fight with an invisible enemy around the whole world. The Covid-19 is such a dangerous disease that can easily spread from one person to millions and millions. Since January 2020, the number of infected cases worldwide are increasing daily and rapidly. To stop its spreading, social and physical distancing measures are the only ways until date by which human beings can be kept safe. Living a normal life is not possible until a foolproof vaccine is invented. No person can come closer to an infected person for his/her life safety and for this reason people are not being allowed to even perform the funeral rites of their relatives. In such critical circumstances, living with Covid-19 is a big question.

International efforts for disaster risk reduction (DRR): 

A global disaster cannot be mitigated by the efforts of some states. All the states in the world must cooperate to reduce global threats and abide by the international commitment for disaster risk reduction. Till date, three world conferences are held for disaster risk reduction and environmental sustainability. All of these meets took place in Japan, Yokohama (1994), Kobe (2005) and Sendai (2015). Now the Sendai Framework is active. It is operational from 2015 to 2030. The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction outlines four priorities for action to prevent new and reduce existing disaster risks. These are - understanding disaster risk; strengthening disaster risk governance to manage disaster risk; investing in disaster reduction for resilience and enhancing disaster preparedness for effective response, and to "Build Back Better" in recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction (UNDRR, 2015). It further aims to achieve the substantial reduction of disaster risk and losses in lives, livelihoods and health and the economic, physical, social, cultural and environmental assets of persons, businesses, communities and countries.

Besides, Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are designed for the period 2015-2030 to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. The SDGs include 17 goals:

  • no poverty
  • zero hunger
  • good health and well-being
  • quality education
  • gender equality
  • clean water and sanitation
  • affordable and clean energy
  • decent work and economic growth
  • industry, innovation, and infrastructure
  • reducing inequality
  • sustainable cities and communities
  • responsible consumption and production
  • climate action
  • life below water
  • life on land
  • peace, justice, and strong institutions and
  • partnerships for the goals
    Source: (United Nations)

A large-scale disaster affects the majority of these 17 SDGs. The current health disaster Covid-19 is a clear example of this. Both the Sendai Framework and SDGs promote the notion of sustainable development. Sustainable development is defined as development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The WHO recently prescribes a six-point manifesto for a healthy recovery from Covid-19. These include:

  • Protect and preserve the source of human health: Nature,
  • Invest in essential services, from water and sanitation to clean energy in healthcare facilities,
  • Ensure a quick healthy energy transition,
  • Promote healthy, sustainable food systems,
  • Build healthy, liveable cities and
  • Stop using taxpayers money to fund pollution (WHO, 2020).

This six-point manifesto encourages eco-friendly development. The Covid-19 raises a crucial question here that is are development endeavours of the major powers in global politics eco-friendly? Or will global powers rethink about sustainable development to save the earth? The countries like the United States do not want to compromise with its development process. Although the USA has signed Paris Agreement, but announced its intention to withdraw from this Agreement in 2017. The argument for the withdrawal is that “the Paris Agreement will undermine the US economy and put the US at a permanent disadvantage, the withdrawal would be in accordance with America First Policy (CGTN, 2018). However, as per the provision of the Agreement, the USA cannot withdraw before November 2020. Notwithstanding, observing the magnitude, rapid spreading and anticipating the stability of Coronavirus, WHO as already said proposes “living with Covid-19” approach. “Living with Covid-19” approach needs to be eco-friendly. But the most tangible question is will major economic powers in the world accept and implement eco-friendly development in the real sense or their burden of anti-environment policy will be again on the poor and developing countries?

Challenges before India: 

To arrest the rapid spread of the outbreak of Covid-19, the Indian government has also launched nationwide lockdown 1.0 (25 March—14 April 2020), 2.0 (15 April-3 May), 3.0 (4 May-17 May) and 4.0 (18 May-31 May). The lockdown 5.0 will be operational during 1 June-30 June especially in containment zones. But in the other zones, which are less threatening, activities would be allowed. This phase has “an economic focus”. The Ministry of Home Affairs will now allow reopening of shopping malls, religious places, hotels and restaurant from 8 June, but the large gathering will not be allowed and stakeholders and people must maintain social and physical distancing. However, while announcing a stimulus package of Rs 20 lakh crore on 19 May, Prime Minister had expressed in the same tune with WHO officials. He told, “Coronavirus will now be a part of our lives and will stay with us for a longer time, but we will not let the virus take over our lives (The Indian Express, 2020)”. How long this virus will stay with us nobody knows? The people of the largest democracy of the world have already been quarantined at home for more than 10 weeks and it was a colossal test of their patience. There was going on and continues a huge debate across the country on the imposition of nationwide lockdown with short notice and the unease of more than 4 crore migrant workers suffering from food and shelter. Indeed, there was no alternative of lockdown to stop the spreading of the virus and save people’s lives. In doing this, national economic growth slows down to a large extent and the lives of wage workers have become miserable. Such economic crisis emerges in all countries in the world. In such a situation, some countries like the USA are thinking about the withdrawal of lockdown and revive its economy. Given the economic crisis of the people and country, Indian government is now reducing restrictions zone wise and likely to allow more economic activities though limited ways in those areas where the threat of spreading the virus is very low or zero. Now agricultural and other activities in the rural areas and industrial and other economic activities in less threatening zones in the urban areas are allowed to revive the economy as much as possible. It is a good move to lessen people’s woe, because, if there is no meal to avoid starvation people will not maintain physical or social distancing. The present phase of restrictions in India is called "unlock phase I". In this stage, community spreading is likely to happen sharply, so administration needs and people themselves need to be more careful than previous stages of nationwide lockdown.

But the countries like India should not think of the withdrawal of total lockdown even within the next six months given the fact of the increasing number of cases of Coronavirus. The countries with small population size, less population density and excellent health facilities and infrastructure may take this undue risk but India cannot do this because it must be remembered that India has more than 138 crore people. Its population density is 382 per sq. km and the conditions of the health facilities and infrastructure are not excellent in all states. At present India ranks 145th in global Healthcare Access and Quality (HAQ) index. On the other, the population of the United States is around 33 crore. Its population density is 36 per sq. km. Besides, the health facility and infrastructure is far superior to India. Putting all these facts on the table, the possibility of community spreading is too high in countries like India if total lockdown withdraws immediately. Very recent, we have seen how partial withdrawal of lockdown and minimizing of restrictions in different sectors is increasing cases of Covid-19 patients. India should not rush for the closure of total lockdown seeing other countries, because India’s problem is very different from all countries. The Centre must wait and see till the end of 2020 and after that, the government may rethink of total withdrawal of nationwide lockdown because living with Covid-19 is extremely risky for India. The people would be able to live with this virus, if, a foolproof or semi-foolproof vaccine is available. The Covid-19 affects everyone everywhere; so needs cooperation for knowledge building among the nations for inventing a vaccine. That is why, UN Secretary-General calls for ’solidarity, unity and hope’ in battling Covid-19 pandemic. Hope is life and despair is death. In the end, I would like to conclude with a positive note that we would certainly discover a vaccine to cure Covid-19 very soon and live normal life again.

Jayanta Debnath, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Mrinalini Datta Mahavidyapith, Birati, Kolkata, 700051, West Bengal Email Id- debnath.jayanta90[at]

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